Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Getting Some Church

Göran and I were in Iowa and Tennessee this past week visiting family. This time, we planned our visit in such a way that we were available to attend church with our respective families in Iowa (first Sunday) and Tennessee (second Sunday). As far as I can tell, going to church with family is never uncomplicated. These church outings were no exception. And yet... somehow... God met me on these outings, perhaps in spite of, perhaps in collusion with, the complexities.

The Churches we attended were, respectively, a predominantly white "nondenominational" church (in Iowa) and a Christian Methodist Episcopal church (a major, historic southern black Methodist denomination) in Tennessee. Both were what we would call theologically "conservative" or "Evangelical" churches. Both were places where it felt tricky trying to figure out how my husband and I could be there as an out gay (interracial) couple.

For instance, Göran instinctively holds my hand any time we attend any sort of event together -- whether we're in a theater, a family gathering, or church. But in both of these places, he did not. We sort of surreptitiously pushed our knees together, but nothing any fellow parishioner would have noticed or paid attention to. The knee nuzzling was comforting, our way of saying to each other: "Yes, I'm here for you and I love you, even in this alien place where we are not permitted to acknowledge our relationship with each other."

For what it's worth -- and it's worth mentioning, because African Americans get a bad rap for supposedly being more homophobic than other Americans -- I felt much more comfortable and at home with our family at the CME Church than I felt in the white "nondenominational" Church.

Part of the reason for this is because, to be honest, I'm still not 100% sure how Göran's white family feels about our relationship. While they are hospitable to us and treat us very lovingly, they've never really explicitly discussed with us how they feel about our relationship, whereas the members of Göran's black family have. Not all of Göran's Memphis family have necessarily figured out how to reconcile these things for themselves, but they accept that we've reconciled it for ourselves, and they accept us unconditionally. His white family may feel the same way, but if they do, they've kept it to themselves.

A couple of nights before we went to Church, I had asked our aunts if there was anything I needed to know etiquette-wise about attending church with them at a black southern Methodist church, and one aunt said, "Yes. If our pastor starts talking about 'sissies' or 'homos' or anything else of that nature, please just ignore whatever comes out of his mouth." I assured her, we could handle it! So going into these potentially sticky situations at Church, we felt much more sure of family support at the CME than we felt with the white Evangelicals.

One of our great aunts had told us a story about some homophobic comments made by the pastor one Sunday, and then proceeded to tell us about the repercussions from members of the congregation who had gay family members or who were gay themselves, who challenged the pastor about his comments. We later learned from another aunt that this great aunt had put the pastor on notice that her gay nephew and his partner were going to be in attendance that particular Sunday, and she asked him to keep that in mind before saying anything inhospitable over the pulpit! The way our auntie described it, it sounded like when this great aunt "asks" something of this nature, it's not something you take lightly, even if you are an idealistic young pastor eager to establish your authority!

For what it's worth! We had our aunties looking after us.

The CME pastor did in fact mention homosexuality in his sermon, mainly to condemn the latest cover of Newsweek ("America's First Gay President") as a form of slander. Actually, Göran and I both very much dislike that cover as well. We thought it really came across as juvenile ("ooh, Obama likes gays! he must BE one! ooh!"). We felt that cover demeaned Obama and diminished the significance of his statement about marriage. I thought I could guess why this pastor considered it slanderous (and probably not for the same reasons I would), but since Göran and I did both consider the magazine cover disrespectful, we at least superficially agreed with him. This pastor also suggested that had a white president made a statement of this nature, Newsweek would never have done the same thing to him on their cover. And I actually agreed with that as well.

This CME pastor then used the Newsweek cover as a springboard to talk about economic injustice in America, and what we as Christian believers are obligated to do about it. And -- he emphasized, if we HAVE THE HOLY SPIRIT IN US -- we must DO something about economic injustice. And as far as Obama's views on same-sex marriage, this pastor made clear that Obama is entitled both to his opinion and to the respect that the office of president demands, and he, for one, still supported the President. Ironically or not (given that I'm blogging about his statement), he loudly proclaimed that he didn't care how or where his views on this subject were publicized, on UTube or the evening news or wherever (my blog?), HE SUPPORTS THE PRESIDENT. And he took a moment to make clear that he didn't expect his parishioners to agree with him on his political views, but for the record, HE WILL VOTE FOR OBAMA. OK. So that was something else in common we had with him.

Later, we chatted with family about the sermon. All our black relatives had, like us, sat on the edge of their pews when the pastor had mentioned the Newsweek cover... And like us, they were relieved when he didn't go to a negative, homophobic place with it. We laughed about it together over Sunday dinner. And I felt wonderfully affirmed and supported that our family actually seemed more worried about where he might go with it than we had been.

One major difference between our experience with the white Evangelicals in Iowa and the black Methodists in Tennessee also had to do with the level of investment the respective branches of the family felt in their churches. Göran's family in Iowa only started attending their church within the past few years, and their participation in it seems pretty contingent. For his family in Memphis, on the other hand, this CME congregation is the family church. It's the church they were raised in, and a church they're committed to and want to thrive. If Göran hadn't been kidnapped by his mom at the age of four and taken away to Iowa, it is the church he would have grown up in. His family in Memphis very much wanted us to like their Church.

And actually, I did. Though maybe, maybe not for the reasons, or in the way, they expected.

Yes, I was self-conscious about all the ways we had to cautiously tread in these settings: me as a Mormon in non-Mormon (Evangelical Christian!) settings, my husband as black, me as white, us as a same-sex couple, as members of families we did not want to embarrass in any way in their home congregations. And now, with same-sex marriage as a charged political issue -- a political issue in which I have a lot invested, both as a gay man in a same-sex marriage, and as an activist who continues to invest a lot of time and emotional energy in the outcome of the upcoming referendum in our state -- these kinds of settings become even more complicated. So the tension of that situation was in itself a kind of burden I was carrying as I walked into these settings.

But then -- especially last Sunday as we attended church with Göran's Memphis family -- I was aware of the toll that certain on-line discussions of same-sex marriage have taken/are taking on me. Being involved in discussions about same-sex marriage with religious conservatives means constantly talking to people who believe that my relationship is fundamentally sinful and unacceptable; and constantly having to listen to and think about arguments as to why my relationship with my husband is naturally and inherently inferior to heterosexual relationships (because we can't naturally reproduce, seems to be the argument du jour). That is a burden as well.

So as we attended church with family these last two weeks, I was going to church both with these burdens, and an urgent need: a need for comfort, for support, for relief. The first Sunday, I had managed to "hold it together." But the second Sunday, I was feeling more world weary, more tired and fragile.

At Göran's "family church," this African American CME pastor began to work himself up in the way considered "traditional" in many African American congregations. (It's controversial in this congregation! Apparently the minister before him was a bit more restrained, and some of the older congregants are uncomfortable with the Dr.-Watts-style song-preaching!) But as he worked himself up, as his congregation began to respond, I felt a kind of buzzing in my own joints. Was that the Spirit? Was that how the Spirit worked in this setting? It made me want to get up, made me want to jump to my feet, as some others were starting to. Though I didn't. I stayed glued to my seat. But still I felt it. I felt something.

And the minister intoned: "Some people come to church and they DON'T WANT ANYTHING. They don't NEED ANYTHING." That was not me. I had definitely come wanting, needing.

He began to preach about the Spirit. This is a topic I love. "Some people say we're a DYING CHURCH. Some people say we're a DEAD CHURCH. But I say we're NOT. I say we STILL HAVE THE SPIRIT." The way his congregation was responding, they seemed to agree. He began to preach about exactly what this meant: getting up and doing something that makes this world we live in a better place. If we have the Spirit, we get up and do. That's what it means, he reminded us, not to QUENCH THE SPIRIT.

"The GOSPEL means THE GOOD NEWS! That means when we preach the GOSPEL, it makes people HAPPY! They're GLAD to get the GOOD NEWS. Sometimes we go around acting as if the GOSPEL is BAD NEWS. But it's not!"

Then he said something remarkable. "When people come to Church, they come because they have been CONVICTED. When a criminal commits a crime, he does NOT go to the POLICE. When the POLICE come, a criminal goes in the OTHER DIRECTION. And a SINNER does not come to CHURCH unless he's been CONVICTED. So when people come in here, we don't treat them like CRIMINALS. Sometimes we act like we DON'T WANT people in here." I thought this was a remarkable statement, and he had so nailed on the head just how people act, how they exclude, how they start to look at the Church as an exclusive club, and how they look with suspicion at people that they regard as sinners who come in...

But he had already had me when he started talking about NEED. We sang the Doris Akers hymn, "Lead Me, Guide Me":

Lead me, guide me along the way
For if You lead me I cannot stray
Lord let me walk each day with Thee
Lead me oh Lord lead me.

I am weak and I need Thy strength and power
To help me over my weakest hour
Lead me through the darkness Thy face to see
Lead me, oh Lord, lead me.

Help me tread in the paths of righteousness
Be my aid when Satan and sin oppress
I am putting all my trust in Thee
Lead me, oh Lord, lead me.

I am lost if you take your hand from me,
I am blind without Thy light to see
Lord, just always let me Thy servant be
Lead me, oh Lord, lead me.

The Spirit was present there telling me: Let Go of All That Stuff You're Carrying. It's not for you to carry, but for your Lord. You just focus on doing what he asks you to do, and let him do all the burden carrying.

I felt that peace and that comfort, and I felt gratitude that the Spirit had used the words of a pastor who sometimes railed against "sissies" to give it to me.


Trev said...

Fascinating and beautiful. What a great experience, and thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Ever make it back to a Lutheran church?

J G-W said...

Thanks, Trev!

Anon. - Haven't been to a Lutheran church service in a few years. I'd probably go more often if I had family members who were still active Lutherans!

Anonymous said...

Shucks... I was hoping you'd say you kinda miss the Lutheran Church.