Rev. Emily C. Heath

Raising Progressive Voices of Faith for Equality

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | July 20, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: public policy, religion, religious faith, religious right, United Church of Christ

Cross.jpgIn the aftermath of the marriage vote in New York, and the emerging story reported by The New York Times and others that supportive faith leaders played a more significant role than originally thought, the actions of progressive religious bodies are becoming increasingly relevant to the LGBT equality movement. The actions taken by supportive faith communities and leaders have the power to change the national conversation on LGBT civil rights, and to counter religious extremist language with that of inclusive faith voices.

Recently I returned home from Tampa after serving as a delegate to the United Church of Christ's 28th General Synod. I was one of eight delegates from the Vermont Conference to attend this biannual meeting of our national church. In the aftermath I am proud to be a part of a denomination that is taking such bold stands in order to speak out on behalf of LGBT people.

At Synod we passed two resolutions that relate to LGBT rights. The first calls upon adoption agencies and foster care systems to remove all barriers to placing children with LGBT individuals and couples. The resolution passed with no voice of dissent on a voice vote.

We also passed, with over 98 percent of the vote, a resolution that reaffirmed our support for full human and civil rights for LGBT people both domestically and internationally. Individuals from Jamaica, Zambia, and Lebanon stood before the Synod and told their stories of being subjected to violence and persecution. One of the most tragic things about the situations in their countries, as well as ours, is that the voices of American Christianity that have thus far been heard around the world have not been voices of justice and compassion. The rhetoric of Lou Engle and Rick Warren in Uganda is a prime example.

In contrast, the United Church of Christ declared in a clear, unwavering voice that we are calling for an end to the oppression of LGBT people. Just as we did when we were the first mainline denomination to ordain an openly gay man and the first to recognize and bless same-sex marriages, we are on the forefront of Christian denominations offering an unequivocal voice of affirmation for LGBT people facing persecution.

But this is just a start.

What the UCC and other denominations are now doing needs to be repeated at every level of our faith groups. We need to make prophetic, unequivocal proclamations on behalf of LGBT people. We can't mince words like we've been doing for decades. We can't compromise the rights of some for the comfort of others. We have to do the right thing without fear, and without delay.

I was thinking about that this week when I talked to some of my former colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Despite the fact that LGBT clergy will now be allowed in some jurisdictions, I was shocked to find out that the partners of these clergy members will not yet be allowed to collect their pensions or join them on their health insurance plans. The denomination is apparently still investigating whether, and how, to do so.

I don't use that example to pick on my former denomination, which I still love. I use it because even in this church filled with people who believe in their hearts that the full inclusion of LGBT people is right, the message being sent is less than inclusive: "We will let you serve, but we will not compensate you fairly or respect your family equally. At least not yet."

The challenge for Christian denominations, including my own, is first going to be moving beyond the initial gestures of acceptance to the reality of full inclusion in our own traditions. We cannot speak with a convincing voice in the public arena until we correct the injustices in our own homes.

But then, when we as faith communities are able to start doing that, we are called to focus outward and to begin to speak in an uncompromising way about LGBT inclusion. We can no longer mince words. We can no longer offer half-hearted statements of welcome. We can no longer hide behind the safety of "not wanting to mix faith and politics." This is not about politics. This is about reclaiming the values of our faith in the public arena and resisting the co-opting of them for political agendas that have kidnapped God's name.

I'm proud of my denomination for the work we did this month. I'm also proud of what other denominations are doing. But I know that we all have a lot left to do. There is a growing place for a progressive faith movement in our country. As more and more faith bodies take actions like these taken by the UCC this month, the voice of that movement will begin to grow louder.

There is a song in my tradition called "This Little Light of Mine." We sing, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine." And we sing later, "Hide it under a bushel? No. I'm going to let it shine."

Unfortunately, many religious progressives like myself have for too long been too ready to "hide our light under a bushel." But if every progressive person of faith in this country would raise their voice publicly and talk about how their inclusive values come from their faith beliefs, we would raise a voice loud enough to counter the religious voices of exclusion. And then our light, and the light of what we believe, will truly shine.

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I love your updates on progressive people of faith joining together for the LGBT movement, Emily. Thank you for such great work!