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Covering the Progressive Faith Community

22 June
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Beyond Thoughts and Prayers: What Churches Can Do to Respond to Orlando

In the week-and-a-half since the horrific attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, much has been made—understandably—of the role religion plays in feeding and justifying homophobia. And, as if on cue, several pastors delivered repulsive sermons, thankful for the terror attack. It’s been intensely frustrating and depressing for me, as a progressive Christian.

Thoughts and prayers are important, but there’s work to do. Here are my thoughts about what we in the progressive Christian community should be doing in response to Orlando and, more generally, because we just should.

BE IMMEDIATELY VISIBLE.

Many of our churches are welcoming to LGBT people. They serve in positions of authority, up to and including as our clergy and church leadership. We do a lousy job of letting outsiders know it, a lousy job demonstrating our commitments to equality and faith. I’m not sure why—maybe we’re just bad at PR, maybe we’re uncomfortable being self-aggrandizing, visions of Pharisees haunting our dreams. Maybe we’re just scared. But when hate is so visible, love and inclusion need to step up and be seen.

  • Put a rainbow flag or banner on your property—maybe by your church sign or your front door or both. Make your welcome known to people who drive by.
  • Make it clear on your church website, social media, and marketing materials that yours is an LGBT welcoming church. Make sure photos you use reflect the diversity of your church—in age, ability, race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
  • Make sure visitors know how welcoming you are. If your church uses bulletins, make your welcome explicit in the bulletin. If you put information on screens, publicize your welcome on the screens before the service starts. If you have a church brochure, include your commitment to LGBT inclusion in it. Ask your minister or worship leader to announce the church’s commitment to LGBT welcome at the start of every service.
  • March in your local Pride parade with a church contingent. Carry your church banner, wear your church T-shirts. Be seen.
  • Find out if your local LGBT community center has a list of gay-friendly congregations. If so, make sure you’re on it. If not, offer to compile one. (And don’t take it too personally if they decline.)
  • Remember: It’s not enough to say that you welcome “everyone.” You need to be explicit. Many people see an invisible asterisk when they see “We welcome everyone!” After all, some churches “welcome” LGBT people, but only if they are willing to try to “change” their sexual orientation or gender identity. Make it clear that in your church, “everyone” includes LGBT people—just as they are. This goes for other marginalized groups, too. Be overt about the depth and breadth of your welcome.

BUILD ON EXISTING MISSION COMMITMENTS.

Many churches have long-standing commitments to service in their communities. Build on those commitments in a way that lifts up LGBT concerns. For example:

  • If your church works on education, find out how good your local schools are at preventing bullying. Find out how they treat LGBT kids who want to take same-gender dates to prom and other social events. Find out if they use dress codes or bathroom rules to make life difficult for LGBT kids, especially transgender kids. If your schools are doing well, make sure they know you appreciate it. If they’re trying to get better, find out how you can support them. If they are doing a poor job on these issues, help—and pressure—them to get there. Hold your schools accountable.
  • If your church works on issues around foster care, make sure the needs of LGBT kids are addressed in those settings. Help recruit foster parents willing to take in and support LGBT kids. Support those foster parents. Be those foster parents.
  • If your church works with seniors, make sure your outreach gets to LGBT seniors. If your church visits people in nursing homes or other care facilities, make sure LGBT elders are respected and not expected to return to the closet.
  • Almost any issue—immigration, criminal justice, poverty—has an LGBT angle to it. Make sure to account for those concerns in your mission work.

MAKE SURE YOUR OWN HOUSE (OF GOD) IS IN ORDER.

Has your church made a formal commitment to endorse and support full equality of LGBT congregants, clergy and staff? If not, consider doing so. Some denominations have formal processes to get a church to such a status. Make sure your employment non-discrimination statements include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Formalize your commitment to equality and inclusion.

Then take a look around. Are you living it?

  • Do LGBT people serve on your church council? In your choir? Are they comfortable and accepted in positions of authority in your congregation? If not, find out why not. Ask them. Do they visit once and not come back? If so, try (gently) to find out why.
  • Would a same-gender couple be welcome at a couples retreat or social event, such as a dance? If not, why not—and what will it take to fix that? If they would be welcome, do they know they would be welcome?
  • When your church works in partnership with other organizations (e.g. homeless shelters, food banks, etc.), do you check that those organizations treat LGBT individuals, couples and families on par with their straight, cisgender counterparts? If not, can you get them to change their practices or else find another partner?
  • Does your preaching on family and love and community reflect the diversity in your pews? If and when your pastor highlights current events or historical figures, are LGBT individuals ever featured? If so, are they discussed as having agency and doing something, or are they merely serving as object lessons for straight, cisgender people? Are the references to LGBT people always to white LGBT people? (While you’re contemplating all that, how does your preaching treat people of color? How’s the gender breakdown in these references? Where do people with disabilities factor into your preaching?)

UNDERTAKE EDUCATION AND TRAINING ABOUT LGBT ISSUES.

Many of our congregations have our hearts in the right place, but we aren’t well prepared to be advocates on the issues we care about, be they race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression or other topics. This is totally fixable.

  • Use your Christian education program to cover LGBT (and other) topics.
    • Familiarize your congregation with the so-called clobber passages in the Bible and give people rhetorical tools with which to respond.
    • Dedicate yourselves to tackling the idea of privilege—white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege. The point isn’t to demonize the holders of privilege, but to understand how it operates to systematically disadvantage those without it and look for concrete ways to change that.
    • Offer a session or series of sessions to parents in your congregation on raising progressive Christian kids in our society. How should we talk to our kids about race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and disability, drawing on our religious foundation?
  • Incorporate books that cover LGBT themes in your church book club.
  • If you have a group that gets together for informal meals and perhaps has a discussion on some topic, be sure LGBT-related topics make it into the mix.
  • Make sure you’re conveying your church’s beliefs about sexuality and gender to the youth of your congregation through Sunday school, confirmation preparation, youth ministry, etc. Does your church offer sexuality education to young people, such as the OWL program put together by the UU and UCC? If not, consider it, possibly in collaboration with another church if you don’t have enough kids to make it worth doing on your own.

SPEAK UP—ON LGBT MATTERS AND OTHER ISSUES.

Conservative Christians have spent decades getting organized and getting vocal. We need to catch up and get our ideas into the marketplace.

  • On an interpersonal level, challenge your congregants to talk with several friends who are not part of your church each quarter about LGBT and other social issues in the context of progressive Christianity. Use these opportunities to affirm the existence of progressive Christianity. Let people know “we’re here” in an informal way.
  • Be visible in the press. Learn to write op-eds and letters to the editor, and tie them to your faith and your congregation. Be brief, be on point and be timely—and identify your faith and, if possible, congregation, in the letter.
  • Get media training for people who are willing to be public faces of progressive Christianity. It might help to work with other congregations on this to make it cost effective.
  • Once you have a list of people willing and able to be public faces, make sure your local media know about them. Contact assignment editors and metro editors at your local broadcast and print media outlets and share bios and contact information of these people. Encourage your local media to think beyond the simplistic dichotomy of secular left versus Christian right on LGBT (and other) issues.
    • Thank your media when they include a broader range of Christian opinion. Call them on it when they don’t.
  • Reach out to policy makers on LGBT (and other) issues—and let them know you are speaking about these issues because of your faith, not in spite of it. They don’t hear enough from progressive Christians, and many times progressive Christians who do contact their legislators don’t emphasize their religious identity when expressing themselves.

RESOURCES:

Need help? Here are some places to start.

Theology: http://www.soulforce.org/ and http://www.hrc.org/explore/topic/religion-faith

Media training: http://auburnseminary.org/

Sexuality education: http://www.ucc.org/justice_sexuality-education_our-whole-lives

 

 

 

2 Responses to “Beyond Thoughts and Prayers: What Churches Can Do to Respond to Orlando”

  1. Tom Martinez says:

    So many great ideas and beautifully written. Amen!

  2. Ann Thompson Cook says:

    Thanks Shawn for the great overview of what true welcome looks like.

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