21 May, 2012

Open letter to Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori,

Nicole, I and our daughter Hannah have been members of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Eugene, Oregon, since 1999. Since then, we have had the pleasure of serving as Lay Eucharistic Ministers, teaching Sunday School, serving on the Vestry and the pastoral care team. Several years ago, St. Mary's Vestry voted to become a welcoming congregation, and we joined the Community of Welcoming Congregations, a statewide organization in Oregon representing approximately 125 interdenominational congregations who welcome LGBTQ people of faith. Victoria is currently Co-Chair of their Board of Directors.

(Incidentally, we're also quite proud here in Oregon to claim you as our own and, well, Corvallis is really close to Eugene, right?!)

President Obama's statement last week in favor of same-sex marriage equality was obviously historic. Yesterday's NAACP vote to support it was no less so, particularly in light of the strongly divergent opinion on this matter held by many in the black churches nationwide. In the wake of these historic events, it is time for the leadership of the national faith communities to make a stand in favor of the freedom to marry and, as chief pastor of our Episcopal Church, we call upon you to stand up and make a public proclamation in favor of marriage equality.

We much enjoyed your Huffington Post interview published March 27, 2012. You certainly imply support for the direction the marriage equality movement is heading, and you pointedly mention the possible (probable?) adoption of same-sex blessing rites at this summer's General Convention. Thank you for that. It's not enough. Please let us make two points about why.

First, our home church St. Mary's is a fairly liberal church, but that's not what we like best about it. What we like best is that we are a mix of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, LGBTQ folks and those people in the congregation who have still never quite accepted that we are an openly welcoming congregation. Those folks aren't that comfortable with Nicole and I. But you know what? They still come to the table with us every week. They cook pancakes beside us on Shrove Tuesday, and we recite the Nicean Creed in unison. Holding that tension is the beauty of the Episcopal Church.

Secondly, we were riding back from Portland to Eugene last night, having a long conversation with a mostly secular LGBTQ activist. She wanted to know where the mainline Christian national leadership is. We immediately jumped in to defend everything our churches are doing on a grassroots level, and remind her that the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon has publically come out in favor, both in print and by marching in Portland's Gay Pride parade. She said, "No, I mean the NATIONAL church. If they care about social justice, where ARE they?" And we had to sit back for a minute because we realized, that in trying to support the range of opinions within the Episcopal Church, you've been tacitly silent in failing to make a true, affirmative statement. As our friend reminded us, failing to make a stand can be nothing short of complicity.

In our political climate, where the religious right is controlling the moral arguments in the press, we are consistently hearing only from secular supporters in favor of marriage equality. Marriage is civil right, a human right and a sacrament. The national Episcopal Church through it's various efforts devotes years of staff time and millions of dollars defending the human rights of people around the world. It's part of our Episcopal Christian mission. We know we don't like to take political stands in the Episcopal Church, but defending the human rights of oppressed minorities is an Episcopal imperative. It's time to tend to the rights of our own house, here in our own country.

The Episcopal people look to you for moral guidance. While we maintain the support of our members to form their own political party views, pastorally there is in fact a moral imperative when it comes to human rights. Most Rev. Jefferts Schori, it's time to stand with us publically and declare unequivocal support for the freedom to marry.

I've attached below an article from CNN's Belief Blog written by an Episcopal professor of law. He makes the argument that Peter handled the first major crisis in the emerging Christian Church (if non-Jews should be "let in" and, if so, whether adult men should be circumcised) by supposing that the old law of Leviticus essentially didn't apply to all people, equally, at all times. If that's the case, if the man who walked and talked and dined with Jesus could suppose such a thing, how much more so can we assume that the Leviticus condemnation of LGBTQ is inapplicable now. It's an argument I've never heard quite that way, in quite that context, and I hope you find it as fascinating and compelling as we have.

Thank you so much for taking your valuable time to read a lengthy email. May you have a blessed day.

My Take: The Christian case for gay marriage
Editor's Note: Mark Osler is a Professor of Law at the University of St.
Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
By Mark Osler, Special to CNN

I am a Christian, and I am in favor of gay marriage. The reason I am for
gay marriage is because of my faith.

What I see in the Bible’s accounts of Jesus and his followers is an
insistence that we don’t have the moral authority to deny others the
blessing of holy institutions like baptism, communion, and marriage.
God, through the Holy Spirit, infuses those moments with life, and it is
not ours to either give or deny to others.

A clear instruction on this comes from Simon Peter, the “rock” on whom
the church is built. Peter is a captivating figure in the Christian
story. Jesus plucks him out of a fishing boat to become a disciple, and
time and again he represents us all in learning at the feet of Christ.

During their time together, Peter is often na├»ve and clueless – he is a
follower, constantly learning.

After Jesus is crucified, though, a different Peter emerges, one who is
forceful and bold. This is the Peter we see in the Acts of the Apostles,
during a fevered debate over whether or not Gentiles should be baptized.
Peter was harshly criticized for even eating a meal with those who were
uncircumcised; that is, those who did not follow the commands of the Old

Peter, though, is strong in confronting those who would deny the
sacrament of baptism to the Gentiles, and argues for an acceptance of
believers who do not follow the circumcision rules of Leviticus (which
is also where we find a condemnation of homosexuality).

His challenge is stark and stunning: Before ordering that the Gentiles
be baptized Peter asks “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing
these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

None of us, Peter says, has the moral authority to deny baptism to those
who seek it, even if they do not follow the ancient laws. It is the
flooding love of the Holy Spirit, which fell over that entire crowd,
sinners and saints alike, that directs otherwise.

It is not our place, it seems, to sort out who should be denied a bond
with God and the Holy Spirit of the kind that we find through baptism,
communion, and marriage. The water will flow where it will.

Intriguingly, this rule will apply whether we see homosexuality as a sin
or not. The water is for all of us. We see the same thing at the Last
Supper, as Jesus gives the bread and wine to all who are there—even to
Peter, who Jesus said would deny him, and to Judas, who would betray him.

The question before us now is not whether homosexuality is a sin, but
whether being gay should be a bar to baptism or communion or marriage.

The answer is in the Bible. Peter and Jesus offer a strikingly inclusive
form of love and engagement. They hold out the symbols of Gods’ love to
all. How arrogant that we think it is ours to parse out stingily!

I worship at St. Stephens, an Episcopal church in Edina, Minnesota.
There is a river that flows around the back and side of that church with
a delightful name: Minnehaha Creek. That is where we do baptisms.

The Rector stands in the creek in his robes, the cool water coursing by
his feet, and takes an infant into his arms and baptizes her with that
same cool water. The congregation sits on the grassy bank and watches, a
gentle army.

At the bottom of the creek, in exactly that spot, is a floor of smooth
pebbles. The water rushing by has rubbed off the rough edges, bit by
bit, day by day. The pebbles have been transformed by that water into
something new.

I suppose that, as Peter put it, someone could try to withhold the
waters of baptism there. They could try to stop the river, to keep the
water from some of the stones, like a child in the gutter building a
barrier against the stream.

It won’t last, though. I would say this to those who would withhold the
water of baptism, the joy of worship, or the bonds of marriage: You are
less strong than the water, which will flow around you, find its path,
and gently erode each wall you try to erect.

The redeeming power of that creek, and of the Holy Spirit, is
relentless, making us all into something better and new.

For Immediate Release

Contact:     Rev. Tara Wilkins
503-665-8741 (office)
503-484-3609 (cell)

PRESS RELEASE______________________________________________________

May 10, 2012

Faith Leaders around the State Applaud President Obama’s support of the Freedom to Marry

(GRESHAM, OREGON) -  Faith leaders today celebrate President Obama’s announcement of his view on the freedom to marry.  "The President's support for marriage equality is not just good news for the same-sex couples in our congregation as well as this community and throughout our nation, it is good news for all members of God's family concerned about equal rights for their brothers and sisters regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity," said the Rev. Dr. Daniel E. H. Bryant, Senior Minister,
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Eugene. As a person of faith, I am grateful to President Obama for coming out this week on the side of marriage equality.  In our church we look forward to celebrating the day when all families, straight and LGBTQ, will share the same human rights”, states the Reverend Pamela Shepherd of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ashland. 

Faith Leaders across tradition support President Obama’s evolution in his understanding of the freedom to marry for lesbian and gay couples.  Rabbi Michael Cahana, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland commented, “I am thrilled to see the President of the United States clearly endorse the values of faith commitment and marriage for all.” Likewise Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah celebrates, “I salute President Obama's clear support of marriage equality today. As a Rabbi I represent a tradition which celebrates the idea of evolving understanding. Religion is essentially the practice of doing kindness and justice.”

While some congregations oppose the freedom to marry, many congregations have been working for equality for years.  Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s The Right Reverend Bill Lupfer acknowledges that while President Obama states his support, we are not there yet.  “As a Cathedral community, we have been working towards marriage equality for some time and we are very pleased that President Obama is joining us in this effort.  We will continue to work and pray until marriage equality is available to all.”  Rabbi Debra Kolodny of P’nai Or concurs, “I welcome with delight and appreciation President Obama’s recognition that honoring the commitment of same sex couples with all of the rights and responsibilities that marriage entails is just, ethical and morally correct. I look forward to the day when I can serve as a msaderet kedushin, a wedding officiant, for couples in the state of Oregon, and have their civil status as a married couple be recorded.”

Faith leaders acknowledge the challenge of the widening of an understanding of marriage that includes lesbian and gay couples has been a journey.  People of faith in Oregon and Washington have been instrumental to both states enacting legislation that protects all citizens.  Measure 36 changed the Oregon State Constitution that now defines marriage in Oregon as between one man and one woman.   Support for marriage equality has grown since then.  Recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans, including the majority of Catholics now support the freedom to marry.  And earlier this year, Washington’s legislature voted for the freedom to marry.  The President’s statement is an important milestone and reflects the movement of the country.  “The idea that President Obama has "evolved" over the past few years to recognize that ALL Americans deserve to have their committed relationships recognized as Marriage is a momentous occasion for people of faith and those who love them,” states The Rev. Dennis j Parker from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

As the country shifts, so do denominational policies.  President Obama’s support sends a message that we are all equal.  “Our hope is that the President’s message of support of the freedom to marry will help set a tone that will lead to changes that help keep our LGBT children safer and that will protect all families from discriminatory practices,” states the Reverend Tara Wilkins, Executive Director of the Community of Welcoming Congregations and a United Church of Christ minister.

The Rev. Bill Sinkford, former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association now senior minister at First Unitarian Church in Portland declares, “President Obama’s personal support for Marriage Equality is historic. I celebrate his conclusion, but I also appreciate the candor with which he describes the development of his opinion over time. There can be no more hopeful news than that change is possible, even for our President...even for us all.”

Rabbi Ariel concludes, “God created each of us in the Divine Image, and created in us many diverse ways of being. As we mature as a human race, may we continue to deepen our respect for all the forms of love which bless us.”

The Community of Welcoming Congregations is an interfaith association of religious and spiritual communities who work for the full inclusion and equality of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning.  We represent more than 119 members of over 20 denominations and traditions.  For more information, see www.welcomingcongregations.org

12 January, 2012

Gay Rights, Civil Rights and Martin Luther King Jr.

This weekend across the United States - churches, civil organizations and non-profits will provide various opportunities to celebrate and honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King is a spiritual hero of mine, and having been inducted into the (MLK) Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in 2009 remains a humbling honor and thrilling highlight of my life.  
One of the ways I've traditionally celebrated MLK Day has been to attend the local MLK Celebration at one of the larger African American churches in town.  They hold an annual festival, traditionally broadcasted on local public radio.  It is an all day gospel extravaganza featuring amazing music, speeches and special presentations.  I truly enjoy it.  
However, I am not sure that I'll attend this year.  Due to a flurry of recent events I've begun to reflect even more deeply on Dr. King's Dream and how we celebrate it today.  I recently learned that the minister of the church that puts on this event has been reported to have included anti-gay messages in his sermons.  The news came on the heels of my heavy involvement in posting comments on a series of blogs about the role of the Black Church regarding fight for Equal Rights in the LGBTQ community.  
It all started when my friend Monique Ruffin posted an article on Huffington Post entitled "It's Official, Gay is the New Black."  Needless to say the article caused quite a stir.  I chose to become involved in several comment threads both on the blog site and on Facebook, and what became clear is that the black church community is divided on the issue of Gay Rights/Marriage Equality.  This was not news to me - but rather a topic of sincere curiosity.  
You see, I serve on the board for The Community of Welcoming Congregations and we have experienced a struggle to have any meaningful involvement or support from leaders in the black church community on this very important civil rights issue.  I struggle to understand why.
Now, let me say up front that the generalization of "the black church community" is a difficult one to make.  Across the nation I know African American clergy and church leaders who are on the side of LGBTQ Equality.  I am fortunate enough to call Bishops Carlton D. Pearson and Yvette Flunder among those friends and allies.  But by and large the majority of the "black church community” (by which, I mean traditionally evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal, Holiness, and Non-denominational African American congregations) do not take a favorable, and in some cases takes an actively adversarial, position on Gay Rights.  
Yet, the NAACP* and the late Coretta Scott King have taken a stand for LGBTQ Equality, deeming it the civil rights issue of our day.   So why then are so many black churches (not all) either silent or adversarial to the cause?
This seems to be the case for (at least) 2 reasons: 
1. Theology - "for the Bible tells me so"... many black churches, just like many white churches - believe that scripture is clear on the subject of homosexuality and that it is a sin.  
This issue is really a “red herring” - I'll address it in a post at the end of the month on Equality Sabbath, Jan. 29th.  For now, I'll refer you to the words of Bishop John S. Spong on this topic in one of my previous posts (Bishop Spong's Manifesto).

 The arguments used here are the same used in all-white churches - or any church that fights (actively or passively) against Marriage Equality.  Assuming we are able to agree to disagree on scriptural interpretation, the issue at hand is that of Civil Rights - not religious ones.
2. Cultural tradition "Don't usurp The Civil Rights Movement!" ... it seems that many are upset at the perceived effort by the gay community to usurp the original intent of the movement thereby diminishing the focus on equality issues that remain in the black community.  Certainly there are still issues of inequity and discrimination which affect the African American community as a whole.  But does the recognition of this fact warrant the apparent silence from the black church when it comes to the discrimination of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters?  (Are they mutually exclusive issues?)  It was Dr. King that taught us that silence in the face of oppression and discrimination is just as much a sin as the behavior of the opressor.  
An argument could be made that "occasion and context informs intent."  Under this lens the Civil Rights movement rose from the extreme inequities and moral injustices facing African Americans and thus the intent of the movement was to right the wrongs of civil injustice.  But Dr. King and those around him did more than seek to right the wrongs of the current conditions.  Dr. King had a Dream.  A dream that we would as a nation “rise up and live out the true meaning of our creed, that all men are created equal.” He called us to the high American moral standards of Equality and Justice for ALL.   And while his message began with boycotts of buses and sit-ins at lunch counters (righting wrong conditions) - his intent clearly expanded over the years to include speaking out on issues of justice for immigrant farm workers, economic injustices and the moral efficacy of the vietnam war.  Yes, Dr. King understood that context gives rise to message - but he also powerfully understood that what emerges from this is Principle.  If a Principle is to have any validity at all - it must transcend the context from which it was uncovered, and be applicable in others.  
There are those who would say, and have done so on the blog threads,  that the plight of the LGBTQ community cannot come under the banner of the Civil Rights Movement because they do not have the history of 300 years of oppression, slavery and discrimination.  There are those who would say, "it is not the same" because black folks can't "blend-in" the way gay folks can.  
But how much discrimination must a people endure to qualify?  How much suffering does it take?  Must the discrimination be visible for all to see?  Isn't hidden racism and discrimination just as insidious as the visible kind?   
Dr. King called on us to transcend labels and understand that at our core we are all human beings, and for that fact alone are deserving of basic rights and equal treatment under the law.   The black church community has traditionally been the champion of both the Civil Rights Movement and the "Keepers of the Dream" of Dr. King.  Now, the LGBTQ community is calling the champions of equality and justice for all to come to their aide.  But rather than pick up the phone and answer the call, many leaders of back church community seem to let the call go straight to voicemail - with an outgoing message saying: "we're sorry, we can't take your call right now, our theology won't let us."  
Dr. King taught us that the church, white or black, has a role in the social sector.  That role is to stand up for the oppressed and discriminated and to call on our political leaders to remember the inherent dignity of all human beings when shaping public policy.  
"The church should be the headlights rather than the tail lights on loving first, best and most, all people inclusively.”  - Bishop Carlton D. Pearson
Dr. King’s Dream of Equality has always been a call to action, to rise to the occasion of our most honorable intentions toward one another, whether or not we are in agreement and whether or not we even like one another.  The Dream of equal treatment under the law is not reserved for just one people.  
Dr. King’s Dream is for everyone. 


- Rev. David Alexander is senior minister at New Thought Center for Spiritual Living (www.newthoughtcsl.org) and serves on the Board of Directors for CWC.