For the last few days I’ve been in Portland, Oregon attending the Gay Christian Network Conference.
I took a small shuttle bus from my hotel to the convention center Saturday morning. I’d been walking those few blocks every day; but it was raining, and the driver was standing right there when I came outside. “Hey, wanna ride over there this morning?” he asked.
Four of us climbed in. Said hello to each other as we pulled away.
It was only a short ride to the convention center, a minute or two. We talked about what we’d find when we got there.
That family from Kansas— the ones with the hateful signs, the ones who like to make sure everyone knows they think we LGBTQ people are going to hell (and maybe taking a lot of the straight people with us)— would be picketing the GCN conference on this morning.
But the word was that local affirming congregations were coming together to create a “wall of love,” a human shield from the hateful phrases written on the picketers’ signs. (I love it that this Kansas family’s protests are so reviled that their counter-protests have an actual name!)
When I came out as lesbian in 1979, there was no wall of love. When I came out there was virtually no sense that a person could be “gay and Christian.” Instead I was convinced that most people, and almost all Christians thought LGBTQ people were sick and perverted. Many thought we were dangerous.
I don’t like to see photos or videos of this Kansas family with their signs, especially when younger members of the family are holding them. Seeing such unkindness on display reminds me how stunned and sad and lost I was when I realized that coming out meant losing my faith community. Seeing their children holding signs makes me realize that this misunderstanding will not be soon settled.
It was a traumatic experience, being a Christian and coming out as a lesbian, back in 1979. And as is often the case with traumatic experiences, it’s hard for me to shake it, to get over it. One trigger is all I need and the overwhelming feelings come at me like waves.
As the shuttle approached the front of the Oregon Convention Center, I saw a colorful group of about 100 counter protesters (the “wall of love”) lining either side of the walkway to the main entrance. But we drove past.
Apparently there was a specific place the shuttle was allowed to stop. Apparently this was right next to the picketers and their hurtful signs. A woman in the shuttle said under her breath, “Oh no, not here.” But the vehicle came to a stop.
My heart beat faster as I stepped onto the sidewalk. I allowed myself only one glance at them.
The four of us could have started along the walkway that led directly to a doorway. But as a group we turned and walked back along the sidewalk toward the colorful crowd.
Tears came to my eyes and my throat tightened up when I heard them singing. I could tell right away it was Siyahamba, the South African hymn.
We are living in the love of God, we are living in the love of God.
As we got closer that song ended and the crowd took up Amazing Grace. I pulled out my phone and set it to record a movie. I tried to shield the lens; it was pouring rain. I knew I would want something to help me remember the next few moments.
I set my jaw and began to walk through this 30-foot gauntlet of compassion and tenderness and mercy. I tried to simply cry quietly, and not be overcome by the swell of emotion tightening my chest.
It was a damp, chilly 50 degrees. Each exhale created a puff of fog. These beautiful beings had been here for two hours. They were singing and smiling and dripping and radiating Her love into the center path. The path I was walking. They called out:
Welcome to Portland!
We’re glad you’re here!
We love you!
And it was the truth. I was sure of it.
The wall of love had become a sanctuary.
The family from Kansas was forgotten. Their signs had become empty symbols. Even the ones that were held by their children.
Upon reaching the end of the wall of love, I turned and through my tears tried to imagine how I could ever explain to these 100 souls what a few moments in their presence had meant to me.
When have I ever been loved and showered with affirmation by Christians because I am a lesbian? When have 100 people ever come together with the express purpose of creating a few moments in which I could feel protected from the hatred and judgment I’ve waded through for thirty years.
Until one Saturday in January, in Portland, Oregon, when people of faith created a space in which someone like me could live and breathe in the love of God, if only for a few moments.
For a limited time, watch plenary presentations by Jeff Chu, Danny Cortez, Vicky Beeching, and Justin Lee on Livestream.