Avoiding difficult conversations about gender issues within a congregation can seem to be smart. Nobody gets their feelings hurt, or is put on the spot, or embarrassed by their own words. There are no shouting matches over church policies. Teenagers processing their identity are not put in a difficult position. Family members who disagree with each other can peaceably coexist. Pastoral careers are not jeopardized. However, neither is any progress made in understanding each other. People who feel ostracized, continue in that mode. The deep divide between people just gets deeper.
Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Mark 4:23
Recently, I attended “A Sanctuary for Conversation: Listening, Loving and Learning” held at the Glendale Adventist Medical Center in Glendale, California. There were about 100 other people at the event from a variety of congregations across Southern California, so I didn’t feel like the only stranger in a room full of people who all knew each other. Over four hours we had fun getting acquainted, listening and learning from each other. This was not a lecture event. After a few active learning exercises that served as mixers, we ended up at round tables with different people and then spent a little time getting acquainted with the person seated next to us.
The Adventist Church is to educate its members about sexuality and purity within the context of grace.” —North American Division (NAD) Statement on Human Sexuality
We each received a workbook of valuable resources for our conversations. There was a glossary of useful terms, key documents voted by the church, charts from a survey of Adventist LGBT+ Millennials showing the impact of family acceptance or rejection, diagrams about the genderbread person to help people better understand identity, expressions, and biological sex, plus an appendix of materials from a variety of published sources, including church welcoming statement samples. Intriguing quotes were sprinkled throughout.
If we err, let it be on the side of mercy.” —Ellen White
Chris Blake, the recently retired English professor from Union College who developed the workbook and the workshop, led out. He did short informative interviews at key points during the program with a couple of local LGBT+ people. They each told compelling stories about their journey. One of the toughest questions for each of them was wondering if God loved them. “Would God love her if she came out?” wondered the third- generation Adventist woman who came out in her 40’s. “Will God love me for my authentic self?” was the question of the biracial man whose father’s way of talking about the issue was to lecture him for six hours in a one-sided conversation. He remembered crying and telling God, “I need you now!” Blake made sure to keep things on an even keel. “What is the funniest thing that has happened to you?” he asked. One response was that a friend had commented to the woman, “There’s a lot of letters to your group, Hi, alphabet people.”
The first duty of love is to listen.” —Paul Tillich
In another section of the program, a psychologist was interviewed and he explained the meaning of some of the terms used to describe gender identity and expression. There was also discussion of what it means to be a welcoming church. The workbook includes a chart of six signs of a safe church as well as six signs of an unsafe church, followed by a page to write down a personal action plan on steps to take to help one’s church be a sanctuary for conversation. That was followed by writing down practical steps to pursue to become a safe and brave church. The first item was already filled out: “Form a team to create a personalized welcoming statement for our church.” Certainly, discussing a welcoming statement would move the conversation along. In the workbook, there is a welcoming statement from the San Luis Obispo Adventist Church that reads:
At the San Luis Obispo Adventist Church, we are committed to our mission of ‘Becoming the presence of Christ in our community.’ Jesus did not shun any group of people, but was willing to engage everyone.
God’s love is broader and deeper than we can fathom. A sense of belonging in the church should, likewise, be open and generous. Because all people are created in God’s image, Christ’s love extends to everyone. All are welcome to engage, participate, and serve in our church community.
We embrace the challenge of being a diverse community which encourages dialogue and welcomes questions, as we continue to identify the ways God is at work in all of our lives. We believe this will ultimately enrich us and be a witness for the kingdom of God.
The Glendale conversation was the fourth time Blake has moderated this “Sanctuary Conversation.” One of the first times was for North American Division pastors in 2015. Reflecting on my experience, it seemed to be a great way to have a difficult conversation that we need to have in all of our congregations. We are losing a generation of people because we don’t want to have such a conversation. Talking with a Catholic friend, I learned that her parish wants to have this kind of dialogue, but doesn’t know how to begin. We are blessed that materials are available to assist with this conversation completely within the guidelines of the Adventist church’s understanding of the issue.
We have many lessons to learn and man, many to unlearn.” —Ellen White
Further Reading: Workshop Offers the 96% a Chance to Listen — A Spectrum interview with Chris Blake
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
Image Credit: https://opendialogueresources.org/
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