By: Venida Rodman Jenkins
In May of last year, I got to share a sermon partly birthed out of the experiences that my husband Todd and I had while living in Jersey City — and then in Connecticut where we worshipped in a very special church started by the late Rev. Nancy Carroll Butler.
The church is called … wait for it … Riverfront Family Church! like The River NYC, Riverfront is a place that is welcoming of all people, from all faith traditions, and all social identities. It is a community of faith that helps individuals connect with God, themselves and others in a safe and brave space of liberation, encouragement, and an abundance of unconditional love.
During our time in New England, I was also connected to a dear friend and colleague Fleurette King who trained me in my first safe zone training nearly 10 years ago. Safe Zone is a training that helps schools and other institutions create inclusive environments for the LGBTQ community.
Since that time, Fleurette has always been patient and supportive of me as I’ve stumbled, made mistakes and asked questions in an effort to make sure that my ally-ship is authentic and informed for this community.
I am now responsible for coordinating this same program for students, staff and faculty at New Jersey City University, as well as the surrounding community of Jersey City.
This message is dedicated to the people who have shared with me that they identify within the LGBTQ community — but no longer connect with their faith because they were told they couldn’t own their sexual orientation or gender identity, and have a relationship with God.
This message is also dedicated to all of the people who identify within the LGBTQ community, but are still working in churches where they can be active but not out, those who are in churches where they are only welcome to be present, but not fully included.
This message is dedicated to the life and legacy of Pastor Nancy who taught me Fleurette — in numerous ways — how to be a pastoral ally and a neighbor to the LGBTQ community.
First, I’d like you to watch a video that many of you will probably recognize:
This video is from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood – a popular children’s show that ran from 1968 to 2001, with 895 episodes. I loved to watch this show. The host was Fred Rogers, a performer, composer, author, an ordained Presbyterian minister, father, and grandfather, who was committed to helping young children love and appreciate themselves, love others, and essentially be a good neighbor.
As you may remember, Mr. Rogers covered a broad range of topics over the years, and the series did not shy away from issues that other children's programming avoided.
Today we’re going to be dealing with an issue that many communities of faith are struggling with or avoiding altogether. I wanted to avoid the topic of LGBTQ inclusion for a very long time. However, in recent years, I’ve been able to “come out” as an ally, a friend, and a neighbor of this community which continues to experience oppression and marginalization from within the church and without. In connecting with those who identify, organizing, doing the work of advocacy, and working to be a good neighbor to the LGBTQ community, I believe that their heartfelt cry to you, and to me could sounds a little like Mr. Rogers, “Won't you please, won't you please, Please won't you be my neighbor?”
This is why I believe it is important to be intentional about welcoming LGBTQ individuals into the family of faith. As we visit Luke 10, we see Jesus bringing clarity to the law and once again flipping the script and making a countermove by actually getting this expert in the law to essentially answer his own question.
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus…without it seems any indication of hostility - “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This Jewish understanding of eternal life that he’s referring to is a question about how do I live with God now? How can I experience God now? How can I live a life that is connected to God in a meaningful way? How can I live so that I experience his abundant joy, grace, goodness, and all of the beautiful things that flow out of being connected to Him. So Jesus answers with a question…
26 “What is written in the Law of Moses?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
I was always taught to never answer a question with a question, however in many cases, especially when facilitating discussions on LGBTQ and other diversity topics, I find myself taking a lesson from Jesus and posing questions back to the individual and/or the group.
Well, the lawyer answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Jesus draws this connection between inheriting or receiving eternal life with this commandment. He said, if you really want to live, not just take up space, but live, not simply breath, but live in the here and now…then Love God with all that you are - your heart and soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. If you do this, you will experience abundant life – goodness, peace, joy, and this, my friends, is life in all its fullness. It’s not earned but received in the context of love.
And then the lawyer poses another question…wait a minute, “who’s my neighbor?
I feel like Jesus is saying, I’m glad you asked…and then He begins this parable (which Jesus did quite often), a story which illustrates a particular principle or lesson. This is the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
There’s certain man who is on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a stretch of roadway that was known to be unsafe as the surrounding desert allowed for easy escape and provided a secure place for hiding. So some robbers come along and attack this man – they stripped him of his clothes, beat him up pretty badly, and leave him on this road half dead.
To summarize a priest (religious leader, upperclass) comes along, sees him in that condition (bloody, half naked and half dead), and essentially says, “deuces,” and passes by on the other side.
Next, a Levite (served particular religious duties) comes by and sees this man in this broken down condition, crosses to the other side and essentially says, “I’m out.”
Next, a Samaritan (strained relationship with the Jews) comes by, and sees this half-dead man. He takes pity on him, treats his wounds with oil and wine, bandages them up, and then he put him on his donkey, brings him to an inn and takes care of him. He asks the inn keeper to look after him and when he gets back, he will pay the bill.
Jesus asks the expert in the law, who was the neighbor? The one who had mercy on him. (This was probably the one that he least expected to neighbor.) And Jesus said go and do likewise.
This parable caused me to ask who do we choose to see and who do we choose to not see or ignore? I went many years choosing not to see the LGBTQ community. They were invisible to me. They were there, but not really there.
I recognize that this issue is still a disputable matter in the church (similar to ordaining women and divorce). Pastor and author Ken Wilson, a friend of this church, talks about this topic in his book, Letter to My Congregation which I recommend as a good read. There are respected theologians who could deconstruct scripture and eloquently argue for their inclusivity and those who could interpret the same verses in different ways and argue against affirming this community in the church. I personally have found freedom and joy in truly loving the LGBTQ unconditionally. I thought that I was loving them at one point, but I was only skimming the surface. The more that I have connected with God on this issue, the more real my relationship with God has become. As I mentioned earlier, it has helped me live life to the full.
It hasn’t been easy, I’ve had to take one for team. Actually I’ve had to take a few for the team … people have distanced themselves from me, I’ve lost friends, I’ve gotten yelled at and a finger pointed in my face in the process of advocating for those who identify.
If you feel bad or sorry for me, please don’t. I still have unearned privilege that the LGBTQ community does not have. My husband Todd and I are able to walk down the street holding hands, showing public displays of affection without fear of being killed … yes killed. I can go to the movies and almost always see my heterosexual relationship reflected and represented in the storyline. I don’t think twice about putting pictures of us in my office or sharing what I did over the weekend. It’s safe for me.
As it relates to social identities though, I’m still an African-American woman who experiences some form of marginalization on a daily basis. However, I’m using my heterosexual privilege to create access and to give voice to members of the LGBTQ community. This is quite perplexing to one of my friends who was curious about my LGBTQ advocacy. “I thought you supported black people,” she said. Well what about blacks who identify within the LGBTQ community?
The reality is that my liberation is connected to the liberation of other oppressed groups. My friend coined the term that I’m an intersectional activist. I live when I help others live.
As I share my personal journey of loving, supporting and advocating for the LGBTQ community I still get things wrong, but I still continue to check in with people, in a respectful way, for clarification when I have questions.
I believe that if we are to love God with our entire being, and then love our neighbor as ourselves, then we have to ask God to help us truly see those who are LGBTQ.
If we see them, similar to the certain man in the verses we read, beaten up by federal and local laws, asked offensive questions, forced to endure off comments, hurt, stripped of their humanity and dignity, and left broken, then we do them a disservice when we pass on the other side of the street. The emotional and psychological scars that some members of this group have endured – and continue to endure – are great.
In addition, transgender women of color are suffering violence at record numbers. Let me share some statistics so you know how serious this is. Human Rights Campaign has reported that in 2016 advocates tracked at least 23 deaths of transgender people in the United States due to fatal violence, the most ever recorded for that year. These victims were killed by acquaintances, partners and strangers, some of whom have been arrested and charged, while others have yet to be identified.
There were at least 28 transgender people killed in 2017. Just so you have context, people who are transgender are people who reject the traditional binary of man and woman. It’s people who embrace a gender identity that does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Sometimes people use the term as an umbrella term and at other times people might claim it an identity.
Similarly the term queer, which had been a very derogatory term, has been reclaimed in some circles. It can also be used, as an umbrella term or as an individual identity.
So, word to the wise, never make the assumption that people identify a certain way without really knowing. It could be extremely offensive. There are so many other letters…so many different terms. It’s just important that we respect people’s identity, names of choice and gender pronouns. In the same way that we’d want to be respected.
In preparing this message I took time to reach out to a few friends within the LGBTQ community. The question that I posed was – what do you want church people to know about the LGBTQ community?
Representing the T is a trans person who has felt the pain of not being able to have a voice, and being told that God loves you, but still being left out.
Representing the L is a teacher who was dismissed from her church teaching duties when she was outed, and word got around church that she was a lesbian. She felt the hurt and loss of no longer being able to teach the children she loved in a church where she had a desire to develop a deeper connection with God. She said, “Just because we identify doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in God or have a relationship with God. I still pray and read the Bible.”
Representing the L is a woman who has been confronted by offensive comments like asking her “how does that work? and how did you know?”
And finally…Representing the G is a man who asked me to highlight the church’s role in fighting oppression. “From abolitionism to the civil rights movement, the church has played a critical role in restoring humanity to those who have been ostracized. Even Jesus Christ can be revered as a human rights activist.”
Based on these real life examples of silence, exclusion and invisibility, it helps us understand how important it is for this community, to be seen and affirmed. It is also important to ask what they need and continue to show love so we can be good neighbors.
While we can make many assumptions and judgements about why the priest and the Levi, in the verses we read, didn’t stop, we don’t really know why. What we can do is take this opportunity to look within our own hearts and reflect upon who is our neighbor and who we are being a neighbor to? Let’s take a minute to ask ourselves who we see, and who we stop for and if the LGBTQ community does not show up in your reflection, ask yourself why not.
Maybe you’re on your journey, and the road feels unsafe because coming out as an ally might be too risky to your reputation, maybe you don’t want to get your hands dirty. Perhaps you feel like this will make you too vulnerable; maybe you fear death – death of your good name, death of friendships; death of your comfort zone.
As for Mr. (Fred) Rogers… Rogers biographer Michael G. Long noted that even though he was known to include homosexual individuals among his friends and cast them on his show at one point he condemned gay marriage.
We all deal with discrepancies and struggles, however, God still loves us and he calls us his own.
Long said, “At last, perhaps we should turn the camera lens toward ourselves and assure Fred Rogers that we like him just as he was: the opposite of machismo, a loving husband and father, a close friend and employer of gays, a man who grew to support at least one friend’s desire for an openly gay relationship and, above all else, a compassionate human being who assured each of us that, no matter who we are or what we do, we are always and everywhere lovable and capable of loving…Anyone. Just as they are.”
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
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Venida Rodman Jenkins is part of the volunteer teaching team at the River. She is an ordained minister, having earned her B.A. from Syracuse University and M.Div. from New York Theological Seminary.