In one of the surprise successes of the 2009 Pride season, some sixty men and women turned out in equal numbers Wednesday night July 22 to talk about faith and sexuality, pain and healing, abuse and inclusion by the Christian church. For over two hours they talked with each other, Anglican Canon Dr. Knolly Clarke, and Roman Catholic Fr. Clyde Harvey. The two priests have led efforts at pastoral care and understanding on behalf of the GLBT community. The event brought to a close a Pride month series of discussions in the Friends for Life “Chatroom” on spirituality and sexuality, aimed at setting in motion community efforts to create an interfaith worship service for the community in late August.
The diverse crowd, ages 20 to 50, included a journalist, a former seminarian, a bisexual man, someone living with HIV, someone who spends most of her free time in church, a TV personality, an unemployed young person, a Spiritual Baptist, the child of a Jehovah’s Witness, a woman who said she sees God when she eats pussy, among others. In over two hours of conversation, powerful words and experiences were shared on all sides.
Jesus became human in order to show us how to do so, Rev. Clarke opened by saying. Fr. Harvey, who arrived later, would echo those same words, saying a common mistake is the idea that God is a reward for being good, when the Gospel is in fact a gospel of grace in our imperfection. Both priests shared a vision of creating healing worship communities that allow people to be free to live out their true selves instead of “playing a mas”, to take care of each other, and to challenge each other to grow. They talked about how fundamentalism uses the Bible as a weapon to inflict spiritual violence.
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Dr. Clarke criticized the fragmentation and concern with “How it go look?” in both society and the Church, and repeatedly advised the GLBT participants of the need to join larger struggles for justice with old people, people in poverty, the people one participant pointed out had electrified its fence to keep out – “if you are serious about affirming yourselves and seeking justice”. Talking about his own work for justice with the labour movement, he invited GLBT groups to join FITUN, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs, saying the umbrella group includes people of all sexual orientations.
Fr. Harvey focused on the problem of sexual meaning, reflecting how modern societies struggle with a loss of faith in relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual. He warned that a key problem with the acceptance of gay men is not about relationships, but the discomfort people have imagining gay male sexuality. He challenged the group: “How do we live our sexuality in such an enriching way that people look at us and say, ‘That’s such a deeply wonderful way of being human.’?” How many of us ask, he wondered, when we meet somebody we like: ‘Where is this person hurting most? What can I affirm and what needs to be healed?’ “If we start off that way, we might get somewhere,” he added.
Both priests agreed that the modern Church has allowed 80% of its morality to be about sex; whereas for Jesus it was perhaps 5% or less.
But they also agreed that “in the end healing has to come from you” and pushed back against the idea of the “clericalization” of the work of healing, repeatedly urging participants to use the skills in their own community to build opportunities for liberation and recovery from spiritual violence.
Some participants found that message hard to swallow, expressing the concern that, given the absence of support mechanisms and a common sense among GLBT people that they are not worthy, that “some people are incapable of healing themselves”. “And the vast majority of us can’t think for themselves,” another person added. Organized religion is a powerful form of validation and belonging, they argued – “We want to be regular.”
“What can you offer us in the Bible to hold on to?” others continued (which prompted a joke about using the book as a flotation device). “If you’re looking for a scripture to say being Lesbian is okay, you’re not going to find it” was the response. Instead, the priests offered, the scriptures provide a wonderful vision of a God who is all things and says I love you as you are. The New Testament gospels are clear, Harvey noted, “The only people God doh like is hypocrites.” Several comments by participants themselves challenged the accuracy of the application of some of the Old Testament verses, especially the story of Sodom, traditionally used to denounce homosexuality.
The clergymen were also realistic that while some church members with social capital will be able to make change in their churches, it depends on who the pastor is and whether the pastor is “free” enough to challenge their congregation. There is such an “overload of prejudice” that it’s not going to disappear “just so”, they cautioned.
Some of the youngest participants had the most difficult stories. One young woman asked if she was going to hell, and spoke of her struggles with self-mutilation. Another spoke of her fears that leaving an abusive church would be abandoning younger GLBT people in the congregation whom she protects.
Two messages stood out as the session came to a reluctant close. Fr. Harvey reminded the group that sometimes the work of making change can be prophetic, and those involved in it may not be the ones who enjoy the full fruits of it. And he suggested that building a genuine, authentic faith community may be more important than worrying about a relationship with the church. If you do the former, he said, “the worship thing will come.”
To find out more about August’s worship service, to join the community choir being formed to sing at it, or to help organize the event, call or text 758-7676.