People are talking, talking ’bout people

So, I’m still trying to figure out all that I want to say here and if it’s worth your time to read. Of course it’s not going to be just my voice out here, there are tons of stories we are collecting to share but since we are kicking off this blog I’m still thinking deeply about how to curate the conversation. I’ve found that I work best when I process in discernment with others so I engage in lots and lots of conversations about what I’m writing before it ever makes it to the screen. It’s the same reason that the whole church thing works for me – I really am only whole as I am in community with others.

Anywho – earlier this week I was chatting via Skype with a dear friend, Jonathan we will call him, who has the privilege of a recent appointment to an evangelical, culturally relevant church in North Carolina. He shared with me his attempt at opening dialogue about same-sex marriage – just two days before the Amendment 1 vote and on merely his second Sunday as pastor of this congregation.  In his 21st century style of leadership he is trying to shift the Sunday worship to a more engaging, involved hour by  building intentional dialogue into the sermon. Taking a huge risk, he asked his congregation what they think about gay marriage.  The congregation heard three men who were willing to speak up – one who was “very liberal” who “had no problem, either theologically or socially” with gay and lesbian marriage.  A second man spoke up and offered that though he has a problem theologically he believes that “homosexuals should be afforded social equality.”  The third man held the conservative theological and social line that homosexuality is clearly a sin AND homosexuals should not be able to get married for it is an institution designed by God for one man and one woman.

You might be thinking, were there any gay folk present for this conversation?  Well, this is not exactly the church where you find a rainbow flag fluttering on the lawn so no, there were no gay or lesbian people present about whom the conversation was focused.

Now I’m incredibly proud of Jonathan for his courage to step out on a treacherous limb so early in his appointment. I even appreciate the willingness of the men who stood to speak, especially the two who took the risk of going against their community norm.  Pastor Jonathan was responding to a need he saw in his community as the momentum toward the Amendment 1 vote was cresting as he witnessed members posting a flurry of comments online. He feels that the heated climate of disastrous legislation forced the conversation but that it provided a much needed opportunity to build community while exploring something about which many have intense feelings.

What troubles me is the fact that those gathered were talking about people who were not present, not a part of the conversation or the community. Not only were there no gay and lesbian individuals there that Sunday but it is my hunch (and Jonathan could not contradict my notion) that the people speaking, and the people listening (except for Jonathan) did not actually know anyone gay and certainly didn’t have a relationship with the people about whom they were discussing. *

You know, it’s been said that all you ever really need to know you learn in Kindergarten, and I am pretty sure this is the wisest proverb I’ve ever heard.  Yesterday, while substitute teaching in a beautiful kindergarten class I had a conversation with a little guy that seems to sum up how I feel here.  It was the end of the day and some of his classmates had already hopped in cars with mom or dad and we were still waiting for his family to arrive.  He came up to me and told me that Samantha, who had just left, had hit him – she meant to do it and she’s not nice.  He wasn’t crying, he wasn’t visibly injured so I asked him to tell me more about what happened …and then stopped myself. I told him we should wait to all talk about it in the morning when Samantha could tell us her part. Maybe it was an accident, maybe it was on purpose, I couldn’t be sure, carpool is a jostley time (that’s a new Kindergarten phrase for ya). I told him it made me sad to talk about people when they are not around to hear and speak too. He harrumphed but did not argue as his parent’s black Volvo pulled up to the curb.

And it really is as simple as that – it makes me uncomfortable when people talk about others rather than talk with them.  I try my best to not fall into this trap but of course fail with some regularity – I do pray to be more graceful all the time.

In my Skype chat with Jonathan he went on to talk about how much work he has to do educating this congregation, theologically and socially. I know his heart is completely in the right place and  I get that it takes some straight people talking to other straight people about my humanity and equality for the whole conversation to move forward.  But in reality all the talking, all the theological unpacking of context and nuance in scripture, all the historical review of theologians who’ve contributed to the sexual anxieties of much of Christendom, all the civic lessons in separation of church and state are but a clanging gong without real relationship, without love. It is only by knowing a person, being in relationship with her to such a degree that your narratives overlap that hearts and minds become fertile for growth.

BUT…I’m  not just pointing a finger and saying “you don’t really knoooow any gay people do you?”  No, if relationship is the key then that means I have to take risks and be in relationship with people who don’t affirm my humanity.   It’s easier to stay ensconced in the carefully constructed social enclaves of my neighborhood, inner-city, LGBT groups and the UCC church.  It is far more comfortable eating with, praying with and being in relationship with people that I know are not going to hurl words like abomination or phrases like “love the sinner, hate the sin” at me.  But if I am not willing to take healthy risks and create relationships with others who understand God differently than I, how can I expect others to be willing to create relationship with folk like me?

I love Jonathan, he was dear friend of mine in childhood and adolescence but we drifted apart, due perhaps more to geography than theology. We are reconnecting and being intentional about our conversations – keeping grace at the center.  I know that he is going to be an amazing pastor and I hear the genuine work he is doing with good people.  I believe his motives are true and right. And he hears me.  As we’ve continued our discussion via Facebook I shared with him more about my discomfort with people being talked about in their absence.  He said “I agree with your point about how weird it is that we were talking about people who aren’t part of our community, dealing with them as if they were an “issue” – like voting on a bond issue or something. This is part of what made the vote so terrible, it is dehumanizing, asking people to vote on something that in no way affects their lives or the life of anyone they know.”

Worried that I was not fairly representing his community – that my efforts to process this all was clunky we talked more and he offered this: “I get what you mean about “clunky” but I think it is more a sign of how awkward and difficult and real and good this conversation is. Life is messy and doesn’t fit itself into neat conclusions. The truth is, we don’t have this figured out yet (maybe we won’t until the other side) but an important part (maybe the most important part) is modeling how brothers and sisters in Christ go about having hard conversations in constructive ways.”

And you know what, I feel like we are really hearing each other, thanks be to God.

I guess that’s a huge part of what this blog’s really about, not just sharing stories but a way of starting conversations and being open to risky yet potentially rewarding relationships. As each voice enters the dialogue and engages hard questions I hope we are all mindful of the multifaceted person on the other side of the screen, even if their words are infused with fear and loathing. As a beatitudes Christian, a follower of The Way, I really do often ask of myself and others – what would Jesus do? Seems the only answer I can come up with here is that I have to be willing to be open to compassionately enter relationship with others who in the end just might crucify me.

So here are my questions for you:
What do you think about conversations that are about people and not with people?
How are you creating space for risky relationships that might prove ripe with the fruits of the spirit?


* Please don’t read me as saying I dismiss the power of discernment in community, even if the spoken of are not present, or the absolute critical need for allies.  I am deeply grateful for people who, though they are not walking in my tatty Chuck Taylor’s, have faithfully joined the journey alongside folk who are struggling for a place at the table.  Without allies, both highly visible out here blogging, preaching and teaching in the public arena as well as those speaking up one family supper, bible study or walk with a friend at a time, I would not be able to raise my voice in the way that I do.   Just a few allies I treasure (truly an incomplete list, please add your own in the comments below): Bruce, Elizabeth, Jay, Melissa , Kathy, Cindy, Doug, Jessica, Michael, Anne, Grant, Margaret, Tony, Nadia, Patty & Gary, Rachel, Rep. John, Sheree, Kelly, Otis, Brian & Carol, Tommy & Kelly and thousands more. I promise we’ll talk more about allies another time.

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185 responses to “People are talking, talking ’bout people”

  1. Re the second of your questions, around here (suburbs of Chicago) I perhaps find it easier to be out as Lesbian than do you. Even so, in my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit, I tended to not include that part of my life in conversations with patients and families. There was one time I regretted it: I was with a family that I thought wouldn’t take my orientation well. At the end of the encounter, as I left to visit other patients, two women who were invited friends of the family mentioned “our son.” I was down the hall when I realized what they had said. This time, I was making the assumptions.

    What’s tougher for me is being out as transgender. My experience is that people make a lot of assumptions about my being gay, but they still let me be gay (although often they don’t let me be Christian in their minds). When they know my gender history, they too often deny my identity as female, as Lesbian, and as Christian.

    Still, I’m coming out trans to people as a way to have that conversation. I’ve come out at my work, Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS), my CPE unit, my church, and my association’s Committee on Ministry. I also wrote an article on transgender issues for chaplains (I’m told it will be published in Plainviews June 6).

    Yes, it’s risky. But taking that risk may make it less risky for our children – some of whom will be LGBT. As a parent and step-parent myself, this matters a lot to me.

  2. One thing bothered me throughout your discussion of Jonathan’s effort with his congregation: the assumption that there were no gay/lesbian/transgender/queer people present during the dialog. There almost certainly were, and if they chose not to contribute to the conversation, that says something about the level of safety they feel in what ought to be a very safe and sacred space. My further thought is that those who spoke up might themselves be gay/lesbian/transgender/queer people who still do not publicly identify as such, for their own good reasons. I am reminded of the activist’s button that I wore back in the 1970s: “How dare you presume I’m straight?” But of course, we do so presume, constantly, and it is sadly true that for many TLGB folks it is simply easier to allow others their presumptions than to battle ignorance or risk consequences that we may not be able to foresee, from prejudicial loss of jobs, housing, friends, family all the way up to physical violence that could cost us our lives.

    • Your are right to be bothered Lawrence, we should neve assume (what’s the old saying – assume makes an ass out of you u and me?) I did ask Jonathan and he confirmed that there are no LGTB folks part of the congregation as far as he is aware. He even is concerned about how to invite folks in. YOu are likely right that there are folks present who may be closeted to themselves or the community – which does speak volumes about the lack of safety. In the end though, even if closeted people are present there is no real relationship with people who are living fulling into who they have been created to be. Those debating about the rights of queer folk but have no relationship with people who are out and living openly do not have a full picture of the humanity of gay/lesbian/transgender people.

      That being said, I struggled with the conversation with Jonathan and with my post because I know I am still growing in my own understanding of this messy thing we call life 😉

      Keep reading and keep commenting – I learn best in community!

  3. Slow to the party here, but I love your answer: “[B]e willing to be open to compassionately enter relationship with others who in the end just might crucify me.”

    For those in insular communities, however, it can help to bring in outsiders we aren’t really in relationship with to share views. I was a tabla rosa on these issues in 1978 at age 18. My congregation was looking at the ordination debate in the old UPC(USA). It didn’t affect me, or so far as I was aware, anyone I knew. The pastor of my congregation brought in both gay seminarians looking to be ordained, and a conservative evangelical pastor opposed to ordination of gays, to discuss the issue. While the former made sense to me, and helped me see persons and not just an issue, it was the latter that made up my mind. His position made so little logical sense to me that I could only conclude the right choice was to allow “self-acknowledged, practicing homosexuals” to be ordained (and it “only” took 33 more years for it to happen).

    For someone with no preconceived notions about the issue, it was easier for me to come to what I believe is the inevitable conclusion a follower of Christ should come to WITHOUT being in relationship. Most of those I have seen SHIFT their positions, however, have done so in part as a result of being in relationship and being able to see people as people and not as issues.

  4. Kimberly,
    Something you said above hit me: “This is part of what made the vote so terrible, it is dehumanizing, asking people to vote on something that in no way affects their lives or the life of anyone they know.” A conservative friend of mine made this statement: The (liberal) church’s focus on GLBT issues is a form of cowardice that allows us to avoid anything really hard.

    I realize this ‘being talked about’ is lousy (no matter what group you identify with), but I wonder if there isn’t a form of avoidance going on in the church..

    I’ve been meditating on this for a few weeks. I wonder what would happen if a pastor stood in the pulpit and said “If you can afford a new BMW, how about buying a new Ford and giving the balance to the ministry of the Church. If you can afford a new Ford how about buying a used Chevy and giving the balance to the ministry of the Church. Or if you can afford a $600K house, how about buying a $300K house and giving the balance to the ministry of the Church.

    What if instead of fighting we adopted a broken community in our local context and set out to claim it for Jesus? And we got to know one another in the process.

    In Christ,


  5. Good topic. I get this a lot as a person of color, “How will we learn if you are not here?” is usually the lament from all-White groups. I think it is important for White folks to gather with other White folks in order to do some “in house” introspection about race. This should not happen all the time, but I think every group needs to have some time where they can feel safe to speak with others without explanation. This can, of course become dangerous if a group turns exclusive, but the burden of educating the majority/privileged cannot always fall on the shoulders of those over whom that privilege is held. So when it comes to LGBTQ conversations, for me, I must speak into and out of my Asian American male straightness in order to educate my own . . . while making sure that I maintain genuine relationships with those about whom we speak.

    • “…have some time where they can feel safe to speak with others without explanation.” – this speaks to me deeply and differently than I would have expected. You are right and when thinking about the safety of the group members speaking that does hit home and I very much want that for them. When thinking of the presence of “the other” I guess I don’t think of it so much as educating the Straight, White folks but more a chance for the squishy art of relationship building to make a difference for all parties. Genuine relationship is the essential element and I suppose knowing this congregation I felt prickly about the lack of relationships more than the lack of presence. The conversation here is helping me better understand the nuances and complexity of my own feelings which of course gives me insight to the complexity of feelings in those doing the talking.

  6. I feel the same discomfort here in my northern Canadian home when people talk about aboriginal issues, people who clearly have no understanding of the people and culture they are dismissing, criticising, or glamourising. I find that these type of conversations have to come back to the point that the people of whom we speak are all unique individuals with a story all their own, and to presume to know anything without knowing their story is presumptuous and hurtful.

  7. My thoughts are that, no matter what, it needs to be discussed. Open discussion educates people and brings it to the front instead of people just turning their back and acting like it isn’t a problem that needs solving. It is a HUGE problem, this lack of equality, and the more people we have talking about it in ANY setting the better. I understand it almost feels like ‘people talking behind your back’ but that surely isn’t the case since people are no longer ignoring. Maybe there are people who do not know anyone who is gay because there are no gay (or openly anyway) people in their community or church. Who makes the first move then? As you know this is something very close to my heart and it troubles me, the difficult road caused you by so many, but I feel not taking the opportunity to have open discussion would only hinder progress. Maybe that’s my naivety though. I am always in your corner.

    • You are right of course, dialogue is essential. My main concern is being discussed as an issue not as a person. In my blog I do criticize and challenge myself to be open to relationship with people who might not otherwise be in relationship with gay and lesbian people. For many that type of relationship is impossible, painful and even dangerous. For those who can, we must. But talking about “the issue” without knowing someone is simply incomplete.

  8. I understand your discomfort with conversations “about people not with people.” For me, my intent is not to dehumanize or gossip. When I engage in the type of conversation you describe, it’s to offer my thoughts on equal rights, and why I believe it’s wrong to deny gay Americans their civil rights. My hope, always, is that I can open a few people’s minds and hearts, and yes, maybe, even persuade them to see things as I do or at least get them thinking. I never really thought about this as being offensive. As usual, your words are thought-provoking and educational. I do believe that only through honest dialog will we see real change. Is it better for people to have some conversation, even if it’s only straight people talking to other straight people? And while I haven’t walked in your tatty Chuck’s, I know the feeling of being marginalized, and I don’t like it either.

    • Cindy,
      I do indeed believe that the conversation needs to to happen but perhaps the main difference here is that I happen to know you have relationships with gay people. And there is also a difference between a couple of people talking over the ideas and a room full of people discussing people as if they are merely an issue. Perhaps in the end it is all about intent, what is at the heart of the conversation, regardless of who is present. Sounds like love is at the center of your efforts and that is all we can hope for.