I am a pastor in Steinbach. Steinbach made headlines about Bill 18 recently. My letter to the editor of the Carillon was published. I was asked to be on CBC and CTV about that letter. This is my story.
(As usual, internet conversations are often unhelpful. If you want to talk, I’ll pick up the tab).
I was at a youth pastors meeting and a month ago and was given some articles and cards stating one church’s opposition to Bill 18. One article specifically said: The biggest threat to Gay Straight Alliances is conservative, religious groups. And this was given to me by a conservative, religious church hoping to prevent Gay Straight Alliances.
So I kind of knew a conflict was brewing.
There was an information and prayer night at the local, private, Christian school. I went to that meeting with mixed intentions. One person said I was going looking for ammunition. Okay, I can admit that. But I also went since I am a part of this community and wanted to get a feeling on how people felt.
At the meeting, I realized what it was like to be an outcast.
We clapped for the politicians in the front row. Twice.
My friend and I were the only ones that we could see not clapping.
And then we were invited to acknowledge that we were there for Jesus.
And the entire auditorium rose to its feet for a standing ovation.
My friend and I did not stand up. We did not clap. My faith in Jesus is the most important thing to me. And I sat with my arms crossed and a scowl on my face. I sent a text: “Jesus is now getting a standing ovation.” “Oh my”, was the response.
Did I pull a Peter and deny Jesus? No. I said, “I love you Jesus, but I am not standing up for you in this way, in this place.”
We left before the praying started. I didn’t want to say anything that would make the people next to me mad.
After the meeting, I could not believe that everyone was hiding behind the language of religious freedom. And nobody was talking about the suicide rate of GLBTQ kids. Brutal.
So I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper in an attempt to highlight the fact that GLBTQ kids have a suicide rate 4-5 times the national average. And the suicide rates of gay AND straight teens goes up in communities that aren’t considered supportive (you can read it 2 blog posts below, after the labour haikus).
In my letter, I was hoping to frame the question of bullying in a different light. Instead of talking about religious freedom and morality, the baseline should be: How do we keep kids alive? Instead of figuring out which Bible verses say what, we should start with “The Bible wants to keep everyone alive.”
And so my letter was published.
Some of my thinking was this:
– Jesus always took the side of the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Often at the expense of the religious leaders who followed the rules. In this case, who is on the fringe? That’s where I need to be. – me
– Folks didn’t have an encounter with Jesus and walk away saying, “Man, he sure doesn’t like gay folks.” – Shane Claiborne
– We are allowed to comment and protest and influence government legislation. I do all the time. But this one is different. Sexual orientation is not a choice. There is no “love the sinner, hate the sin” option here. No choice. – me
– “I believe that when we treat homosexual people as pariahs and push them outside our communities and churches; when we blame them for who they are; when we deny them our blessing on their commitment to lifelong, faithful relationships, we make them doubt whether they are children of God, made in his image.” – Steve Chalke
Well, then, apparently my letter didn’t work.
The RM of Hanover passed a motion opposing Bill 18 for “religious freedom reasons”. The city of Steinbach passed a motion opposing Bill 18 for “religious freedom reasons”. I know that there were thousands of letters being written to MLAs and that the local school division trustees were getting tons and tons of angry letters for not opposing Bill 18.
On Wednesday morning, after the city passed that motion, I was giving out hugs to people with gay friends and gay family. My hairdresser said that if she hadn’t ditched atheism for Christianity 3 years ago, this would be the final nail in the coffin. She would never consider a Christianity like this.
And the worst part is that nobody was publically connecting the dots. The issue is not religious freedom. The issue is that some people think being gay is a sin, and thus we can’t have clubs in our schools promoting sin.
I remember being in my church office on Wednesday and jumping around (like I had to go pee) telling my co-workers: “I want to fight! I want to fight! This has to stop!”
I wanted to be a voice for the oppressed and marginalized. Some of my thinking was:
– “As long as Christians are more dedicated to stand up for “truth and righteousness” than speaking out against injustice & hate, we will not be seen as a people of love. People will not see Jesus.” – Jamie Arpin-Ricci
– “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
– Mother Theresa’s response to abortion this: “We’ll take your children.” I wanted to shout to the world, “If you church doesn’t want anybody who is GLBTQ, we’ll take them.”
And then Thursday happened. The Winnipeg Free Press ran a sermon from a church in town that kind of went off the rails. They put the pastors picture on half the front page. In the morning, when I got my newspaper, I spit out my coffee in shock.
CBC and CTV contacted me. I had written a letter to the newspaper, so somone sent them to me for an interview so they could hear a different voice in the community.
This was my chance. 24 hours after saying I wanted to fight, I had the chance to be on 2 news channels plus their radio affiliates.
I wanted soooo bad to get on TV and say, “We’re not all like this! I support Bill 18! And a message to all the GLBTQ kids out there… You are not alone!”
I bounced it off our lead pastor, our church chair, our administrative assistant, the mayor who referred them to me, my wife, and others.
I told the reporters that I wanted to be a positive voice in the community, and that I would be saying all those things on Sunday. But it would happen in my church and in the context of relationships, where we care for each other. And not in an 8-second sound bite.
I don’t regret that decision. If I had gone on, despite my best intentions, despite the best intentions of the reporters, I would have been the “anti-ranting” pastor. I would have ramped up the rhetoric. I needed to be better than a sound bite.
Two of my Mennonite friends with different sexual orientations than me wondered how people would hear hope, or where the Christian GLTBQ kids would find Christian leaders to support them. Most of my Christian friends wondered how the world would know that not all Christians are like that. Many of my Steinbach friends wondered how the world would know that not all Steinbach-ers are like that.
I’ll live with that tension for quite a while.
But I hope that by not shouting from the television, and investing in the hard work of relationships, and belonging to a church that doesn’t offer judgement, the people who need hope and affirmation can find it. In a more meaningful way than a sound bite.
And one final way that my Christian faith has influenced my response to the conversation about Bill 18.
For lent, I have been getting up early and praying. As I am not a morning person, it has been quite the discipline.
At first, many of my prayers were ones for forgiveness. Calling people homo-phobes or bigots or cowards isn’t very healthy, so I confessed.
And then after a while, my prayers changed.
This past week, they changed from confession to almost exclusive prayers for the church that made the headlines, the pastor, and the people who go there.
– Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who persecute you. – Jesus
– Pray for people who make you angry. If I hate the haters, I become what I hate. – me
And my prayers haven’t been filled with an agenda. I haven’t prayed that certain people would change, or that the legislation would be passed, or that certain people would shut up. My prayers have simply been, “Bless _____. And ______.”
I’ve been following Common Prayer, A Prayer Book for Ordinary Radicals. This was one of the prayers this week:
– As the morning casts off the darkness, Lord, help us to cast aside any feelings of ill will we have might harbour against those who have hurt us. Soften our hearts to work toward their conversion and ours. Amen.
I am as broken as pastors who go viral for all the wrong reasons. I must pray for them, even through clenched teeth. I’ve been telling people this week, “I really need Jesus this week to help me love my enemies. I’m having a hard time doing that.”
And strangely, after a week of praying for people who make me mad, it’s becoming easier. It’s a miracle <smile>.
Lord have mercy as we walk together from here. Lord have mercy.
PS – And please, will somebody remember that in communities that aren’t supportive, the suicide rate of GLBTQ kids goes up 20% and the suicide rate of straight kids goes up 9%? Thanks.