Andy and I are in conversation with ministry leaders throughout the country who are working in diverse and challenging endeavors  Being the emerging face of ‘church’ as the body of Christ. As co leaders of the Ministry Development work area for Church Within A Church, we explore the celebratory actions and the struggles of Being the church we want to see. Whether any of us feels that we are the outside other or the inside ministry leader seems to depend on the energy of the Spirit at that moment.  Evangelism truly is a queer triangle.

As the ordained minister for Rainbow Community Cares (RCCares), my work is deeply rooted in ministry development and church revitalization. Rainbow Community Cares has emerged from the praxis of neighborhood ministry begun in Schenectady, New York, and now is informed by participation in LGBTQ community organizations in Raleigh, North Carolina. An integral part of RCCares’ vision is to help heal the rift in our communities and co-create a safe place for community to grow.  The scriptural imperative to love your neighbor leads the way to the gatherings in which RCCares participates. The 2011 Equality Conference was one such gathering.

Congregating with over 80 participants at the workshop “Advocating for Religious Tolerance” that I led was awesome. The realization that so many people at a public advocacy conference gathering were interested in investigating this way of community reconciliation, and contemplating what that advocacy would entail, enfleshed the possibilities and the power of advocating for religious tolerance.  As the workshop began we got to work immediately, defining the parameters we hoped to explore in the following 70 minute session. The workshop was 1 of 5 workshops held during the third and final breakout session of the day. With no microphone, no markers for the posters and the dry erase board hidden behind the power point screen, our voices quickly and conscientiously moved around the room, filled to overflowing,  identifying who we were and naming ourselves as 1)contemplative, 2) a follower or 3) a leader.  There was a general mix from each category in the gathering, with several people who identified as fluid, spanning the categories to include two of the three choices.

Here was a group of people who obviously ranged in age from late teens to late 70’s, all with the courage, insight and hopefulness born of the need to be free to live fully, to be accepted by parents, family and friends, and to be treated with equality in community; their goal was life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The diversity of the group spanned such a range of spiritual practices to defy definition.  It appeared that we were a group of LGBTQA with a multi-varied perspective on what it meant to advocate for tolerance and we agreed early in the session to offer to the gathering bits of our stories that were to be gathered, and later compiled and then disseminated by email in December 2011. During group discussion, we listed what an allied religious organization might look like, and then spent a few minutes to individually write a sentence or two about a personal experience on an index card. As a group we discussed a couple of experiences, suggesting a responsive behavior a supporting allied religious organization could make, and then individually wrote a responsive behavior that each of us wanted to see related to our own experience on the other side of the index card. After reviewing how one might prepare for a meeting with a religious organization and practicing responses to the barriers and successes that what we might anticipate, the workshop culminated in a role play of an advocacy meeting.

Most of the workshop participants agreed that we needed another hour to really dissect the process regarding how to set up and carry out advocacy meetings as well as to explore further options for responsive behaviors in collaboration with LGBT community advocacy groups and ally religious organizations.  While this workshop was not designed to address all possibilities for advocating for religious tolerance, another topic of concern voiced by several participants was how to respond to religious intolerance at the moment of confrontation.

RCCares passion for leading advocacy work comes from seeing how religious intolerance enables judgment as harsh as using hell as a weapon to cut us off from those whom  we love and who love us, attempting to deny our common humanity and heedlessly bludgeoning families, severing individual  connections for self realization and friendships, effectively separating us from those we love.

Emotional damage perpetrated by religious beliefs and/or a narrowly prescribed definition of ‘morality’ is contagious as these toxins seep out into the public arena where community gathers. People who choose to nurture their spirituality in affirming ways as well as those who would choose to have nothing to do with religious organizations are assaulted in communal life by the results of this toxicity. Innocent bystanders are drawn into interfamilial strife which would not have occurred were it not for the introduction of that toxin.  Children may not come out to their parents because they have learned rejection outside of their homes and generalize that rejection to their own family. People justify striking out at others with hateful words or physical violence because those people have not heard a consolidated, communal voice denying them the right to create such ‘morality’ boundaries. We challenge this assumption in the work of advocating for tolerance as we reach out across our communities and throughout the country.

Outrageous and violent acts of intolerance, based on purported anti-LGBTQ biases due to ‘religious beliefs’, could not possibly be supported except via a virulent case of homophobia; i.e., a fear that goes beyond rational thought threatening one’s own belief system. There will always be people in this world who want to control the actions of others for a variety of reasons, attempting to refute a perspective other than their own, and a perspective with which they cannot empathize. On the one hand, there is the possibility that in our work advocating for religious tolerance we may encourage an increase in tolerance for diversity with those for whom there is potential for developing empathy and/or tolerance. On the other hand, there remains the responsibility to advocate for justice and equality where people’s human rights are minimalized and marginalized in our society solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity.  A small minority of religious organizations openly advocate for religious intolerance but  many more religious organizations are teaching intolerance through their disallowing recognition and/or speaking out against relationships the LGBTQ communities respect and honor.  This translates as a denial of full participation for the LGBTQ community in social activities throughout community interactions and relationships at work, in places of commerce, and at home. The work of prayerfully creating opportunities to reflect upon and advocate for religious tolerance is the beginning of the beginning to love neighbor as self.