Justice

Evangelicalism at Iliff School of Theology (Wait… What?)

IMG_8059The journey has been long, at times painful, and mostly liberating. In 2012 I wrote a piece I called My Journey to No, which was my way of not only publicly opposing the Minnesota marriage amendment to ban same sex marriage, but it was also my way of publicly announcing my theological shift in regards to the humans I had previously whittled down to the “issue” of homosexuality. That is, I had moved from someone who bought and taught conservative evangelical theology on “matters of human sexuality” to someone who believes in a more generous Gospel of Christ, and believes that not only should LGBTQ people be accepted fully into the fold of Christianity and humanity, but also should be called to be our leaders, teachers, and mentors in and of the faith. It is statements like this that I know often upset my evangelical sisters and brothers, but the truth is we cannot hold a generous Gospel in one hand, while holding a charge against Bishop Oliveto in the other.

Nearly five years after writing My Journey to No, last Wednesday I found myself in the Iliff School of Theology chapel in a near full-on heave cry as I was led in one of the most powerful worship experiences of my life. Bishop Karen Oliveto was scheduled to preach, even though she had just returned home from hearings in New Jersey regarding whether her election to the Episcopacy last year was valid simply because she is a publicly professing lesbian. I can’t imagine the painful words she had to endure in those hearings…

…Oh wait, yes I can imagine those words, because for the first 15-20 years of my Christianity I believed those words, I said those words, and (and here is where I really cringe) I taught those words to teenagers. You see, I was an evangelical. That meant that I had a responsibility to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, which when it came to LGBTQ people meant “you’re an abomination, but I can help you.” We can spin it all we want, but that essentially was our “good news”.

As soon as I saw Bishop Oliveto walk in I felt tears well up. The worship experience was beautifully crafted and led mostly by Iliff’s LGBTQ community and included great music, including a powerful acoustic rendition of “Blessed Assurance”, as well as some other beautiful choruses and original pieces. But in all the beauty, something wasn’t right in me. I couldn’t figure out what. My soul was aching as though it was waiting to crack open and unleash something. What was this about? I’ve been through this. I’ve come to terms with my evangelical past and have since worked to be an ally (not always well, but I’m learning). What was happening? Why was my soul so unsettled.

The coup de gras for my aching soul came when a fellow Iliff classmate read a poem they wrote for this occasion. It cannot be described, nor can it be merely read. This was true poetry: It needs to be experienced. Take six minutes and give it a listen/viewing (yes it’s a six minute poem, and it needs to be, and it’s beautiful):

As the recitation went on, I found myself beginning to mildly convulse as I tried to hold back the tears that were beginning to pour out from my soul like a spring of abundant life. I didn’t want the drama of my soul to distract from the beauty being breathed into the Iiliff Chapel air.

The poem finished and I was torn open in all the good ways. This unveiling of my soul felt like what I imagine the tearing open of the veil of the Holy of Holies to be. Something was exposed. Then it hit me. How many students have I silenced? How many teenagers sat in my youth rooms desperately needing a safe space to be, express, and live into who they are, and I silenced them? I know there’s grace, and I know I’ve changed, and I even know that in those days, my motives, though misguided, were not to cause harm. But I did. My intentions do not change the fact that I silenced. As students gathered for confirmations and baptisms, I put white robes on them to homogenize them when perhaps all they wanted or even needed was to live into their unique, colorful, fully alive, and not always normative selves.

My soul laid bare, I collected myself, as Bishop Oliveto began to preach. I can’t tell you what an honor it was to be in that space with her and other dear friends, most relatively new but one I’ve known for well over half my life- one whose story is intimately and inseparably tied to mine. In Bishop Oliveto you could see that the pain was real and deep, but more so, it was not the final word. Resurrection will have the final word. Resurrection will precede the final punctuation mark of her story. And mine. And yours. Hope began to swirl in the air with the grace of gentle but felt summer breeze. The kind that messes up your neat and tidy picnic table.

And then another classmate of mine for whom I have great admiration sang a song he wrote for Bishop Oliveto. The poem broke open my aching soul, and this song became a healing balm for it, not closing it back up, but leaving it laid bare and vulnerable and free: “I’m made in the image love…” poured into the air like an aspirated baptism drowning me in grace and healing with every breath. Listen to it. All of it:

I walked out of this worship experience with an undeniably felt experience of the very Spirit of God. She swam through that room with a kind of power and beauty that takes your breath away. In a time of such bad news in the life of LGBTQ United Methodists, hope, grace, and healing echoed off the walls of the Iliff Chapel that morning.

Bad news came later in the week. On Friday the UMC Judicial Council ruled by a 6-3 vote that Bishop Oliveto’s election to the episcopacy did violate church law. It was another crushing blow in the hope for inclusion in the United Methodist Church. But I did not leave hopeless. Still wet from the drenching of the Spirit in chapel on Wednesday, my soul rose in protest against this ruling. And isn’t that what worship is? A protest? Isn’t this thing we call worship- that is, the gathering of the community- intended to be a protest against the current condition of the world? A protest against bad news?

As the world spits out more bad news of hate, exclusion, destruction, and fear, the gathered community is intended to stand in opposition as a anthem of good news. The Greek word in the New Testament that translates to “good news” is εὐαγγέλιον (euaggelion). It’s where we get our word “evangelical”. In this sense, at its most raw, evangelicalism is a protest against the bad news of the world. Because of this, the only word I can use to describe my experience in the Iliff Chapel on Wednesday is “evangelical”.

The journey has been long, at times painful, and mostly liberating. It’s becoming a more common story, that of people leaving evangelicalism. But leaving that worship experience on Wednesday, I’m not so certain I left evangelicalism eight years ago. I may have just finally found it.