When I taught in the Boston Public Schools, one of my colleagues who became a friend was a man named Ed, who was a good eight inches taller than I was, in much better shape, and always had on a coat and tie. He is also African-American He told me a story of driving his friend’s BMW on the Southeast Expressway and being pulled over by a white cop who approached the car with his gun drawn and yelled, “What’s a n—–r like you doing driving a car like that?”
That has never happened to me, and the reason is because I’m white. In fact, I’m white and male and straight – the trifecta that means I know way more about privilege and access than I do about exclusion.
I have never had someone follow me around in a store because they were convinced I was going to shop lift just because of my skin color or appearance. I never had anyone write hate slogan on my school locker or trash my house because of who I was. I’ve never walked into a church and worried about whether or not I was welcome to worship. When Ginger and I married, we didn’t have to worry about the legality of our choice.
I mention all those things because they came to my mind as I sat at church Saturday afternoon in the middle of our church’s marking of our tenth anniversary as an Open and Affirming congregation, which means everyone is welcome regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. And they all came to mind when our speaker, Yvette Flunder, asked, “How do we include those who can’t hide the essence of their marginalities?” I thought about them as I talked to one of the members of the Common Woman Chorus, who sang as a part of the celebration, who grew up in church as a child but had not been in years because of the rejection she had experienced once she disclosed who she was. I watched as she tried to take in that church could actually be a loving and accepting place.
I spend a fair amount of time reading blogs and articles about the church, and I work hard to read across the spectrum that is Christianity. I have to say I think I am more discouraged than comforted by what I read because so much of what is written and said comes from a defensive posture, as though we need to stack sandbags around us to protect all that is good and right and true from the flood of all the things we have chosen to fear. I keep thinking about one of the first verses I ever remember learning in Sunday School: “Perfect love casts out fear.” (Right along with “God is Love” and “Love everyone as I have loved you.”)
I keep thinking about Jesus’ parable of the banquet where the invitations go out and all those who normally are included and used to seeing their pictures on the Society Page beg off with I-have-t0-polish-my-bowling-ball kinds of excuses. When the servants come back and the one throwing the party sees all the empty seats, he tells them to go out and invite any and everyone, to out “into the highways and the hedges and compel them to come in.” They fill up the room with those who reek of the essence of their marginalities, and a good time was had by all.
I have always imagined Jesus finishing the story and yelling, “All ye, all ye ox in free,” with a big grin on his face. The church Jesus imagined was one that made room for everyone, regardless. Everyone. The power of love that broke down barriers between Jews and Greeks in the early church; that saw a church in Jackson, Mississippi go from one that hired armed guards to keep black people out in the Sixties grow into a multiethnic congregation today; the power of love that fueled the passion of Martin Luther King, Jr. to say we could not afford to wait anymore for change to come; that called our congregation – along with many others — to be Open and Affirming; and that drives Amar, a man we met last Friday, to work to find work and housing for Nepalese refugees who are coming to Durham; is the same love that casts out fear, foments hope, and issues audacious invitations.
It was the love that was alive and well in our church this weekend. My heart is still full of the hope and joy I felt in that service, and in the one that followed on Sunday morning. And I have had a hard time finding words to write about it because I keep looking for words that build a bridge between the Baptist world that led me to faith in Christ and my home in the UCC, where that faith led me, words that would incite inclusion all around in Jesus’ name. I think back to my days as a youth minister and wonder who we might have reached had our youth group been decidedly open and affirming. We were a welcoming bunch, for sure, yet I still wonder.
What I heard again this weekend was if those at the margins are going to find their way into the circle it will be because those of us on the inside decided to make room. And I, the straight white Christian male, am about as inside as it gets. I am called to go out into the highways and the hedges, to make room for everyone I can, to love and love and love, to listen and not to judge.
I am open and I am willing
for to be hopeless would seem so strange
it dishonors those who go before us
so lift me up to the light of change
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: when I stand before God to account for my life, if God says, “Why did you let so many people in?” I’ll take the hit. I can live with that. If God were to say, “Why did you keep closing the door when I intended there to be room for everyone?” I couldn’t take it.