Saturday, January 10, 2015

Complicit: Silence = Death

It's about going forth...

In my opinion...

Leelah Alcorn’s suicide may not be the last for a long time to come. I remember the day Matthew Shepard was murdered. "Surely now," I thought, "everyone would see the violence of the teachings of twisted religious dogma. Churches and communities of faith will have to change now," I prayed as much as I thought.

I was wrong about Matthew’s death ending the complicity of some religious communities in hate crimes and violence.  We have made progress - and the reality is that even as we move forward - we have yet to overwhelm the insipient teachings that hasten the advance of such tragedies.

Unless we drown out misdirected dogma with the power and practice of love by us who know better - we are complicit in our silence. Love drowns out fear. It’s that simple. It's has always been that simple. And it has always been excruciatingly hard to do. Love is the message that fills the New Testament - yet we embrace it just so far. We criticize others for their literal interpretations of sacred texts, yet we fall short ourselves of prophetic witness. We both end up in the comfortable middle, while folks like Leelah and Matthew and others pay the dearest of prices.

This week's reading of the Gospel brings us to the River Jordan and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. (Mark 1:4 -11)

"I have baptized you with water;" says John, "but he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." (Mark 1:8}

It occurs to me that it’s a lot easier to take the water. It occurs to me that many people prefer to hang out with the old ways, with the “John teachings” – all of which we acknowledge but profess to have taken to the fullest of levels with the advent of Jesus. Still, we are halting in our embrace of discipleship; too often we wait until enough of others have made the way clear and safer to follow.

That’s how it seems to me. When we sidestep the discipleship we say we herald, we become complicit in the absence of change and the violence that seeks out such vacuums with a vengeance.  

Some of us have intimately known this dressed-up violence as the exclusionary teachings we've experienced in our denominations, communities and families. It is why welcoming communities of faith need to carry the message of hospitality and radical love without ceasing: 

"God and we welcome you in all the ways God has created us all." 

"God and we welcome you in all the ways God has created us all." 

What makes us so timid?

What if Leelah Alcorn or her family had heard that? What if Matthew Shepard's murderers had been taught that? 

Here’s what I know. Nothing about the teachings of Jesus would ever be part of -  in any way - teachings or practices that produce violence toward others. If you want to argue that, perhaps it is better to move on at this point.

The portrayal of God in the Old Testament is the God The Baptist still knew best, but he knew Change was coming.  And Change was Jesus. Jesus that summoned up Abba, the parent and guardian God who loves all. Jesus that affirmed the Greatest of Commandments. The same commandments to love God and one another that we seem to set aside most quickly, when fears takes hold and comfort or safety becomes threatened. 

Are we disciples of John or Jesus? Are we disciples of the old or the new?

The problem we face has its roots in the careful institutional conflation of God and church for too many centuries. Such conflation creates and empowers the most fundamental of all wishful thinking: "that if the church says it is so – then God says it is so, for God and church are one."

Who might that benefit more than others? 
How close might that come to idolatry at some point?

So, which is it? When we are confronted with decisions based on love or judgment is it church dogma and teachings or God's love that is the final arbiter? Can it ever be both and still send someone out into the wilderness alone and marginalized?

I know my bias. I was brought up a Roman Catholic; I grew up loving the church and God. I was taught they were one and believing that nearly took my life. Finally in my thirties, I came to know the difference. I walked away from a church I knew was wrong. In the process I came to find the God that made and loves and all.
Slowly, I was able to see the role of the church as helping communities to live into the teachings of Jesus, struggling as disciples, together – regardless of how uncomfortable, unpopular, or messy the struggles might be. I came to know the joy and courage of others who had gone before, knew that God loved us all and that the church needed to change, even in the face of personal or professional risk. These were Presbyterians who led me back to church, and there are countless others waiting for what I was so blessed to receive.

Friends, we cannot forget how violence and fear are out to turn us inward and away from change at every opportunity. Nor can we forget that we have made strides with much, much more to do. The tragedies we speak of remind us of this and more. We cannot become tired or despairing.

Or timid....

Yes, the path is formidable: the road of discipleship is in direct opposition to fear. Recognize any obstacles to discipleship as fear-based at one level or another. Recognize any conflation of God and church as an inherently violent response to God and one another. And know the joy of loving like there is no tomorrow!

This love and discipleship requires being part of the change we want to happen. It requires personal and national leadership that embraces and announces the changes that have taken place at the highest of levels, in our denomination and others. There is great joy in the Good News and the witness we have to offer each other and the world, as we move profoundly forward. We have been baptized to make a difference - not wait for one to happen.

In response to the political silence surrounding the AIDS crisis in 1987, Act Up (A Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed. It's slogan was: "Silence = Death." It is a slogan well to remember in choosing our paths of discipleship.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Every Day is World AIDS Day

Richard was the first person I knew who got sick. It was the early 80's and my gay community was soon to know the suffering of the yet-unnamed disease in the withering body of our friend and the valiant efforts of his lover to keep him alive. This was not just Bill and Richard's story. It was all our story, and it was about to get much worse.

We felt as though there was an invading force, gaining strength and coming closer with each moment. Every day there was a call about a friend in the hospital who needed to be visited, someone who was missing, for whom we feared the worst. The memorial services increased in frequency as the months and years tumbled uncontrollably forward. For years, there seemed to never be enough time to grieve the loss of one friend before another had died.

And, there were those who didn't care. This wasn't about them. It was about us. We were the other - harvesting the results of our own lives. "Our" president at the time never once said the words "AIDS" from the bully pulpit of his office for the eight years he was there - from 1980-1988. During the years when the illness and the fear and the suffering tore us apart - "our" president was silent. Yes, Mr. President, "Silence=Death."

And honestly, while grateful for all the advances that have been and need to continue to be made, it never got "better" for many of us - in the ways we longed for the most.

I didn't live during the bravery and sacrifices of our World War generations. I was twelve when Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I reeled at the same age as John F. Kennedy was assassinated three months later. I was in seventh grade in Catholic school in the Bronx, NY; we cried and prayed in the face of the unthinkable murder of a president. I thought the world was ending. It couldn't get worse. Yet, it did.

In February of 1965, the hatred claimed Malcolm X's life by an assassin.  Three years later, Martin was shot in April of 1968; two months later in June  Bobby was murdered.

I just remember feeling like this couldn't be true. Yet it didn't go away with the morning light.

I didn't want to be angry; I didn't want to give up; I didn't want to stop believing in what was quickly unraveling. I wanted to believe in God and Country and others. And there wasn't much we could do at the time, other than go to school, go to church, pray for God's intervention, and watch the adults for cues and some indication that this would pass, somehow...some way.

But, by June of 1969, the year I graduated from high school, the same year and month of the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, "life" became very personal. I was of age, and I was about to start living through a revolution in which I was to be intimately present and involved. That's not to say I was out or active in those early days, but I knew this was about folks like me.

Yet, none of what had preceded those early days in 1982 prepared me for the HIV/AIDS Crisis. None of us saw the advance of the silent enemy AIDS and its counterpart - AFRAIDS, the latter that turned people away, praying for our souls that we might repent before we burned in hell - and at all costs making sure sure to keep their distance.

Gratefully, so gratefully, there were many who stayed with us, especially our sisters who were always there. The Lesbian community and many families were always by our side, whether in our homes, visiting us in hospitals, or in advocacy and protests/marches. And, often with us were some of those same nuns and faith community leaders who lived into their faith in stunning ways. And, yes, there were the others who wagged the familiar fingers of damnation. The echo still rings clear: "God loves you, it's just your sin that God hates." I always know why I recoil, even today, when I hear those words; words that have never symbolized the teachings of Jesus and the Gospel that I follow or any teachings of any faith tradition that I know.

Yes, we have come a long way since the days when we called the disease GRID. We have come a ways since GMHC first began, and Act-UP brought us advocacy and action, and medical advances have made HIV/AIDS largely a chronic illness rather than a death sentence.

But as with wars, societal upheaval or any revolution - judgment is written in how we have changed our world and our lives. How have these trials changed our ways of knowing one another and God, by whatever names God may be known - or not? And, as a final marker of our time: How have we advanced in finally eradicating hatred, marginalization, and violence from this planet?

However, forgetting those who have gone before? Not walking with and missing the company of those we have lost, suffering the absence of the contributions stolen from our world, whether on the battlefields of war or the biology of disease - that and more we will always have to live with. That can never get "better" - but it can move us forward, living into the memory and lives of those who have gone before and struggle today - so that a difference - a big difference can be made.

In 1993, two mothers in California began Until There's a Cure, an organization to raise funds to help fight HIV/AIDS. They sold a cuff bracelet with the ribbon on it. It was a symbol that said we would never forget our sisters and brothers we had lost, those living with HIV/AIDS or those who might soon contract the illness. It was a commitment for many to wear the bracelet - until there was a cure - and to do what we can in the meantime.

Twenty-one years later mine is still is on my wrist, reminding me that over thirty-four years since Richard died -- every day is World AIDS Day -- until it is no more.

Ray Bagnuolo
December 1, 2014

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Repentance and forgiveness… a beginning

We convey to you the request of Rev. Marc Benton for forgiveness in bringing forth the  charges and legislation that  produced Benton v. Hudson River, et al. We also refer to Rev.  Benton’s newly stated support for same gender marriage. In so doing, we  acknowledge his courage and commitment in taking responsibility for his role in the harm, pain and  suffering produced by his earlier  actions.
We also acknowledge South Presbyterian Church’s Session and pastors, Joe Gilmore and Susan De George, for their ongoing commitment to the LGBTQ/Q community when Rev. Benton insisted that they be investigated and charged for doing same-gender commitment services. It is such faithful perseverance by these folks and others that are at the heart of the changes we are witnessing today.
We stand firmly alongside, deeply indebted and thankful to everyone who has ever been hurt, harmed, punished or pushed away because of Benton v. Hudson River, et al or any of the other charges, hearing, rulings and deep anguish caused by such actions. We are here to do whatever we can in healing, reconciliation and moving forward so that such actions and harms never happen again.
We pray that Rev. Benton’s decision and forthrightness will prompt others to step up, acknowledging their roles in the harm caused our community and making amends for their participation in decades of marginalization and exclusion of our Christian sisters and brothers. We encourage and support all who seek assistance in moving forward on this path, and we will never forget the suffering and pain of others whose lives are the foundation for these changes.
The toughest road, we think, is ahead. This journey for healing will only be complete when the church accepts its responsibility, admits the harms it has done, and makes amends for the teachings and prohibitions it has supported and allowed in the discrimination of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning community.  With recent changes to the Book of Order and those currently under consideration, we feel the church is also charged with taking an active and corporate role in facilitating these changes. We are ready to support such efforts, as well.
“Redemption appears as the liberty to interpret in trust…
all that happens to us and to which we react as occurring in a final context
of life giving rather than death-dealing.”  H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self
When we can witness to one another and  the world our faithfulness to the Gospel and all it requires us to be in love for one another, then perhaps redemption to which we are called will achieve its life-giving purpose.
Ray Bagnuolo
That All May Freely Serve

Cover page from the Hudson River Presbytery September 9, 2014
The Rev. Marc Benton, the pastor who brought the suit Benton v. Hudson River Presbytery that defined PC(USA)’s distinction between marriage and holy unions, has repented of his position and is seeking forgiveness from the members of the Hudson River Presbytery.
At Rev. Benton’s request, the Hudson River Presbytery has prepared this press release and is sharing his statement with the wider church.
Attached, please find a the release and Rev. Benton’s statement.
Rev. Benton’s statement has been shared with members of the Hudson River Presbytery and he will be joining our presbytery at its regular meeting in September.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

That All May Freely Serve Information Packet for 221st General Assembly

We have posted an outline of all of That All May Freely Serve's information here:

You will find information on volunteer activities, booth location and hours, communications, photos, and more.

Please take a moment to take a look, or, if you like, you can download the .pdf document here.

Please let us know if you have any questions:

A Call for Marriage Equality:
That All May Freely Serve calls for marriage equality in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the passage of both the Authoritative Interpretation and the Amendment to the Constitution that will come before this General Assembly. The Authoritative Interpretation is needed to immediately end the discrimination our polity forces our pastors to practice regarding marriage for folks who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ/Q). The Amendment to the Constitution to change the description of marriage to “between two people” is needed to end the use of our Book of Order as a tool for segregation against people who identify as LGBTQ/Q.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Marriage, Prophetic Witness and Intersections

[The following is an excerpt from a larger piece supporting the Authoritative Interpretation and Amendment to the Constitution of the PC(USA) for full marriage equality in the PC(USA).]

"Another intersection I profoundly remember was when the leader of the free world stood on the pile of rubble of the World Trade Towers. By his side were nearly all the nations of the world, pledging support and cooperation to end the violence that had met our shores. We had a chance. An opportunity to go forward in a new way, a prophetic way of building world peace from the immense sacrifice of those we lost, honoring their memory with a new world that rose above what had befallen us.

Sadly, we chose the response that ultimately veered off course, in my opinion.

Nothing. Nothing in my lifetime can ever compare to the suffering of that day and the time that has followed. Like us all, I live with it in many ways, every day. And, one powerful lesson I took from that unspeakable tragedy is the way that at certain times, we “get” an intersection that can truly make a difference in the world. I believe we are at such a crossroads, with an opportunity to make an immense difference in being known as Christians by our love; as being disciples faithful to the commandment Jesus gave us long ago."


Monday, June 2, 2014

“Yes” on Marriage: Yours and Ours

In his introduction to “Is there a more OK way?” by Jon M. Walton and Barbara Wheeler in the March 30th Presbyterian Outlook, Jack Haberer, Editor writes:

"Behold, I will show you a still more excellent way. Presbyterians place a high premium on process, the way the church determines what it should teach and how it should act. The editor of this publication and authors he has published have been struggling not only with questions of what the PC(USA)’s teaching and pastoral practice should be with respect to same-gender marriage, but — just as important — how to make that decision as truthfully and gracefully as possible."

As a Teaching Elder, ordained as an openly gay man in 2005, I can attest to the “high premium” the PC(USA) places on process, even when the price of that process contributes to the discrimination and marginalization toward our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ/Q) members. The outcome of the upcoming discussions surrounding marriage that will be heard before this General Assembly will reflect who and whose we are more than any process employed in our deliberations. The decisions made by the commissioners will be about whether we see one another as sisters and brothers – or as an issue to be manipulated, strategized, and timed to produce “gracious outcomes,” regardless of the price of limited or delayed actions.

A flawed aspect of any “process” is that the further one is from being directly affected by its legislation the more of an issue the argument becomes. The potential danger is that a gulf of distance emerges, with outcomes missing the mark in how we love one another – reflecting, instead, an easier, softer, bartered way. This time, any time, but this time especially – we need to complete this work.

Passage of both the Authoritative Interpretation and Amendment to the Constitution represents a comprehensive end to the divided hospitality we can never embrace as progress. The Authoritative Interpretation will move the church-at-large away from the discriminatory behavior it now practices. The Amendment to the Constitution will end the use of our constitution as a tool of segregation. Together, they represent a faithful witness to all who believe we are children of the same God and a church that reflects such Grace with abundant love and hospitality – for all.

Now, I do not hold these progressive positions on marriage because society or culture calls for them. Nor do I hold these positions because marriage is not a sacrament – meaning that there really aren’t the same restrictions there otherwise might be if it were a sacrament in the PC(USA).  I have married same gender loving couples and their marriages are as sacred and sacramental as any married couple you may know, given the privilege of their heterosexuality in the PC(USA) or other faith communities. In fact, I pray those other traditions change their ways, as well.

Rather, I hold these positions because they reflect my and others’ beliefs. Beliefs founded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ; a gospel which has been diminished as a result of church exclusions in a world that needs “more Jesus” and more Love. I hold these beliefs because if we just get this right – we will be able to help make such a difference, living into the prophecy: Behold, I will show you a still more excellent way. And, I believe the PC(USA) is uniquely positioned to make this happen.

I disagree that we are “activists” concerned about “being caught behind the curve,” as an anonymous source was quoted in the article. I see this ministry as the work of faithful members trying to stay ahead of the curve; the curve of growing discrimination and violence based on exclusionary practices toward our families, friends, and loved ones.

And about forbearance...our work as LGBTQ/Q members and allies seeking change in the church has practiced forbearance, love across boundaries, and been gracious for decades, as much and more as any large group can be. We are not the ones who have called people to leave, brought charges and trials against others, ended individuals’ ministries, or attempted to force others to do anything their conscience calls them to oppose. Still, somehow we carry the spin of being the “problem” and the “issue.”

We are neither. We are not the issue and we are not the problem. We are members of your families, congregations, neighbors and friends. We are faithful and we are Christian. 

Let us continue to hold each other in our prayers, now and always, and especially in these coming days.

Ray Bagnuolo, Evangelist
That All May Freely Serve 
June 2, 1014