This post was originally published at Reconciling Ministries Network blog on December 11, 2012.
Yesterday, Wes Magruder wrote a lovely piece on LGBTQ people and our relationship to the church entitled “Why gays should be glad church isn’t safe.” His heartfelt and honest words illuminated the difficulty a pastor has in protecting her or his congregants. He shared the struggle of responding to a gay couple who asked if his church would be a safe place for them to visit. The reality, he reminded us, is that there is really no such thing as a completely safe space in church. The beauty of the church, in fact, is partly that we are all diverse people made of various ideas, experiences, theologies, and opinions. He even spoke to the truth that “church committees are full of folks who are racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic.” After highlighting the reality that there really is no way to promise anyone they will always feel truly safe and accepted in a church space, or any space for that matter, Magruder shared some beautiful words about what it means to struggle in a community and find love in the midst of tension.
There is so much that I respected about Magruder’s article. He was honest, authentic, and clearly moving in the right direction. However, there are a few things that might be helpful to hold in tension with his good words. It is absolutely true that a church pastor, or any individual church member, can never guarantee that a church will not cause harm to someone. As Magruder implied, relationship is inherently risky – real interactions will inevitably cause conflict and there’s no avoiding that. However, Magruder’s article does not illuminate the very real difference between interpersonal conflict and the violence that is perpetuated daily towards LGBTQ folks, especially in the UMC.
LGBTQ people are well aware of the reality that there are absolutely no spaces in society that are guaranteed to protect us from homophobia or heterosexism. Painful words still come from the best allies, our closest friends, and often our families. If possible at all, undoing the deep threads of heterosexism weaved into the foundation of our traditions, values, and culture will take centuries. Enduring some painful misconceptions or hard words, even from those who most have our backs, is a part of daily life for many of us. I know when I am looking for a “safe place” I am not referring to these slip-ups, to an occasional judgmental glance, or even a close-minded attitude. I am looking for some things much more basic than that, which are unfortunately, very hard to find in a UMC church.
When I am asking if a church is safe, I want to know if my very being will be condemned. Am I going to hear sermons from the pulpit about how my life is inherently sinful? Will the “looks that kill, glances that judge, attitudes that quietly condemn” be the norm, or the exception? After finally overcoming repression and stepping out of the closet, am I going to believe that God wants me back in? If I show up with my girlfriend, will anyone come up to me and “ask” us to leave or “inform” us that we are somehow immoral? We will be embraced as a couple or will we just be considered two individuals while our lives together are ignored? If I am asking if a church is safe, I genuinely do want to know that no one will attack me physically – because that’s a very real and present fear I carry daily. Violence towards LGBTQ people, even in public spaces, is always a possibility.
The point of the Reconciling Ministries Network is to show there are safe churches. This doesn’t mean no one will mess up, but it means that, in a denomination that is unsafe in its condemnation of LGBTQ people and its perpetuating shame, violence, and judgment, there are churches that actively commit to standing alongside this marginalized group. Becoming an RMN church is a step towards creating a church that is safe – it shows that a community understands the risk it requires of LGBTQ people to invest in the church. It shows that a church is willing to make changes in order to welcome those it has previously shut out. It recognizes that stepping into a church that has a very real past and present seat at the table of discrimination, while young LGBTQ are still committing suicide, still representing a large portion of homeless youth, still being bullied, and all LGBTQ ARE still being denied equal rights and enduring violence, is simply very different than walking in the same church as a straight individual.
Yes, pain will inevitably occur for all individuals in the midst of community and the beauty of church is that we are encouraged by the gospel to work out our relationships in love. This is wonderful. But the chances are, that unless a church recognizes the particular needs of the brave LGBTQ people willing to enter a religious space, it will not be safe. This lack of safety is something this gay, will never be happy about.