July 18, 2010
Dr. Margarita Suarez
Umstead Park United Church of Christ
On the night of June 27, 1969, Storme DeLavarie was at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher St., Greenwich Village, NYC. She was a drag king hanging out at the bar. When the police raided that night and the patrons fought back, Storme was in the thick of it. She says that she punched a cop so hard that the stone in one of her rings fell out. Today Storme DeLavarie is 89 years old and lives at a nursing home in NYC. She has dementia and has difficulty remembering clearly all the events of the riot, but she was there and she fought back on the night that Gay pride was born.
When we think of the kind of extravagant welcome that God extends to each of us, I want to remember Storme DeLavarie—Lesbian Drag King MC of a Drag Queen show, pistol packing bouncer at a lesbian bar, and one of our ancestors who on June 27, 1969 had had enough of police harassment to make her fight back. Because of her and many others like her we can sit in church this morning celebrating 25 years of the Open n’ Affirming movement in the United Church of Christ. But we must ask the question just how open and affirming are we? If a drag king or queen were to grace the doors of this church, would she or he be welcomed here? I would think so, hope so, but would they know before they entered that they were so welcome?
ONA, the acronym for Open n’ Affirming, is not a onetime action, it is an ongoing process of study and action learning how to be open and affirming to persons of all sexual orientations and all gender affirmations. In order to show their welcome to all persons, some churches have gone so far as to name themselves, “multicultural and multiracial, open and affirming, accessible to all, and just peace churches.” Each of these designations having a particular history within the United Church of Christ.
How we come to understand what it means to extend God’s extravagant welcome to people who are different from us is fraught with struggle. I used to be quite upset when on Gay pride day media outlets would focus on the stilettoed, drag queen wearing wings in the pride parades. What about the rest of us, I thought, the ones who pass, who march with our lovers and friends, our parents and children, who you’d never notice and never know were Gay or Lesbian, Bisexual or Queer any other day of the year. Why don’t you show us on your front pages? But now I know that my own internalized homophobia and heterosexism were getting in the way of affirming my trans brothers. I didn’t really know or understand the extravagant welcome that God extends to all. When the now named, United Church Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns, hereafter known as “The Coalition,” wanted to add “Transgender” to its title I was not ready. I had issues with the concept of transgender, finally I realized that I needed to listen and to learn from transgender persons about their experiences, just as I had hoped that straight people would listen and learn from me about the experiences of lesbian and bisexual persons. When I opened myself up to hearing these stories of struggle and faith I knew that the Coalition was right in wanting to add transgender to its title. The Coalition was saying we are open and affirming, we welcome those who are the outcast and the stranger into our midst, just as we know that God has welcomed us.
The concept of Extravagant Welcome has become part of the new strategic plan of the Coalition, yesterday concluding its 30th National Gathering by marching in the San Diego Gay/Lesbian Pride parade. How did we get here? There is so much history I could include, but I promise to only give you a few highlights. In June of 1972, the first openly gay person was ordained to the Christian ministry, Bill Johnson was ordained to the ministry in the UCC and he founded the UCC Gay Caucus. Nine years later in 1981 just prior to the Rochester General Synod of the United Church of Christ—the biennial business meeting of the denomination—about 25 Lesbians, Gay men and Straight Allies from all around the country gathered together to create a sacred space, where Gay and Lesbian UCC members could worship openly, struggle openly and strategize about a Gay and Lesbian presence at the upcoming General Synod. This was the First National Gathering of the Coalition.
I was fortunate enough to attend the second National Gathering in Ohio, where I was a young, outspoken, Christian lesbian, feminist of a mere 24 years old. I’d only been attending a UCC church for 2 years, previously having been a Roman Catholic. When asked by Bill to attend the gathering, I could not have imagined where the journey would take me. The following year General Synod was held in Pittsburgh, PA. I had never understood the concept of Baptism by Fire until that experience. I don’t really remember the National Gathering, because Synod was such an overwhelming experience for me. Bill Johnson was my guide. I was either following him around, learning the ropes or going where he or Jan Griesinger, the National Coordinator of the Coalition, told me to go. I was specifically asked to follow a particularly wretched pronouncement which, if passed, would have sent the UCC backwards disaffirming lesbian and gay people’s calls to ministry. The committee responsible for wrestling with this pronouncement decided to bring it to the floor with a recommendation that it be defeated, which is was, soundly.
During that same General Synod the Coalition had 6 of its own resolutions which it was shepherding through the committee processes, one of them was a call to local congregations to welcome the contributions and participation of gay and lesbian members. This resolution was tabled, which meant that it was dead in the water. Bill asked me to bring it to the local Coalition group in Massachusetts, where I was about to move to begin my seminary training, and see if we could re-write it into a better document and prepare it for the following General Synod. RoseAnn Olmstead, Marnie Warner, Susan Harlow and I took on the challenge to write a resolution, On Becoming an Open and Affirming Church. In 1984, the Massachusetts conference of the UCC passed this resolution sending it on to the General Synod. We all knew that a resolution coming out of a conference had a better chance of being taken seriously at Synod than one coming from an ad hoc group in the UCC, like the Coalition. And in 1985, a Coalition friend in Colorado, Susan Echo, brought the Massachusetts resolution to the Rocky Mountain Conference where it also passed. So in 1985 the General Synod had two virtually identical resolutions coming from conferences and history was made when General Synod 15 passed the ONA resolution. Today there are 820 active ONA congregations in the United Church of Christ; 30 out of 38 Conferences now have at least one ONA Consultant for their churches; and Congregations of United Black Christians, The Fellowship, and Pacific-Islander/Asian-American Ministries all have ONA Consultants.
ONA has come a long way in these past 25 years. Of course, Umstead Park UCC has an important place in this history.
I indicated earlier that Extravagant Welcome has become part of the new strategic plan of the Coalition. The mission articulated in the plan states, “The UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns is dedicated to living into Christ’s call for love and justice by working to transform the United Church of Christ, Christianity, and society into an expression of God’s extravagant welcome, especially for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and others who have felt excluded and alienated.” Wow!! And again Wow I say!!
Even though, as many of you know, I am no longer a member of the UCC, having converted to Judaism, I have and still love the UCC and for nearly 20 years worked tirelessly with the Coalition and the denomination for the cause of justice, this mission statement excites me. Wow!! To transform the world, not only the UCC and Christianity, but society—is this not indeed what we as Christians and Jews understand to be God’s hope for all humanity. In Hebrew the phrase we Jews understand to be this transformative goal is “tikkum olam” the repair of the world. And how best to repair the world but to offer an extravagant welcome to all who have been alienated and excluded.
As I have read the strategic plan, and it is available on the Coalition’s website, it needs more biblical and theological resources to strengthen its rhetorical power.
I chose the passages from James and Genesis this morning because they seemed to give insights into what it means to be a community which extends an extravagant welcome.
The Epistle of James is often overlooked in Protestant circles because of its focus on action, rather than faith. Some believe that James is actually antithetical to Paul’s pronouncement of justification by faith alone. Elsa Tamez, a leading protestant Latin American biblical scholar, finds otherwise. She says that it is only those who misunderstand and misinterpret Paul who see division and disagreement between Paul and James. Paul, Tamez asserts, insists that a system of law which is followed blindly enslaves, whereas if one is guided by grace and faith, then the fruits of the spirit will be born out. The works of justice are not in opposition to the justification by faith. The difference between James and Paul arise because it is not James’ intention to discuss justification. He is concerned with how the community of faith acts in the world and focuses on how faith cooperates with works. While we cannot know exactly what James understands by faith, as this is not he does not articulate this, we can know very clearly what he means by being “doers of the word.”
The community of faith must have unity and integrity, acting justly, having a consistency in hearing, seeing, believing, speaking and doing. Churches should be signs of God’s reign not acting out of their concern for self-preservation, which runs the risk of imitating the values of a corrupt society, but models of integrity. This integrity must be demonstrated through practice. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Duplicitousness is the opposite of integrity for James. Those who friends of the God of Mammon, “Adulterers” James calls them, are those who oppress the poor, the day laborers, the widow, the orphan and the resident alien for their own gain.
God, on the other hand, is the model of integrity. God acts consistently with the divine purpose for the marginalized in society: the poor, the widow, the orphan and the resident alien—offering an extravagant welcome. When James talks about the law of liberty it is indeed this integrity of just actions. He specifies what it means to “love ones neighbors” not leaving it up to our imagination or our own corrupt duplicity. Those who have been marginalized of the civil, social and political rights of the cities or regions in which they live are God’s beloved and those whom the churches must welcome.
Abraham knows that this welcome is life sustaining. The Law of the dessert required that one offer hospitality to the sojourner for three days. Without this welcome one could die in the dessert. So when we find Abraham in this passage by the Oaks of Mamre, he is seeking out the sojourner. The rabbis believe that Abraham had all the flaps of his tent open—in the heat of the day—so as to see in all directions looking for any who might have need. And it is at this moment of his purposeful intent that God comes to him. But in the very next verse three men appear. Are they connected to the first verse in the passage? Are these three men angels of God? Many commentators make this connection, but there is yet another possibility. Perhaps they were just visitors, in need of hospitality. We could interpret the beginning of this passage that Abraham sets aside his personal spiritual needs (communicating with God) to fulfill the commandment of welcoming guests. If it is a commandment to imitate God’s integrity, to be “doers of the Word” then Abraham fulfills this commandment with enthusiasm.
He runs to greet the strangers and bows low to the ground; rushes in to find Sarah so that she will prepare a meal. And while he says to the visitors “let me bring some water to wash your feet” and “a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves” he has Sarah take the choicest flour to make cakes, and kills a calf in order to make a feast. Abraham and Sarah’s welcome is extravagant. But they are not acting solely out of their own altruism, but from a clear knowledge of the commandments of God. God’s standards are clear, God’s integrity is one, an extravagant welcome must be extended to those who are in need—and who are those who are in need, the suffering, the marginalized, the oppressed, the leper, the widow, the orphan, the stranger.
So what is your call, Umstead Park United Church of Christ? You are Open and Affirming—now what? Where do you go from here? If the strategic plan of the Coalition is anything it is a clarion call to all to seek out those places of marginalization and oppression in the world and to find ways to transform them into the extravagant welcome God intends.
ONA is not a destination it is a journey, one that will not end until… well either the Messiah’s return or the Messiah’s coming. Remember, however, that you must be “doers of the word,” so talk, discuss, plan – and then act. Be the transforming power of God in the world, here and now in Raleigh, North Carolina.
May your names and actions be a blessing. Amen.