Church and Social Justice for Gays

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Integer 26 (1979): 7-9.

© 1979 by Integer; © 2004 by Louie Crew

Beware of too much show of piety. True religion is made of much stronger stuff. For example, suppose a lesbian sister or a gay male brother is trapped in self-hatred manifested through alcoholism, obesity, or other compulsions, and one of us says,"Good luck to you, honey; get yourself together and be healthy" but does nothing to supply the patient, loving, and generous friendship needed by the sister or brother; what is the good of our words? So with faith, if it does not lead to action, it is in itself a lifeless thing. (See James 1: 15-17)

Lesbian and gay male Christians are called to demonstrate our love for all, not just for those most like ourselves. Everyone of us knows, or could know, a disturbed sister or brother who could be helped ever so much even by our simplest acts of caring--a friendship card, an invitation to lunch, a drive in the countryside together to marvel at autumn's arrival, perhaps even a stop-over to visit some older gays in a hospital or nursing home. Yet too few of us even bother to try to locate our people isolated in such institutions.

The needy are all about us just waiting for us to allow God to be visible in our own countenances. An Integrity member wrote last week asking for our prayers for her close friend whose mother recently committed suicide. The mother, infirm and old, was despondent over her daughter's refusal to come live with her; the daughter loved her mother deeply but had not found a way to explain that she had a lover with whom she shared her living space.

Last month for almost two hours I held in my lap and arms a 33-year-old priest as he wept over the dissolution of his 10-year relationship with his lover. "Louie," he said as some of the hurt began to flush, "I have wanted so much just to have someone try to understand. Since at my job at the boys' school they couldn't be allowed to know about the relationship in the first place, certainly they are not understanding the complete trauma which I have been going through, all the more viciously because so damnably alone!" Alone in the church which he serves as a priest, mind you; suffering de facto excommunication from his bishop, a pastor pastorum indeed! We are called not just to sing together, to kneel together, to dance together, but also to hold one another through the long night.

Easily groups gathered for the noblest purposes can lose this vision, especially when they begin to function like clubs. The Episcopal Church seems especially plagued with classism. Without trepidation most of us are wont to brag too gladly, I think, that Episcopalians enjoy more than our fair share of influence in the seats of power, here and abroad. In far too many cases, we try to ignore that we even have poor people who are Episcopalians. Most of our poor and other outsiders are shunted into what we call "missions" (a term we use very unlike the respectful way that missions preoccupied the early Church).

For the last eight years I have personally lived in two small towns, one in South Carolina and the other in Georgia, each of which had two parishes, one an all-white group with full "parish" status and a second, black "mission" with me as the only nonblack member. That pattern is repeated not only in small towns across the nation, but also in neighborhoods in big cities, where often rich parishes are no more than a 10-minute walk from poor "missions."

Integrity itself has sometimes shown similar snobbery and insensitivity. Some chapters have even tried to limit the publicity so as to attract only the "better sort of people"; and others are careful to keep their agenda restricted so as not to attract intellectual "riffraff with disturbing ideas." I was once told by a convener with a straight face (even if his nose was red from his fourth margarita) that I could not help Integrity at all if I failed to wear Brooks Brothers suits. Some of our chapters have planned such elegant social events at so high a minimum individual cost that they are assured that folks unlike themselves will not even want to be present. The lover of one convener explained to me in the candlelight of their elegant dining room once: "Louie, we're so glad that you don't bring Ernest [my spouse who happens to be black and a hairdresser] as our people would find that kind of thing very difficult."

Often our snobbery as Episcopalians is exacerbated by excessive veneration of our hierarchy, either by the laity or by the clergy and the episcopate itself. Christ's model of ministry as lowly servitude is often completely obscured in all but our most symbolic language. Sometimes I think that we would do well to reinstitute foot-washing in our parishes, with priests and deacons busy with some strong soap, warm water, and a towel that might clarify afresh what we have forgotten in our birettas, our fancy embroidery, and our precious pectorals.

Instead, we often have the spectacle of our hierarchy sitting as at the Last Judgment, rather than at merely the most recent one, as in Denver. While denying the sacrament of Holy Orders to all but the most perverse (i.e., self- hating) lesbian and gay male Christians, the House of Bishops stressed in Denver: "Every ordinand is expected to lead a life which is a wholesome example to all people." Is not every Christian expected to live such an exemplary life? If our loving, caring Christian commitments to one another disqualify us for Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony, should not we also be excommunicated and denied baptism and last rites? Of course, one does not have to listen to them long before noticing that they have never knowingly gotten close enough to us to know about our loving, caring Christian commitments to one another; they are so genitally obsessed that they readily miss seeing our whole personhood, our very integrity itself.

Mine are harsh accusations, to be sure. Our mission is not a sentimental one:

I have come not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.... No person is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me.... No person is worthy of me who does not take up her own cross and walk in my footsteps. (Matt. 10: 34-38)
The nuclear family is fissionable, and the destruction of the nuclear family is at the heart of Christ's calling of lesbians and gay males to loyalties higher than those of familial tranquility. Christ likens our struggle with our families--and surely God knows how intense such struggles often are for those of us who are lesbians and gay males--to Christ's own struggle at Calvary.

Of course, we lesbians and gay males are not by ourselves in finding the struggle a lonely one. Kilmer Myers, the Bishop of California, told me recently: "Louie, I think I can understand a bit the kinds of rejection lesbians and gay men face. Many of my own brother bishops now no longer speak to me; people whom I think of as my friends now look away when I approach, to express their resentment of actions which I have taken prompted by my conscience as I study the Gospel."

By losing one 's life for my sake one will gain it! Karen Kobey, our convener in Madison, recently shared with me an account of her going with her new rector, Fr. Tom Woodward, to a meeting of area religious folks who did not know one another. When Karen's turn came to introduce herself, she said, "I am Karen Kobey from Integrity, the Gay Episcopal organization." When Fr. Woodward introduced himself, he too said, "I am Tom Woodward from Integrity, the gay Episcopal organization." He did not bother to add "I am straight" or "I am merely the advisor to Integrity" or "I am the new Episcopal chaplain on the University campus." Instead, Fr. Woodward momentarily suspended his protected status and took on our stigma with Karen. I remember when Fr. Tom Bowers once took a similar risk in embracing me most spectacularly at the kiss of peace as the two of us were at the front of huge St . Luke ' s in Atlanta, with all of the national liturgical leaders looking on and with all of them knowing that Tom was insightful enough to know how many others in such a gathering he hugged vicariously by hugging me. By thus risking their heterosexual reputations for Christ' s sake, the bold persons experience new dimensions to their identities in Christ. Instantly they come to know what it means to be a Christian, to minister to the least of these their sisters and brothers. They are judged under the law of freedom. In them mercy triumphs over judgment. (See James 2 : 12-13)

Ours is the tremendous privilege of loving our heterosexual neighbors into more such discoveries of their own wholeness. By contra$t, the official "pastoral" from Denver has little risk-taking at all, certainly no ministry, no dollar commitment behind its frantic claims to love us. Love is so simple that the bishops miss it while obsessed with their visions of our genital plumbing. I was shocked myself at the host of hustlers and prostitutes who paraded incessantly around the Convention Center in Denver, but perhaps those folk know their clientele fairly well.

I have formed you, and appointed you to be a light to all peoples, a beacon for the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring captives out of prison, out of dungeons where they lie in darkness.

God is not here addressing the country club. God is not here addressing the Democratic or Republican parties. God is not here addressing the intellectual academy. Instead, God is here addressing anyone who will heed, particularly the outcasts and other sufferers who can comprehend that God needs us to carry on the liberating mission begun in Christ. The average church-goer has never seen a dungeon outside of television or the movies, and wouldn't recognize a prison if she or he sped past one down an interstate. Perhaps with those of us who have never been altogether out of the shadow of such places, God can find those with ears to hear.

A lesbian priest at our own convention in Denver kept weeping uncontrollably in her joy at our communion as outcasts chosen by God. John Fortunato-Schwandt, one of our stalwarts from Washington, whispered to her at one point: "It may seem strange to you, but you are at a family reunion, and you just have not been to one before."

At another moment late one evening at our convention, Bob DeWitt, resigned but not retired Bishop of Pennsylvania, showed up with over a half dozen of the most conventional-looking folks in all Christendom to introduce them to what he called "the miracle of Lesbian music."

On the Sunday at the end of our convention, our member Fr. Rick Kerr concelebrated in his own parish with the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Burgess, in the presence of at least five other bishops. In a quiet dedication of a new community wing to the parish buildings, for the construction of which Rick had been the prime mover, Rick said that as a member of the gay community he had a particular interest in the Church's continuing thus to open its spaces to all sorts and conditions of persons, even as the parish had experienced much new life in its last decade of reaching out to its socially changing neighborhood. Rick's courageous identification was ignored by the concelebrants, except for the Presiding Bishop's slight tic at the time. The homilies which followed had been canned and hermetically sealed from any such clarity of human need, but one gay bishop did give me a huge hug at the coffee hour and another winked at me as I passed his pew after I had communicated.

I have formed you, God says to each of us, to open eyes that are blind, to bring captives out of prison.

Our task is enormous. May God give each of us the vision to complete this ministry of God's love. God bless you.


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