For my Beloved United Church of Christ,
I have written in my ordination paper, essays in seminary, and many other forums of my love for this denomination as an out-LGBTQ clergyperson and Christian. This Pride Month 2018, however, it is time to issue a loving challenge.
Twenty-five percent of congregations Open and Affirming, thirty-three years of the Open and Affirming (ONA) Statement, and many other signs and sacrifices for the LGBTQ community in the National Setting and Local Settings of the UCC (including countless congregational and individual member departures) are a great start. Thank you, UCC, for your dedication, help, and sacrifice. I know how hard your work for LGBTQ people has been: sometimes splitting congregations, families, friendships, and decimating church budgets. Likewise, I know sometimes it has brought new life to congregations in need of new inclusive vision, members, or hope. I look for more examples of the latter as we move forward as a faith tradition into an uncertain future.
That said, I want to address an attitude in the UCC: shock when LGBTQ people don’t understand that this denomination is a safe space. Moreover, I have witnessed straight-privileged anger, indignation, and desperate need for gratitude. Open and Affirming Churches want gratitude from the LGBTQ community, which is something we really cannot emotionally provide.
In order to be theologically healthy and authentic as an Open and Affirming Movement, we need to first affirm the following difficult reality: The LGBTQ community does not owe the United Church of Christ anything in return for it's theologically driven move towards inclusion—even if that has meant great sacrifices. We are delighted to be included in pews, pulpits, pastorates, and pensions, but the wider LGBTQ family’s hurt and continued endangerment (especially with the current political winds) is greater than anything the UCC alone can heal, apologize for, or save us from. Additionally, LGBTQ spiritual gifts, theology, and radically unique perspective on liberation didn’t end with marriage equality. Marriage Equality is not synonymous with LGBTQ Liberation. There is so much more wisdom capacity and value yet untapped by the UCC from our diverse queer perspectives and fabulous presence.
The UCC’s openness is deeply appreciated by those of us in the LGBTQ community whom have chosen to do the HARD WORK (daily, complicated, painful) of reclaiming and living as religious Christians, but It doesn’t mean that gay and queer people owe you, the institution, our love and devotion. ONA isn’t transactional in that way. The popular attitude that the UCC is the gift that the LGBTQ community is looking for but hasn't found yet must be tempered with an understanding that church PTSD is real even for those who have never been inside a church.
As an example, I have never been inside of a haunted house attraction or a haunted corn maze, but I know that it would NOT be a safe, fun, or good experience for me. I know that from my outside experience with horror movies, people jumping at me, and even being alone at Plymouth at night (yes, this is a scary building when empty). Every experience I have had informs me to stay away from haunted houses. Likewise, even for LGBTQ people who have never had a direct experience with church (not even to mention the countless who have been emotionally abused and damaged by our wider Christian family), convincing us LGBTQ people that churches are safe and trustworthy is a multi-generational, long-term effort that must be rooted in meaningful mission and ministry rather than money and marketing. I have yet, sticking with my above example, to be convinced that a haunted house would result in anything other than a heart attack and my own early demise on the spot! In short, we are a hard sell.
Having an out minister doesn’t cure that fear or fulfill your ONA promise. Yes, I can speak with my friends and sometimes open doors of understanding, but I am not called to evangelize the LGBTQ community. Hiring me or my predecessor didn’t mean a cure to any fear others have. If anything, it just means that Gerhard and I have a lot of trouble finding friends who understand me or want to be around us, and I never ever blame anyone for this. I knew what I was signing-up for. It is a sacrifice I have been willing to make. It does mean that I understand and respect the healthy distance people who have been hurt need to keep from religion—even if that means keeping me as out gay clergyperson at a distance too. It is just too risky, confusing, or painful to befriend even a gay minister.
The LGBTQ community still has the right to distrust the God of Christianity after 2,000 years of oppression and continued alienation like yesterday.
The UCC must continue in our Open and Affirming Journey, and that means understanding that what we have begun in reconciliation, love, and radical inclusion is only the beginning of what could take generations of Queer acceptance to heal. We do this work of openness not for ourselves, our full pews, or our budgets, but we do it for God and for Jesus the Christ whose love we are called to embody.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that a local Colorado cake baker could deny a gay couple a wedding cake because of his belief in God and “religious liberty.” For that decision to come down in June is particularly difficult. June is LGBTQ Pride Month when we celebrate our liberation from straight patriarchy beginning with the Stonewall Riots in NYC in 1969, so this decision is jarring for many. It is days like yesterday that I find it incredibly difficult to justify the Church, God, and religion to my LGBTQ community as a Christian Minister of the Gospel. It is days like yesterday when responses, “sorry,” “we promise we aren’t all like that,” “you should try the UCC,” “don’t lump us in with those Christians,” or even, “we are just as angry as you and God loves you… really we promise…” just don’t work. It breaks my heart to watch my Facebook feed crumble in pain, alienation, and anger after yesterday’s verdict. It hurts even more to have to admit that my ministry and my Facebook posts can’t fix it and neither can the UCC alone within one generation.
It isn’t really about the damn cake. We, LGBTQ individuals and our straight allies alike, all know that we make better, tastier, more creative cakes anyway when it comes right down to it, right? Right? You know it’s true. It is really about systemic pain of rejection, of family alienation, and discrimination happening when trying to do something as simple as ordering a giant, glorified pastry for a party with a loved one! For God’s sake… it isn’t about the cake. It is about everything else that matters.
There is hope yet, friends, in grace! This is a word many of us only know if we have ventured into Wesleyan theological territory like I did for seminary, but it can mean so much right now for us in the United Church of Christ.
Grace means more than changing ourselves, changing our words, opening our doors and then assuming that we no longer carry cultural pain. It means coming to terms with our own privilege and understanding the weight of the history of this wider institution outside of our control. Grace also means understanding when our invitation of Open and Affirming welcome isn’t met with enthusiastic embrace. The turning of the Titanic takes great time. Grace is the humility to know that the doors may have to remain open for a very longtime before anyone feels safe enough to trust this institution. Love is loving those who never will enter our churches and never become pledging units because we are called by God Almighty to do so. Becoming ONA isn’t a marketing scheme to fill pews, it is a theological statement on the level of theodicy!
Grace is a grace for ourselves when we don’t get it right. Grace is love for others when they aren’t quite ready to accept our invitation to a loving community as we experience and know it. Grace is what God holds us all in at this time of transformation for the Open and Affirming Movement. Grace is what happens when we see that becoming Open and Affirming is more than a marketing statement. When taken seriously, it is a part of a wider systematic theology of inclusion that has the power to transform all of us into better people: all of us together…even or especially those whom we now accept will never join or visit the church.
Yours in Love and Pride,
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph (or just Jake)
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, CO.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.