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Stories That Heal: Out of Order

Three years ago, I said “yes” to a British filmmaker who wanted to tell the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Presbyterians seeking a call or ordination within the PC(USA). In 2012, I said yes to sharing my my story of gender transition and of journeying towards ordination in the PC(USA) one year after Amendment 10A went into effect and the official barriers to ordination in the denomination had been removed. It was a moment in my own journey when I was just 3 months in to the medical part of my gender transition. My voice was starting to get deeper, and my face shape was changing a bit, but most people still saw me as female, including my Committee for the Preparation for Ministry. In this changed landscape following 10A I did not know how my CPM might receive the news of my transition, and I didn’t know how other openly LGBTQ candidates would be received by committees for the preparation for ministry, congregations seeking installed pastors, or by presbyteries certifying our call. All I knew is that sharing our stories, our calls and dedication to following Christ and staying within this denomination is a way to help the church see the gifts LGBTQ people bring to ministry.

In the three years since the documentary, Out of Order, began filming, our church and our culture have come a long way towards further legal recognitions of LGBTQ people and our families. HoweverI believe that we are at a very critical moment where we must translate polity change into the pews. For every LGBTQ person who has been called to serve a church in the PC(USA) in the past 3 years, there are many more who are still seeking a call or who have been told outright that their ministry might split the church.During my travels for More Light over the past year and a half, I have met folks from a vast number of churches that are hungry to put a face and a name to the issue of LGBTQ inclusion, they are eager to have conversations about what welcoming LGBTQ folks within the life and ministry of the congregation would look like, and are looking for a positive portrayal of LGBTQ people who want to serve the church. Many of these conversations have been happening in a one-on-one basis, but I believe Out of Order will offer the chance for that conversation to be much more widespread.

At long last, the filming for Out of Order is complete, and the journey to turn the footage into a film in the editing process begins. Just yesterday the crew released a trailer for Out of Order as part of their fundraising efforts to raise $21K in 21 days to be able to edit the film. Thus far all of the work on the film has been done pro-bono and out of the passion for telling these stories. However, the crew needs to raise funds to be able to edit the film, add color correction, sound mixing, and titles to submit the film to festivals and then debut the film to a wider audience in the spring of 2016. If you believe stories have the power to heal the church, then I invite you to watch the trailer (be on the look out for a cameo from my Mom and Dad!) and consider supporting the completion of this film in whatever way you can either through a financial gift or by sharing the trailer via your facebook or twitter. Click here to watch:igg.me/at/outoforder

Thank you for all the ways you have already shared story after story of why LGBTQ inclusion in the life of the church is vital to our mission as a body of Christ. My hope is that this film is one more way we can continue to shine more light into our communities!

Yours on the Journey,
Alex Patchin McNeill
Executive Director

More Light Sunday 2015

abundanceThe mission theme for this year’s More Light Sunday is:  abundance.

This year’s More Light Sunday is the first Sunday of June:  June 7th.  We use this Sunday to reflect on the past year and lean toward our future together to create a more robust welcome for LGBTQ persons within the Presbyterian Church (USA).

We have seen an overwhelming reality of abundance this year in the ratification campaign of 14F, the ways that marriage equality continues to grow across the nation, and the coalition work MLP is doing for intersectional justice.  We are working to continue to grow our table of justice-making and make certain that our deepest posture of welcome is one that is rooted in a sense of justice for all.  With that in mind, we’ve chosen the following text as a recommended preaching text for More Light Sunday and have included some songs that help illustrate an overwhelming sense of abundance.  Our hope is that your congregation will see these as a resource for celebrating the great achievements within the PC (USA) and our work together as faithful More Light Presbyterians.

  • Preaching text: Romans 8:12-25
  • Theme:  Abundance
  • Songs:
    • Great Is Thy Faithfulness
    • There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy
    • How Great Thou Art
    • Here I Am Lord (is it I Lord?)
    • God of Grace and God of Glory
    • God of the Sparrow God of the Whale (how does the creature say Awe)
    • For Everyone Born (add the Methodist verse).

MLP brochure

National Day of Silence

DOS_2012_avery_stickerAdrienne Rich, from “Cartographies of Silence”

3.

The technology of silence
The rituals, the etiquette
the blurring of terms
silence not absence
of words or music or even
raw sounds
Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed
the blueprint to a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence

Romans 8: 26-27: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I recently led a chapel event kicking off the Day of Silence[1] at a local Episcopal high school. I found it ironic that I was being asked to speak – for a few reasons. For one, well, I’m a talker. Big time. In high school, I had a group of friends bet me that I couldn’t keep quiet for two hours – the reward would have been a Blue Bell Rainbow Popsicle – quite possibly one of the best inventions of all time. Or, definitely the best frozen invention of all time. It’s like an all-in-one frozen adventure – you get layer after layer of tasty frozen goodness – all in one popsicle. If you, like me, have a hard time choosing your favorite flavor of popsicle, this treat is for you – because you don’t have to choose – every flavor is there. It’s like a frozen version of every-flavor jelly beans, but without all of the gross flavors that none of us want to eat. You start with cherry at the top, then orange, then lemon, then lime; and, well, you get the point.

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Making Space

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time a teenager asked me if they were going to hell.

LogoI’d been in my job as the Youth Programs Director at ROSMY for a few months, working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth, and was visiting a local high school’s gay-straight alliance to tell them about ROSMY. My goal was to let youth know about our support groups and our leadership program. And, I mentioned in passing that I had been to seminary and that I was in the process of becoming a pastor – so, the youth could talk to me if they had any questions about things they may have heard in the church.

Without realizing it, I had sold myself as someone who had the authority to answer questions about the state of their eternal souls.

While I believe without a doubt that people are not condemned to hell for their identity, I was totally taken off-guard by the question.

I wish I could say that this first time was the only time someone has asked me about hell. I wish I could say that I’m even surprised to hear it anymore.

To put that kind of question out there takes a lot of courage.

I know this because it’s a question I never had the courage to ask.

Like many queer youth today, I spent my high school years trying to navigate a system that was constructed for someone else. School dances were exclusively male-female couples, girls wore makeup and talked about their crushes, bathrooms and locker rooms were spaces where gender norms and expectations were reinforced. Though I never really felt like I was betraying any aspect of my identity by doing all of these things, it wasn’t until years after I graduated that I recognized how much the shame and fear I carried about my identity kept me moving forward – taking the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to life. I thought that if I could try hard enough, work long enough, at being the right kind of girl, then eventually, I would be.

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Who Do We Crucify?

This year’s Paschal Triduum is launched. We have been at table. Now we are at the cross. The church is just now formally beginning to realize LGBTQ bodies have been denied, suffered, and killed in its name. Christ was killed by the institution of the Roman Government. Today, religious refusals and bathroom bills will legalize the denial, torture and or killing of queer bodies. They will be sanctioned by the institution of the U.S. Government. On every Good Friday, I question, I ask myself is, “Who do we as Christians crucify in the false name of God?” When we crucify others, we are also killing an important part of our self.

For the PC (USA), our polity no longer allows us to crucify LGBTQ people in ordination and marriage. This is a good thing. This should be celebrated. It is the beginning of a long hard road to reconciliation. However, today is Good Friday. Today is not a day to celebrate. Today is a holy day set aside in the holiest week of the Christian calendar to think critically on who we crucify.

LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, the poor,  women, and the environment are constantly being crucified. The church has a long way to go to care for the murders and suicides of trans people and queer youth. It is a well known in the LGBTQ community that homo and queerphobia is rooted in Christian fundamentalism. It is hard to hear. But we cannot heal what we do not name. The passing of marriage is not an end. As a queer person, one thing I hear frequently from straight people or from LGBTQ people with internalized queer or homophobia is “It’s not that bad”. Denial, is a part of crucifixion. To the straight person who sometimes feels that way, do not kill the ally in you. To the LGBTQ person who feels that way, love the queer in you and the non-hetero identities that you do not occupy. To attempt to kill any queer identity is an attempt to kill your self or others.

As a black person one thing I notice frequently is how it’s hard for many white people to be called white. Again, we cannot heal what we do not name. White privilege is real. The cost is black bodies being murdered by police or being five times more likely to be imprisoned than a white person for the exact same crime. To deny being called white, is to also deny white privilege. Denying white privilege perpetuates racism. Racism perpetuates crucifixions of people of color. To white people, do not kill a part of yourself by denying white privilege. Accepting white privilege, is the first step to racial reconciliation. Racial reconciliation is a form of God’s love. It stops crucifixions.

Intersectionality is about holding different identities in a single body. For me queer and black issues are not either or, they are always already both and. Last Sunday, I went to a DarkMatter slam poetry show and realized who I crucify. Dark Matter is a South Asian queer duo. During the show I realized how I pay so little attention to brown lives. My silence to brown lives contributes to the ongoing crucifixions of brown bodies. As I black person, my people group is given more voice and visibility than any other group of color in this country (which frankly isn’t saying much). My silence kills my integrity and a part of my humanity. It was also a reinforcement for me, to acknowledge how my cis privilege plays a role in crucifying trans people.

So church family who do we crucify? After all, we cannot heal what we do not name.

Resistant Readings as Holy Resistance

(Trigger warning: Explicit discussion of genitalia, hate speech, and sacred language.)

Our feet are still dusty from the Jerusalem Road. The palms that waved excitedly only hours ago now lay limply on the ground. We look around to see what is waiting. An upper room. A denial. A handing over. Our beloved Jesus will become a thing, an Other, an object of ridicule and abuse. We’ll see him nailed to a tree; we’ll journey to the tomb. Dank. Dark. Lonely. All of it awaits. And we who follow in the Jesus Way tread upon well-trodden ground.
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MLP Statement Against the RFRA expansions

More Light Presbyterians represents over 200 Presbyterian Church, USA congregations nationwide. For over 40 years, More Light Presbyterians has worked for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), and in society. As a Christian organization that believes everyone should be treated as a child of God, the board of More Light Presbyterians stands opposed to laws, such as the recent passage of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that create a dangerous and broad religious exemption for private business owners, government employees, landlords and employers to legal protections for LGBTQ citizens given under state or local law.

 

As Presbyterians, our rules of law and order are as deeply ingrained in our faith tradition as the Scriptures and our sanctuaries. We practice a deep respect for the religious freedom we are granted by the U.S. Constitution as well as federal and state laws. However, our church laws have long affirmed that discrimination is not a Christian value. Our denomination’s constitution, the Book of Order, affirms that “In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person.” (F-1.0403)
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Betraying Bias: Time to Update PCUSA Social Witness Policy on RFRA

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

-Anne Lamott

A clarification of PCUSA social witness policy is in order at next year’s General Assembly after the recent passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (IRFRA), which opens the door for religious protections for anti-LGBT discrimination. PCUSA has long supported both religious liberty and civil rights; we must stand firm in both traditions and put to rest this manufactured conflict that cheapens claims of conscience and allows religion to be used as a false excuse for mistreating one’s neighbor.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has fiercely defended religious liberty and the separation of church and state for decades. In 1961, the southern PCUS General Assembly declared that the governing body “is completely in accord with the principle of separation of Church and State, and urges all members to be alert to legislative bills which violate the above principle and to be zealous in communicating with their legislative representatives to express their feelings” (80). In 1963 the northern UPCUSA “redeclares its conviction that church and state must be organically separate… “because organic entanglement of church and state inevitably deprives men and women of the full exercise of [religious] freedom” (185-197).

Building on decades of social witness policy, the PCUSA joined many other religious groups in vociferous objection to the 1990 Supreme Court decision upholding the Oregon Employment Division’s denial of unemployment benefits to someone fired for using peyote during a religious ritual. One of the responses to this decision was that the PCUSA’s Washington Office helped develop and advocated for the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed by Congress in 1993.

That’s right, the PCUSA was very much in favor of the federal RFRA, along with such varied groups as the ACLU and the Traditional Values Coalition.  When the federal RFRA was found by the Supreme Court not to apply to state and local governments, the 210th General Assembly (1998) doubled down, reaffirming the 1988 PCUSA statement on religious liberty (555-572) and calling presbyteries, synods, and congregations to advocate for state-level RFRAs “that restore the Compelling Interest/ Least Restrictive Means Test, that contain a broad definition of `exercise of religion,’ and which provide for the protection of the religious practices of all persons” (472-473).  In 2002 the General Assembly again affirmed the pursuit of such laws at the state level.

While moving aggressively for these rights, the denomination also maintained crucial internally imposed limits. The 1988 statement, “God alone is Lord of the Conscience,” includes admonishment against hiding frivolously behind religious liberty: “Claims of Christian conscience should not be lightly or cynically made, and should be tested to the maximum extent possible by the counsel of the Christian community.” Are we living up to this standard? Is the Christian community testing claims of conscience by florists, cake bakers, and restaurant owners refusing service to LGBTQ people in places of public accommodation?

Presbyterian social witness policy has an equally robust, decades-old record opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1978, the UPCUSA General Assembly declared, “There is no legal, social, or moral justification for denying homosexual persons access to the basic requirements of human social existence” and called for Presbyterians “to work for the passage of laws that prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations based on the sexual orientation of a person” (265-266). The 1993 General Assembly “unequivocally condemns all discriminatory legislation” (118-119) including  Colorado’s Amendment 2 and discrimination against gays in the military (926). In 2008 PCUSA members and representatives were called upon “to urge state legislatures and the federal government to apply the principle of equal protection to same-gender couples and their children” (48-29; 258-259).

So how are we to interpret Presbyterian social witness in light of the Indiana law? Does religious liberty include the right to harm others through discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or other category?

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance offer a history of federal and state RFRAs, noting  that some legal scholars argue that RFRA actually undermines separation of church and state by creating preferences for religion, and that after RFRA went into effect, there was an increase in requests for religious exemptions  from organized hate groups like Aryan Nations.

Some of the groups that joined PCUSA in advocating for RFRA, notably Americans United for Separation of Church and State, condemn current uses of RFRA to infringe on others’ rights, and are now calling for changes to the federal law as well as opposition to the new “super-RFRAs” like the one passed in Indiana, arguing that they contain

broader language than the  federal RFRA, making their meaning uncertain and their consequences even more far reaching.  As compared to the federal statute, these `super-RFRAs’ greatly reduce the burden necessary for an exemption and heighten the compelling interest needed by the government to justify its action.  This could potentially ensure that anyone claiming a religious burden—no matter how small, and no matter who else’s rights will be infringed—will get an exemption from that particular law.  With this broad language, super-RFRAs might be used to justify almost any type of discriminatory action.

With similar proposals in 15 states, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It is time for the General Assembly to speak once again to religious liberty and civil rights, and witness to our current time how a firm wall between church and state enables mutual respect for others’ rights, both religious and secular, in the public sphere. Presbyterians can agree that government has a “demonstrated compelling state interest” in prohibiting discrimination. As observant religious individuals, we must discern the difference between true religious freedom and faith-based pretext for prejudice.

Neither Religion Nor Freedom: Why the RFRA is Dangerous

It was less than twenty-four hours after attending an inspirational multi-faith meeting of local Ohio leaders about coordinating a response to the upcoming Supreme Court of the United States decision when I heard the news of Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. My optimism felt momentarily shattered; my Facebook feed filled with posts by friends who were angry, confused, outraged, despondent, and a whole host of other emotions. I quipped that the Act is filled with Orwellian doublespeak, as religious freedom has neither been lost nor restored. But sarcasm will only salve the savaged soul for so long.

Governor Pence continues to insist that the legislation is not discriminatory, but it is clearly aimed at LGBTQ persons. No reasonable person can deny this; however, Indiana has now embarked upon a very slippery slope. The language is vague; it is unclear what constitutes a “religious act or belief” or what an “undue burden” might be, the threshold for acting or refusing to act in accordance to one’s faith. While some people might have no issues will allowing citizens to deny services to members of the GLBT community, a Pandora’s Box awaits. Think about this: A person could deny service to a man who has shaved (Leviticus 19:27); a man could claim the right to ask a woman if she is menstruating lest he be rendered unclean by touching her or sitting where she sits (Leviticus 15:19-30); or demand that a person who has been shot but is tattooed be denied medical attention because he is an abomination (Leviticus 19:28). It does not matter that these requirements will have been ripped from their original context; there is no mandate that a person be a religion scholar and be able to defend his or her belief. All the person need do is say, “It is part of my religion” and is therefore free to make decisions that can literally have a life or death impact on another person.

After years of activism, which sometimes includes pushback even within congregations that I pastor or belong, I understand that some have decided that homosexuality is a sin and their opinions will not change. In my Facebook feed, I have friends who post about how marriage equality is leading to the normalization of pedophilia; I wholeheartedly disagree, and find the position offensive, but I remain friends with them. I sincerely believe that once we are in the Body of Christ together, we are commanded by God to continue to come to the table together in love and compassion, even when our disagreements are passionate. I find it odd that some want to invoke Christ to deny services and basic compassion to fellow human beings, but I also don’t want to descend into calling someone unChristian. We simply regard the Scriptures differently.

I write today to illustrate how dangerous a precedent has been set.There have been legislative efforts prohibiting the implementation of Sharia Law (an asinine undertaking in the opinion of this author), yet what we see in Indiana is a lived example of religious extremism masking as “freedom.” An individual now seemingly has the right to invoke religion within the public sphere to justify just about anything. And as most of us are not lawyers or legal experts, it does not matter if there are nuances in the law; think about how many people get their ideas about the Constitution from episodes of Law and Order. This legislation arms anyone to simply cry “Religious Freedom!” in their best William Wallace voice, and then watch as tragedy unfolds. What is a trans* person is beaten half to death in small town Indiana, and the only available doctor is a person who believes that transgender persons are sinful and that touching them will render him or her unclean? He or she now has the right to withhold services, even if the trans* person dies.

This is not hyperbole. This is where we are heading. As a pastor, a religious person, and an American, this legislation terrifies me. I’m asking all citizens of the country to pay attention to what is going on in their own legislatures. Similar efforts have been made in my own state of Ohio, and I fear that the recent signing by Gov. Pence might embolden lawmakers here. I plan to redouble my efforts to make it clear that religious freedom does not involve violating the civil rights of other citizens. In a social contract, we all have to make compromises.But no one should be forced to compromise his or her basic safety and pursuit of happiness because someone else is able to use religion as a justification for prejudice.

Nothing Has Changed, But the Change is Not Nothing

I keep telling people that nothing has changed.

Don’t get me wrong. When the news of the vote regarding Amendment 14-f began blowing up my Facebook news feed and emails streamed in from colleagues and congregants alike, I went into prayer and praise. I left comments on threads, liked posts, and fielded phone calls celebrating the decision. I was called by Why Marriage Matters Ohio to be a media spokesperson, and I happily agreed. But I stopped short when I read one (resurrected) headline:

PC (USA) Redefines Biblical Marriage 

In one regard, I guess it is true. There are no fewer than eight types of biblical marriage. But this vote, while historic, has done nothing to change what marriage means or what the Bible says. It has levied no requirements upon Teaching Elders or Sessions; it has not set forth a draconian or hegemonic policy that violates the conscience of our well-meaning brothers and sisters who object to same-gender and same-sex marriage. To be sure, it lifts the specter of denominational charges being levied against a pastor who sanctified such a union. This is reason enough to express joy, but marriages do not suddenly have God in them because of a human vote.

        I will boldly say that God was long ago sanctifying these unions. Our recognition of what God has already done does not shift anything in the cosmos; contrary to what objectors might contend, we who voted in favor have not cast the PC (USA) into the depths of hell. It gets dangerous when any of us claim that we have God on our side and others do not (I believe that there is a distinction to be made between claiming that God is “on our side” and proclaiming that God sanctifies marriages between two persons; reasonable people can disagree), the fact is I do not believe that those who oppose the sanctifying of marriage between two persons to be devilish, unChristian, or bound for hell. I passionately disagree with their position, but I remain just as willing to work together on myriad other issues as I was the day before the final vote came down. And God remains God, spreading love like leaven in dough or weeds in a garden.

        I have shared in a previous blog the thoughts I expressed when my own Presbytery voted, and now that the final decision is in nothing has really changed. I expect those who spoke against the amendment to remain against it; and I expect that those who were then willing to send couples to me will remain willing. I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to not only lovingly accept these couples, but to lovingly thank the pastors and Sessions that send them to First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs. But no damage has been done to the Gospel. And I will say–perhaps to the chagrin of those who share my opinion–no victory was won for the Gospel. It remains the same. The vote simply allows us, in full accord with our polity and roots as Calvinists–to interpret Scripture in accordance with our consciences. With that said, changes in the PC (USA) Constitution and the Book of Order can be regarded as big; for some, it is an affront to tradition; to others, like myself, it is a change a long time in coming and something to laud. Regardless, let none of us argue that somehow the Gospel is on our side and not on the side of others. Let us continue to respect one another in God’s love, not denying our fellow Christians their identities as members of the Body of Christ.

I write this post not to dampen the celebrations or to downplay the significance. What has happened is most certainly important, but I think that when we step back and look at the scope of things, we’ll see that the needs of people remain the same, and the call of the Gospel continues. We have work to do for justice, to increase people’s access to food and housing, to shine light where there is darkness, and we remain a people committed to being God’s hands and feet in the world.

Nothing has changed, but the change is not nothing.