The following speech was given on June 10, 2016 by Pastor Vicki after being presented with the Gwen and C. Dale White Social Justice Award from the New York Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, of which Pastor Elyse serves as Co-Chair. Pastor Vicki currently serves as Co-President of the national MFSA Board of Directors.
I am really humbled by this honor.
I come bringing you greetings and love from the MFSA National Board,
which also includes NYAC folks, Elyse Ambrose and Michelle Lewis,
I bring you greetings from our outgoing executive director, Chett Pritchett,
and incoming interim executive director and former chair of this chapter,
Deaconess Darlene DiDomineck.
Greetings to our New York chapter’s awesome co-chairs, Ann Craig and Elyse Ambrose!
Greetings to steering committee members, former chairs,
former executive director, George McClain,
and former recipients of this award.
Thank you thank you thank you.
Many of us were together at General Conference.
I’m going to steal Dorothee Benz’s phrase and confess
that I was a General Conference virgin.
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say this or not,
but I’m gonna say it anyway.
If they would have done all the usual debates on LGBTQI discrimination…
if they were going to worsen the language, as we expected and feared…
Ya’ll, we had a kick-ass demonstration planned.
I mean seriously.
We were ready, rehearsed.
We had the phone number written in permanent marker on our arms
and the jailhouse phone call quarters in our socks.
We were going to do the arm locks.
And then Nehemiah Luckett was going to emerge from the bleachers
belting out Mark Miller’s
And then we were going to flood the floor,
sliding past disoriented pages,
and take the stage to stop the harm as long as we could.
It was going to be beautiful and heart wrenching and right.
And the night before, we were spiritually preparing,
perfecting our arm locks,
tuning our vuvuzelas,
rewriting the phone numbers on our arms,
and then we got this word that a group of men from various sides
had been meeting with bishops,
and they were negotiating some kind of separation.
And at that news things were all thrown into this disorientation and confusion,
as we were each trying to process this idea that we might actually split…like soon.
And I found myself just thinking, “What if we were free?”
In this annual conference, in the LGBTQI equality movement,
MIND has been leading us to ask that question for a while.
“What if we were free?
“What would we do?
“So…let’s do that!”
Many of you know that my friend, Benz, was called to be a pastor,
and she has lately been engaging a number of us in Bible study on Galatians
as she has prepared for a sermon she preached in Texas last week,
and her text began with
“For freedom Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
In Christ we are free. So what should we do with that?
Well, we don’t commit acts of discrimination
when our parishioners ask us to perform their weddings.
And we allow our candidates and clergy to live with integrity and honesty
and without fear and shame,
even if they have romantic relationships with people of the same gender!
In this annual conference, we have been imagining and living into
that sacred revolutionary vision
of a church free of queer discrimination.
But, at General Conference,
when we heard the rumor that some folks
were negotiating a plan of separation–
And, I know there are a lot of downsides to schism,
mainly that it isn’t justice,
and we would be leaving behind queer people
in isolated, non progressive places and churches–
But I allowed my mind, for a night, to wander over to this question…
“What if we were free?”
“What if we didn’t have to fight and struggle every year,
every day against discrimination and denominational bigotry?
“What if we were free?”
As I ventured into that question, it wasn’t a wholly happy answer.
I’m gonna keep it real here.
If we became a “Reconciling” denomination or an “MFSA” denomination,
if our church looked like our progressive movement,
there are two things that would worry me.
- We would be a largely white church.
- We would be a church largely uncomfortable with evangelism.
—Yeah…I’m gonna go there.
But let’s start with the one we know so well.
Our progressive movement is still a predominantly white movement.
As I thought about schism that night in Portland,
I asked, What if we were free?
And I thought,
No matter how progressive our doctrines and principles might be on paper,
I don’t want to be a part of an almost all-white church.
I remember one of the first of these MFSA dinner speeches I heard
was the night this award was given to my mentor, Taka Ishii,
and I will never forget how he ever so awkwardly and truthfully
chided our movement
for its lack of racial diversity.
There are a lot of hard-to-change reasons for this,
but I feel like a main thing remedy
is to listen to and empower people of color in our movement–
and not just Bishop Talbert and Bishop Carcaño.
not just one or two people of color
But listen to and empower a lot of people of color.
Like make it a priority, build relationships,
spend time and money on it,
and allow white folks to give up some power and knowledge
even if it’s scary and wonky and uncomfortable.
In every meeting, in every gathering,
look around and, even if it’s painful,
even if you don’t know how to fix it,
acknowledge who is in the room and who is not.
It’s something our national board has been doing and, in the last year,
we have doubled the number of people of color
meaningfully participating in and changing our board meetings.
And we’re going to keep doing that hard work
of cultural change so that MFSA can model
the racial diversity and empowerment
that is badly needed for our entire progressive movement.
Ok–on to the other thing that kept me awake on that schism night in Portland
It was this thing I call “the dirtiest word in Progressive Christianity”:
Also associated with bad words like church growth and church planting.
These are scary words that have a lot of triggers for some of us–
especially those of us—most of us—who grew up with this theology
that everyone who’s not in the church doing churchy things
is going to hell,
and the only reason to invite anyone into Christian community
is to save their soul from eternal damnation.
I mean, if that’s why you’re evangelizing and growing your church
and planting new churches, yeah…that’s kind of messed up.
We progressive Christians are kind of into this thing called “interfaith”.
And we have really ethical agnostic and atheist friends
whom we actually respect and learn from.
We don’t think all the Muslims and the Buddhists and the Jews and the Hindus
are going to burn in hell.
In fact, we kind of like learning about their practices
and we kind of like working with them around common values.
Just because someone from MFSA is suddenly using words
like evangelism and church growth and church planting
doesn’t mean we need to go out condemning people to hell.
Here’s the cool thing about affirming other faith and non-faith paths—
it gets you to this liberating question:
If you’re not here because you’re afraid of going to hell,
why are you here?
Why do you spend time in Christian community?
Why do you give money to it and worry about it and love on it?
Each one of us has a different reason.
And your reason is legitimate and real.
And it’s even ok to label that reason good news
and to offer that solace, meaning, practice, value, or experience
to other people in your circles.
If you can tell someone about this great yoga class
or this great meetup.com group
or this great choir,
you can also tell someone about
this great progressive, life-changing,
We–the progressive church–have something good going on here.
We are awesome.
Say it with me: “We are awesome!”
“We are fabulous!”
“We need not be ashamed!”
So here’s the thing. My generation needs to know about OUR message.
I have served Church of the Village for 5 years,
and each year we bring in 10-20 new members.
I have coffee all the time with people–largely young adults–
who are seeking a spiritual community,
seeking a place where they can come home to themselves and their higher calling,
seeking an activist spiritual practice rooted not in themselves,
but in the traditions and practices of people of many times and places.
And I’m not ashamed to say to those people,
“Let’s build a community grounded in those values together!”
That’s progressive evangelism.
You know, I went to something last year called a “Church Planting Bootcamp”.
It was kind of this three day hyper-masculine–the bad kind of masculine–
well…it was exactly what it sounds like.
And everything was about the urgency of
bringing people to Christ for their eternal salvation.
Afterward, I quietly walked up to one of the trainers and said,
“Can I ask you about a different kind of urgency or motivation
for church planting and evangelism?
What if you don’t believe that God can only work
through the church to save people?
What if you believe that other faith traditions have validity,
and that sometimes people need to be saved FROM the church?
What if you believe that God is working out in the world too?
Can you tell me about how motivation works in churches
that would call themselves more progressive
and don’t think they’re saving everyone from the depths of hell?”
He looked at me and said, “Oh.
In my experience, progressive churches don’t grow.
You need that urgency of hell.
Otherwise, what motivation is there?”
Here’s the thing. He is wrong!
Progressives CAN plant successful churches.
There is a progressive church in Chicago
that started in 2009 by two young adult pastors,
one straight, one gay.
It’s called Urban Village.
Today, Urban Village has 4 sites,
engages mostly young adults,
and is completely self-sustaining.
Progressives CAN plant successful churches!
And if I could give an award to the pastor in our annual conference
who has kept hope alive for me in my life and calling,
that award would go to Doug Cunningham.
New Day Church is a church plant reaching
an awesome young adult queer-affirming activist community in the Bronx.
How many people who would have never walked into a traditional church
have found a spiritual home in New Day?
How enriched has our annual conference been
by the presence, witness, experimental spirit,
and keeping’ it real groundedness of New Day Church?
Progressives CAN plant successful churches!
We CAN build a church and churches in which the motivation isn’t fear,
but love and meaning and justice and community!
So, friends, if WE are going to build that free church together,
here is my truth.
As a young adult, as a biracial mother
of a child of African, Asian, and Hillbilly descent,
these are the things that would make me feel truly at home
in our movement and in the free church we are trying to build:
- We MUST make racial equity a PRIORITY.
- We must get over ourselves and prioritize evangelism and church planting.
Otherwise, in this country, in this conference,
even if we become free of the queer discrimination,
we will just be another white mainline denomination
staring at our belly buttons until we close the doors and sell the property.
I do not feel called to serve that church.
I feel called to serve God’s revolutionary vision.
Some of you all have heard me talk about “The Revolution” in the last year.
And some of you know that I take that language from a new role model of mine,
the late great Grace Lee Boggs.
Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American woman
who got her PhD in philosophy at Bryn Mawr in 1940.
So, first of all…that.
Grace became a social activist and, with her husband, Jimmy Boggs,
was a major contributor to the labor and Black power movements in Detroit.
When Grace talked about the violence in Detroit in 1967,
she didn’t call it a riot.
She called it a rebellion.
And rebellion, she says, is a crucial part of any revolution.
Because, when an oppressed group rises up in anger,
it begins to tear apart the chains and the sinews of the oppressive system.
Rebellion is what we do in our direct actions,
in our rainbow duct tape
and our disturbing truth signs
and our armbands and our rule-breaking.
We do not sit by while harm continues.
We speak and act and sing for our lives
and for the lives of our friends.
We are the rebellion here at annual conference, at General Conference,
in our Boards of Ordained Ministry,
in our weddings and ordinations.
But rebellion by itself is not a revolution.
For true revolution, you actually have to start to prepare for what comes after.
You cannot only rebel against what is,
but you have to cast a vision for what is to come.
You have to start empowering people and preparing them for that new reality.
That question, “What if we were free? How would we live?”
It is, I believe, the question that Jesus was answering in his day.
It is the same as the question, “To what shall I compare the kin-dom of God?”
And Jesus cast that vision for the church.
He healed and touched those who were feared by society,
he preached the last shall be first and the first shall be last,
he turned the exploitative tables of the temple
And washed his disciples feet.
And he and his disciples rebelled.
They named the harm and the sins
of the oppressive religious and political systems.
But they also empowered their communities
to live into what came after the rebellion—
God’s revolutionary vision: the kin-dom.
And no matter what the priests and elders did,
no matter what the Roman government did,
no matter what the crowds did,
they stayed focused on that vision and on one another.
And they just started living as though the kin-Dom of God had come,
and, in living into it, the kin-Dom did come.
It has come. It is among us. And it is yet to come.
In July, I will be leaving the amazing Church of the Village
and I’ll be going to the amazing St. Paul and St. Andrew on the upper west side.
And, in partnership with SPSA and with the annual conference,
I will be working on planting new Christian communities.
Not just new Christian communities,
but explicitly multi-racial and queer-affirming Christian communities.
And notice I’m not saying a Christian community.
I’m saying Christian communities!
We need a multi-site progressive church like Urban Village in New York City,
in Newburgh, in Bridgeport, in wherever it is that you live!
We need a multi-racial progressive church like New Day
in every borough, in every district.
This is the revolution.
Because freedom is coming.
We will be free. We are already free!
We are rocking the rebellion, ya’ll.
We are rockin’ it.
Now it’s time to complete the revolution.
Now it’s time to build the church that we want to be
when the walls fall and the chains are broken.