What nourishes you these days?
Watch: Keisha speaks with Equality Arizona and friends on faith, justice, and how faith communities can meet this moment
Equality Arizona’s executive director Michael Soto recently invited me to join a panel of justice advocates and clergy to talk about faith and the LGBTQ community.
I met Michael about a year ago through our work with Auburn and it was a delight to talk with him and four other colleagues of ours.
Why is faith a site of trauma for LGBTQ people, and what can leaders do to change that?
Christian colonialism has a lot to answer for. In both of the countries I grew up in, British colonial law embedded hostility to LGBTQ people in our culture, media, and education.
My religion matched that legal hostility with silence on the full spectrum of gender and sexuality, and it spread that hostile silence around the world through evangelism, education, and church culture.
Churches are community hubs and part of society, not apart from it. So they aren’t exempt from the usual social -isms: all the ways we can use and misuse power, abusing psychological and social tools to surveil and discipline people, to shame or repel difference.
Any of us might be framed as different, and so any of us could be subject to these methods of inflicting trauma. But a lot of that framing and traumatizing happens in religion and in God's name. And a lot of it happens to LGBTQ people.
In 2017 I spoke at a conference in Jamaica on the legacies of colonial Christianity. Read my and other presenters’ papers in the collection, Intimate Conviction.
So what can leaders do to shift these patterns?
Leaders have a responsibility to be clear about whatever their beliefs are and whatever the limits of their congregations are. It’s perfectly fine to be in process, and we all have things to learn, but it isn’t ok to be vague and mislead people. Vagueness doesn’t serve truth, beauty, or justice, and it doesn’t support healthy relationship.
(Shout out to Church Clarity!)
Leaders also have the power, and in many cases the scholarly training, too, to draw on the threads in their tradition that point toward more healing, careful, compassionate outcomes for LGBTQ and other marginalized, underestimated people.
The more I pay attention, the more I notice that changes made for the most vulnerable people in a system are changes that ultimately help everyone. For instance, most companies and organizations wouldn’t have had to pivot so hard when the pandemic began earlier this year if they’d been responsive to disabled people years ago.
Disabled students have asked for on-demand content in education; disabled workers have asked for location flexibility at work; disabled conference attendees and audience members have asked for interpreters and captions at events; disabled voters have asked for mail-in voting access at election time. If we'd listened to them then, delivering them now would be simply a question of scale, not skill. We'd know how to meet these needs now had we'd listened.
Bottom line: We have responsibilities of care to each other whatever our social categories, and we can care for more people more effectively when we work from the edges in.
Bishop Yvette Flunder explains how this kind of inclusive community-building works in her book Where the Edge Gathers.
This is a time of deep social challenge. How can faith communities meet the moment?
Between the pandemic, the anti-racist uprisings, and the ideological terrorists manning the government these days, there's a lot going on. These are additionally unsettling times for LGBTQ people: policies restricting trans healthcare and permitting workplace discrimination are up for debate again.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled this summer that religious organizations can use the “ministerial exception” to discriminate in hiring.
Within weeks, SCOTUS has ruled both against employment discrimination and for it. The core issue is religious liberty, which I’ve come to understand as freedom from religion and not just freedom of religion.
The courts have adopted a defensive approach to religious liberty over the last several years. This approach protects religious organizations more than it protects religious people, and the courts have also been reluctant to parse differences of conviction within religious groups or between them.
In the meantime, faith-based organizations have devolved the shield of religious liberty into a sword that primarily cuts through minoritized people, restricting our full participation in both religious community life and civic life.
So some of this year’s SCOTUS cases have weighed whether there should be additional barriers between people seeking reproductive services and the healthcare they’re looking for, and whether agencies can block whole classes of people from fostering or adopting children even if they’re otherwise qualified.
In the name of religious liberty, and in the name of free religious expression, some denominations have argued that there should be barriers and there should be blocks. With the court’s rulings so far, these groups will continue to argue they should be free to discriminate in both volunteer service and employment.
When they operate that way, they represent Christianity at its weakest.
Christianity at its best will consider the wisdom of the apostle James. In the 2nd Century CE, a Christian leader taught that we shouldn’t accommodate class discrimination, and those who heard that message left behind gems like this:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin. —James 2:8-9
I want faith communities that are going to take that message to heart, especially in this strange, roiling era.
And so I think a lot about how congregations and community groups can practice neighborly love, start or keep building relationships across difference, and proactively reorder their communities around justice, compassion, and care.
Is there anything secular movements can learn from faith communities?
There’s often less distance between “secular” and “faith” than people in either category might think. We all live on one planet, after all, there’s no religious exemption from the injustices that motivate so-called secular movements, and people of faith and moral courage who realize that have long been at work with others for good in the world.
But when I think about what I value most about faith communities, especially brick-and-mortar congregations, this is the cluster of things that comes to mind first:
A combo of staying power and adaptability: the endurance involved in carrying a tradition from era to era, renewing it in new contexts and circumstances and passing it on to new peers and the generations that follow
Practices for inviting folks to witness and explore transcendence with others, not just alone; to lift their attention from the mechanical and causal toward the ineffable and wondrous
Containers for hope and critique and grief and vision—containers big enough to drink from in community
Space to explore what it means to be rooted in particular places, in particular networks, and to know and be known
A sandbox in which to ask what belonging means, and practice all the answers; and
A consciousness of Long Time: time beyond campaign timelines and quick wins.
Watch our full conversation on Equality AZ’s Facebook page.
And let me know: what’s nourishing you these days? Is faith—any faith—part of that nourishment?