What an alum to do when their alma mater is wrong?: Thoughts on Columbia Theological Seminary’s housing policy

What’s an alum to do when the alma mater they love does the wrong thing?

I’ve been asking myself that for the last few days, because I wholeheartedly believe that my seminary, a school I love and treasure, has sided against justice and God’s love, and for fear and inequality.

I am a two-time alum of Columbia Theological Seminary, one of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s ten seminaries which is located just outside of Atlanta. When I graduated from seminary eleven years ago the Presbyterian Church was still debating the role of gay and lesbian ministers. It hasn’t been until the last year that the door has been opened in some places (though not all) to openly gay and lesbian, non-celibate, clergy. The church is still debating the legitimacy of same-sex marriages, even as partnered clergy are now serving openly. The inclusion of LGBT people is far from full or perfect, but the Presbyterian Church has come a long way in the past decade.

As a student I remember our LGBT group being denied the use of the chapel for a National Coming Out Day Service. We were told that people just weren’t ready for it, and that there were fears that donations would be withheld. I was incredibly saddened by the administration’s decision. But when the service did take place, at a professor’s house instead, the room was packed with supportive students and faculty. (Eventually the annual service was allowed in the chapel.) That night, and with each passing year, we sensed that things were changing, and that justice would not be denied.

Which is why I was surprised to find that my seminary has just reaffirmed its denial of equal housing for same-sex couples. In a letter dated April 20th, Columbia’s president wrote that at the present time committed same-sex couples will not be allowed to live in “married housing” on campus.

The timing left me particularly dumbstruck. Earlier in the day I had received my latest issue of Columbia Seminary’s alumni magazine. I was pleasantly surprised to find an announcement of my engagement to my fiancee, Heidi. I then came home to this letter, posted by a classmate. I was struck by the irony of the fact that my engagement was recognized by alma mater, but that my marriage would not be deemed suitable enough to warrant my partner and I on-campus housing were I still a student.

It’s a bit of a mixed message, especially coming from a school whose faculty always taught me to err on the side of justice, compassion, and love. My professors at Columbia spoke out on behalf of their LGBT students, often at risk to themselves professionally. They taught that God’s love trumped human fear. They exhorted us to learn to read the Scripture with every tool available to us, and to understand the contexts of passages written two thousand years ago. They challenged us to stand up for what was right in the face of the easier wrong. They were, and they remain, among my strongest role models for ministry.

But the administration of Columbia has acted in a way that belies all I was taught by my professors. They have literally cast LGBT families off campus, and forced seminarians to make a choice between living with their classmates or their families. They have created an unequal community. They have reiterated, even in the face of a changing denomination, a policy that is reactionary and anything but visionary.

A little over ten years ago now I knelt on the floor of the chapel at Columbia. My friends and classmates put their hands on my head and blessed me as I was ordained as a minister. I chose that chapel for a reason. I wanted to carry what I had learned at Columbia with me all the days of my ministry. I wanted to remember what it was to live in a community that might not always agree, but that at least tried to make space for the other. And I wanted to remember what is was to live in a community that didn’t shy away from the hard discussions, and that admitted when it was wrong.

I’d like to think that place still exists. I think it does. But I know that right now I and my family could not live there. I think that there are a lot of other families like mine out there. And I think that Columbia is the less for excluding us. But more than that, I think we are the less for losing a place like Columbia. I hope this separation doesn’t last much longer, because God’s got real work for us to do and we need each other.

Opening Devotional for the Vermont State House, April 6, 2012

Friday, August 6th, was LGBTQA Advocacy Day at the Vermont State House. It was also the 20th anniversary of the passage of Vermont’s first civil rights protections for gays and lesbians. As part of the celebration, I was honored to be asked to give the opening devotional to the House:

Good morning.

This week is Holy Week in my tradition, the Christian faith, which means for clergy it’s the busiest time of the year. We never seem to run out of things to do this week, and it can feel like one’s work is never done.

I imagine it feels like that to those of you who work here in the State House too. Particularly when you’re in session. And I’d imagine that you rarely have a day when someone doesn’t want a minute of your time.

And today gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Vermonters and their allies have come to ask for that time. They’ve come to tell their stories to you.

Now I believe stories are sacred. And I believe God is there in everyone’s story. So when I listen to someone’s story I take it as an opportunity to listen to see what God has done in them, and in the world.

I’ve learned a lot about God and faith by listening to the life stories of LGBT people. I’ve learned what it is to trust the love of God over the fear of the unknown. I’ve learned about telling the truth about who you are, even when it’s unpopular, because the truth will set you free. And I’ve learned about the capacity to be resilient in the face of rejection, condemnation, and bullying.

I believe those stories are testimonies of faith. Far better testimonies than anything I could say up here this morning. And so I invite you to open your ears, and your hearts, and listen for the voice of the divine in the testimonies you hear today.

There’s a motto we who are Vermonters know. It’s our state motto, “Freedom and unity.” To me it means that we are free to be who we are, and that we respect the freedom of others to be who they are as well. And it also means that no matter who we are, whatever our differences of belief and opinion, we are called to be united in community.

Unity doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens when we open our hearts to one another, respect one another, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Your neighbors are here today. And they have stories to share. As we prepare to open our hearts up to the holy in one another, will you pray with me please?

Good and gracious God, we give you thanks for being a part of all of our stories. We give you thanks for the ways we meet you both in our own stories, and those of our neighbors. Bless us today as we seek to live as a people who embrace both freedom and unity. Bless us as we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. And bless all Vermonters, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. God, bless the work of this body, and God bless Vermont. Amen.

No sermon from me this week, but….

So, why no sermon from me? Because I didn’t preach this weekend. Instead Heidi Ward filled the pulpit at my church. Heidi is a second-year seminarian, a student pastor, and in the discernment process for ordination in the UCC. She also happens to be the woman I am marrying this fall. So, you know, I’m partial to her.

This was Heidi’s first time preaching at my church, and our first time leading worship together. It was something that came up casually. Heidi asked if she could preach, and my folks said “sure”. It wasn’t a “political act” for us. There was no “agenda”. It was just Heidi giving me a week off from peaching. But I didn’t realize what a holy act that would be for us. But as we vested together, I began to understand how meaningful it all was, both for us as partners but also as LGBTQ people of faith. It’s something not many LGBTQ clergy ever have the chance to do.

I was not ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC). I was originally ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I love the PCUSA, and they are making some movement on the inclusion of LGBTQ people, but two years ago I made the decision to leave and come to the UCC. I’ve known others who have left Methodist, Catholic, and Baptist churches to serve in the UCC. We haven’t come because the UCC is perfect (though I believe it’s pretty great). We’ve come in large part because it was the one place that would embrace us as who we are and embrace our families as well.

When I was single and a PCUSA minister considering leaving for the UCC I wavered a bit. I couldn’t decide whether to make the jump, or to stay and fight for full inclusion. My dad helped me to make my decision. He asked me, “You want a partner some day, right?” I said yes. He replied simply, “Well then it’s not fair to her to stay in a place where she won’t be respected.”

A year and a half after switching my ordination, I asked Heidi to marry me. Now we are planning a wedding and getting ready for a life together. A life that includes serving openly as a clergy couple. I’m acutely aware that had I stayed in the PCUSA I would now be navigating the still-uncertain rules about same-sex marriages in the Presbyterian Church. I’d be having to find a clergy member willing to marry us and a church willing to let us use the sanctuary. I’d be worried that my wedding could become a test case in a church judicial proceeding. The same would be true for a clergy member in many other denominations. Instead, Heidi and I have simply reserved her UCC church for our wedding date, and asked a UCC minister we both respect to officiate. We’ve invited many of our clergy friends. We are so thankful we can celebrate this day with our greater church community.

But as much as I’m looking forward to that day in November, I’m so aware that what happened last Sunday was even rarer. If you had asked me when I was ordained whether I’d ever be able to stand and lead worship in a church I pastored with my partner, I’d probably have told you no. But it turns out, in the end, that’s not as far-fetched as it seemed. For that I thank my congregation. And my denomination. And especially my partner. But most of all God, who is still speaking, and who is doing something new in the church. I pray more churches will listen to that still speaking voice, because I hope every LGBTQ couple, clergy or lay, gets to feel that kind of welcome at least once.

“Jesus Doesn’t Reject People” – Sermon for September 25, 2011

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

My grandmother grew up in Portland, Maine in the Little Italy. Her parents were immigrants who had left their homeland to come here carrying little else other than their Catholic faith. Like everyone else in her neighborhood, she was raised in the church and taught that it was the one true faith.

And then, as a young woman in the 1930’s, she met my grandfather. A soldier whose family had lived here for generations, and who was very Protestant. As best as I can figure it, they eloped. And sometime after she went to her priest and told him. He condemned the marriage and told her she would go to hell. The only way she could avoid hell, he told her, was to raise her children as Catholics. Then, maybe, she wouldn’t be damned.

When I heard this story for the first time I realized immediately that my grandmother must have been a pretty courageous woman. My mother and her siblings did not grow up Catholic. The priest did not scare her into compliance. And when you think about the insular, tight-knit community where she grew up, it’s pretty remarkable that a young, religious woman valued her love for her husband over the scare tactics of a clergyman. In the end she trusted her relationship with God over fear.

That’s the story I remembered when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus is entering the Temple, the most holy place in Israel, and he is stopped by the chief priests who want to know why he thinks he should be there. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask. And Jesus tells them a parable about two sons. Both are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. And one says immediately that he’ll go, but he never actually does. The other complains and says he won’t go, but then finally does. Jesus asks which one, the one who said he would do the right thing but didn’t or the one who didn’t want to do the right thing but did it anyway, did his father’s will. The priests agree it’s the one who went.

Jesus uses that story to show them how much they are like the son who says he will follow his father’s will but never does. And he tells them that the tax collector and prostitutes, the most looked down upon of society, will enter the kingdom of God before them. He tells them that these least of society, they truly believe.

I want to have the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes. I want to have the faith of my grandmother. I want to have so much faith that I trust my relationship with God over the clamor of those who want to tell me God does not love me as much as them. I want to trust it over the voices of those who say others are going to hell.

My freshman year of college I had a friend who also later went on to be a pastor. One night after our campus Christian fellowship had worship, we were walking back to the dorms and chatting. As we came close to my dorm he stopped and looked at me and said, “Emily, I love you, but you’re going to hell.”

I’d heard that before. I didn’t really believe it. Not in most parts of my soul, anyway. But it still stung. Now, years later that classmate is now pastoring a church in the town where I grew up. A church where some of my friends who he would have also thought were going to hell attended. And I worry sometimes that some 14 or 15 year old kid will come into his office, and hear the same thing. And one of two things may happen. They’ll either believe it, and believe that God hates them. Or they won’t, and they won’t believe in the church anymore.

I hope neither happens, but I know that more often than not, one or the other does. When my grandmother left the priest’s office that day, she made a decision not to raise her kids in the Catholic Church. But, beyond that, she made a decision not to raise her kids in any church. And so my mother and her siblings didn’t grow up in the faith. In fact, most of her grandchildren and now her great-grandchildren didn’t grow up in the faith. And that’s all for two reasons. First, someone tried to convince her that she had done something so awful that God didn’t love her anymore. And, second, no other church came along and told her that wasn’t true.

Those of us who represent the church, and you are among them, have an incredible influence. And it can be used to inspire incredible things. And it can also be used to hurt someone so deeply that they think we are doing it in Christ’s name, and that they believe they have no place here.

When I was a chaplain I was often called to talk to someone who was dealing with some kind of addiction issue. They were often brought into the hospital because they finally had decided to go to rehab, or they ended up needing treatment for some illness the addiction was only making worse. And they would ask for a chaplain to be called.

We would talk and, since they called me, I would ask about whether or not they were involved in any religious community. And more often than not I’d get a response like, “No, they don’t like folks like me,” or “I live in a small town and everyone knows about my problem,” or “I’ve never been a saint. I won’t be welcome.”

I always wanted to say, “that isn’t true, you’d be more than welcome” when I heard something like that. I wanted to tell them that there would be no judgement because there were plenty of people in the pews, and, yes, even behind the pulpit, who had been through the same. But I sometimes found it hard to say that in good conscience because I know that welcome is not always universal. I know that I’ve even heard other clergy, not here in Vermont but in other places, complain about the AA groups that use their churches. It’s hard to have to give someone a cautious recommendation about going to church.

But the sad truth about churches, is that when many people think about us, they don’t think about people who will love them. They think about people who will judge them. And most people in this world get enough of that elsewhere.

Martin Luther rejected the view that we were all either saints or sinners. Instead, he said, we are all simultaneously saints AND sinners. Five hundred years later most churches still haven’t caught on to that. That those of us who come to church on Sunday morning are here both because we need God’s grace AND because God loves us beyond our deepest understanding. And what’s true of us is true of every one of God’s children. And it’s not our place to withhold the church, Christ’s body here on earth, from any of them.

There is a story by an author named Flannery O’Connor. She was a writer from Georgia, and a devout Roman Catholic. She wrote a short story called “Revelation” about a good Christian woman who was very assured about her place in heaven. The story follows her throughout her day as she judges the people she encounters. She enters a doctor’s waiting room and looks around and makes a judgment about everyone there, in her head making racist comments, judging the poor, belittling the appearance of others. And all the while assuring herself that she is “grateful” and a “good Christian”.

At the end of the story she is struck by a religious vision. She sees a line of people ascending to heaven. All the people she had seen that day are in it, and they are following one another up into the clouds. And she is not leading the line into the kingdom of God. She is at the very end of it. And she is shocked.

I see myself in the people she judged. But more importantly, I see myself in her too. Like Luther said, we are all simultaneously saint and sinner. All simultaneously the one who closes the door of welcome, and the one who opens it.

This summer, when I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod down in Tampa, we were greeted by a huge banner as we walked in. It read “Jesus didn’t reject people. Neither do we.” The UCC put a number of those banners up all over Tampa that said that. And I remember thinking what it was like, to grow up not even two hours from there, and to sometimes believe that the church was full of people who could never welcome someone who was in any way not like them. And I thought about what it would be like for a kid growing up there now to see those signs, and know that there were people who loved Jesus so much that they loved him beyond what he thought possible.

When I first realized what those signs might mean to the people who saw them, I cried. I’m not a big crier, and it shocked me to cry over a church sign, but I did. And when I realized that the simple act of a church making clear that they welcomed everyone no matter who they were or what they had seen moved me so much, I cried even harder. Because an act of hospitality, an act of welcome on behalf of a church, shouldn’t be so rare that it’s existence shocks us. I cried out of joy for the one who would find Christ’s welcome. And I cried out of pain for a church that has often withheld it.

It doesn’t have to be like that. We are welcoming churches, I believe that. I believe anyone who comes through those doors will be welcome. But I also believe that there are some outside those doors who have been so hurt that they will never dare to come in on their own. And so maybe, the welcome needs to go outside. I’m not saying a big sign on the lawn, though I wouldn’t object. But a big sign in our hearts, a big sign on our faces, a big sign unfurled by the work of our hands: you are welcome here. Jesus would never have rejected you. Neither will we. Amen.