by Garrett B.
"When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19;33-34)."
At ConnECtion I experience getting together with old friends, sharing, feeling whole, all the things which I have come to expect at conference. ConnECtion sets me on a course of thinking and feeling, however, and I want to write about the strangers, the outsiders. EC draws in, embraces, and invites into healing many hurting people, and this is as it should be. Many people feel a profound sense of wholeness and belonging for the first time through EC. But some people feel as strangers, on the outside, people who need healing, who are not reached at EC. How do we invite people into this healing we have received, that Christ makes available? How can I invite people into healing? How can I reach the outsider and the stranger?
For me reaching out begins with remembering. If I am to have any connection with those who are hurting, I need to remember what it was like to hurt. But I find that I do not want to remember those old days and old terrifying feelings. To remember is to remember the loneliness and the shame. But that is part of my story so I must remember,
"...you were strangers in the land."
I remember feeling cold and hungry, looking at Christians in the Church and imagining I was on the outside of a banquet. They ate and enjoyed but I was left out. I remember feeling broken, unclean, untouchable and everyone could see that. I felt small, they would laugh or worse, they would disregard and just ignore. What I needed was someone to listen to me without judgement. I needed someone to reach out to me as a fellow human and respect me for who I was, as I was. I needed someone to give me space and grace while I worked out my life and made mistakes and learned to love myself.
Fortunately there were people who did that for me. They stayed with me even when I sometimes tried to push them away. I want to be that person of grace for other people who are hurting as I was hurting. But there is a dilemma: When I meet someone who is hurting, a part of me wants to reach out but a part of me resists. Sometimes I blame the person for being stuck in the place they are. Does the hurting person hear my judgmental attitude and know that I partially blame him/her for being stuck. Do they hear the words inside saying, "She should have the integrity to tell her friend!" "He should have the courage to leave his job."
Once I was stuck. I knew some of it was my own fault but I did not need advice or shame. I needed grace. So why does part of me feel the need to blame now, if not aloud, just within my own head? Is it fear? Am I afraid of being stuck again, afraid of not being in control, afraid of remembering the part of my story when I was an outsider. Afraid to admit that a time could come when I could be a stranger again, a time when I feel depressed, stuck, or powerless. I want to think that now I am so powerful, well adjusted, integrated that I won't be stuck again. Perhaps that is why I end up blaming the outsider for being outside. Can I learn to extend more grace? That's hard. Meditation helps. I want to remember the grace that God extends to me. I want to remember my own story, to be aware of my own ways of excluding people and face my own fear of powerlessness. Through meditation I pray and ask the questions: how do I extend grace? How can I be an advocate to the stranger? Can I love the outsider as myself?
The theme of ConnEction '97 was Weaving Community From Diversity. The idea was that while Evangelicals may have diverse opinions theologically, we can develop a supportive community and mission. I pondered the word diversity as I noticed a lack of visible diversity in the conferees. The majority of EC is white, gay, able-bodied and middle class. I wondered about the outsiders not there and furthermore, I wondered whether there were things we were doing in Evangelicals Concerned to exclude people? I wondered if EC might find ways to invite more people to its healing message? So who was not at ConnECtion '97? There were few people who identified as bisexual or transgender. People of color, lower socioeconomic status, and differently abled people were few.
These omissions raise several issues. First, is the issue that EC maintain its focus. It is, after all, an evangelical organization, and it has its primary relationship with people who identify with the evangelical worldview. However, many nonevangelical Christians show up at conference seeking a safe place to express their Christian faith and their sexuality. How do they feel at conference? Do we do things which tend to exclude or welcome?
Second, EC primarily ministers to those who are lesbian or gay. What about bisexual and transgender people? When people who identify as bisexual and transgender show up at conference, how do they feel? Do we do things which tend to exclude or welcome? People of color, those differently abled, or people of lower economic status are certainly within the focus of EC, so the issues here are different. If a person of color comes to conference and sees few other people of color, it is difficult for that person to feel comfortable unless extra attention and effort is made to reach out. Do we do this? Are we sensitive in our communication to recognize economic differences? Do we shy away from those of differing ability? We can often reach out simply by breaking the silence. Silence sends a powerful message of exclusion, and speaking sends a powerful message of inclusion.
What can we do? We can be explicit in our welcome of everyone at the beginning of conference. We could welcome evangelicals and nonevangelicals, bisexual, transgender, men, women, rich and poor; welcome those of color and differing abilities. Even though our focus is evangelical and our ministry gay and lesbian, we can recognize sister movements explicitly and affirm their value. This includes bisexual, transgender, questioning organizations and non-evangelical programs. They share common goals with us, and we can recognize that. We can have workshops which explore the goals we share. We can listen non-judgementally to other points of view and learn from them. We can have workshops on particular issues that African-Americans face as lesbian or gay Christians, or issues that Asian-Americans face. Special meetings or lunch table time set aside for people not familiar or necessarily comfortable with the evangelical label could be arranged. Have an optional compline each evening. There needs to be more sensitivity about our gender language. In our worship speech, God is "he" and we are "men." This is not a new issue in EC. Maybe we could have the discussion again, because putting theory into practice takes time. When we walk into a crowd, we can all be aware of our tendency to pay attention to our friends and to the beautiful, outgoing people first. Outsiders tend to be invisible. Do we greet and hug an overweight person the same way we hug a sculpted body? The mission of EC is too important to allow it to falter for simple omissions. These are simple things we can do, but they are important things that need to happen at ConnECtion '99.
Can you think of other ways we can be more welcoming? If so, write to the editor of thECable. Garrett and his partner Blake are active members of EC Pasadena