Dear Father Tony,
It's pretty clear that the LGBT community is angry at organized religion and quite justifiably so, especially in light of recent events. But there are plenty who desire to be received into a loving congregation. More and more churches are recognizing the need to be intentionally welcoming and inclusive.
Let's say you've been given access to the senior pastor of a large metropolitan church whose membership is, for the most part, white, educated and conservative. What gay members may be present are well-closeted. The pastor wants very much to have his church to be open and affirming, and he is willing to guide his congregation in the process.
What advice would you offer him?
She wants to be a lizard.
Before I outline a strategy for you and for the pastor, I want to warn you about the consequences you may not be seeing.
You, because of your efforts, will become a parochial inconvenience. You will become a rocker of the boat. You will be seen as a trouble-maker. If you are successful at talking your pastor into some course of action in this regard, it will certainly erode some of his current support.
You will be burned by this, because, although you are willing to shoulder the traditionally honored prophetic mantle, you are about to find out how very true it is that "a prophet is never accepted in his own town".
Therefore, the first step in your discussion with the pastor is to place this issue squarely on the table. Is he willing to cause some upset? Is he willing to alienate some stiff-necked parishioners who will become worried that he intends to fill their church with a bunch of screaming queens? If he says that he is not afraid, you may then proceed to map out a strategy of success, but keep in mind that you will both be walking through a minefield. Here is some guidance for you both:
- Set an ultra-realistic extremely long-term timeframe for change. Don't try to bulldoze your parishioners with your message of diversity. Their opinions have been built over many generations. They do not yet see what you see. Rome was not built in a day, and it probably won't be destroyed in a day. When you come up with what you think is a reasonable time frame, triple it.
- Pepper the annual parish calendar with small, seemingly innocuous and palatable events such as discussion group meetings that show up in the parish bulletin under comfortable headings. I.e., don't say "On Tuesday night, in the Saint Aloysious Hall there will be a pot luck supper of the newly formed Calvinist Cock-Suckers. All are welcomed to attend. Pants are optional." Instead, say "The pastor will lead a discussion about the question "Is God calling us to diversity?" or "How should we treat the gay person next to us in the pew?" or "What expression of love can our parish make to its gay membership?" It is important that the pastor lead those discussions. If he is not there, his absence will be seen as hesitant toleration of a fringe element with which he does not want to associate.
- Do your homework. In conversations with parishioners, surely you will be able to identify and approach some gay members and those who are sympathetic to gay membership because of gay relatives or friends. These folks will form your core group. If you don't have a good solid core group willing to embrace diversity, you will be a lone voice crying out in the desert, and we all know what happened to John the Baptist.
- I know it may seem overly political, but if it was me doing what you are doing, I'd want that initial core group to look and act as mainstream/conservative as possible. I'd be approaching the men in the grey flannel suits and the ladies in beige. I'd save the drag queens dripping in rhinestones and staggering under 30 pounds of sprayed blonde bouffant for later. I know this will get me in some trouble with the people who didn't like dropping the "t" from LGBT proposals, but it's the practical me speaking here. I know what it takes to make even the smallest of changes in a church. It's a delicate business. If you are not willing to make these kinds of compromises, don't waste your time and the time of your pastor. In other words, don't wheel a statue of Richard Simmons into the sanctuary (although there are probably a good number of blue-haired ladies in the front pew who'd love that.)
- Ask the pastor to preach specifically about recent events. For instance, he could deliver a sermon entitled "Were the Catholic bishops in California right to ask their parishioners to vote yes on Prop 8?" or, "Was the Mormon church right to fund the Yes on Prop8 effort?" Or, where would Jesus have stood in the Prop8 rallies?" or "What do you do when your heart and your church and your country and your wallet all seem to pull you in different directions".
- Remember that in all your efforts, you must be quiet, non-confrontational, patient and able to calm down those who could easily sink your project by inflammatory words and actions. The pastor must be willing to set the ground rules for discussion about the issue. As in "Check your anger at the door."
- Do your best to empathize with people who hold absurd positions and fears. Surely you realize that some of the people you are trying to reach deeply believe that diversity will result in the infiltration of their church by child-molesters. They may not say it, but they will think it. Others who oppose you may be the victims of sexual abuse who keep this a secret. They will be silent about their motives.
- Do your best to paint the most acceptable and true picture of the gay membership of the parish. If you succeed, your parishioners should come to realize that looking at the gay church membership is exactly like looking in the mirror. The gay members are already there. They sit among them and look no differently. (Another possible sermon title). In fact, if it were me, I would use a linear image of a hand-held mirror as the logo of the initiative once it was off the ground and understood. It's so much easier to swallow than a bunch of wildly flapping rainbows.
- Invite some lecturers from other parishes similar to your own that have successfully instituted diversity initiatives or speakers who have written on the subject whose presentation would be non-threatening.
- In all things, remember that you are trying to sell something difficult here. You are not just creating a market for a new product. You are trying to reverse some strong customer dislike for a misunderstood product. Be prepared to have some doors slammed in your face.
- When you meet with your pastor. Be prepared to make a formal presentation. Lay out the calendar, the topics, the specific strategies, the issues, the expectations and the negatives. Pastors have endless discussions with parishioners who have a good idea that they want to discuss but have not turned their sentiments into specifics. Usually, after meeting with such a one, the pastor closes the door behind them when they leave and thinks to himself "Well that's done. I won't have to deal with that again". Honestly , most meetings really do end up that way. Just "feel good" sessions.
- Remember that the goal is to make your fellow parishioners proud to be diverse. Proud to say that their parish is open and welcoming to the LGBT community. The goal is NOT to force them into swallowing a bitter pill.
- Finally, if you decide to do all this, prepare for some opposition and some setbacks. Can you handle them? Remember that if it is of the Spirit, it will grow, and, as it says in the bible, clever things that can't break through the locked front door of the palace, always manage, like lizards, to squeeze in through the gaps between the stones. Be the lizards.
Let me know how it goes!