Charleston and Billings

Charleston and Billings August 25, 2010

The day of the big vote came and, as an intern, I was assigned the task of checking off delegates' names after they had voted.

This was a Baptist gathering — the biennial convention of the convention — so the vote was largely symbolic. Baptists don't have a formal hierarchy. We don't really even have "denominations" per se. But Baptist churches are loosely organized in conventions where we work out the ways we cooperate on collective efforts like the commissioning of missionaries or the electing of officers for our pension boards or getting bulk discounts on hymnals and flannelgraphs.

We also vote on "statements of concern." These are public statements, but they're not binding on congregations or on the individuals who are members of those congregations. Their only real force is to say that on this day, in this place, X number of Baptists gathered and said Y with one voice.

But to say that something is symbolic is not to say that it is meaningless. Nonbinding, symbolic resolutions can mean a great deal — particularly if what they're resolving is to condemn who you are as a person.

This particular biennial gathering was abuzz over one especially controversial "statement of concern" on homosexuality. It called on Baptists to reject "the homosexual lifestyle, homosexual marriage, ordination of homosexual clergy or establishment of 'gay churches' or 'gay caucuses.'"

It also served, like most religious fights around this matter, as a proxy war over how and why we read the Bible. Proponents were pushing this statement, hard, as yet one more way to assert that the Bible is infallible — by which they meant, necessarily, that their interpretive scheme and the interpretations it produced were infallible.

I didn't agree with the way they were insisting the Bible must be read. Nor did I like their apparent willingness to treat gay people as nothing more than proxy pawns and cannon fodder for their culture war. The proponents said they were standing up for truth and righteousness, but they just seemed mean.

That meanness revealed itself further among the various speakers who rose in support of this resolution. Their short speeches tended to expand on the implicit fears and mythologies hinted at in the euphemistic statement itself. Those code phrases like "homosexual lifestyle" were unmasked further in all their ugliness.

The debate had the air of a witch hunt. I wanted to be elsewhere. I wanted to say something, but it wasn't my place or my role there to speak and I wouldn't have known what to say anyway.

So the day of the big vote I made an armband with a pink triangle on it and tied it to my sleeve. No one asked me what it meant, and I'm not sure how I would have answered if they had. I went about my intern business, making copies and distributing folders as the final debate on the resolution proceeded and no one said anything to me about it all day.

Well, almost no one. Coming back from lunch, I held open the door to the Charleston, W.Va., convention center for a group of delegates walking behind me. One woman smiled and started to say thank you, then suddenly puckered up into a scowl and just sort of grunted before pointedly walking to the other set of doors. By that point I'd forgotten I was even wearing the armband and it took me a moment to figure out what I'd done to offend her.

The conclusion of the debate was depressing and the vote itself even more so. I dutifully sat at a table off to the side, crossing off names as the delegates cast their votes and then, as soon as  it was over, I ducked away to a back room where some of the other staff were awaiting the final tally.

"So what's the deal with the armband?" one of the execs asked me.

I tried to tell him. I talked about the occupation of Denmark during World War II, and how the king helped to protect the Jews of that country by donning the yellow star himself and urging all his people to do so too. (I didn't realize then that this story was just a legend — one which, as Snopes describes it, is "not true in its specifics" but "true enough in spirit.")

"So you wore that to show people that you think you're the king of Denmark?"

"No, I just … I thought I should …" I gave up and took it off and sat there, silently, until word came that they were posting the results of the vote on the big whiteboard in the hall.

A large crowd was gathered in a semicircular mob as the woman in charge of tracking such things wrote the final tally on the board: 1,124 yes; 539 no; 46 abstentions.

It wasn't even close. The anti-gay resolution had passed by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Meanness won. Maybe it was just symbolic, but it didn't symbolize anything good or anything I could feel proud to be a part of.

I just stood there, staring at the board as the crowd began to disperse — two thirds of them celebrating their latest culture-war victory, the other third looking sad.

"You took it off."

I realized someone was talking to me and turned to the old man. "The armband you were wearing," he said. He looked very tired. "You took it off."

I nodded.

"I just wanted to say thank you. That meant a lot."

"Oh …" And before I could think of anything to add to that he smiled a sad smile and walked off.

Symbolic, but not meaningless. But not adequate, either. Whatever it was I was trying to do didn't work mainly because, unlike the righteous Danes of that legend, I was trying to do it alone.

A few years after that Baptist gathering in Charleston, we got to see how this is done properly.

Billings, Mont., got hit with a wave of hate crimes — racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, vandalism and bomb-threats directed at a local synagogue. This was during Hanukkah, and windows were broken in houses displaying the menorah.

So volunteers painted over graffiti. They printed up thousands of paper menorahs and almost everybody put them up in their windows.

And then they did this beautiful, beautiful thing:


The closer you look at that picture, the cooler it gets. Symbolic and not just meaningful, but power-ful.

This ad hoc response eventually formed into a movement of sorts called Not In Our Town.

The original Billings group is still active, and there's a national organization too, which I've linked to in the sidebar via the picture of the minaret and crescent moon, because this time it's not menorahs. (I originally posted that photo-link under the name of the group, "Not In Our Town," but then I worried that it looked like the opposite of what I was trying to convey there.)

I added that link because, just now in America, the lessons and example of Not In Our Town seem particularly important.

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