13 September 2010

Cuba's New Direction

Last week the world's Jewish community observed Rosh Hashana, the beginning of a new year, and with it, a call to repentance. Imagine the world's surprise when one of the biggest stories of redemption these last few weeks, is Fidel Castro’s dramatic apology for his administration’s notorious persecution of the LGBTQ community in his country. As the saying goes, “politics makes strange bedfellows.”

My firsthand experience of this new direction in Cuba came in May when my partner and our four-year old daughter helped kick off the country’s national campaign against homophobia. We were invited to speak on a panel in Havana about our experiences as gay dads. We were enthusiastically and very warmly welcomed and at the end of the presentation we stepped out into the streets where a couple thousand LGBTQ people and their friends marched proudly up the avenue to a celebratory rally. The atmosphere was electric – the excitement and thrill of hope as a people, long oppressed, came out boldly into the light of day, united and determined. In the United States, we have a lot of victories still to claim, but the progress made by the community has been great. In fact, at the NYC Pride events one can almost feel casual and blasé about a gathering in the streets.

In Cuba, the taste of freedom is fresh and the sting of real hardship still very present. The government has started to come around, but in the daily life of family, friends and co-workers long-held prejudices are melting more slowly. Unfortunately, the church, in all its denominational diversity, is the most visible foe of freedom. There are clergy who are actively and lovingly pastoring to the LGBTQ community, and who support the government’s new openness. Though, in a small handful of conversations with folks, they admitted to me that clergy who are supportive of full inclusion, remain silent for fear of be ostracized by the religious community.

One young man unafraid to speak up is Jarley García Nasco, who was rejected by his church because he is openly gay. They extended their inhospitality to include his family as well. But, Jarley is undeterred. Through the support of a Canadian church and with help from the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, he has begun his second year of seminary. Jarley’s witness has already had a significant impact. He was elected president of the student body and has himself been surprised by the deep embrace of some of his heterosexual peers.

Liberation for Cuba’s LGBQT people is an interesting mix of newly found state-support, lingering personal apprehensions, and forceful religious condemnation. The community has been championed by Mariela Castro Espín, President of the Cuban Multidisciplinary Center for the Study of Sexuality (founded by her mother), and daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro. This heterosexual married mom of two is incredibly warm, passionate, and committed to LGBTQ freedom.

On Thursday, I stood on the edge of the East River and together with my family threw bread into the water in a Jewish tradition symbolizing the casting out of our sins. Cuba seems to be casting out its sins this week, too. The question we all must ask ourselves now is: how do we move decisively forward to make right those we have harmed?

Paul Mowry
Certified Candidate, Union Theological Seminary Alum

02 September 2010

In honor of fall, school days, and one mentor in particular...

It’s September, back-to-school time for so many of us. I’m honored to have been asked to write for this fabulous blog—and so in honor of fall and everyone who is going back to school, I’d like to offer a reflection about a teacher I had in seminary.

I arrived in the fall of 1998 to begin seminary in Chicago, and was contacted early on to ask if I’d be interested in serving a Methodist congregation in the southern suburbs of Chicago. After a few visits and interviews, all of a sudden the job was mine. I immediately liked my supervisor, Rev. Ermalou Roller, who was a highly-skilled and capable clergywoman. She had served in numerous posts throughout the years in the Methodist Church and I knew I’d have a lot to learn from her. I liked being there so much I ended up staying on for a second year. In more ways than I can describe it was one of the richest and most formative experiences of learning about ministry that I was offered during my three years at McCormick.

My two years at St. Andrew’s Church and with Ermalou really pushed on what were then the limits of my faith. Earlier in my first year, Rev. Greg Dell, a United Methodist clergyman in Chicago officiated at a wedding of two men, and he was put on trial by the Methodist Church. Ermalou was very interested in the trial, and so I got a crash course in United Methodist polity. She was particularly upset and offended because one of her beloved children is gay. Rev. Dell’s trial verdict was announced the Friday before Palm Sunday in 1999. He was unanimously found guilty of performing a marriage of two men, and in a vote of 10-3 was found guilty of violating the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Because Rev. Dell was unwilling as a matter of his conscience to stop offering pastoral care and weddings to the many GLBT members of his congregation, he was suspended from serving as Pastor.

To say that Ermalou was devastated was an understatement. I remember her pain and hurt like it was yesterday. It was a betrayal for her by the church she had so lovingly served for so many years. On Palm Sunday, she led worship, with tears in her eyes. She gave a prophetic, heartfelt statement about her love for the church, for her friend and colleague who had been found guilty and would be losing his posting to a church he had served with great dedication and love, and about her pain as a mother to a son who is gay on a weekend like that one. Ermalou allowed the congregation to see the turmoil she was in, and during her prayers of the people she offered prayers for the church and all those who have violence done to them in the name of the Church.

Unfortunately, that day set in motion a firestorm of church conflict at St. Andrews that continued until I left a year and a half later. Some parishioners walked out during Ermalou’s prayer. Some offered her words of support and solidarity in the receiving line after church. Those who walked out of church decided that she needed to go, calling the Bishop’s office and demanding that Ermalou be fired. The rest of us on staff were attacked for our ministry and our support. I learned about some of the more difficult aspects of ministry the hard way as observed and experienced first-hand the fallout that can happen from church conflict, and the trauma it can do in the life of a Pastor.

What do we do in the church when name-calling, meanness, or hatred comes into our lives? It is a question we have to wrestle with right now as we look at the bigger picture of our culture that so often tends towards violence, or the Islamaphobia that has taken hold our country, the hatred on display towards immigrants who are among us, and of course the ongoing discrimination within our denomination against those of us who are GLBT and their allies (we have our own painful example in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) once again this past week in the verdict against Rev. Janie Spahr for her prophetic ministry in Redwoods Presbytery).

There is a narrative that unites all of this, and it’s not a good one. It’s the narrative that says that we have to be fearful of the “other” and that we have to keep “them” away from “us.” Nothing could be more antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than this. Many days I ask myself: “How am I going to keep my own personal spirit lifted up in the midst of this narrative, especially when some parts of it touch my life deeply? How can I best serve as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the midst of these experiences—how can I guide and lead my congregation during a time like this?” It is a constant question in my prayer life these days.

I also think about Ermalou during these times a lot, because she was one of my early mentors and because I so admired (still do) the grace with which she handled herself and guided her congregation during a time of deep pain. This past spring Ermalou came to visit our family for a few days, and spoke to a gathering of adults at the church I serve about a memoir she has recently written about that difficult time in her life. I thought I knew Ermalou, but this summer as I read her memoir I realized there was a lot I didn’t know—and I was blown away by the courage it took for her to tell her whole story after so many years. I knew her first marriage ended in divorce, but I didn’t know that her first husband was gay and that they had an open marriage. She writes in honest, raw, and surprising language about her relationships with her children, and about finding love later in life—a love that blew open her mind and her spirit. It catalogues her life, her sexual awaking, and then tells the back-story of the trial of Greg Dell and how she sensed God’s Spirit working through all of these things. Her book is a reminder that all of our lives are like this. They are not neat, they are messy and complicated. Rarely do they follow the straight line, many times we hide how unconventional they are because we are fearful of what others might think about us. But as Ermalou so beautifully wrote in her memoir, we have the courage to tell our stories. Our telling of our stories liberates us. Each one of us is a Child of God, each one of us called in baptism, each one of us loved unconditionally by the One who created us. In the end, that’s the only Good News I can trust in time like this, and it’s the hope I cling onto every day.

So here’s to all the teachers that God has placed in our lives and the lessons they have taught us. I pray that there are many more in store for you and for me as we journey forward and work for God’s justice in this place. There are still a lot of lessons to learn and to teach!

[If you’d like to read it, Ermalou’s book, On Thundering Wings: Homosexuality, Love, and the Church on Trial can found at: www.ermalouroller.com]

Rev. Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo
Pastor, Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church (Elizabeth Presbytery, NJ)
Director of Colombia Programs for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship

19 August 2010

Being on the Left Side of History: Same-Sex Marriage and the Church

When I was a child in rural Mississippi, I would often ride in my father's pick-up with him as we surveyed the soybean crop on our family farm. On these long, bumpy drives, talk would inevitably lead to my father's favorite topic: constitutional law. He was a lawyer-turned-farmer who believed that the judicial branch can -- and often does -- represent the very best protection for civil rights in our society. Having grown up in Mississippi in an era when black Americans were systematically denied civil rights, he had seen firsthand the important role the courts could play in protecting minority groups.

One case that always came up in our talks was Brown v. Board of Education. According to my father, what made this decision so important was that it placed equal rights above popular opinion. This was a clear example of the judicial branch being more progressive than the general public. Yet looking back, almost all Americans now agree that the Brown decision was the morally correct one. By leaning to the “left” of public opinion, the court was on the “right” side of history.

My late father would have been proud, therefore, to read Judge Vaughn Walker's recent decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger that struck down California's Proposition 8. Just as my father’s generation fought over civil rights for black Americans, my generation is caught up in a battle over the right of same-sex couples to marry.

In many ways, Perry v. Schwarzenegger is remarkably similar to Brown v. Board Ed. In both cases, the question is whether separate institutions can be considered equal. Are civil unions for same-sex couples the fair equivalent of heterosexual marriage? Judge Walker’s decision demonstrates persuasively that they are not. His decision also identifies the bigotry at the heart of Prop 8: “The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”

In deciding this way, Judge Walker has positioned himself on the “left” side of the majority of California voters who enacted Prop 8 into law. However, it is also the “right” decision. I have little doubt that, 50 years from now, Americans will view Proposition 8 the same way that we now view racial segregation: as an embarrassing stain on our free society.

Sadly, Judge Walker is also on the left side of the Church. In our contentious fight over the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry and to become ordained, we have moved away from the radical inclusion that was so beautifully portrayed by the Apostle Paul: that in the Body of Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, free nor slave, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3).

In Paul’s time, these were dangerous words. They violated social codes that separated people into distinct hierarchies. Paul’s words were grounded in something greater: the transformative reality of Jesus’ love, which made unlikely relationships possible. How did that happen? By allowing individuals to see one another as God already sees them: as equal. This radical love is why Christians can be among the most accepting and loving people in the world.

Paul’s words are still dangerous affronts to bigotry. Only now, the Church is ignoring them. Every time a young candidate is rejected from the ordination process because of his or her sexual orientation, the Church is siding not only with the wrong side of history, but also with the wrong side of its own tradition. Ironically, we may have to look to the American courts to teach us about human rights, instead of looking into our own Bible, which speaks of human equality more powerfully than any secular court.

In a 2003 speech defending the rights of gay men and women, the late Coretta Scott King invoked her husband’s famous statement, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote those words, he was sitting in a Birmingham jail, fighting a two-pronged battle. On the one hand, he was fighting to end Jim Crow segregation laws. King’s second task, however, was even greater: to convince the majority of Americans that segregation was evil and had to be urgently opposed on moral grounds. King’s fiercest criticism was addressed to white religious leaders, who knew segregation was wrong and yet lacked the courage to act quickly and decisively to end it.

This is now the task of religious progressives. We still don’t know whether Judge Walker’s decision will affect only California, or will become national precedent. But whatever the court decides, religious progressives will face a greater challenge: to convince our sisters and brothers in the Church that gay rights are moral rights and deserve our urgent support. This second struggle is more difficult, but its fruits are greater and more lasting. Its goal is no less than Christian love, for all.

Jason Ferris
Certified Candidate in The New York City Presbytery, and
Documentary Filmmaker, New Orleans, LA

12 July 2010

General Assembly Reflections, Again from the Airport on the Way Home, July 9, 2010

I’ve started this reflection a few times now. These are my opening line options thus far:

“It feels good to sit in the sunlight – particularly after many hours in the chill of the Assembly Hall. Or were those just Spirit-stirred goosebumps?” (A little too sentimental.)

“The week isn’t done yet – there are still several issues to challenge us, and several hopes to reckon with – a wonder after all the significant actions of the 219th Assembly.” (A little too bland.)

“I like Chipotle. It’s fast, easy, tasty, and they aim to be socially responsible.” (A little too hungry.)

“Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ – a gentle suggestion: get your hands off God’s Church. It’s not yours to begin with. It’s time. Now. Let go and get out of the way. I’ll even be nice and say please.” (A wee bit abrupt.)

But I’m not going to start with any of those. Instead, I’ll just wonder at the fact that I’m sitting at the airport, heading home early, while a voice on the loudspeaker keeps saying, “Would the passenger who lost something at G-6 please come and reclaim your item.” Most anyone in the PC(USA) knows that G-6 (G-6.0106b, that is) has been at the center of our conversations for some time now. Whatever your perspective, I suspect most of us feel that we’ve lost something at G-6, and we’d like to get on with our journey.

Among its many actions, the 219th General Assembly is sending us back, once again, to G-6. New language has been recommended to the presbyteries, inviting us to set aside the much disputed language of “fidelity and chastity” for words that invite us to “submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”

This won’t be the only headline, however. Through a curious web of parliamentary process, the Assembly took no action on requests for amendment to the constitutional definition of marriage. At the same time, a motion was approved to allow non-ordained church employees to enroll same-gender domestic partners with the Board of Pensions.

The Middle East Task Force report was perhaps the most hotly challenged item going into the Assembly. Through a process of discernment, cross-passionate collaboration, and prayer, a report has been approved that seems to have been received well by all sides in the debate. Many folks have called this coming-together a miracle of the Spirit. No one is completely happy, mind you – and none of it is easy. (Take, for example, the somewhat confusing actions in a companion proposal, that on the one hand denounce the Caterpillar Corporation for its continued business relationship with Israel, yet on the other hand refuse to divest our holdings in the company.)

Measures were also adopted to speak out on gun violence, immigration reform, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. An entirely new Form of Government has been recommended. The Decade of the Child was reaffirmed. New ecumenical relationships have been endorsed. Committees have been reviewed. The Budget is being written.

God’s sustaining Spirit is always on display at GA. Commissioners and Advisory Delegates are carried through volumes of work in just a week’s time. In the thick of it, we see the best and worst of the Church. The politicking is real – witness the minister commissioner who was clearly working the floor with every controversial vote, going from mic to mic and person to person. The compassion is real, too – see the Young Adult Advisory Delegate crying after a vote, and being comforted by a nearby Elder.

There will be much discomfort in the Church because of this Assembly. More politicking. More crying. More nail-biting moments as we await the results of all the votes to come.

There will also be many opportunities to remember who we are as Presbyterians: people of forbearance, lovers of Scripture, students of Jesus and seekers of God’s will.

It isn’t our Church after all. I know I wasn’t going to mention that, but it’s true. The more tightly we grip the reins of the Church the more we struggle.

I am convinced that the Spirit is at work in the Church – and that none of the Assembly’s actions is outside of God’s ongoing work. I got a few too many goosebumps this week, and not just from the incessant air-conditioning.

Chipotle is good.
God is way better.
And we may yet find what we’ve lost.

Rev. Chris Shelton
Hudson River Presbytery

17 June 2010

Waters of Baptism, Waters of Life

For weeks now the waters of the Gulf have been despoiled by somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 barrels of oil a day gushing from a pipe a quarter of a mile deep in the ocean floor. The ruin to the ecosystem of the Gulf has been devastating. Not only has the fishing industry been stopped cold, but the ecosystem of four states has been ruined by the oil slicks and tarry residue that have soaked the marsh coastlands and beaches. The eggs of the blue fin tuna are covered with oil in the marshes of Louisiana. The oysters which are filter feeders cannot swim to avoid the slicks. It’s nesting season for the sea turtles, and they must come to the water’s surface to breathe, but this year the surface is coated in oil and so are the turtles. Pelicans are laying eggs in crude soaked nests, and many are simply so soaked with oil that they cannot move, much less fly.

Clean, fresh, pure water is an essential element to life. But when the water is spoiled as it is in the Gulf, it ruins everything and endangers life. The water of baptism is a sacrament not simply because it represents a Jewish rite of purification used when Jesus himself was baptized, but because water is part of the foundation of life. It points to the goodness and love of the One who gave it to us.

I once asked a confirmation class of junior high kids who were discussing baptism how we use water. “You wash with it,” one girl said. Another said, “You drink it. Without water we couldn’t live.” One after another the kids came up with familiar uses of water, until one boy said, “It holds you up.” Puzzled by his answer, I asked, “What do you mean?” “The child answered, “It holds you up, you know, like when you’re floating on your back when you’re out on the water and the water buoys you up. It holds you up!” And then I realized what he was saying. The water of baptism not only sustains our life, it buoys us up.

Baptism is the ordination of the Spirit in the church, the blessing of the person who receives it by the One who gives it. We are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, and once that blessing has been received there is no taking it back. We are watermarked forever. It is the original ordination and the floodgate of Christian service. Ordination to the ministries of the church stream from the living waters of our baptism, including ordination to the offices of Elder, Deacon, and Minister of Word and Sacrament. As someone once, wisely said, “If they didn’t want me to answer the call to ministry, they shouldn’t have baptized me in the first place.”

The theme of this year’s General Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota (the land of 10,000 lakes) is, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38) As we approach the Assembly, once again we have an opportunity as a Church to filter the homophobia, fear, and misunderstanding from the living waters of baptism. There are overtures to remove G.6-0106b, overtures to support the recognition of same-gender marriage, and overtures to direct the Board of Pensions to include same-gender partners in the benefits plan of the PCUSA. These are all faithful approaches to purifying the waters, removing the oil slicks from the surface, and gathering up the sludge from the beachline and marshes of the Church’s life. I am hoping, praying, and working for the day when the Church buoys all of us up; supporting, celebrating, and honoring the call to love and serve God in the ordained ministries of the church without regard to sexual orientation. I hope and pray that this July, at the 219th General Assembly, “Out of believers hearts shall flow rivers of living water.”

The Rev. Dr. Jon M. Walton
Pastor, The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York

11 June 2010


i can still here them now

the older black women of my grandmother’s generation

miss waddell
miss rosie
ms. montez
ms. hemphill
cousin willie mae

as they visited with each other (it was never called gossip)

in their kitchens

front yards

beauty shops

porches (stoops were a northern thing in southern pines, nc)

sunday school classes

church socials

i can still here them now

the older black men of my grandmother’s generation

mr. waddell
mr. press
bad bill
mr. hemphill
monkey joe

as they sat and discussed (it was never called gossip—that was what the women did)

in the barber shop

under the tree of knowledge outside the barber shop

out in the front yard or side yard tinkering with their cars

after church

during the church socials

and with a history (and a present) that includes such vulgar spectacles as auction blocks and lynchings and pedestals

it is ludicrous for any of us

to believe for one second

that there is any possibility that we work toward the church inclusive
without recognizing the powers that shape the worlds in which we live

living in a shadow box does not recognize the richness of black cultures

because it resorts to collapsing black realities into postmodern minstrel shows

it seeks to freeze frame black life

without recognizing our humanity

or the rhythms and cadences of our living

and sadly, oh so sadly

many of these brutalized and brutalizing images have been internalized in black communities

and in the individual lives of black women and children and men

and in church

for far too many of us

daily life means skipping rope with paralyzing demons

that slip into an endless spiral of horizontal violence

without martin's dream or malcolm's nightmare

we are called to be in bone deep community

not the media-driven images of black living that trick all of us into
believing and/or living into grotesque stereotypes of black life

not the death-dealing images of success that trick us into thinking our
accomplishments are ours alone

not the mind-numbing bromides of racism, sexism, classim, heterosexism, homophobia, and militarism that include fear tactics, terrorist acts, bullying, lying, avoiding, fronting, and simply not giving a damn about anything but amassing power, getting your way, and piling up legacies

not the church, that when my uncle pete, who was dying from complications from aids, told my aunt to tell me to do his memorial service because he didn’t trust the church that loved him and raised him in his youth would love him in
his death

community, christian community is the place where the realities of diversity, difference, disagreement, harmony, hope, justice all exist

this is the place of morrison’s dancing mind

walker’s world in our eye

sanchez’s house of lions

danticat’s krik, krak

it is a place, that we should be building, life by life

to be an inclusive community we are called to

listen for the voices

accept the variety

allowing the voices within our communities

the young and the old

the lesbian and the gay

the propertied and the propertyless

the heterosexual and the celibate

the dark and the light

the bisexual and the transgender,

the female and the male

the conservative and the radical

the thoughtful and the clueless

all these and more

to have a full and authentic and valued place as we sort through how to lead and how to follow

realizing that there are many paths to freedom-and slavery-and death

we must tackle the gross iconization of our lives

that comes from the false dichotomy of sacred and profane in white western self- absorbed penile thought

i first learned about this body from the older black women in my life

and it was years before i realized that they were not just talking about my body

they included miss hemphill down the road

miss rosie across the street

miss montez around the corner

and cousin willie mae down by the juke house

my body was placed in a witness of women and men

who knew violation

enjoyed sex

moved with dignity

and shook from religious ecstasy

what they taught me was that to love myself was also to love God

not the other way around

because to love myself meant that i really accepted that i am made in God’s image

they crafted a community of healing that was a refuge of loving women and men

to heal a scarred throat

or bruised knuckles

or brutalized body

all those women and men are gone now

but what they left me with is the deep knowledge that the community they created and gifted me with

must be re-created by caring for others and caring for myself

but it takes the strong and the weak together who will refuse to accept inept silence or self-abnegating sacrifice as healthy, vital ministry

who will hold themselves accountable to the spirit

who will choose to live rather than die

because silence suffocates when it is prompted from violence and fear

and this is a truly slow and obscene death

yes, i can still hear them

those old black folk who raised me

loved me

and taught me

that the true church is bigger than anything you and i can imagine and as wide as god’s eye

and you and i must keep a-working

because God will not let us stop

and that God gifts us with an enduring faith

and an outright colored stubbornness that simply will not stop until justice comes

no just us

but for all of us

who live here

way down under the sun

Dr. Emilie M. Townes

03 June 2010

Living Waters

Peace be with you all, as you begin the patient journey towards your 219th General Assembly, and hopefully also to greater inclusion within the PCUSA. Our journey together, towards a church where the LGBT community has a full and accepted place is proving a rather long one, and the obstacles on the road are many. They include, but are not limited to– prejudice, homophobia, misunderstanding, cultural mores– the list goes on.

But on thinking of your theme, of living waters, I am reminded of many happy days I had as a young boy in the Scottish hills, next to burns (streams) that bubble and meander down hillsides. As a young lad, camped next to a burn for a picnic I would try and find enough large stones to build a dam – just to see if I could beat nature, and stop the flow of the water. Of course, one can’t.

However large the stone, however well it seems to fit the makeshift dam, much to the frustration of this young boy, the water found a way through. Even the advice of parents that the odds could not be beaten, didn’t put me off trying. Mind, sometimes that determination can serve one well in life.

The Spirit of Christ is much the same. People, institutions, those with privilege they want to keep, put all kinds of barriers in the way of its progress, but in the end its futile. The Spirit always finds a way through the obstacles we put in its way.

The church universal has a long history of not being able to deal with the radical inclusivity of Christ, but in the end it gets there. Like water, the Spirit of God will not be deterred from her purpose, and we arrive at a day when all members of our churches are loved and valued, and hearts are truly opened to the love and compassion of Christ.

I leave you with the verse of a hymn written by Helen Kennedy,

Lord, how I thirst, my Lord i am weak.
Lord, come to me, you alone do I seek.
Lord, you are life and love and hope,
Come, fill me with living water.

The Rev. Scott M. Rennie
Minister, Queen's Cross Parish Church of Scotland