Heirs According to the Promise

I was invited to speak at a lay-led service at Mission of the Atonement – a joint Catholic/Lutheran congregation in Portland – today for their “Welcoming Sunday” service about how their community can be more welcoming to LGBT people.  They also asked me to select the Scripture readings for the day, which I’ve included as well.

Isaiah 56: 3-8

The foreigner joined to the LORD should not say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people”;
Nor should the eunuch say, “See, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose what pleases me,
and who hold fast to my covenant,
I will give them, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name
Better than sons and daughters; an eternal name, which shall not be cut off, will I give them.
And foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him,
To love the name of the LORD, to become his servants—
All who keep the sabbath without profaning it and hold fast to my covenant,
Them I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar,
For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Galatians 3:23-29

Before faith came, we were held in custody under law, confined for the faith that was to be revealed.  Consequently, the law was our disciplinarian for Christ, that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a disciplinarian.  For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.  For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.

Matthew 25: 31-45

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?”  And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.”  Then they will answer and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?”  He will answer them, “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”

Hi, everyone.  My name is Claire Willett, and I’m so honored to have been invited to come talk with you today about ways that the Christian community can be more welcoming of its LGBT members.

One of the things that is uniquely challenging about being a gay person who belongs to any group or community that has traditionally been inhospitable to us – whether it be a town or a church or a even a family – is that your very existence becomes politicized sometimes without your permission or even consent.  I am the only gay Catholic most of my friends know.  I live in the space between two separate worlds that don’t always get along very well.

So the story I’m going to tell you is about what happened the first time those two worlds collided, with some beautiful but also painful results.

My coming-out story isn’t terribly interesting, so we’ll fast-forward through that part pretty quickly.  I came out in college to my friends, not to my Catholic parents until my mid-twenties, in the fall of 2007.  I had gone to a gay Christian conference at U.C. Irvine with my friend Daniel, where we had spent a whole weekend sitting in seminars about reclaiming Leviticus and having dinner with ex-Mormons who had been excommunicated for coming out and being interviewed about our lives as gay Christians for a documentary film.  It was my first time entering a community where the thing that made me different from everyone else in the rest of my life – that I lived inside these two separate worlds – was the thing that I had in common with everyone else.  It was an incredibly powerful experience.  Afterwards, Daniel spent the whole drive back to Portland prodding me about coming out to my family.  Which is the kind of thing that might seem intrusive, except that he knew that I was on the clock.  My mom had been diagnosed with ALS, and Daniel knew me well enough to know that if she died before I told her, I’d regret it forever.  So I did it the night we got back from the conference, and while it was certainly awkward, it was all ultimately fine.  I’m lucky to have a family that was loving and accepting and they never made an issue of it.  I’m also lucky because I never did the thing that so many LGBT people of faith end up doing, which is convincing yourself that God hates you.  Maybe I’m arrogant, or stubborn, but I always believed that the Christians who call us “objectively disordered” or equate homosexuality with pedophilia or want us out of their parish communities were wrong, and I was right.  Even when it was coming from the clergy, or Pope Benedict, I always believed that they were missing something important, that they’d skipped over the part of the story where it’s precisely the most marginalized among us that Jesus came to be in relationship with.

But it’s easy to believe that in the abstract.  It’s a lot harder, it turns out, when the hate is being personally directed at you.

For eight years, I was the Confirmation Coordinator and High School Youth Minister at All Saints Church, over in Laurelhurst, which is the parish where I grew up.  I didn’t come out to anyone at church, with the exception of a handful of teens in my youth group who came out to me.  I felt like I owed them that, because it was a way that I could let them know that they were going to be okay.  But I was very, very careful about keeping the two halves of my life separate.  I was careful about the words I used, about which groups of friends I integrated, about what I posted on Facebook.  When you’re keeping a secret, you have to be extra cautious about everything you do and every word you say, which is exhausting.

And eventually, of course, you slip up.  You miss something.

Which is how I ended up sitting in the office of Monica, the Director of Youth Ministry, staring at her computer screen while she showed me an email she’d been sent with the YouTube video of a clip from that documentary I did with Daniel at UC Irvine.  I had completely forgotten that interview existed, but there it was, in her inbox.  It wasn’t even the first email, I found out later.  It was the second, sent under what they suspected was a fake name.  So at first, that was all I knew.  Somebody, somewhere had found that video and outed me to my boss and my pastor with an email asking them why they didn’t care for the youth of their parish enough to fire me, now that they knew I was gay.

I was actually a little surprised that they didn’t.  They couldn’t afford to get into a PR scandal, and we didn’t know who this person was or what they were going to do next or how long this was going to drag on, and all it takes is one angry phone call to the Archdiocesan Child Protection Office saying there’s a known homosexual working with teens, and that’s the ballgame.  Quietly letting me go was probably the smart thing for him to do.  Honestly?  I wouldn’t even have been mad.  But instead what happened was that the first thing they told me was that I was loved, and then they hugged me and told me we were going to get through this together.

Father had been advised not to respond to the emails, but he was mad, so he did anyway.  It was just a two-word reply: “John 8:7.”

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.”

There’s a lot more to this story that I learned later.  I didn’t know that initially I wasn’t even the real target, I was collateral damage.  I was a weapon to be used against Archbishop Vlazny by a fringe, right-wing Catholic blogger and her community of anti-gay activists who believed that he was too liberal.  She was the one who sent the emails, under a false name.  My sister Cat was the Director of Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese, and it turns out that before the emails and the video ever reached All Saints, the blogger had gone first to her boss – not just to get me fired, but to get Cat fired too.  She was hoping that having a gay sister would discredit Cat, if the conservative faction of the Church found out.  So by the time I called my sister in tears on the way home from Monica’s office, the list of people to whom I had been outed without my knowledge or consent included not just my coworkers but Cat’s too, including the Archbishop.  And they hadn’t just gotten an email.  In a cloak-and-dagger operation straight out of a cheesy Cold War thriller, Cat’s boss had received an unmarked VHS tape of somebody pointing a video camera at their computer screen while the YouTube video played, which was anonymously mailed to her with the return address “Friends of All Saints.”  She watched the video, figured out immediately who had sent it and why – she and this blogger had been thorns in each other’s sides for years – and threw it in the trash without mentioning it to anyone.  So by the time I was first told about it, this increasingly enraged blogger had been waiting fruitlessly for five weeks to see me get fired.

That’s probably why the third email was worse.

This one went to everyone – the whole staff of the parish and the school, from the receptionist to the janitor to my seventh grade history teacher – and the objections which had been tactfully implied in the first two emails were made explicit in this one.  This was the part that stuck with me:

“I am praying for you who care for the teens to pray for a change in this girl who can hurt by her bad teachings and example in her life . . . Christ will come again and see how we have treated his church going people . . . More people know that All Saints closes its eyes to hard things.”

Out of context, that last line might not mean anything to you.  “All Saints closes its eyes to hard things.”  But it meant something to the people that email was sent to, who remembered Father Loughlin, who committed so many cases of sexual abuse against young boys when he was the pastor at All Saints in the 1970’s that he’s one of the few priests who actually served time.  That’s what she meant.  That’s what she wanted us to hear.  “Your children are in danger again, and nobody is doing anything about it.”

I had never met this woman.  I still haven’t.  She knew nothing about me.  She only saw what she wanted to see.  She saw sin;  that’s all.  Someone who, at best, would corrupt the pure teachings of the Church by convincing the youth that homosexuality was not evil; and at worst, was dangerous.

She didn’t know that standing in between those kids and harm was my job. Youth ministers are the ones that get the call when kids break up with their boyfriends, when their parents get divorced, when they run away from home or cut themselves. She didn’t know about the day I had to abruptly run out on dinner plans after a call from a teen who was about to commit suicide. She didn’t know that it was the kids in my Confirmation class who held my mother’s funeral rosary.  She didn’t know that my faith had withered and stagnated until it was revived by those kids, and that I loved each one of them, even the obnoxious fourteen-year-old boys, so deeply that I would have walked into fire for them if I had to.  But that wasn’t enough for her, because I wasn’t straight.  She believed – and she wanted all of us to know – that the Church was healthier, stronger, better off, with me gone than with me in it.

For four years – until my sister left her job at the Archdiocese to move to Chicago for graduate school – the emails and the blog posts kept coming.  She said awful things.  She went radio silent for a few months after my mom passed away, six months after that first email, but then picked right back up again with a blog post that delicately implied she hoped that Theresa Willett had died without having to suffer the pain of knowing she had a gay daughter.

But of course – my mom did die knowing she had a gay daughter, because Daniel made me tell her.  Which means I got to have conversations with her in those last few months that I’d never, ever, ever have thought I would get.  I told my family about the email that very first day, and we talked about it a lot after that.  I got to hear my mother tell me she was proud of me.  I got to hear her say, “It takes courage to be who you are when people are throwing rocks at you.”

Sometimes it looks like you’re being brave when you’re really just trying to get through the day.

My sister was always our family’s designated protester, the one who showed up at rallies with big cardboard signs and majored in politics and spoke up loudly for social justice.  That wasn’t me.  I hate conflict.  I wasn’t a rebel, I was just a youth minister.  I would never have spoken out, if this woman hadn’t made me.  I would have kept my head down and my mouth shut forever.  But from where I stand today, all I can be is grateful for the experience I went through.  It forced me to do some hard thinking about examining my privilege – about how some small part of me didn’t really believe these people were real until they began coming after me – and it made me aware in a new way of the importance of the language we use.  Which is one of the things I love most about Pope Francis; he says five words in an airplane press conference – “Who am I to judge?” – and singlehandedly flips the dialogue about homosexuality in the Catholic Church by redirecting it away from a fixation on the sex lives of people we don’t know and back towards the very simple question of who is welcome at the table.

The deep, paralyzing fear that comes from being marginalized from inside your own church is that you start to wonder if they’re right.  That maybe if you met Jesus face-to-face he’d look you in the eye and he wouldn’t like you very much.   That’s the work our faith communities have to do.  That’s the wound that needs to be treated before you can heal anything else.

Being unwelcoming doesn’t always look like anonymous hate mail sent to your seventh grade history teacher about how you’re a toxic influence on children.  Sometimes what it looks like is a transgender visitor being made to feel uncomfortable using the restroom of their choice in your church, or a teenager in your youth group using the term “that’s so gay” without an adult calling them out, or a form that gets mailed home to your Sunday School kids that says “Mother’s Name” and “Father’s Name” at the top.  It can be a thing that seems so small that it would never occur to you to notice it. It doesn’t usually look like Westboro Baptist Church.  It usually just looks like tiny, subtle reminders that the world is set up to accommodate straight people, while members of the LGBT community have to ask for permission, over and over, in every space we enter, if it’s okay for us to be here.  For most of the people of faith I know who have left the church after coming out, it’s not because somebody stood up on the pulpit and spouted a homophobic slur.  It’s because humans are social creatures who thrive in community, and being the only one of your kind is exhausting.  They didn’t feel welcomed.  They might have felt tolerated, but that’s not the same.

Daniel once told me that he felt like after coming out, and after finding the community of gay Christians he introduced me to in Irvine, he felt his relationship with God transform completely.  Not just because he was living a more honest life, but because of the experience of worshiping side by side with other gay Christians, who had what he described as “a considered faith.”  They had thought things through, deeply and carefully, trying to find a way to make space for themselves in the Church because nobody was making space for them.  So they would read about Jonathan and David, or Ruth and Naomi, or the holy eunuchs in that reading from Isaiah I chose for today – or they’d read about the centuries of celibate men and women living in same-sex community in monasteries and convents – and they found themselves in those stories.  They made space for themselves at the table, and the Christian community around them was deepened and enriched by the thoughtfulness of their faith.

One of the reasons I think it’s vital for the church not just to merely tolerate gay people and politely put up with us, but to actually scoot over and make room around the table for us in equal fellowship, is that – actually – you need us.  Christianity has always been a faith that made space for the misfits, for the outcasts, for the people who don’t belong.  From Jesus throwing dinner parties for prostitutes and tax collectors, to the Virgin Martyrs and women saints who were executed for daring to assert that their selfhood was more than their ability to bear Roman sons for the Empire, to the Civil Rights Movement in this country that was born at the pulpits of black churches where the promises of Christ were reclaimed for people who’d been denied them.  It’s not good for us to spend too much time with people who are exactly like us already.  It’s not healthy to look around the church and see an endless sea of people who look and think just like you.  That’s how you wake up one day and realize you’re on the wrong side of the story; you’re a Pharisee now.  You’re the gatekeeper with the list of rules.  You’re not the guy Jesus wants to have dinner with, you’re the one he’s yelling at.

So how do we avoid being Pharisees?  How do we make room at the table?

I put this question out to an online community of LGBT women writers I belong to, and asked them what they thought I should share with you.  So here are a few pieces of helpful advice – from actual, real-life gay people – to help communities of faith welcome LGBT people in an authentic way.

  • Invite people to sit with you in the social hall after church, and talk with them in between church and the social hour so they don’t panic and just go to their car and never come back.  Also, if you know there are members of your congregation who are not okay with LGBT people or perhaps even actively disapproving, do the work to make sure that LGBT visitors don’t feel the disdain or unwelcome coolness these members might convey.  Be welcoming.  Walk the walk.
  • Don’t make assumptions.  When you’re talking to a new parishioner, don’t automatically ask her what her husband does.  You can’t know a person’s sexual orientation unless they tell you, although please don’t construe this as blanket permission to ask.
  • LGBTQ folks are just as boring as everyone else.  We read, eat, get parking tickets and yell at the TV just like you.
  • Take people as they come, and try not to carry your own expectations and stereotypes to the table before you know a person.
  • This is Portland, and it’s the 21st century.  You definitely do know queer people.  If you think that you don’t, it may be that for some reason, they have decided you are not someone it’s safe to tell. There is a difference between being ashamed of your sexual orientation, and not feeling like it is a piece of information which particularly happens to be everyone else’s business, or simply not feeling comfortable revealing that part of yourself depending upon the company you’re in.
  • Avoid language like “don’t rub my nose in it” or “don’t flaunt your lifestyle”  that makes us feel like our every move is being watched in case we accidentally offend someone by just existing.  Telling people they have to hide part of what they are from you to be your friend is unkind.
  • Does the way you welcome and talk to children in your Sunday school, nursery, etc. create space for different kinds of families, or does it assume every child has one father and one mother?
  • It isn’t enough to say you’re welcoming and then sit back and rest on your laurels.  If you want to do better, you need to reach out and you need to listen, then listen some more.
  • Do better than “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
  • “Love the sinner, hate the sin’ is really unkind.  Everyone is a sinner – straight, bi, gay, whatever. It is frustrating for us to feel like we are the only subcategory of the faith community who is identified by our sin.
  • Preaching to the choir doesn’t count.  Your church or workplace or family may be open and affirming, but the queer people in your life also see how you behave when you’re in other, less welcoming spaces.  If you’re around people using homophobic language, do you ignore it or speak up and correct them?  Do you keep that kind of language off your Facebook wall?
  • Gay adults start out as gay children.  They retain the messages they hear in their church and from the adults in their lives.  Acceptance starts very early, and that includes self-acceptance.  Remember that when you’re speaking to, or in front of, children about what it means to be gay or the place of gay people in your community, don’t forget that you may be speaking to a child who is struggling to identify why they feel different from the other kids around them and what they hear you say, they will remember.  Be intentional and careful with your words.

It’s okay for this to be new.  It’s okay if you’re learning.  But the most important thing I think you’ll hear running through all the things I just said is that it’s about listening.  It’s about recognizing that we have something genuine to offer you, that a big crowded messy church is better than a small and tidy and homogenous one, and that we’re not just here in God’s house by the gracious permission of straight people.  “If you belong to Christ,” Paul says to the Galatians, “then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise.”  That means us too.

The way to be welcoming is to be welcoming.

The way to make LGBT people feel like you want us here is for you to want us here.

Thank you.