Extravagant Welcome Revisited

This week I am at a loss for words. It seems anything I might say to you, my friends and my colleagues in ministry, would be simply not enough. To say that our nation is at a critical juncture would be an understatement. Given all that has happened and considering all the lives lost in senseless violence over the past month – those whose images and stories find their way to the evening news and our social media feeds, and those whose faces and names will only be known to their close circle – I wanted to revisit a post I made in August 2014. I do this not to ignore the looming question of race and racism in America, but to remain authentic to my own research and expertise.

We would like to think that much has changed for LGBTQ folks in this country in the past two years. Since I made this post in 2014 the Supreme Court of the United States made marriage equality the law of the land in every city across this nation. We have seen support for marriage equality increase among Republicans (33%), Democrats (70%), and Independents (61%) according to the latest Pew Research Center report (http://www.pewforum.org/2016/05/12/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/). Yet, just a few short weeks ago I had to look into the eyes of a young man whose sister was gunned down in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and find a way to honor her and comfort his soul. I stood before a large crowd at the University of South Carolina and attempted to find words that might comfort, heal, and make sense of the senseless. Why? Because, as media has reported, the gunman was enraged by seeing gay and lesbian couples holding hands in public. In his small world and in his narrow reading of his own religion, there was no room to welcome LGBTQ folks. Despite the progress we have made on LGBTQ rights, much is yet to do. (If you want to read what I said at the memorial tribute, look for me on www.tumblr.com – username revkirkfoster.)

And in these two years since I first encouraged us all to understand the power of small welcoming gestures, across this land “religious freedom” laws have been passed and Christian clergy have extolled the actions of the gunman and of those who demonize and exclude lesbian women, gay men, transgender folk, bisexuals, and queer folk. The church still has a long way to go and so it is for these reasons that I offer a redacted version of my previous words.

No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. For many it may be a simple catch phrase, for others it may encapsulate their experience of and with the United Church of Christ, and yet still for others it may in fact be a transformative stance. Our words and our actions toward others not only shape our collective experience, but they impact an individual’s well-being. Consider for a moment that your simple act of welcoming a person into your faith community – a warm greeting, a genuine inquiry, a lunch invitation, a comforting embrace – actually makes a difference in someone’s mental health. Consider for a moment that your kind gestures to strangers outside the confines of your sanctuary walls impacts someone’s mental health. Indeed you have that kind of power!

Colleagues and I conducted a study of lesbian and gay Christian identity integration (the sample did not include bisexuals or transgender persons). Dr. Anne Nancy Vosler (wife of a retired UCC pastor), Dr. Sharon Bowland (who holds a graduate degree in pastoral studies), and yours truly have spent 3 years combing data in our efforts to understand the experiences of lesbian and gay Christians in the Church. Our article published in the American Journal of Community Psychology (Foster, Bowland, & Vosler, 2015) discusses lesbian and gay Christian spiritual resilience. Resilience involves the capacity to maintain competent functioning the face of major life stressors (Kaplan, Turner, Norman, & Stillson, 1996; Masten, Best, & Garmezy, 1990). It is a process of moving from risk to psychological and spiritual healing while developing competency to meet future challenges (Farley, 2007). For lesbian and gay Christians, religion/spirituality is an important source of resilience and participation in faith communities promotes psychological well-being (Lease, Horne, & Noffsinger-Frazier, 2005). Yet many LG Christians experience homophobia in the church; internalizing homonegative religious messages may lead a person to reject their sexual orientation (Halkitis et al., 2009) and can diminish any benefits of religion (Kubicek et al., 2009).

We found that the church, those faith communities that become our families of choice, are places where LG Christians integrate their spiritual and sexual selves. These are places where they build the resilience necessary to confront life’s myriad challenges, and experience the kind of healing only possible through presence with the Divine. Our participants traveled three different pathways to spiritual resilience – they found an affirming congregation; they found a “safe-enough” congregation; and/or they re-envisioned their dominant theological teachings. I won’t bore you with all the analysis, but I do want to share some poignant quotes that highlight the importance of an extravagant welcome into a faith community…

  • “I think it’s a necessary step for many people when they come out, to be told that the Bible doesn’t hate you.”
  • “Once you find a community that can love you, support you, and hold you, that gives you the strength and the courage to do the rest.”
  • “We learn more about each other all the time; we wrestle with each other, we disagree with each other. But ultimately we love each other and we return to each other.”
  • “We don’t know what to do at this point. I kind of like that because I wasn’t going to go in and change anybody, I just wanted a place where I wasn’t going to be judged.”
  • “I can be myself here. You don’t have to try to impress anyone or if you feel like crying, you can. If you’re mad about something, you can let people know and nobody’s going to judge you.”
  • “This church played a big part in me learning I can be out and loud and proud. You know, they were very accepting of me. You know…to have little old ladies accepting of me was…I know that sounds funny, but it was a different level of healing. I didn’t know that there were little old ladies that would love me.”
  • “I know I’m in community when there is room for all the pain along with all the joy.”

Many of our congregations struggle with how faithfully to approach the marriage question and full inclusion of LGBT persons. Many struggle with finding strategies to combat the religious hatred concealed in “religious freedom” laws. In the United Church of Christ we might think these matters are settled. After all, we did ordain the first openly gay clergy person in 1972, my dear friend and mentor Bill Johnson. But these matters are far from settled in towns and cities across the country where good people of faith struggle with scripture, tradition, and reason. Where Christ’s disciples attempt to make meaning in an ever-changing world. Where in the pews we are asked to see anew and don’t necessarily agree with the person sitting next to us. We struggle and, our findings show, even LG Christians find that struggle to be an important resilience building process.

“I didn’t know that there were little old ladies that would love me.” There was one such “little old lady” in my home church. Bernice was a feisty, grey-haired woman who affectionately called me her buddy after I diligently cleaned the fellowship hall kitchen during a confirmation class workday. I stuck by her that day and followed instructions to the letter, and for that I forever earned her trust an admiration. Bernice has since passed but her welcome smile left an indelible mark on my own experience of the church. She and I both retold that story a thousand times. It is a story about community. It is a story about affirmation. It is a story about inclusion. It is a story of welcome.

Our research shows, as hopefully demonstrated in the quotes above, that the church’s welcoming actions matter in tangible ways in the lives of real people. Your welcome does not go unnoticed. It not only makes people smile, it actually improves their mental well-being. For LG Christians, a welcome into the faith community helps mitigate the psychological distress experienced due to homonegativity experienced elsewhere in the world. Imagine that, caring words of affirmation and support changes lives. Isn’t that what the church is about? Is that what Jesus was all about?

My prayer is that we all find a community where there is room for all the pain along with all the joy. My prayer is that in the midst of all of the pain we are experiencing as a country, the church can be a witness for justice and a balm for wounded souls. My prayer is that, as one of my colleagues admonished, we get it right before we lose any more beautiful souls to senselessness.

Photo courtesy of the University of South Carolina.

References

Farley, Y. R. (2007). Making the connection. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, 26(1), 1-15. doi:10.1300/J377v26n01_01

Foster, K. A., Bowland, S. E., & Vosler, A. N. (2015). All the pain along with all the joy: Spiritual resilience among lesbian and gay Christians. American Journal of Community Psychology, 55(1-2), 191-201. doi:10.1007/s10464-015-9704-4

Halkitis, P. N., Mattis, J. S., Sahadath, J. K., Massie, D., Ladyzhenskaya, L., Pitrelli, K., . . . Cowie, S.-A. E. (2009). The meanings and manifestations of religion and spirituality among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults. Journal of Adult Development, 16, 250-262. doi:10.1007/s10804-009-9071-1

Kaplan, C. P., Turner, S., Norman, E., & Stillson, K. (1996). Promoting resilience strategies: A modified consultation model. Social Work in Education, 18(3), 158-168.

Kubicek, K., McDavitt, B., Carpineto, J., Weiss, G., Iverson, E. F., & Kipke, M. D. (2009). “God made me gay for a reason”: Young men who have sex with men’s resiliency in resolving internalized homophobia from religious sources. Journal of Adolescent Research, 24(5), 601-633. doi:10.1177/0743558409341078

Lease, S. H., Horne, S. G., & Noffsinger-Frazier, N. (2005). Affirming faith experiences and psychological health for caucasian lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(3), 378-388. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.52.3.378

Masten, A. S., Best, K. M., & Garmezy, N. (1990). Resiliency and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2, 425-444.

 

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