January's episode of IN THE LIFE presented "A Call For Inclusion" which in part profiles Emily Eastwood, the Executive Director of Lutherans Concerned/North America.
Eastwood helms the organization which led the charge to change the constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, to welcome and affirm to ordination any person without regard to orientation or gender, partnered or not. She helps Lutheran congregations take steps to become "Reconciling in Christ" and offer full inclusion of persons of all sexual orientations. While she ostensibly is working for her own church, Emily is sharing her wealth of knowledge across denominational boundaries.
I had the great pleasure to meet and learn under Emily when I attended a "Building an Inclusive Church" workshop in the fall of 2008. The workshop was sponsored by the Institute of Welcoming Resources, under the auspices of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Emily joins leadership from several Protestant denominations to present a workshop that moves from why we should welcome to the all-important how. This workshop was the single greatest source of information that I have seen of how to accomplish this task without rancor.
I have been gathering information for over three years on how I might help my own church recognize the need to be intentionally inclusive. While we are generally welcoming, I am concerned that the children growing up in my church will not feel the true nature of God's unconditional love unless and until we are quite clear about it. I have found a wealth of information on why this is a genuine reflection of the radical love of Christ. I have found some good information on how to express this within the confines of your own church. There is very little on how to move one's congregation from ignorance to acceptance on a peaceful, grace-filled path. Emily has created such a tool in her structured model for discussion.
The value of this model was illustrated handsomely in a small group role-playing exercise during the workshop. Each of us attendees was given a description of the committee member we would portray to discuss whether "our church" should form a task force to create a statement of welcome. (Read that last sentence again. The discussion is about appointing another group to discuss it. Quite typical of my experience in church.)
My character was a closeted gay man who was afraid of being discovered and, as a result, being excluded from the church community where he was currently welcomed. He wanted the task force to be formed but was afraid of the conflict that might be engendered. Our "committee chair" opened the discussion. I found it excruciating to try to express my opinion as a gay man who wanted to remain closeted. Every word had to go through the filter of "Would this reveal who I am?" I had to vet each sentence before I spoke, and as a consequence said little as conversation sped past me. I had strong opinions but I couldn't find a way to express them without revealing myself. It was emotionally exhausting.
As time drew to a close, each of us at the table disclosed our characters. Cries of "You're gay?!" came from just about everyone. I had succeeded in staying in the closet but at great cost to myself and to the process of moving "our church" forward. What a revelation.
I don't pretend for a minute that I understand what it is to be gay; I would never presume such a thing. But I think I had a tiny glimpse for a few minutes of what so many men and women go through every minute of their lives. Some never escape that prison while others feel free only when removed from the general population. Let me profoundly apologize here for any role I have ever had in that sentencing, however ignorant I might have been. It's time for the end of ignorance.
The discussion exercise illustrated beautifully how traditional methods in the church will doom this effort to failure: "discussion" devolved quickly into heated arguments; not one person changed his mind about his stance; and absolutely no consensus was met on how to proceed further. We went on to practice the new method that works, a way for all to be heard without rancor--an incredibly valuable experience.
If your church is not openly affirming, I would strongly recommend that several members attend the "Building an Inclusive Church" workshop. (Don't go alone; you need multiple voices to be heard.) It is applicable to any Christian denomination. It will be some time before my own church is ready to sit down and use Eastwood's discussion model. But in the meantime, I and other allies continue to plant seeds of discontent with the status quo.