The End of Exodus International is Not the End of the Ex-Gay Movement

imagesAlan Chambers, president of prominent ex-gay ministry Exodus International, made headlines this week with his public statement of apology and announcement that his organization will close. The closure of Exodus has elicited celebrations from the LGBTQ community and allies who have long known the harm being done in God’s name by groups like this. And while there is indeed cause for rejoicing, we must also remember that the struggle is not over.

Exodus was probably the most well-known reparative therapy ministry in the country. Exodus taught that gays and lesbians could either change or repress their sexual attractions through a process of prayer and counseling. So its disappearance is a major change in the ex-gay ministry landscape.

But in the cities and towns of this country, the ideas behind Exodus’ ministry continue to thrive. In my own community there are churches that teach that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation. Or, they argue that being gay is like having an addiction: you can just choose not to partake in the thing that causes you to “sin”.

Even fairly mainstream groups like “Celebrate Recovery”, a resource created by Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church that is used in many churches and billed as a Christian alternative to Twelve Step programs like AA, teaches that gays and lesbians can change. Exodus may have closed, but their ideas are still going strong, and they may even be thriving in your hometown.

In some ways, this is even more dangerous than Exodus International. While Exodus remained in business, those of us in the LGBTQ community could point to them as a clear example of dubious practices. Their assertions that being gay was a choice, or the result of childhood trauma, or distant fathers, were fairly easily disputed. Their practices of teaching gays and lesbians to put rubber bands around their wrists and flick them when they experiences a same-sex attraction were ridiculous. In a way, they were so public and so easy to dismiss that they did those of us who believe ex-gay therapy is deadly a huge favor. They were their own worst press.

Now reparative therapy has gone underground. But it hasn’t gone away. Not yet, at least. But it needs to, or else it will kill more LGBTQ youth and young adults.

One of the favorite quotes of those who believe in reparative therapy is that God “loves the sinner but hates the sin”. The idea is that God loves the gay or lesbian person, but hates their “sin” of acting on their same-sex attraction. So, a gay or lesbian person who engages in relationships with others of the same-sex are much like an alcoholic who continues to drink. God may still love that alcoholic, but God hates their drinking.

It has always struck me as an odd analogy. Because when I think about the best comparison between gays and alcoholic it is not between an active alcoholic and a gay person who accepts themselves. Instead it is between an active alcoholic and a gay person who is doing everything they can to reject themselves. In both cases the person is doing all they can to destroy who they are, and to bury their true selves.

Recovery comes in many forms. And that’s why true health, and truly living into God’s love for us, comes when we stop trying to destroy ourselves, through addiction or through a refusal to accept ourselves, and instead come out. We come out of addiction. We come out of the closet. We come out of the secret places where we have been kept, and come into a world where we are no longer kept captive by fear or addiction.

This is the business of “change” that I wish more Christian churches would claim as their work. Instead of the pastor telling the gay high school kid that he just needs to pray harder, what would it look like if the pastor instead affirmed them and talked about loving themselves enough to make healthy relationship choices? Instead of pressuring the young woman who felt attracted to other women into a loveless marriage that will end in divorce, what if Christian counselors instead supported a marriage to which she could actually commit herself? And instead of telling the parents of a gay kid that there was hope because their son could change, why not tell them that there is hope because they have a kid who knows who he is in the world?

When I was 18 years old I walked into the office of my college chaplain expecting nothing but judgment. The fact I expected judgement is not surprising: I had grown up just outside Orlando, the headquarters of Exodus International. But when I told him I was gay the first thing he did was tell me that he affirmed me, just as I was, and that God still loved me. All these years later, I know that first time coming out to a Christian clergyperson made all the difference in my journey. I have often thought about what might have happened had I walked into a different clergyperson’s office. I’m thankful that I didn’t. And I mourn for all the LGBTQ people who did, and who ended up at places like Exodus.

We can’t let this happen anymore. One giant of reparative therapy may be gone, but the movement is not. Now the struggle has come close to home, and you and I are on the front lines.

Why I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture to a red equal sign.

521352_10100262115894488_1545846164_nLast week many of my friends changed their profile pictures on Facebook. I did too. With the Supreme Court’s hearing of two cases related to marriage equality, Facebook went red in support of the end of DOMA and Prop 8.

My profile picture was red. But, it wasn’t the red equal sign. And as I watched friends from high school, college, and the church world change theirs to the red equal sign, I felt deeply conflicted.

I certainly support marriage equality. My wife and I married last fall, so DOMA directly affects us. But I don’t support the Human Rights Campaign, the organization that was behind the red equal signs. Most who changed their profile pictures didn’t know that they were advertising for any particular organization. They just thought that they were supporting equality, which is indeed noble. But the reality is that with every change of a profile picture to the red equal sign, HRC, an organization that many LGBTQ people have trouble supporting, was getting free advertising. And with it, the impression that the HRC somehow spoke for all LGBT people was spread.

Back in the 1990’s the rainbow flag, a general, inclusive symbol of LGBTQ equality not owned by any one organization, gradually gave way to a new symbol: a blue square with a yellow equal sign in the middle. The Human Rights Campaign created this new symbol and would only distribute it through their own channels (often after donations). Some LGBT bookstores tried to copy the logo to sell in their own stores, and were swiftly rebuffed.

And so, the HRC became the purveyors of the equal sign. And if you go to an HRC Action Center, like the one that now occupies Harvey Milk’s old store in San Francisco, you can buy anything from a t-shirt to a frisbee to a dog bowl (generally made in a place with poor labor practices) with an equal sign plastered on the side. So, you pay to advertise for the HRC. Meanwhile, the HRC uses the money to pay executive staff and get buildings like this: http://www.hrc.org/the-hrc-story/our-building

But more importantly, many in the community have long had reservations about HRC’s actions. Trans advocates in particular have had trouble with the HRC’s mixed messages on trans inclusion, especially around ENDA. (Google “HRC” and “trans” for more.) People of color have also leveled valid concerns, as have undocumented persons. After a rally to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, LGBT veterans complained about their treatment by the HRC. And, the HRC dinner in honor of Goldman Sachs last year showed a tone-deafness about the real economic crisis that rubbed many the wrong way.

The end of my own support for HRC came in 2011. I first encountered HRC as a Congressional intern in 1994, back when they were called the “Human Rights Campaign Fund”. Through the years I tried to remain supportive knowing that no organization is perfect. I had a few HRC shirts and I even bought my parents a membership a few years back.

But in the summer of 2011 I went to Albany, New York for a week to watch what was happening with the marriage equality bill. HRC was there too. And I was less than impressed. Doubtless much was happening behind the scenes, but what I saw on the surface convinced me that my money would be better spent in other places. There were many great volunteers working with HRC, and I’m not saying anything negative about any of them. But I just didn’t see any real leadership from the paid staff.

They didn’t know how to use the volunteers that they had. They didn’t know how to use the clergy and others who came to advocate for marriage equality. They didn’t work well with the grassroots groups who had done a lot of the prep work needed to push for a vote (and they talked down to them at points). And they asked those who were protesting in favor of marriage equality to sound less “angry”.

(When I wrote my reflections about this down and posted it online, I received a testy email from an HRC senior staff member. I also received an email from a staffer in the NY Legislature who said it was spot on and that the HRC had almost botched the vote, in part because they didn’t use some of the resources that were offered to them. When a few activists decided not to take orders from the HRC anymore, “went rogue” and started to visit legislators on their own they had actually managed to change more minds than the HRC.)

After that, I just decided to support other organizations. It’s like the old saying: When someone shows you who they are, believe them. It’s not that I hate the HRC. I just refuse to advertise for them any longer since so many I care about have been hurt or offended by their policies. Now I support groups like the Trevor Project and organizations that are closer to home and capable of doing local good.

So, when I see those red equal signs, knowing that most who are posting them don’t realize that they are posting something created by HRC, I just want to tell people what they are supporting. If they still want to use them, that is by all means their right. But, they should first know what that symbol brings up for some of us who are LGBTQ. Because part of being a responsible part of the movement, LGBTQ and ally alike, is listening to the voices at the margins, and deciding with whom you will stand.

(Just a note…here’s the latest concern. It’s worth noting that HRC originally denied this happened: http://www.towleroad.com/2013/04/quiphrc.html )

Journey Through Lent: Day 32

Many Christians are preparing for Easter, which is coming up in just a few days on March 31st. It’s one of the few things that Christians churches agree on and celebrate in common, and on Easter Sunday every church in this valley will be celebrating the good news of new life.

But as universally true as that might sound not all Christian churches will be celebrating on the 31st. Orthodox Christians, the second largest Christian denominational group after Roman Catholics, won’t be celebrating Easter until May 5th. Orthodox Christians follow a different calendar from Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, which means often times we celebrate Easter (and Christmas) on other days.

So, who’s right? I mean, there can’t really be two Easter’s right? Doesn’t someone have to be wrong?

When I was growing up in the South, I often heard people who attended certain Christian churches in town tell me that Catholics “weren’t really Christians”. That always struck me as odd. My own immediate family wasn’t Catholic, but most of my extended family was, and I knew them to be good Christian people.

Later on I heard others say the same thing about my own religious tradition for a variety of reasons. Some were old arguments like the fact we baptize babies instead of adults. Others were newer, like the fact we allow women to preach and gays and lesbians to marry. And because of that, despite the fact I’ve given my life to serving Christ, I’ve been told repeatedly I’m not a “real Christian”.

And this is what I’ve learned along the way: “real Christians” don’t all look, think, talk, or worship the same way. And if anyone tells me they have the market on Christian truth cornered, that’s enough to make me wary. The truth of the matter is that good Christians disagree on any number of thing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians.

Nearly 400 years ago, the people who would later form my own Congregational tradition landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were escaping a place that told them that there was only one way to be Christian. But the church they started here in New England at first repeated the mistakes of those who had forced them out of England. They persecuted other Christians who didn’t agree with their own version of Christianity, and they said they weren’t “real Christians”.

We now understand that they were very wrong. That’s one reason why the church that is now descended from them, the United Church of Christ, is wary about judging the validity of the Christian faith of others. We understand that with each new generation there are new challenges, and new understandings of what it means to be Christian. We are open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and to the presence of Christ in other churches.

For that reason, I’ve found Christ while attending Mass at the Catholic parish in Brattleboro. I’ve seen him while worshipping at Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. I’ve felt him while visiting Orthodox cathedrals. And I’ve known he was close while worshipping at my own UCC parish. I’ve found that if you open your heart up to Christ’s love, you can find him all over the place.

Come March 31st, like churches in many places, my church will celebrate the holiest day of our year. But I’ll keep in mind those other Christians who are still waiting for their Easter. And I’ll also keep in mind those Christians whose understandings of what it means to be faithful are so different from my own.

My only hope is that they might do the same for me, and for other Christians whose faith might look different than their own. I’ve always believed that a desire to see Christ in others is a true mark of a Christian. Perhaps the same is true for seeing Christ in the churches of others as well.

Journey Through Lent: Day 15

UCC banner at General Synod in Tampa.

UCC banner at General Synod in Tampa.

This morning I was talking to a friend who, like me, is a Southern ex-pat now living in New England. We were talking about how our experiences in the South have shaped the way we have come to understand Jesus, as well as our feelings when we hear the word “Jesus”, for good and for bad.

I grew up hearing “Jesus” used at times as the start of a sentence condemning me. I was not raised religious, but fundamentalist Christianity was all around me. And it was words said by the Christians who surrounded me that led me to believe that the God they loved hated me for who I was.

Eventually though, despite the negative impressions I had of Christianity, spiritual but not religious was not enough for me. I came out and became a committed Christian in 1994, the year I turned 18. Thankfully, I did so around Southern Christian clergy who were minorities in their beliefs that there was nothing wrong with being gay. They taught me that Jesus wasn’t a name to be feared, but that Jesus was a name that stood for liberation and justice and, above all, love.

I often give thanks for the fact that the first Christian clergyperson I came out to, a United Methodist minister from Georgia, smiled, gave me a hug, and told me “I affirm you”. Then he sent me home with a packet of articles written by Biblical scholars explaining why the Bible does not condemn LGBT people, and why God does indeed love us, and why gay people do not need to change.

I know not many LGBT people of my generation and older had that experience, though. And I know that even LGBT youth today still are met with religious condemnation far too often. And while more churches are going out of their way to not put their condemnation of LGBT people out front, in some ways it’s worse. A growing number of churches in New England are being “planted” by Southern fundamentalist groups to spread their version of the Gospel. They’re generally laid back, jeans and t-shirts type guys (always guys…women can’t preach in their churches) who rock out with guitars and talk about Jesus’ love. But dig a little deeper, and the “love the sinner, hate the sin” words about homosexuality always come out. It’s just like the Christianity I knew growing up, except now it hits you when you least expect it.

This, rightfully, hits a lot of people the wrong way. And so sometimes, especially in well-educated New England circles, a person talking about “Jesus” can be a punchline. I’ve been at dinner parties where Christians are the butt of jokes, and religion the venture of fools, and where the host has looked around nervously and said, “oh, by the way, Emily is a pastor”. And then the conversation stops dead and everyone looks at their chicken.

I’d take offense, if we hadn’t done it to ourselves. True, moderate to progressive Christians aren’t the ones in the news talking negatively about women, and gays, and evolution. But we’re also not the ones in the news talking about women, and gays, and evolution in positive ways, either. We’re mostly quiet, apologetic, and unassuming. And we’ve let the good name of Jesus become associated with a social agenda I do not believe he would have supported.

So, in Lent, especially, I refuse to let the name of Jesus be co-opted. I don’t believe I have any more right to Jesus’ name than anyone else. But I also don’t believe I have any less. And so, in Lent, I try to talk about my relationship with Jesus more. I talk about how Jesus has taught me about grace. How Jesus has transformed my life. How Jesus has taught me how to live, and how to die, and how to not be afraid. And I talk about how Jesus has taught me to leave everything behind, and follow him. This is the story of my walk with Jesus. And in Lent, a time when we follow Jesus’s own walk, I choose to tell it.

An Undesirable Role Model Prays for the Boy Scouts (And Does Their Paperwork)

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My own experience of local Scouting organizations has been very positive. The church I pastor is a charter organization for two Boy Scout units, a Boy Scout Troop and a Cub Scout pack. The parents are great, the kids are enthusiastic, and the leaders are hard working. And I know a lot of them disagree with the current national stance of the Boy Scouts of America.

Every year, though, that policy hits home for me in a particular way. There are forms that each adult leader must fill out in order to be an official volunteer. As the pastor of my church, the chartering organization, I have to sign off on each one attesting to their moral fitness to serve as Scout leaders or badge counselors.

But the funny thing is that while the Boy Scouts trust that I have the moral fitness to determine the moral fitness of others, they do not trust that I have the moral fitness to be a Scout leader myself. The reason, simply, is because I am gay. And, as the Boy Scouts argued to the Supreme Court in 2000, “homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts”.

Does anyone else see the irony here?

My LGBT friends give me a hard time for being willing to work with the Boy Scouts. And, I get why. But, I also believe that for the boys and the young men of my area, this program has changed lives in positive ways. I do not wish to stand between the young people I know who love Scouting and the opportunities that Scouting offers to them. So each year I sign that paper and feel the bittersweetness of it all.

Part of the Boy Scouts resistance to leadership from gays and lesbians comes from the old, long disproven, idea that LGBT people will sexually abuse children. Despite all the scientific research to the contrary, despite the fact that most same-sex pedophiles identify as straight, and despite the fact that if that’s the real fear then lesbians shouldn’t even be a part of the discussion, the Scouts have refused to evolve.

Meanwhile, conservative religious movements and political groups have turned the Scouts into a political football, and celebrated them as their idea of a moral organization. But I don’t believe a moral organization would turn gay parents away from volunteering with their kids. And I don’t believe a moral organization would teach young people to work hard and then not treat them the same as everyone else. And I don’t believe a moral organization would make kids feel like they were second-class citizens. A lot of other people don’t either. But that hasn’t been enough to persuade the Boy Scouts. At least not yet.

And so, young men like Ryan Andersen, a Scout in California whose record is impressive enough that any Troop should be proud to claim him, finishes every requirement to be an Eagle Scout and then ends up being denied because he is gay. And young men like Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout with two lesbian moms, is forced to demonstrate the leadership skills he learned in Scouting by calling out his beloved organization over their policies. And in troops and packs across the country, boys and young men have to choose between hiding who they are in order to participate, or coming out and getting booted out.

The sad thing is that, at their core, I believe the Boy Scouts are better than this. I believe that because I have seen Scouting at a local level, and it is a positive movement. Which means that when it comes to the real moral issues of our day, questions of respecting everyone, ending bullying, promoting service to others, and building up community, the national leadership of the Boy Scouts could be drawing upon their core values to help lead the way. Instead, they have stopped fighting for young people and have instead been fighting for an old, outdated, and dangerous policy.

And in the end the Boy Scouts will either change, or they will become a hopelessly out-of-touch anachronism. The decline in national membership (42 percent over the past 40 years by some figures) might be a harbinger of what is to come. When you lose sight of the mission, when you lose sight of the fact that you exist in order to strengthen the lives of all the kids that you serve, you lose your legacy, no matter how storied it might be. The Scouts don’t have much time to either do the right thing and claim that legacy, or to lose it forever.

In the meantime, this pastor who in the world of Scouting “does not provide a desirable role model” will just keep doing the paperwork and praying for change.

Scarier Than Westboro Baptist: Confronting Quiet Anti-Gay Rhetoric in Churches

In the wake of the recent shooting in Newtown, the Westboro Baptist Church, perennial anti-gay provocateurs, reached a new low. The group announced their intention to picket at the funerals of the children who had been killed, and blamed their deaths on Connecticut’s legalization of same-sex marriages.

The nation recoiled at the group’s plans, just as we have when they have shown up to picket at the funerals of Marines killed in Afghanistan or those who have died of AIDS. What they do is, all but the smallest fringe of us agree, absolutely reprehensible. Even those who oppose full civil rights for LGBT people can agree that what Westboro does goes far past the pale of what is socially acceptable.

The Westboro Baptist Church is the closest this country comes to agreeing on something that is “wrong” in America. And I agree that they are absolutely detestable. But the ironic thing is, when it comes to anti-gay rhetoric from churches, I am far less afraid of the Westboro Baptist Church than I am of little-known congregations all across the country. Maybe even one that’s in the town where you live.

You see, Westboro Baptist Church puts their prejudice right out there. It’s up there on the vulgar signs and in the press releases. It’s stated loud and clear in everything they do. They don’t hide their contempt for LGBT people. It’s right there.

But imagine this. Imagine you are a LGBT person who is looking for a church that will accept you. And so you find yourself looking at the webpage of a congregation down that street that says they “welcome all”. Maybe you even go to the church and talk to the pastor and ask if LGBT people are welcome there, and the pastor says “of course! We love everyone!”

Now, there’s a chance that they really mean you are welcome. As in, welcome to come in and be who you are and be accepted and affirmed. That’s true of a growing number of Christian churches.

But there’s another possibility too. One that far too many LGBT people face. After being initially welcomed by a congregation, it doesn’t take too long for the truth to come out. They are still welcome to worship, but the church believes that their sexual orientation, their “lifestyle” or “choice”, is a sin.

In one-on-one counseling with the pastor they are told that their homosexuality is the same as an alcoholic’s addiction. They aren’t sinners for being attracted to others of the same sex, but they must learn to not act on those feelings, the same way an alcoholic may obtain sobriety. Maybe they’ll even be referred to so-called “reparative therapy” meant to change their sexual attractions. And all the while, they are told that the church loves them. That they are called as Christians to “love the sinner” but “hate the sin”.

In happens all the time. When a church not far from me moved to town they wrote on their blog that part of their draw to Vermont was that other churches here were “embracing liberal theology such as universalism and homosexuality”. Yet on the ground, this isn’t mentioned, even when they try to recruit LGBT people to attend their services with a “we welcome all” attitude.

And, unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, I believe that they really believe that they love gay people. And that’s why they’re so dangerous. Because it’s often the harm that churches do to gay people out of a misguided “love” that becomes truly dangerous.

Most of us can look at the Westboro Baptist Church and know that they are preaching a distorted Gospel. But when it comes to the gay kid being raised in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” church or the adult woman who finally works up the courage to talk to their “welcoming” pastor about being a lesbian, there is a real danger of pastoral malpractice with potentially deadly results.

I want my anti-gay preaching right out there in the open. I hate what the Westboro signs say, but I appreciate knowing that anyone who sees them will know exactly what they are dealing with when they see them. I want these churches that proclaim a “welcome” to gays and lesbians to be really clear about what the conditions of that welcome actually entail. I want them to tell the truth: we will never affirm who you are, we will never officiate at your marriage, and we will never accept that God made you who you were and wouldn’t want you to be alone. That’s just basic honesty, and that’s the least that one should be able to expect from our pastors.

For now, though, plenty of us who are pastors practice a sort of downstream ministry. Once the harm has been done by churches that claim to be welcoming, and once the people who they have harmed have recovered just enough to go out on the limb and try to explore faith again, we open the doors and say “no really…you really are welcome and affirmed here…just as you are.”

It’s amazing how long it takes until people who have been badly wounded by a church in the past actually believe it. But when they do, it often feels like coming home. I just wish more of them could find that home without being misled on their journey there.

When Wearing Purple Isn’t Enough – New post on HuffPost Religion for Spirit Day

Check out my new post on Huffington Post Religion about what being bullied has taught me as a clergyperson:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/when-wearing-purple-isnt-enough-telling-the-truth-about-bullying_b_1987128.html?fb_action_ids=10100160786150108&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%7B%2210100160786150108%22%3A440237262678258%7D&action_type_map=%7B%2210100160786150108%22%3A%22og.likes%22%7D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D

God’s Welcome, and Our Welcome: Sermon for September 9, 2012

429279_10150562577556787_1270530573_nJames 2:1-10, 14-17
2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

2:2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,

2:3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”

2:4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

2:5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

2:6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?

2:7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

2:8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

2:9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?

2:15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,

2:16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

2:17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

________

Have you ever felt unwelcome? Have you ever had an experience where you were pretty sure people would rather you not be around? Or, at least, they didn’t seem too happy that you were there? I think all of us at some point in our life have.

When I lived in Provincetown there was no UCC church in town, but there were a few others. I wanted to go to church while I lived there, so I checked one out. I got there, parked, went inside, sat through the service, and the left. With the exception of the pastor, who quickly shook my hand at the door on the way out, I don’t think anyone said anything to me the entire time. I felt pretty unwelcome. I left wondering what I had done wrong.

A couple years later I was talking to someone I know who visits Provincetown frequently. He asked me if I had ever found a church to go to there. I told him I’d tried this particular church, and that the service was okay, but that no one had talked to me at all. He then told me that he had too and that the exact same thing had happened to him.

I felt a little better. It wasn’t about me. But I hadn’t known that at the time. And, even worse, it seems like a lot of folks had left that church feeling that way.

You probably have a story like that somewhere in your life. Maybe not in a church, but somewhere. None of us likes to feel like we are not welcome, and, hopefully, not of us intentionally tries to be unwelcoming to others. And churches should be places that “get it”. Churches should be places where all who come through the doors are welcome. But the sad thing is that many people have at some point in their lives experienced churches as an unwelcoming place.

The text we read today is from the Epistle of James. The writer is essentially talking about how to treat people who come to church. He gives the readers an example. He talks about two people who will come into their church: one is wearing expensive clothing and gold rings and the other is poor and in dirty clothes. And he tells them that if they take the wealthy person and give them the best seat in the house, and then take the poor person and make them stand in the back, that they have no clue what Christianity is all about.

He goes on to tell them that at the end of the day if they will send the one who has nothing back out into the world and they say to them “take care, keep warm, don’t go hungry”. But if they the church does nothing to ensure that they actually stay warm and aren’t going hungry, then they just don’t understand the Scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I used to attend a church in Atlanta that had a big meal on Sundays after church. This is more common down South. Church starts at 11, so by the time it gets out everyone is hungry. And they had a chef who cooked, and it was always pretty good. It didn’t cost a lot. Maybe $5. Cheap enough that I could afford it as a grad student, and certainly cheaper than eating a meal out.

But this church was also located in an area where a lot of folks lived on the streets. And to be fair this church did a lot to help those folks. And they welcomed them into worship. But on Sunday afternoons, that meal that only cost me a few dollars became a feast that was out of reach for them. If they didn’t have the money, they didn’t eat. And they’d go back out onto the streets hungry.

I wonder what James would have said about that? More importantly, I wonder why it took me so long to notice that it was happening for myself? I was comfortable and fed, but I never noticed that none of our homeless guests were staying for lunch, or that there was no system to allow them to do so, until someone pointed it out.

I wonder how often I miss that. I wonder how often I overlook the fact that while I might be feel welcome, others may not. One time in Georgia I was talking with a friend about this small barbecue place about an hour outside of Atlanta. I’d gone there and really liked the food. And she was from the same area originally, so I suggested that someday we try it. She agreed and asked me the name. And when I told her, her face sort of sank. And she said, “I can’t go there…I wouldn’t be welcome.”

I said, “What do you mean? Of course you would.”

And she shook her head and said, “Emily, you don’t get it…I grew up here, and I know that place. Black folks like me aren’t welcome.”

Of course I didn’t get that. I hadn’t had to even think about the color of my skin when I went there. I just went in, paid my money, and got a plate of barbecue. But she did. I had no idea how much I was taking for granted just being welcome in certain places.

Now, we hear that story and we all realize how horrible it is. But what I want to stress here is that unless she had told me she was unwelcome there, I never would have known. And I believe that she genuinely was unwelcome. This is an area that still had Klan marches when she was a kid. But the take away for us today, and for churches everywhere, is that there are some folks who are sure they will be unwelcome in this church because they have genuinely been unwelcome in other churches. And as much as we genuinely want to welcome them, that’s keeping them from coming through our doors.

It might be surprising to hear the questions I have had from people in this valley who have met me and found out I was the pastor at this church. They’ve been curious about coming to church, but they’ve had bad experiences other places and they just assume that they will be unwelcome here as well.

A few have been members of the 12 step groups who meet here regularly. They actually spend more time in this church every week than just about anyone else. And they wonder whether someone like them, a recovering alcoholic or addict, would be welcome here.

Some have been folks we as a church have helped financially. They wonder if they are allowed to come here after receiving help from us. A few have asked me whether they would be welcome despite the fact they really have nothing nice to wear or nothing to put in the plate when it goes around.

Others have told me about how they or there families were judged for who they were when they tried to go into other churches.

We hear these words from our neighbors, and we say “of course your welcome. Everyone is welcome here.” We are appalled to think that there is any question. I can truly tell you that you are a warm church when folks walk through the doors. I hear that all the time. But this is not about you, or who you are. It’s about the fact that unless we make our welcome explicit, they’re not going to walk in the doors.

We might not realize that because we’ve never felt anything but welcome from churches in our lives. But for those of us for whom that is true, we are very lucky. For some people walking through the front doors of this church, of any church, is more than an act of faith. It’s also an act of courage.

So, we try to change that. We try to be explicit about our welcome. And we often reinforce it by using the slogan from the United Church of Christ that so many of you have told me you like so much: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

I love that slogan. But we can’t just give it lip service. We can’t just say it or print it on our letterhead or have it on the bulletin. We have to live it.

The church is not a selective club. We’re not a place where eligibility for membership is determined by someone’s bank account balance or the car they drive or where they went to school. It’s not determined by whether they can put “x” number of dollars in the collection plate. And it’s not determined by whether or not they’ve made some bad mistakes in life or whether they’ve ever been down and out. It’s determined only by this: that the person loves Christ, no matter how imperfectly, and wants to be a part of this community of disciples. All are welcome here because we don’t own this church. Christ does.

That’s good news. That’s really good news because it doesn’t just mean that others are welcome here. It means that you are welcome here too. And not just the best version of yourself. Not the part of you that cleans up well and says the right things and has it all together.

It means all of you. The part that has doubts. The part that doesn’t have things quite together. The part that yelled at your spouse or kids when you know you shouldn’t have this week. The part that deep down you would rather no one else knew about. That part is welcome here too. All of you is welcome here.

We are welcomed here because we have been welcomed extravagantly by God. God loves us so much, that the doors of God’s heart are open to all of us and to us all. Even the parts we’d rather hide sometimes. That’s the beauty of grace. That’s the beauty of what God has done for you.

And that’s the beauty of what those of us who are already here can do for those whom God wants to be here. That’s the beauty of being extravagantly welcomed by God. It makes it possible for us to extravagantly welcome others. We don’t do it because we want our church to keep growing bigger, though, make no mistake, an unwelcoming church is a dying church. We do it because if God’s grace is real, than we can do nothing other than this. We welcome others because God welcomed us first.

This week, as you go about your usual life and work, who could you pass that welcome on to? Who could you assure that God’s love and grace for them is real? And how can we as a church make our welcome more explicit to our neighbors? If God’s grace in us is real, than these are the questions we can’t help but ask ourselves. You can’t truly understand that you have been welcomed by God without in turn opening the doors of welcome wider to others.

May we as a church keep striving to live into what we proclaim: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Really. Amen.

How to Determine if Your Religious Liberty is at Threat in Just Ten Quick Questions.

It seems like this election season “religious liberty” is a hot topic. Rumors of its demise are all around, as are politicians who want to make sure that you know they will never do anything to intrude upon it.

I’m a religious person with a lifelong passion for civil rights, so this is of great interest to me. So much so, that I believe we all need to determine whether our religious liberties are indeed at risk. So, as a public service, I’ve come up with this little quiz. I call it “How to Determine if Your Religious Liberty is at Threat in Just Ten Quick Questions.” Just pick “A” or “B” for each question.

Question One

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A)I am not allowed to go to a religious service of my own choosing.

B) Others are allowed to go to religious services of their own choosing.

Question Two

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to marry the person I love legally, even though my religious community blesses my marriage.

B) Some states refuse to enforce my own particular religious beliefs on marriage on those two guys in line down at the courthouse.

Question Three

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am being forced to use birth control.

B) I am unable to force others to not use birth control.

Question Four

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to pray privately.

B) I am not allowed to force others to pray the prayers of my faith publicly.

Question Five

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) Being a member of my faith means that I can be bullied without legal recourse.

B) I am no longer allowed to use my faith to bully gay kids with impunity.

Question Six

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to purchase, read, or possess religious books or material.

B) Others are allowed to have access books, movies, and websites that I do not like.

Question Seven

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) My religious group is not allowed equal protection under the establishment clause.

B) My religious group is not allowed to use public funds, buildings, and resources as we would like, for whatever purposes we might like.

Question Eight

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) Another religious group has been declared the official faith of my country.

B) My own religious group is not given status as the official faith of my country.

Question Nine

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) My religious community is not allowed to build a house of worship in my community.

B) A religious community I do not like wants to build a house of worship in my community.

Question Ten

My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to teach my children the creation stories of our faith at home.

B) Public school science classes are teaching science.

Scoring key:

If you answered “A” to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality…not your superiority.

If you answered “B” to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.

In closing, no matter what soundbites you hear this election year, remember this: religious liberty is never secured by a campaign of religious superiority. The only way to ensure your own religious liberty remains strong is by advocating for the religious liberty of all, including those with whom you may passionately disagree. Because they deserve the same rights as you. Nothing more. Nothing less.