This post is written by Michael Kimpan, our Associate Director at The Marin Foundation.
Last month in cities all across the country, Gay Pride parades began as an annual commemoration of the Stonewall Uprising in June of 1969. In Chicago, over one million people showed up for the festivities as tens-of-thousands of rainbow-colored feathers and flags waved in support of those marching and standing on the floats passing by. Merchants sold colorful goods along the parade route. Gay and lebian parents walked with their children sitting atop their shoulders to see over the crowd.
These parades are nothing new.
And neither are the protestors.
Each year, a group of self-proclaimed ‘Street Preachers’ gather to demonstrate and protest against the Pride Parade. Their twenty-foot tall banners share hate-filled slogans as men stand on ladders and shout out crude insults and accusations at passers-by with the help of their bullhorns – the modern day equivalent to throwing the first stone.
These are the caricatures of an unappealing type of Christianity that have earned the church a reputation of being anti-gay, judgmental and hypocritical.
Yet there are some followers of Jesus who believe and behave differently – who love the gay community and are convinced God does, too. Who believe all people are created in the image of God and are both beloved and beautiful. These are those who not only welcome LGBT people in their churches, but have a message which stands in contrast to the condemnation spewed by venomous protestors.
The purpose behind the I’m Sorry Campaign is to apologize to the LGBT community for the ways Christians have caused harm, and to show our commitment to making things better in tangible ways. Our activism of love is nothing new, either. For the past several years, The Marin Foundation has shown up at Gay Pride parades in cities around the country. But this one is in our neighborhood. In our backyard. In Chicago. In Boystown.
Friends of the foundation came in from all over – we had guests staying with us from Minnesota. Texas. Pennsylvania. Tennessee. New Jersey. California. It was remarkable. Over 60+ people showed up in I’m Sorry t-shirts. For the first time, our team was able to gather in two separate locations – one at the beginning of the parade, and the other at the end.
Right in front of the protestors.
Directly behind us, on the other side of a police protection line, were the infamous Street Preachers - about a dozen protestors equipped with signage, each peppered with select scripture references disguised as weapons. Others included epithets which read things like ‘Penis Perverts‘ and ‘Anal Addicts‘ and ‘Labia Lickers.’ Though the clever alliteration continued, the 14 other names on the banner got progressively worse. Another listed a dozen Sexually Transmitted Infections, suggesting each was divine punishment for the crowd. Yet another declared all LGBT people were ‘worthy of death.’
Their ‘preaching’ wasn’t much better, as horrific accusations and name-calling in the name of Christ filled the air space and crept its way toward the crowd. Their words crushed my soul. For a moment our team stood there, soaking in the gravity of the moment, aware of the harm that was being done. And then we stood in between them and the parade. We had our own banner draped across the fence, holding our own signs. ‘Free Hugs.‘ || ‘God loves you.‘ || ‘We love you.’ || ‘I’m sorry for the sins of my church.’ || ‘I’m sorry – I used to be a bigot.‘ || ‘You are beautiful.‘ || ‘God loves everyone.‘
Most of these were made from cardboard boxes a nearby store manager had given to us – ‘You guys are the I’m Sorry people?!?! I’ve got LOADS of boxes in the back – take as many as you want!‘
As the parade continued, the cheers of the crowd drowned out the shouted ‘sermons’ of the protestors, whom eventually settled on a repetitive chant :: ‘Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Sick! Sick! Sick!’
We stood there for nearly four hours. As the hundreds of people in the parade walked by us, their reaction was stunning. High-fives, tears and heart-felt hugs, along with countless ‘Thank you‘s. Several folks lingered and engaged in snippets of conversation, each expressing a gratitude which shook me to my core.
Toward the end of the parade, these emotions of those participating in the march were increasingly evident. I stood awestruck at the expressions on people’s faces as they would look at the protestors and their signs, and then see us and ours – as if we were an oasis of love in a desert filled with hate. A refuge.
One woman in particular – with blue hair – hugged me with startling desperation as she sobbed in my arms and thanked me again and again. ‘I’m simply treating you like a decent human being,’ I thought. I didn’t understand.
And then the next day happened.
The evening following the parade, I went out with a group of people after an event put on by The Marin Foundation at our community LGBT Center. As is often the case at our events, this group represented the diversity of all shades on the spectrum of faith and sexuality – straight folks, gay folks, evangelicals and atheists, and everything in between. This is the tension in which we engage and live and love. As I connected in conversation, a lesbian woman from across the table looked at me. ‘You – you’re the guy from the parade – you’re with the I’m Sorry people. I needed you guys yesterday. THANK YOU.‘
I thanked her and introduced myself, humbled by her elevation of the importance of me holding a simple heart-shaped sign made from a cardboard box. She continued, ‘No, you don’t understand. I remember you.‘ She took off the hat she had been wearing to reveal her pixie haircut – with. blue. hair.
After we’d established that we did indeed remember one another, she told me the story of the events that led to our encounter the previous day, answering the question of why she was so moved by our signs of love. ‘I’ve gone to the Pride Parade for years – and the protestors are always there. That’s no big deal – it’s nothing new. But what happened to me this year has NEVER happened before, and it completely caught me by surprise.’
She proceeded to tell me that, unbeknownst to our I’m Sorry Campaign crew (and quite likely unbeknownst to the Chicago Police Department), one of the ‘preachers’ had made his way past the protected security area and slithered up against the fence of the parade, pretending to be just another spectator. As he held out his hand feigning attempts at awaiting high-fives just thirty yards up the route from us, he grabbed people’s arms and pulled them in close – then he’d whisper, ‘You’re disgusting, and you’re going to burn in hell, pervert.‘
She was stunned.
My new friend described how she had been ambushed by these words, having been unexpectedly yanked from a place of supposed safety into a space of condemnation. It was as if she had the very life sucked out of her. She moved forward along the parade route, attempting to shake off the accusing words whispered into her ear. You are disgusting. You’re going to burn in hell. Moving forward on the parade route brought her within earshot of the ‘official’ protestors with their shouting and their signs and their slogans - whore! pervert! homo! hell! shame! sick!
And then she saw us, standing in the gap – standing behind a different banner, wearing t-shirts and holding signs with a different message - I’m Sorry. You are loved. You are beautiful. God loves you. We love you. She held onto me tightly with tears streaming down her cheeks, then moved to each of us along the fence. With each hug she heard these words - You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.
And in that moment, amidst the shouts of shame from the protestors and even in the wake of the underhanded whispers of another, she heard – above all else – words of love that healed her wounded soul.
I wondered how many other folks had been yanked into an unexpected condemnation – literally or figuratively – by those claiming to carry a message from Christ. With over a million people in attendance, chances are quite a few. Yet it is my hope – and my prayer – that LOVE is louder. At least for one, it was…and that made all the difference.