Intersectionality is growing as the preferred approach to unpack identity and justice. I heard the Church discuss this term much more than I expected during the Open and Affirming Coalition gathering and General Synod.
The United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming (ONA) movement is celebrating 45 years of diligent work to change the Church from a hostile space for queer people to an affirming space. Currently, 1,400 UCC churches are officially open and affirming.
Every year, the Coalition holds a national gathering and this year it happened in the days before General Synod. Through personal connections and powerful workshops, Coalition ended up being more transformative than I expected.
New friends made the experience richer with shared meals, long conversations, and local beers. I had volunteered to help at the gathering and didn’t expect to do much more than work, but I ended up experiencing much of the programming, much of the relationship-building that is still ongoing.
Aside from that, I found space and permission during Coalition to more publicly own my latina identity and to feel less ashamed of my broken Spanish. I didn’t expect Coalition to meet me at that level either.
Perhaps the most powerful meeting of all my identities in my own House of worship was the presentation of a quilt depicting the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. I heard the story of the woman who weaved it with heavy details that I don’t think I have the right to relay, yet they revealed and confirmed to me that to be latinx is to feel deeply.
That quilt is now in the Smithsonian. But it was presented at Coalition on its way there. Know that many of the victims were Puerto Rican (as am I). Know that some of them were not out to their families. Know that some of their parents refused to claim their bodies.
On the last day of Coalition, I read the benediction in my broken Spanish, and I relished in thinking of the Church as a place for me to be imperfectly bilingual, because I’m so used to slipping comfortably into white, American culture.
The meeting of my intersections continued at General Synod, where one night I accidentally ended up at dinner with a segment of the United Church of Christ with an opposing philosophy to Open and Affirming.
It began innocently enough. I roomed with an older lady who needed some help getting around. She spoke like Lorna Morello and was a minister like Sister Ingalis. She often got her details confused, so when she invited me to dinner one night with “these very nice people” she’d had lunch with, I agreed.
I had known this conservative faction of the UCC existed–Faithful and Welcoming Churches, they’re called, or ECOTs (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, traditional)–but I never intentionally sought them out. However, the day before this accidental meal, I had genuinely wondered aloud to some friends why such a group is even in a denomination as progressive as the UCC (especially in the national setting of the church) when they could easily have more of a voice and more community among those who agreed with them in more conservative denominations.
I didn’t actually expect an answer to that question.
Yet I walked in to that private dining room in the restaurant wearing a Kill la Kill shirt and pronoun buttons on my sleeves (English and Spanish). I introduced myself in an impeccable two minute blurb where I named my conference, my association, my church, its ONA status, and its three main ministries.
“Do you know who we are?” the gentleman hosting the dinner asked me from across the table, his face serene.
“An ecumenical group?” I said, repeating what my older!Morello roommate had told me.
“We are Faithful and Welcoming Churches, and we formed in response to ONA.”
Cue a mixture of nerves and divine humor settling in me, as well as a quick blessing that poise, diplomacy, and reserve are my defense mechanisms in uncomfortable situations.
Yet overall, the dinner wasn’t nearly as terrible as it could’ve been. In fact, it was oddly comforting revisiting my evangelical roots for a couple hours. Of course, only the people around that table heard of my alma mater and even knew several key figures associated with it (Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo).
Despite the fact that I would never feel wholly welcome in any of their churches, this group made sure I clearly understood that I was invited to eat with them and that they were paying for my meal. As we waited for our food, they each spoke for a couple minutes about why they’re in the UCC, answering the very question I had asked the previous day and had considered rhetorical.
Most of the people around the table stay with the UCC because it is their denominational home, or they strongly believe in social justice in most other spheres (though they cannot extend their ideology to affirmation for every marginalized group). Some were welcomed in the UCC whereas in other denominations, they had no voice.
I listened, because despite how much I say when I write anything of any sort, I’m a good listener. I get a feel for any new group I’m in before participating in the conversation. I chose to see their intersections rather than whittle them down to an ideology that, at best, doesn’t know what to do with me in the church and, at worst, would rather I change before being among them. It’s harder to view a person as mere rhetoric when you’re looking them in the face and hearing their voice. I’d like to think they experienced this, too.
And I told them so, though not in those exact words. Surely, we were all blessed because only God could make such a meeting an occasion of radical hospitality. Anyone in the UCC or anyone who calls themselves a Christian at all ought to be theologically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to practice radical hospitality in spite of and because of our intersections. The presence of conservatives in the UCC tells me that this church is serious about its progressivism. I am not confident that a more conservative denomination would allow its progressive churches voice in the national setting or give them a table at its gathering. If progressivism means a wider inclusion, then when I am face to face with people who may not see my intersections at all or consider them valid streets, I prepare myself nonetheless to take communion with them at the church on the corner. Yet I cannot do this perfectly this side of the eschaton, for if a bigot comes at me in the street with a torch and a clenched fist, I will either run or block and land a finger strike to the eyes. How far can I extend this ideal to those who have lost any semblance of their humanity?
Some may find my position weak or coddling, but the dogmatic progressive and conservative ideology I see all over social media would have us become ever more siloed and fearful. This doesn’t mean we have to willingly associate with those who harm us, but it does mean that we receive the bread and the cup together and attempt, albeit imperfectly, to live out their implications.
Additionally, I have held for several years now that some white people will only listen to other white people discuss racism, some men will only listen to other men discuss sexism, some straight people will only listen to other straight people discuss homophobia, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It shouldn’t be this way because theoretically we should all listen to each community itself, but that is not the reality. So likewise, there are some conservatives who would only listen to other conservatives talk about a church like the UCC. For the people around that dinner table discussed how remaining in the UCC has caused them to reflect and change in positive ways (their words, not merely my interpretation).
All of this said, I now more strongly encourage LGBTQ people to make sure a church is officially ONA (or any equivalent in other denominations) before visiting or deciding to join. At the very least, ensure that your prospective church is not Faithful and Welcoming (here is a list of such churches). You should be able to bring all of who you are to Jesus and do so safely or else you won’t grow.
The UCC cannot and should not force every local church to be as progressive as it is in the national setting. This is, at times, frustrating and means that marginalized groups still have to exercise some extra caution when looking for a church. But believe me when I say that there are affirming churches out there and being part of one has spiritually enriched me in ways I never would’ve imagined.
One of those ways is the stark imagery that Rev. Traci Blackmon provided in her sermons during both Coalition and General Synod. At Coalition, she preached about Paul’s shipwreck and our movements for justice. So long as we stay on the ship together, we will make it to the other side. The ship may not, but we will. At Synod, she preached about wheelbarrows, tying the imagery to a performer in the early 1900s who crossed a tightrope over Niagra Falls. He would ask volunteers from the audience if he could carry them across the water and they’d say he was crazy, but he’d always make it. Once, he asked a volunteer to get in a wheelbarrow and he’d push the wheelbarrow across the tightrope over the falls. This is the connection Rev. Blackmon made to Jesus, and since her election as the Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries at General Synod, Rev. Blackmon has been living into this in a big way. She was arrested for protesting the GOP healthcare bill, and as of this writing has become a strong voice on the front lines of the Charlottesville aftermath, for white supremacy has no place among the people of Christ.
Lastly, I’ll mention a few resolutions that passed at Synod. I’ve already written about boycotting Wendy’s, but the UCC took a stance on several other justice issues at General Synod.
- On Recognizing and Studying Gun Violence as a Public Health Crisis
- On Becoming an Immigrant-Welcoming Church
- In Support of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse and Neglect
- Toward Disability Justice: A Call to the Church and Churches
The UCC has much more to say about so many other issues. Like everything else in this world, it will never be perfect this side of the eschaton, but this church makes me proud–this community makes me proud. In so many spheres in so many sectors of society, we do work that attempts to make the gospel good news for everyone.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
-Micah 6:8 (NRSV)
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
-Psalm 46:4-7 (NRSV)