Signs That Are More Than Ink On Paper

helping+hands+logoWhen I was a kid, there was a program called “Helping Hands” that was supposed to help kids feel safe. The idea was that families would put a paper sign inside the front windows of their house. The sign was a very simple hand print. The theory was that if a kid was ever walking down the street, and felt like they were in danger, they could run to a house with that sign, ring the bell, and the people inside would help them.

The sign was an outward and visible message to kids: “This is a safe space….you will be OK here…”

I recall seeing those signs all over Preston Hollow in Dallas, when I was a kid. And even though I never had to use it, the signs absolutely had their intended effect. Wordlessly, whenever I saw one, I felt a little less afraid and alone.

I’ve searched everywhere online to try and find an online picture of that sign. Even crowdsourced in on Facebook. Strangely, the picture doesn’t seem to pop up anywhere, although, many many adults my age remember this program from when they were kids.

The Rev. Mona Arwood Bailey remembers the signs well, and wrote this about them.

“When we lived in Richardson by UTD our children were bussed to Hamilton Park the first year and then they continued there. The house holds in Hamilton Park put those signs in the window so that if our children got off the campus and became confused they knew to go up and knock on the door. Also if they became ill at school, volunteer parents would come and stay in the nurses office until we could drive the distance to pick them up.”

That story dates back to the time of school busing, of course. In this case, white kids, bused to a predominantly black Dallas neighborhood. So, don’t miss the beauty of this story…white kids, feeling a little less afraid, as their African-American neighbors declared, “You will be safe here…”

One of the most profound things we can do for any group of people, especially those who are different from us, is embody the idea that, “You are safe…you may be different from me, from my family, but in our presence you have nothing to fear.”

Human beings need places of sanctuary. Places where they feel safe.

It’s deeper than this, though. To fundamentally be healthy and whole, we need to feel safe most of the time. We need to be able to walk around our cities and towns, and not feel under siege and threatened. The most ideal state, would be for all of us to feel safe all the time.

Given that this is unlikely, we settle for “sanctuaries,” wherever we can find them. Homes, Churches, Mosques, Synagogues…and yes, in bars and clubs. (You remember Cheers, right?)

It seems to me, as I review the past few years, that there’s been gradual erosion of places and spaces where people feel safe. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. In the past year, armed gunmen have protested outside of Mosques in Dallas. And, as we all know, on Saturday morning, a gunman invaded a sanctuary called Pulse, in Orlando Florida.

And lest you’ve missed the significance of gay bars in gay culture, hear what Annie Anderson, of Minnesota Public Radio says about them in this commentary:

“Gay bars hold an almost mystical place in the LGBTQ psyche. They serve as our sanctuary, our safe space to be our freest, truest selves with nothing but love and acceptance within those walls. They feel like home. For many, they take the place of a home, church or workplace where they’ve been kicked out.
That’s why the Pulse nightclub slayings in Orlando are a virtual massacre on the collective LGBTQ soul.”

Now, go back and substitute the words “gay bar” with the word “Church,” as you remember the Mother Emmanuel shooting tomorrow. The Black Church holds that same place of sanctuary and safety in the African-American community.

Now, go back and substitute the words “gay bar” with the word “Mosque,” as you remember the protests by armed men, outside Dallas area Mosques.

Especially for those of us who are white and heterosexual (and, even more so, for those of us who are male), it can be very hard to comprehend how crucial these places of safety and security are, or how rare they are for others. Most days, I walk around the world feeling completely safe, oblivious to the fact that others to not.

However, God has worked on me over the years, on these issues. Doing ministry with, being related by marriage to,  communities different from me has helped me, as a white heterosexual male, see how rarified my position of “feeling-safe” really is.

Two years ago, after threats to a local Mosque in Dallas, we held an event at Northaven that we called “Standing with our Muslim Neighbors.” The sanctuary was packed with religious leaders of all faith, with the media…but even more importantly, with Muslim men and women.

After that event, as I shook hands with some of those ordinary Muslim men and women in the church lobby, my heart both hurt and was full, all at the same time. I saw the deep gratitude, even tears, as they thanked Northaven for opening its doors to them.

They were saying Northaven, “We had no idea we could find sanctuary inside a Christian Church…we didn’t know we could feel safe here…”

A year ago, standing with African-Americans, at rallies and protests after Charleston, I got the same feeling. Gratitude that we had showed up…that we had acknowledged not only the horror of the deaths, but also named the truth of the racism.

So, what I have learned, listening to my Muslim neighbors, my African-American neighbors, my family and friends of color, is that this feeling of fear, of not-being-safe, follows them almost constantly, in ways I never experience, as a white cisgender male.

You know where I am going, right?

The LGBTQ community experiences this too. And if you spend any time at all with LGTBQ friends, you hear and know this existentially. You come to see the intersectionality between things like racism, Islamophobia, and homophobia. You see the common core of those three fears.

Please don’t miss the special twist that the LGBTQ community suffers with, though. As Annie Anderson notes, gay bars are a place of safety for the LGBTQ community, because so many other places are not.

And the cutting and damning line for us all is when she reminds us that gay bars “take the place of a home, church or workplace where they’ve been kicked out.”

Did you catch that?
The HOME. The CHURCH…where they’ve been kicked out.

I can’t tell you how many times (and by that I mean, I have lost count) where I’ve sat here in the office where I now write these words, and heard LGBTQ persons tell me painful stories. Stories of being kicked out, shunned out, of other churches. Stories of being rejected and abandoned by their families. The same, painful and soul-crushing stories, time…and time…and time again.

Unlike the African-American community, which has always seen home and church as its places of safety, LGBTQ people often does not have these things. Unlike a Mosque, a center of stability for the Muslim Community, LGBTQ people are often cut off from even faith and family.

That’s why last Sunday night’s powerful vigil in Dallas did not take place in a church, but in the streets…at the Resource Center.

Sunday's Vigil. (Photo by Andrew Robinson)
Sunday’s Vigil. (Photo by Andrew Robinson)

That’s why, for several decades now, many United Methodist Churches have been affiliating with the Reconciling Ministries Network.

And so, forgive me, as I turn the rest of this conversation to the UMC…

Being an RMN church is a way of putting out a “Helping Hands” sign in the window of your church. Almost every visitor to Northaven, for the past decade, has told me they first Googled us, before they showed up on our doorstep, to see if we were “friendly” to the LGBTQ community. I mean, every visitor. Gay and straight, they are all looking for the little sign in the window that says, “This place is safe.”

RMN Churches have been, for decades, little signs of hope. And I dare to speak for them when I say we’ve felt privileged to serve the mission field in that way, and to play that role within the UMC.

But, dear United Methodist friends, people, both gay and straight, are now looking for signs that are more than ink on paper. They are looking for physical signs. They are looking for churches to engage in bold support for the LGBTQ community. Support that goes beyond prayer vigils, verbal affirmations, and resolutions. Support that is based in action. Love that is based in action. Action, not just words.

In the wake of Orlando, that is what we need. Going forward, then, if you want to know how to create safe spaces from LGBTQ persons in our churches, please understand that it will now take more than verbal affirmations. It will take genuine solidarity. It will take our actions, not just little paper signs in the windows.

Over the past few days, I’ve fielded calls from colleagues…“Are you doing a prayer vigil at Northaven? If so, can I come?”

The answer is: No, we are not doing a prayer vigil. We are not anti-prayer vigil either. We will most certainly have a time of lamentation and prayer on Sunday……as we did this past Sunday morning. But prayer vigils alone are no longer enough.

To truly show that we are a safe place, to help restore a sense of safety to our LGBTQ community, we must engage in action that match words of support.

Let me put a fine point on it, for all United Methodists readers.

Yes, there are more RMN Churches than ever.

Yes, much is changing at the local level, including hearts….but…

Once again, our 2016 General Conference chose to not change the Book of Discipline. You can argue with the semantics of that last sentence all you want. You can tell me that the Bishop’s plan moves us to some new place. But the facts are (as Bishops are making plain through letters they are sending to their Annual Conferences) the polity stays the same for at least the next two years. The polity stays the same, even as the local mission field…in so many places…has changed long ago.

Apparently, the General Conference hoped that we could all just hold our breath for two years, hoped nothing else bad would happen to gay people. The General Conference put their faith in the idea that the Bishop’s Hail Mary plan would solve it all, like some hero at the end of a disaster film.

And institutionally, it still might. I am not begrudging the concept that a “Hail Mary” pass sometimes works. (Although, I’d still like somebody to explain to me how the same group of delegates, who could not do anything positive, will magically vote to reorder us in two years. I truly do not understand the political logic of this…)

And I cannot begrudge the fact that people tell me the atmosphere on the floor in Portland, at the General Conference, was toxic and tense, and that the Bishop’s plan seemed like the only “way forward.” I cannot begrudge that truth.

All I am saying is this: There was just one problem with this plan to move us to a time of continued waiting, and that problem has now come to light. It assumed that as we held our noses over the current polity for two more years, no further “harm” would come to LGBTQ persons. The plan assumed the world would continue to become more accepting and open toward LGBTQ people. Hearts would continue to change.
Kum Ba Yah.

But the blood and death of Orlando puts a lie to that faith. It rips the facade off that hope, and reminds us just how wrongheaded and harmful the idea of further “waiting” truly is. Orlando reminds us that harm IS still happening to LGBTQ persons.

And whether any of us like to hear this or not: The Discipline of the United Methodist Church “aids and abets” that harm.

The words “Homosexuality is incompatible” are still in our Discipline. Saying “we’re working on it” while we watch the blood of LGBTQ people run in the streets, is like the religious leaders who walk past the bleeding man in Jesus’ powerful Good Samaritan parable.

“Sorry I can’t stop for you. We’ve got a commission to form.”

This, friends, I must tell you bluntly, does not feel like “support” to LGBTQ people.

My friend, Rev. Jeremy Smith, has said this more succinctly than anybody I know, with this incredible blog last Monday called, “If/Then on Christian Responsibility in Orlando.” I cannot recommend this blog highly enough, for making this point about the culpability of our United Methodist theology at times like this.

“If…Rendering LGBTQ persons as “less than” others in major denominations of Christianity, including The United Methodist Church, is a threat to LGBTQ persons who are not Methodist.

THEN…The Church contributes to the climate of “othering” of LGBTQ persons by saying they are “incompatible” with Christian Teaching in ways that straight people are not.
The Church bears reflection for how its policies and practices do harm to people outside their sphere of responsibility.
The Church is complicit in how its policies and practices affect the culture around people outside of the Church.”

The only tweak I would add is that our policies also cause harm to LGBTQ persons within the church as well. The “incompatibility” clause, the bans on marriage and ordination, align us more on the side of the truly vile anti-gay theologies of people like Fred Phelps, than with Presbyterians, Lutherans, and even some Cooperative Baptists.

People don’t like it when I say such things, but that’s because people want to believe the hateful theology that really is still out there, just like they wanted to hope waiting two years would cause no additional harm.

To whit…please see the follow two videos.

However!! Trigger warning….they are deeply unsettling and horrifyingly homophobic. If you are an LGBTQ persons who is still suffering from harmful theologies that reverberate in your head, I invite you to skip these links, please.

Here. And here. (Again, PLEASE skip, unless you soul is strong today….)

Now, I would bet that 100 percent of United Methodists who watch those videos will say, “But I am not like that! My church is not like that!”

And I sincerely believe you. I know in my heart this is so.

But our stated theology is like this. Our theology aids and abets in harm to LGBTQ persons. It’s on the same side of the fence as Fred Phelps. Yes, it absolutely differs by degree and intensity. But we are, as of this moment, still in a place that fails to allow for local option, fails to allow for support full support of the local mission field, and continues to counsel us to “wait.”

Saying “Homosexuality is Incompatible,” preventing churches from performing same sex weddings and ordaining gay clergy, none of these directly kill LGBTQ people. But they absolutely “aid and abet” the criminally insane lone wolf who does kill. Within the twisted mind of the lone wolf…or of those vile preachers in the videos above…this kind of theology allows them to believe we agree with their actions. That we condone and agree with them.

That’s why, more than ever, to be a truly “safe space,” we must separate for this kind of theology. We must separate in words. We must separate in action.

Northaven’s trademarked slogan is “We Believe in the Separation of Church and Hate.”

ChurchandHateLogo

Now and then, people tell me that they do not like that phrase, because of the word “Hate.” But to me, “Hate” is not the most important word.

Separation is.

To show solidarity with African-Americans, Christians must “separate” from hateful theologies that defend racism.

To show solidarity with Muslims, Christians must “separate” from hateful theologies that justify Islamophobia.

To show solidarity with the LGBTQ community, Christians must “separate” from theologies that are anti-gay, unwelcoming and create places of distrust and insecurity.

What does this look like within the church?

It looks like this…

Bold, clear, unequivocal statements that affirm the goodness of LGBTQ persons, and don’t just condemn the harm done to them. If your pastor or Bishop has not issued a statement like this, ask them why not.

My friend, Rev. Mike Baughman, wrote just such a letter today.

As for me, I want the LGBTQ community to know my intention that Northaven will continue to be “safe space” for you. As we often note, we  have “Haven” in our name! That’s what we’ll continue to be.  As LGBTQ people have been since the late 1980s, you are welcome, loved, and seen as full partners in ministry, through our common baptism here at Northaven.

But I also want you know that it is clear to me that words are not enough. The violation of sanctuary that Orlando represents, calls me to bold, clear, unequivocal intention to live into the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons.

We must all find ways to live into new actions, intentions, and practices of ministry that show the LGBTQ community that we mean the words that we say. This will create safe space. This will lower their fear and anxiety.

In our practices, in our actions, we must embody and incarnate that we are a safe spaces for the LGBTQ community.

The one thing God has placed on my heart, that know with every fiber of my being as I write these words, is that after Orlando words will no longer be enough.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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