Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chip Stains & Grease

I’m going to tell a story, and I’m going to try to make it as brief as possible. As is, you may need to print this out and curl up in a chair to make it through.

Know that at each bend in this story I could sit you down, pour us a cup of coffee and add layers & details & depth to that chapter. Eventually, perhaps I will. But for now, I mean to move us along the path at a steady, if not rapid pace, to address a more current plotline.

To start at the beginning, I was not raised in the Church. And, while my family was not a model of diversity (I grew up around your standard, off-color jokes), my siblings and I were raised to welcome all people, and not to stand in judgement of others.

I was not raised in a bubble, but when I began to follow Christ in high school, I had a bubble built around me by his well-intentioned Church. “Don’t listen to that music.” “Don’t associate with those people.” “Keep yourself pure.” “Oh be careful little ears what you hear.”

Our failure to listen was not limited to those outside the Church, but even to those within our own congregation. When we took mission trips to Houston and Mexico, we were required to learn songs and phrases in Spanish so that we could lead others to Christ. Our large, wealthy, white church “sponsored” a Hispanic congregation that gathered in a small building right behind our large facility. Yet in the weeks and months leading up to our trips, we failed to utilize the greatest resource we had – our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we shared tithes and a sense of place. Rather than practicing our conversations with our Spanish-speaking sisters, we ignored their very existence. Rather than learning songs and stories from our Spanish-speaking brothers, we went on as if we did not need them.

In college, I was introduced to one of my greatest heroes of faith, John Perkins. Ignored, oppressed, beaten, this man did the unthinkable and returned to the community that had abused him to live out grace. From him I learned the importance of planting yourself in a place. The reality, that some of us have a position of privilege that could be used for oppression whether we realize it or not. I learned that I don’t have to be ashamed because I have resources and connections that others may not, but I do have to be aware – and that I can not help others by swooping in from the outside, dumping my resources upon them and retreating back to my safe place. Change occurs when I become a part of a people, when I willfully place myself in a position of learner, and give the powerless the place of teacher (even here, I have the luxury of being the one to choose to relinquish power, and that is not lost on me), to bring my resources to the community not as I would have them used, but as those who need them would see the best usage.

One summer in college I lived and worked in the Mississippi Delta, and I had the opportunity to put some of Dr. Perkins’ teachings into practice. My summer missions partner and I attended the white congregation in town only one Sunday – that was enough for us to realize we did not belong there. Several of the children we were working with at the community center attended a small country church where the pastor drove in every Sunday morning to preach. The only things whiter than us in that church were the dresses and hair clasps the little girls wore, and yet we felt at home. A visiting congregation came into town to put on a Vacation Bible School at the community center, and one of the songs they lead the children in was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”. At our debriefing meeting that day, I commended the group for all of the fun the kids seemed to be having. I also took the time to explain why “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” may be an inappropriate song for this community of children, and perhaps it could be replaced with something more appropriate. After all, when the black households sit, literally, on the other side of the tracks and are still referred to as “the Quarters” and given that the Hispanic children’s parents are primarily (if not exclusively) migrant farm workers, singing about the “land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride” may not hold any significance for them. Later the pastor was sure to corner me in my office and reprimand me harshly for questioning his authority in front of his team. Who was I to tell him how best to lead a service?

As a single, twenty-something female in the Church, I was given leadership responsibilities, but not leadership rights. In my college/career group at the congregation where I attending youth group, I was asked to be a part of planning committees and focus groups. Every time we would be asked what we wanted from our classes and activities, and I would express a desire for more depth – perhaps studying spiritual disciplines? I was not alone in wanting to go deeper. Every time what we got was another round of “Song of Solomon” sex-is-great-in-marriage talks and cheesy Christian comedy coffeehouse nights no one wanted to attend, much less extend invitations to friends. It was becoming clear that I would be seen as nothing more than a raging ball of hormones who needed wholesome church-designed activities in which to meet a husband and corral my sexual tendencies. Then I could graduate to the adult classes and learn about being a good wife.

I was weary and burnt out from struggling to find my place in the Church, so when an opportunity to be a part of building a new congregation presented itself, I took my time but eventually decided it was time to make a move. I served that congregation for years as a lay leader, watching it grow and building lasting relationships with individuals and families. But it also became clear over the years that something was not right. As one person, older and wiser than me, observed – people were drawn in because of a leader, and people left because of that same leader. While at a young adult conference out of town, my eyes were opened to how deep some of the tensions and wounds were, as person after person sat me down and bent my ear, sharing stories about concerns and hurts they had. People felt helpless, but they felt like they could say something to me. I realized that I was in a unique position – I was in a position to listen to their voices, and I was in a position to communicate with the leader who needed to be aware of these concerns. Against my natural inclination, I decided to step up and try to initiate a conversation. Fast forwarding through the efforts and the exhaustion, my eyes were open. This leader had no desire to hear the concerns, and received them as a personal attack. The elders insisted that any concerns go directly to the leader, and not to them, and that they were there to support him. It was his church, after all.

Shell-shocked, I spent about six months outside of any formal gathering of the Church, wondering if I had any place there, wondering if I could learn to trust community again. Luckily, I did eventually take friends up on their invitation and found myself in the midst of a unique congregation, a congregation where I was equally comfortable raising my hands in worship and voicing difficult, daring questions. It was while there that I took the opportunity to attend the Great Emergence conference in Memphis, and was given a glimpse of what it looks like to share my voice. Granted, I was sharing my written voice, but blogs and webzines still grant you a certain degree of protection and anonymity. While in the lunch buffet line, the towering Doug Pagitt invited me and my friend to join him at his table. Not being one to deny a request to people twice my size, we found ourselves sharing a meal with several strangers, most of whom fit a common theme – we were all lay leaders, most with a past of hurt or rejection in the Church. The question was inevitable – why are you here? You’re not a pastor, you’re not paid staff – why did you travel to this conference, why did you choose to be a part of this conversation?

Before we really knew what was happening, we were being asked to participate in a panel immediately following lunch. None of us jumped at the opportunity, but slowly it became a compromise of “I will if you will.” We soon found ourselves exposed, perched atop stools across the stage in front of a packed sanctuary, microphones in hand. And people were asking us questions. They wanted to hear our stories. They wanted to hear our voices. We were not the pastors. We were not the elders (or even the elders’ wives). Why are you here? What does being a part of the Church mean to you? What do you have to say?

Later, the organizers of the Great Emergence would conceive of another conference, C21, which would bring the voices of female leaders to the forefront. Much like the type of community development Dr. John Perkins had taught me about years before, here was people in a position of power, with resources and connections, willingly placing themselves under the teaching of those whose voices are often silenced or ignore, redistributing what they had to help others who have the message but not the means to get it out there. And this was not a women’s conference, by women for women to talk about things only stereotypical women would care about. Much like the general conferences so many of us attend where the featured speakers are primarily, if not exclusively, white men, this was a conference for everyone – but it was a conference where the voices of women were highlighted. Why are you here? What does being a part of the Church mean to you? What do you have to say?

Yesterday, my friend Jules issued a challenge to those emergent leaders who are allies to lgbtq brothers and sisters in the Church. Come along side us, bring your resources and your connections so that we can have an opportunity to share our voices. Not as the token lesbian or transgender who may be asked to present on a panel and give our point-of-view on an issue of sexuality or gender equality, but as a member of the Body of Christ with a powerful perspective to share on faith. We have a message, and as someone who acknowledges that, help us with the means. Willingly become the listener, and ask us: Why are you here? What does being a part of the Church mean to you? What do you have to say?

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Beautiful story--thank you for offering it. Funny, I can almost see Doug in my minds eye when you tell the story from Memphis (incidentally my first "emergent/emergence" event). And I have no doubt whatsoever that they will continue to stir things up like you have experienced.