At worship we celebrated the 10th annual International Transgender Day of Visibility, which occurs annually on March 31st, and celebrates transgender people and raises awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide. The holiday was founded by U.S.-based transgender activist Rachel Crandall in 2009, as a reaction to the lack of LGBTQ+ holidays celebrating transgender people, and with frustration that the only well-known transgender-centered holiday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance which mourned the murders of transgender people, but did not acknowledge and celebrate living members of the transgender community.
We were joined by LGBTQ+ guest speakers for today’s Open & Affirming session, who also worshiped with us: Angie Combs (They/them/theirs), who identifies as genderqueer transgender and is an Elder and Interim Communications Director at Cairn Christian Church in Lafayette, Colorado; Tom Lemke (he/him/his), who identifies as a cisgender gay man and is a former member of South Broadway Christian Church now attending Mission Gathering, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) new church start in Thornton.
In addition, we were joined by Sarah Scott (She/Her/Hers), who has identified as a cisgender Lesbian since her early 20s, and grew up in the Evergreen Christian Church. In joining our conversation, Sarah shared thoughtful insights from her identities and experiences, and so I've included her voice in this post as well.
We began our time together by lighting the red, orange, yellow, and green candles to invite Christ into the space and the Holy Spirit to guide us, and read the corresponding section of the Rainbow Christ Prayer: "Green is for love, the heart of spirit. Transgressive Outlaw Christ, you are our Heart, breaking rules out of love. In a world obsessed with purity, you touch the sick and eat with outcasts. Free us from conformity and grant us the grace of deviance. With the green stripe in the rainbow, fill our hearts with untamed compassion for all beings.”
Our guest speakers shared parts of their personal faith and LGBTQ+ identity journeys, and engaged questions from the congregation and pastors. Below I’ve drafted a summary of our collective conversation. In a couple of places, I’ve added a few additional resources to support our learning. I invited Angie, Tom, and Sarah to review a draft of this blog post prior to publishing to make sure their voices and experiences of the conversation are accurately represented. We are grateful for Angie, Tom, and Sarah, and for the genuine love and honesty they shared with us as we journey through the Open and Affirming (O&A) process.
What does an O&A church feel and look like?
Tom: Most importantly, an O&A church is genuinely welcoming. Today, when I arrived at ECC, I was warmly embraced, and this is my first time here. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. You were genuinely happy to see me, eager to meet me, and glad I was joining you. Many people came up to meet me with smiles, and greeted me with handshakes and hugs.
If you want to know what an O&A church feels like, this was it today: the Transgender Flag on the altar, the gender inclusive language in the bulletin and music with a note about why you use inclusive language, the sermon. And most importantly, the authenticity and practice of your faith is a reflection of your belief in being Open and Affirming. When you walk into an O&A church, you can just feel it.
What else can we do, what changes could we make to be fully inclusive?
Tom: You’ve got the most important part of genuine welcome. One additional thing you could do is to make all the bathrooms signs gender inclusive. This way transgender and non-gender binary people will know they are welcome and won’t have to question whether it is safe for them to go to the bathroom here, or wonder which bathrooms are for their use.
Angie: As a transgender person, when I see gender binary bathroom signs (male and female), I’m not sure if I’m included. And it goes beyond inclusion, it is also about safety. There are not enough publicly available gender inclusive bathrooms, which is a real health and safety issue in the transgender community.
One time a small child saw my legs, which I don’t shave, and asked her mom why there was a man in the women’s bathroom. I waited in the bathroom stall for 20 minutes, until I knew both the mother and child had left the restroom, and that their family had enough time to leave the rest stop entirely. Imagine if that child’s father was outside of the bathroom and heard his daughter ask why there was a man in the bathroom? It is the kind of question that can lead to violent confrontation and a threat to my safety. I have to think about these things just to go to the bathroom, especially if I am travelling alone.
The step beyond affirming LGBTQ+ in the church, is to celebrate us. Affirming and celebrating LGBTQ+ individuals and families in the church, can include:
Can you explain more about why pronouns are important to you personally, your faith, and your understanding of and relationship to God?
Angie: Pronouns are directly linked to my identity. I understand that we all have to learn and practice new habits, like using they/their/theirs pronouns for an individual, and sometimes make mistakes. It doesn’t bother me as long as someone is trying. However, when you tell someone your pronouns are they/their/theirs, and they intentionally misgender you, and refuse to use your pronouns, they are putting me in their box, that doesn’t fit me. It teaches me that I can no longer trust them. Because if I can’t trust them with my identity, how can I trust them with anything else.
I like to use this example to help people understand the use of they/their/theirs pronouns for individuals, or in the singular sense grammatically. What do you say when you find someone’s phone, wallet, or purse? You say, “Someone lost their phone. Did someone lose their wallet? I found their purse, whose is it?” We actually know how to use “their” in singular form, we do it all the time, we just don’t realize it. Now we need to practice applying the singular use of “their” to people we meet and know, whose gender pronouns are they/their/theirs.
For many people, it is a privilege that you don’t have to think about your gender identity. When your sex at birth and your gender identity align into a male or female binary, you fit within social norms. When your sex at birth and your gender identity don’t align, and/or you don’t fit within a male-female gender binary, but rather somewhere on the gender spectrum, or continuum, then you don’t fit within social norms. This means you’re regularly confronted by others trying to fit you into a male-female gender binary or into the dominant culture.
Tom: Some LGBTQ+ individuals also struggle with internalized homophobia, because we’ve been taught throughout our lives in various contexts (family, church, school, work, etc.) that our identity(ies) is/are not right, that something is wrong with us. This is why some LGBTQ+ individuals hide their identities, or “come out” later in life. I was married to a woman and had two children, and after years of marriage, of what I thought was a good marriage, my wife confronted me about our marriage. I had internalized homophobic teachings and suppressed who I really was.
I’m a gay man, and now I truly believe that I am beloved by God. Because of my life experience and identity, and that of other people in my family, like my son who identifies as bisexual, and my friends, I understand a wide continuum of gender identities. For me, God is not a he or a she, God is they, God is inclusive of all of our gender identities, of all of us, God’s beloved.
How is being an O&A designated church different for a church that seems to have been practicing LGBTQ+ inclusion already?
Sarah: I grew up in this church and always felt accepted. Part of that included that the church welcomed preachers who I knew were LGBTQ+, even if that wasn’t public at the time. And also, an abundant faith and theology is inclusive, and it is time to say that you are inclusive publicly, otherwise you and your church are living in a scarcity model and faith.
Angie: I graduated from seminary with a Master’s of Divinity (MDiv) three years ago. I haven’t started the ordination process, because I don’t know if any church will hire me, a transgender person, to be their pastor. When I first moved to Denver, there were only three O&A churches in our denomination and they all had settled leadership that didn’t look like it would be changing any time soon. Over the past several years more churches have become O&A in our denomination, which gives me hope.
I’m also not sure if I want to be the first transgender clergy person in our denomination. I don’t know of and don’t have transgender colleagues in our denomination, and I’m not sure I want to go through what means to be the first.
I don’t take communion at churches that don’t have an O&A designation or clear statement, because I don’t know if they really do welcome me to Christ’s table.
Sarah: When I see a religious institution in a community, I assume it is not a safe place for me as a Lesbian. So visible evidence that your church is O&A is important.
How do we make sure LGBTQ+ people know they are welcomed and affirmed at our church?
Visible evidence is important, here are some ideas:
We began our time together by lighting the red, orange, and yellow candles to invite Christ into the space and the Holy Spirit to guide us, and read the corresponding section of the Rainbow Christ Prayer: "Yellow is for self-esteem, the core of spirit. Out Christ, you are our Core. Free us from closets of secrecy and give us the guts and grace to come out. With the yellow stripe in the rainbow, build our confidence."
Our topic today was Biblical Interpretation. We started by identifying the ways we each understand the Bible, in order to develop a collective understanding of how our congregation approaches Biblical interpretation as a whole. For our congregation, the Bible is:
We then explored the cultural contexts and broader Biblical messages behind the so-called "Clobber Passages," or the six scriptures most frequently used to "clobber" or discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals and families.
First we looked at the cultural contexts and broader Biblical messages of the Hebrew Bible. God led and protected the Israelites in their exodus out of Egypt towards freedom. The Israelites were a nomadic, shepherding tribe of the desert who traveled to a fertile, agrarian Mediterranean context to "be fruitful and multiply." When they arrived into this new fertile land, the encountered the Canaanites who had a fertility-based religion. God took care of the Israelites in their Exodus, and also, the Israelites were tempted to join in this fertility-based worship, because the land was so fertile—something foreign to them, that they thought perhaps they should also worship the Canaanite fertility gods too.
This Canaanite fertility religion included ritual sex, which reflected a magical thinking and logic that if the people engaged in ritual sex, it would encourage the goddess Asherah and god Baal (Asherah is both mother and mistress to Baal) to have sex therefore bringing fertility and fruit-fullness to the land and people. Not only was there same gendered ritual sex, there was also same gendered temple prostitution, which is why we encounter scriptures like Deuteronomy 23:17, "None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute." In the Hebrew Bible God is giving clear guidance to the Israelites to separate them from their new religious and cultural context in which ritual sex and temple prostitution are ubiquitous. The scriptural passages in the Hebrew Bible that forbid men from lying down with men are in response to the ubiquitous ritual sex and temple prostitution of the Canaanites, and are not broad statements about mutually consenting and respectful same-gender sex or sexual relationships as we understand them today.
We also encounter an interesting translation issue with some interpretations of the Hebrew Bible around two important words that are sometimes conflated into one meaning:
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, the sexual and relational standards at the time of the Hebrew Bible are not comparable to modern standards. In the context of the Hebrew Bible:
We also explored the class of gender fluid people known as "Saris" in Hebrew, which included both castrated and physically intact gender fluid male and female identified individuals, intersex, and a variety of other non-binary gender attributes. according to Ancient Jewish halachic (legal) proscriptions, eunuchs were allowed to marry and have sex, although they couldn't produce children due to their infertility. These Saris or eunuchs occupy a unique space in the Bible which otherwise generally portrays gender as binary, except for this group of people. When present in Biblical stories, eunuchs have important roles. In Jeremiah 38:1-12, a eunuch saves Jeremiah, and in Esther 4:5, a eunuch helps Esther. Then there is the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, who represents one of the first gentiles to follow Jesus and is baptized by Philip. The Ethiopian Eunuch was a person of power, in charge of the entire treasury of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. What does it mean that a eunuch was on of the first gentiles to follow Jesus? What does this mean for how wide we should make the circle of inclusion for followers of Christ?
Finally, Jesus speaks about and affirms eunuchs in Matthew 19:12, "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Some interpret this passage to be about celibacy, yet would the ancient Jewish halachic (legal) proscriptions apply in which eunuchs were allowed to marry and have sex? How would our reading of this passage change? Would we understand Jesus as saying: For there are gender fluid people who have been born so from birth? And can we imagine someone making themselves [living authentically as] gender fluid for the sake of the kin-dom of God?
Here is what those "Clobber Passages" look like through these contextual lenses and in a wider context of the primary messages of the Bible:
Our modern concept of mutually consenting, respectful, and loving sexual and romantic relationship whether they be same-gendered or different gendered is simply not comparable to the sexuality and relationally of the cultural contexts of the Hebrew Bible or Gospel.
We began our time together by lighting the red and orange candles to invite Christ into the space and the Holy Spirit to guide us, and read the corresponding section of the Rainbow Christ Prayer: "Orange is for sexuality, the fire of spirit. Erotic Christ, you are our Fire, the Word made flesh. Free us from exploitation and grant us the grace of mutual relationships. With the orange stripe in the rainbow, kindle a fire of passion in us."
Today we had a few new faces, so we went around the circle introducing ourselves using our name and and pronouns, for example: They/their/theirs, she/her/hers, he/him/his. This practice reminds us that some people identify as genderqueer and do not identify as gender binary (female or male), and may use different pronouns for their gender identity.
We then took time to begin learning some vocabulary terms using the GLAAD Media Resource Guide. GLAAD is a non-governmental media monitoring organization founded by LGBT people in the media. You can learn preferred words and definitions about LGBTQ+ inclusion and what words are defamatory, offensive, and problematic this guide. We talked about the fluid and meaning-making nature of language generally, and the importance of creating and redefining language to more accurately represent the fullness and diversity of our identities,. This is especially important for people who have experienced marginalization and discrimination because they don't fit into dominant identity groups. Our conversation then led to identifying the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation, and understanding these identities as a spectrum or continuum, rather than a binary.
We acknowledged that using new language can take practice to form new habits, and that it is most important to listen deeply to other people and ask them what language they identify with when we are not sure. We are learning and working towards a more inclusive practice.
Next we each identified one personal story we felt was important to share with one another about LGBTQ+ inclusion and each person took 2-3 minutes to share and be heard. We held these stories in the confidence of the group, creating brave space. Our general themes included stories of identities; meaningful relationships; family, faith, church, spiritual formation and teachings; and influences of school, civic, and work experiences and cultures. This personal storytelling helped us get to know one another more deeply, understand the various backgrounds we come from and that shape who we are, and the influences over the course of our lives that impact our orientation towards LGBTQ+ inclusion as people of faith. The practice of personal storytelling also serves to create a foundation from which we will continue to deepen our relationships and co-create a shared understanding of our congregation and what our faithful response to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church and its leadership might look like.
March 10th Update:
We began our time together by lighting a red candle to invite Christ into the space and the Holy Spirit to guide us, and read the corresponding section of the Rainbow Christ Prayer: "Red is for life, the root of spirit. Living and Self-Loving Christ, you are our Root. Free us from shame and grant us the grace of healthy pride so we can follow our own inner light. With the red stripe in the rainbow, we give thanks that God created us just the way we are."
We engaged two primary discussions about the Open and Affirming Process: 1) Expectations for how we will engage one another, and 2) Priorities (i.e.: What do we want and need within the process). We agreed to amend these lists as needed as part of our commitment to a co-creative process.
Expectations for Engaging One Another in the Open & Affirming Process:
We will review this list at the start of each session and amend as needed.
Co-Created Priorities of the Open & Affirming Process
These priorities will guide our six-week process. We understand that we will not get through everything in its entirety during this time, but hope to learn enough about LGBTQ+ inclusivity and ourselves to vote by Easter. During this process we expect to identify areas where we could benefit from additional learning, sharing, and exploration beyond this six-week process. In response, we will create opportunities to continue our ongoing learning and formation beyond this initial process.
For six weeks after worship on Sundays, March 10th - April 14th, 12:00 - 1:30 p.m., the Evergreen Christian Church congregation is gathering over lunch to explore how as a community of faith we can best live out God's call and follow Christ's way in discipleship as it relates to the inclusion of God's diverse creation. This process focuses on exploring and developing an affirming inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals and families, who have been historically and continue today to be persecuted by the wider Church across various denominations and non-denominationally affiliated churches.
This is a six-week process culminates with an Affirmation and Confirmation ritual on Easter Sunday, April 21st, to determine if Evergreen Christian Church will become an Open and Affirming designated church. In The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Open and Affirming Ministries commit to openly welcome and affirm persons of all gender expressions and sexual orientations to the table of Christ's communion and to the full life and leadership of the Christian Church.
You are encouraged to participate in the full six-week process. We will post weekly updates of our progress and resources here for those unable to attend and for the wider community.
We welcome your comments of support and questions about the process or what Open & Affirming means.
Here are some of the resources we are using in our Open & Affirming Process:
Rev. Dr. Jenny Whitcher
Minister of Prophetic Formation at Juniper Formation. Currently working with Evergreen Christian Church to rebirth their ministry as more missional, inclusive, and community engaged. Join us on our Open & Affirming journey.