I missed everyone a few weeks ago when I was unable to come to Sunday’s worship due to illness. I know I missed a lot that day, including the conclusion to the 24 hour fast that raised over $7,000 for our food program! Our pastoral intern, Chris, was telling me about her Words of Grace that day, which included asking people in the church to raise their hands if there is someone in their life who thinks they are weird for going to church. She said just about everyone raised a hand. I know this would probably not be the case where I grew up in Missouri. Closer to the Bible Belt, it is much more of a cultural norm to go to church—or at least it was when I lived there. In fact, the people who would be considered weird would be the folks who didn’t go to a Protestant church.
It’s different here, of course. A person who identifies as queer once told me that, here in New York City, they had to come out to their queer friends as a Christian, which was almost as hard as coming out to straight/cis- friends as queer!
But even in this environment, I would hesitate to use the word “persecution” to describe how we are treated because of our faith. Interestingly enough, it was only when I encountered Christians from the South and the Bible Belt that I found American Christians really feeling persecuted for their faith. In September, I attended the Reconciling Ministries National Convocation—a gathering of United Methodist LGBTQ activists from around the country and around the world. I was coming to that gathering from The Church of the Village, where it is a given that we march in Pride every year and mention queer inclusion in just about every worship service. I was coming to that gathering from one of the most organized LGBTQ rights organizations in the United Methodist Church, where we just started publishing weekly stories of same-sex weddings performed by UMC clergy, mostly from our conference. I was coming from a state with legal same-sex marriage, from a city whose top contender for mayor six months ago was an out lesbian. Truly, I live in a Progressive Bible Belt.
Some people look at the clergy who are doing same-sex weddings in the New York Annual Conference and say, “How courageous!” And that is true. There is some risk to us. Technically, we could lose our jobs. We could be vilified for our actions. But, more likely, we will be held up as heroes by the many supporters who rally behind us in this movement.
It wasn’t until I stepped out of my progressive bubble at Convocation that I met people with real risk, real courage, and real persecution. Like the lay lesbian of color in a white Texas church who has decided to start speaking out about her sexuality and her own church’s welcome or lack thereof. Or the straight couple in Tennessee with a lesbian daughter who agitate constantly—alone—for their church to be a comfortable place for their daughter to visit. Or the pastor of a welcoming Southern congregation whose church provides sanctuary to hundreds of gay and lesbian Southerners, ministering dangerously close to one of the largest and most influential conservative United Methodist Churches in the country. Or the Oklahoma clergy who are talking about performing same-sex ceremonies in a conference where just the mention of inclusion could lead them on a path toward unemployment.
These are people who are truly at risk of being persecuted for their faith. And I am so unbelievably grateful for them. Because these are also the people who are telling kids in the most conservative, prohibitive places in the nation that they can find safe space, that they are loved by God, that their sexuality is sacred too. It also makes me appreciate some of the folks closer to home who live in cultures and places in the Northeast—many in our own conference—where churches are not “of the village”, and anti-LGBTQ persecution is very real.
It makes me appreciate someone like Rev. Frank Schaefer in Eastern Pennsylvania, who will be put on trial November 18 and 19 because he performed the same-sex wedding of his son. Frank is an active elder in a more conservative conference than ours. And he faces the real risk of losing his career and his credentials in one month’s time.
Frank and all those truly courageous people I met at Convocation inspire me to take real risks for what I believe in—not to just be like Jesus when it is easy or popular, but to be like Jesus when it is scary and isolating and hard. So in the things you do today, this week, this year, remember Frank when being a Christian seems more than weird—but when it is actually risky.
I end with words from I Peter to a persecuted church, and I dedicate them to Frank as he prepares for trial.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.
I Peter 4:12-16
Join us this Sunday for worship. During our healing prayer time, we will be writing cards of support for Frank, which will be mailed to him in coming weeks.