In the fall of 1983 I started my first "real job". That is, not a summer job, or work study, but the beginning of a career. And I was lonely. So lonely. I started to look for a church, mostly as a way to meet people.
Here's the rub. How do I find a church that accepts all of me, that doesn't require that I pretend to be someone I'm not? Would I be welcome as queer? (In those days most of us commonly used "gay" to describe ourselves; "queer" was a slur. I'll use today's language throughout this story of my past.)
I remember picking up the phone and calling churches, listening to the dead silence after my question, the hangups, the sweet and horrible undertones as someone said "honey, we love all sinners". I remember my silence when I finally reached a church that said "yes, we will care for you exactly as you are." I sobbed with relief.
It would be later that I'd fall apart and Jesus would assure me that God says I am okay. It would be much later that I'd turn to ministry and sharing the good news that God cares for each person exactly as they are. In 1983 that welcoming church provided community with others that wanted the best for me.
Over time our culture has developed signs for marking that a church is safe, often by voting to be "Open and Affirming" (UCC) and "Reconciling" (UMC). Straight people and cis-gender people studied how to be affirming, not just welcoming, how to trust our LGBTQI family members, neighbors, and ourselves. We started to hang up flags.
The rainbow flag makes it clear that "we welcome all" means more than "you can come in". It means that we will do our best to love all the parts of who you are. You don't have to pretend to be straight, or even to pretend that you have figured out everything about yourself.
When Ashburnham Community Church put out our flag we got a steady stream of phone calls. Some sounded just like me in 1983, tentatively asking "does this mean I can be queer at your church?" Crying when I said yes. All of the calls were expressions of thanks and relief. Overwhelmed, surprised, relieved to be seen.
Of course some Community Church members have heard negative feedback, mostly from people concerned that it meant they had to be LGBTQI to come inside. Oddly enough, almost all of our congregation is straight! We want you to know that you can be who you are when you are in church with us. You are welcome to wrestle with who you are (and what you believe) in our space. We are wrestling ourselves.
Right now Ashburnham is struggling with whether flags--the rainbow flag and the blue-white-pink trans flag--are appropriate in our elementary schools. Honest, caring adults are wrestling with whether the flags cause division, or if children are too young to think of themselves as GLBTQI people.
Here is what I know--I was in third and fourth grade, in public school, when other children started calling me "Lezzie Lizzy". I didn't know what it meant, but I certainly knew that it was meant to hurt me. I can't imagine how much better the rest of my schooling would have been if someone had said "Lesbians are people who are love other women, and we don't make fun of that." I wish there had been a rainbow flag in my classroom.
Kids recognize gender at age two and start thinking about their own gender at age three. Many trans kids who come out as teens or pre-teens remember feeling mis-gendered when they were three or four.
For most of us, gender is pretty secure--being around trans people doesn’t affect my identity as woman, and being around people who doubt them doesn’t affect a trans person’s gender identity. A trans flag in a classroom is a lifeline for a young person who knows their gender doesn’t match what they have been told.
What's in a flag? A chance to offer welcome, a chance to reassure a child they are safe in this space. It's a sign; in a church it is a sign that God loves you, in a school a sign that the community loves you.
MANNA (Many Angels Needed Now and Always) is a leadership organization working with people who do not have homes. Read more about MANNA in my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers. I recently attended their Monday worship at The Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston.
The quiet of MANNA's Monday Lunch provided respite for many after a night of protests for Black Lives Matter in Boston. Jennifer McCracken, the priest for this congregation, checked in with me frequently during lunch, but didn't have a minute to spare as one person after another wanted to share their stories with her. She knew, she understood, she was there. She looked tired as worship began.
We sat in a large circle, each chair six feet from the next, a couple chairs in the center, also appropriately distanced, and in front of the altar, two more chairs. The hand painted altar cloth was a little lopsided, and all the animals from Noah's ark had been carefully placed, along with Terry Dactyl, the plastic dinosaur, sitting on one arm of the cross. This is a time of pandemic; the Eucharistic elements were missing.
As worship progressed our group of six grew to ten or twelve, some sitting in the far corners of the sanctuary. Each person had a backpack or bag at their feet, the hosts at the back entrance offered hot lunch to the latecomers, along with hand sanitizer and masks. Outside the Cathedral's glass doors two more volunteers continued to offer bag lunches to people who didn't want to come inside.
Inside was a hushed. People talked, quietly, to others or themselves. The slouched shoulders expressed a sense of rest. The meal had been quiet, but tense, now we began to let out that tension, to share our unrest with God, to let go. The service is familiar and yet specific to the day.
“I love this Psalm,” Jennifer hands out a paper. “It's a lament. Today we are going to cry out with all of the pain of the racism, the violence, the pain of last night, and of our lives." Together we read the words of Psalm 13.”
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
We sit a moment in the pain. Jennifer invites a parishioner to create a Gospel Alleluia and he does, mournfully, quietly, it fills the room. His head drops as he finishes.
Members of the congregation read the gospel, first in Spanish, then in English. Jennifer calls up a parishioner to preach. He is tall, dark, and devastated. He speaks in spurts, as if God fills him up, he pours it out, and then the next message arrives and gushes onto us. Struggling to hold his body in the chair, clenching his hands in frustration, wiping tears from his face, he preaches confidence God wants something different. As his message dies down Jennifer mentions the scripture we have read and he starts again, more words of God piling on us. Some us look away, I look away, it is so much pain, so much trust, so much power.
There is silence. There is peace that passes all understanding. We shuffle in our seats. We wait for the words to flow through us. We wait some more.
At lunch one of the volunteers told me to stay for worship. "They do a blessing that is amazing." I had no idea.
Jennifer begins by turning to her right, to the preacher, sitting there, and blesses him for his words. She encourages him to bless the woman to his right, and her to bless the man behind her. One by one, the priest naming each person in turn, we each bless the next. Everyone has some little contribution. Everyone is blesses; everyone is blessed. Over the physical distance required by the virus, we pull together in blessing. Over the spiritual distance required by our nation's racial divide, we pull together in blessing. Over the social distance separating people with homes from those without we pull together in blessing.
This is church.
Upper Room Books has done a series of videos on how people find hope in this time of coronavirus. Honestly at first I didn't find hope. But the my congregation rose up to do great work at our Food Pantry. I find God in the people who do this work, and the people who donate, and the people who come to get food. Here is the video that I offered to Upper Room: Link.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.