In addition to the two basic parts of General Convention—legislative committees and plenary sessions in each house—there are many, many opportunities for meetings and gatherings that happen on the side. Some of these are quasi-official like a seminary dinner and others are purely casual like three friends getting together for a drink one evening. Sometimes they are carefully planned, but often they just happen with no planning whatsoever. Yesterday, I went to a beautifully orchestrated lunch that delivered much more than food.
There is a group within the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion called the Chicago Consultation. Their mission is to “[support] the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.” Right away, that should tell you that there was an agenda for our meeting, but, given our church’s highly publicized debates over human sexuality, that description, which is taken from the Consultation’s website, probably suggests a gathering that involved a heavy-handed and highly political presentation. It did not.
Instead, we gathered around tables for a meal and heard stories from the rector and some parishioners at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas. And they were just that—stories. No one asked me to support any resolutions. No one claimed that a particular direction is right for the church. No one wanted to know whether I was on his side. The Consultation simply wanted to present some stories about how an individual congregation has become a church that welcomes and includes people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The stories we heard were powerful examples of grace and love. Although I admit that it isn’t unusual for me to tear up in a sentimental setting, I found myself repeatedly wiping my eyes during our meeting. That wasn’t because the individual’s tales were particularly heart-warming, though they were. I was emotionally hooked by the experience because it was one of overwhelming, life-changing, genuine-resurrection grace.
One of the people who told their stories is a transgendered man who now lives in Michigan. Born female, he reached a point in his life when the conflict between his biological sex and his psychosocial gender became too much to bear. Once an angry, wounded young woman, his outer appearance and inner identity are now united as a healthy, happy man. After he and his mother spoke, the rector, Lowell Grisham, talked about what it meant for their church family to welcome him as a part of their congregation. And that’s what really got me—imagining a church that really was a “safe place” for someone who needed it.
There’s a lot more, I’m sure, to the issue of gender identity than I am qualified to write about. And I’m positive they could have said a lot more about it at our lunch. But that wasn’t the point. They simply wanted us to hear a story of how a parish has claimed an identity as a “safe place” that, as all the participants from St. Paul’s put it, doesn’t judge those who walk in the door. When I let myself imagine what it must feel like to walk into a church that welcomes someone who feels so discounted in many other areas of society, I cried.
The rector reflected that he watched the now transgendered individual change before his eyes from someone with a bent-over posture of fear into an upright, self-confident child of God. Although he didn’t make the reference explicitly, I immediately thought of Jesus’ encounter with the bent-over woman in Luke 13. In the story, Jesus calls to the middle of a synagogue a woman who had been literally bent over by the weight of demonic oppression, and he sets her free, enabling the woman to stand up for the first time in eighteen years. As a church family that shows love and grace to someone who doesn’t find it in many other places, that congregation enabled that man to stand up straight and be set free.
Regardless of my political leanings on issues of human sexuality or gender identity, I feel called by God to be the kind of priest and pastor who says to anyone who walks through the door, “This is a safe place. Stand up straight. You are loved by God, and we love you, too.” Everyone needs a safe place. Perhaps there is a suggested political response to a gathering like yesterday’s lunch, but, for now, I choose to leave it behind because I don’t want to cloud the waters on what was an otherwise crystal clear presentation. I want to be a part of a church family that welcomes and loves people. I want to be in the resurrection business.