“There is much work to be done…”
-Rev. Scott A. Ressman
This has been a difficult week for me, indeed for all of us. But, to put that into perspective for myself, my week has been nothing when I compare it to the families and friends who lost loved ones in last Sunday’s shooting in Orlando. Perspective helps. I’ve cried and I’ve grieved for people that I never knew, yet I feel close to because they are a part of who I am simply because they share the unique characteristic of being a part of the gay community. They were a part of my tribe. And while many were in their twenties and thirties, we shared a similar journey; each one growing in the realization that their attractions led them in non-traditional directions and often made them the target for prejudice and hate.
As I wrote to you last Monday, and for those of you who don’t receive emails from the church a copy of what I wrote is available on the table in the entry area to the sanctuary, last Sunday I was preparing for worship for our NY Conference annual meeting when I received the news of the massacre. It’s strange when I say that word. Someone suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t refer to it as a massacre, as perhaps to make it a bit less revolting and violent. But, I will call it what it was. A massacre of innocent lives.
Preparing for worship last week, the worship team had to decide how to break the news to the gathered congregation. And then, as worship progressed, how to tell them that what we said early on had grown much worse. The gathered body of believers is a powerful thing, especially over three hundred of them. The energy that that so many people can generate in prayer is palpable. So, when we prayed, we laid it all before God. We didn’t verbalize a communal prayer, but let silence and individual petitions speak to God. I can only guess at the words each person used, but the emotions were clear: frustration, anger, fear, and a dare-we-believe hope that God would somehow make some sense of the tragedy for us.
The letter that I sent to you was composed along the road as well. I wrote one version, much angrier and hopeless, and realized that my emotions poured forth a bit too quickly and I needed to step back with a more pastoral approach. But, I know from those of who you reached out to me directly, that my words were still very personal. How could they not be, after all? But, while all of us grieve, and my grief is no more notable than another’s, I thought that perhaps we need to understand what it means to find sanctuary in a nightclub on a Saturday night. For the LGBTQ community, a nightclub is one place where love and acceptance is found, where difference is not a cause for concern, but rather something to be celebrated; where for a few hours the world falls away and strangers become family, if but for a brief moment in time. For the LGBTQ community, Pulse nightclub was a sanctuary. And while it’s not a place where one who think that people find God, it is a place where God is found. God who created diversity, not as something to be feared, but rather celebrated. Not as a danger to the world, but an invitation to discover that the differences we perceive matter far less than the humanity that should unite us.
This morning I ask you to consider some difficult questions. I am inspired by the words of Rev. Dr. William Barber, who spoke to the UCC/Disciples of Christ conference last Saturday in Rochester. Rev. Barber is an advocate for justice and powerfully reminded the conference attendees that the Church has much work left to be done. And that perhaps the Church has become too timid, too afraid, believes too much that it’s no longer significant, and is too caught up in surviving when it should be fighting for the rights of people and working for God’s kingdom here on earth.
Little did Rev. Barber know how his words from a week ago Saturday would ring in my ears in this last week.
There is much work to be done.
Dare I suggest that the Church has a part in the prejudice against the LGBTQ community? The United Church of Christ is an exception in some ways, for as a denomination we were advocating for the rights of gay people long before any other denomination, but advocating is one thing. In 2016, just about twenty-percent of UCC churches are open and affirming, meaning that only one in five congregations in the UCC have had intentional conversations about what it means to be welcoming to all of God’s creation and voted to affirm their support for the full inclusion of gay people in their life and fellowship of their church. Just one in five. In 2016. After marriage equality has been declared for all of these United States. Just one in five. There is much work to be done.
And sadly, even within those open and affirming congregations there is often dissent. Even here, when this church went through the process, individuals spoke powerfully against such a statement and some left the church because of it. That is not an unusual scenario. Most churches experience that in the process, but eventually gain back members and receive new members after word gets out that a particular church community is a welcoming and safe place for the gay community. But still, there is much work to be done. One in five needs to become five in five. Dare any non-open and affirming church, and even those who are open and affirming, fess up and take some responsibility for the hatred that pervades our country?
For when we stand by in silence, we are as guilty as those who preach from the pulpit and take to social media to declare that gay people are not created in the image of God.
For when we stand by in silence when other denominations continually declare that the gay community should not hold positions of leadership within the Church, let alone be pastors, then we are as guilty as they are when we say nothing, do nothing, and let the voices of inequality and injustice prevail.
For when we stand by in silence, as television preachers take to the airwaves with hateful rhetoric, and we do or say nothing, then we are just as guilty of fueling the hate as they are. My friends, there is much work to be done.
In the days and weeks ahead, I pray that voices of all ages and orientations will speak with a passion that’s infused with the Holy Spirit’s courage. That voices will speak to those in power to protect those of us for whom fear and “watching our backs” has been the rule for far too long. That voices will demand that the hateful rhetoric stop, on both sides of the aisle, and in the sacred spaces of this nation. I pray that the voices will call for understanding, peace, and a place at the table that’s not allowed simply because it’s the politically correct thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do. I pray that those in the wider community, who just wish for all of this to go away and for everyone to stop talking about it, would seek out someone in the LGBTQ community and listen to them. Hear their story and move one step closer to understanding. I pray that God will unite us and that one day, one day, we can call each other children of God, creations of the Divine, good and Holy “as is,” without the need for asterisks or qualifiers.
©2016 Rev. Scott A. Ressman
An initial response to the massacre in Orlando, Florida - Sunday, June 12, 2016
On Sunday, while attending the NY Conference UCC and Disciples of Christ annual meeting, I turned on the television to provide some noise while I was getting ready for breakfast and a full morning of preparing for and offering worship to a gathered community of over 300. I was immediately hit with the mass shooting news from Orlando. Having just vacationed there, and knowing that "Pulse" is a club for the LGBTQ community, I sat on the edge of the bed and watched. I was immediately taken to a grief-stricken place and began crying.
I made my way to breakfast, well aware that those on the worship team might not have heard the news. When I met Rev. Freeman Palmer, our associate conference minister and my good friend, he had not heard. The shock on his face mirrored my own. We knew that we had to make a place for this in worship, knowing that few in the congregation would have heard. Thankfully, the task didn't fall to me. I was scheduled for the "Call to Worship" -- already printed, a bit lighthearted and energetic. That wasn't the place. We decided to announce it at the "Centering Prayer" with a time of quiet and prayer.
When worship was nearing the end, Rev. Palmer took to the microphone to announce that it was being reported that fifty people were dead and at least that many injured. Gasps were heard and the congregation was silent.
The choir was slated to end worship with a song called "Draw the Circle Wide." It is a song about being inclusive, making space for everyone at God's table. We had rehearsed the fifty-voice choir so that near the end of the song, they would make their way into the congregation -- sitting around round tables in a hotel ballroom -- and invite them to make a circle around the room. As suspected, people were hesitant. The circle started to form quite slowly. But then, as we had hoped, more people joined in. And the circle grew. And grew again, until everyone was included. The lyrics to the song proclaiming: "no one stands alone, standing side-by-side, draw the circle wide."
There were tears. As I stood, I couldn't help but notice that on my right-side I held the hand of a gay woman, to her left a straight white couple, to my left a gay black male, to his left, a transgender woman. "Draw the circle wide, make it wider still...no one stands alone, standing side-by-side, draw the circle wide." The moment wasn't lost on anyone. What we'd planned months earlier was now passionately speaking to us in the face of horrific news.
On the nearly eight hour drive home, I spoke with God a lot. I was angry and sad. While I think it's unfair to attribute human characteristics to God, I wanted God to feel the same way -- to assure me that my tears didn't fall alone, and that my anger echoed in the heavens. In my heart, I grieved for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and their allies.
"Draw the circle wide..." That is what we are called to do as people of faith. Sadly, that message is getting lost. More correctly, we're not trumpeting it with enough passion.
When I was in worship on Sunday, I looked over at one of the worship team members. He is a gentle, caring, extremely centered man. He was crying. Moments later he shared that his father had just sent him a text message. "I am thinking of you. I love you." Translated that means, "Every day I worry about your safety. I know that could have been you." As much as I hope for a world where diversity is celebrated and an occasion for learning, I know that there are painful realities. I hugged my friend because both of us knew as well, "that could have been one of us."
I am not naive enough to believe that a world without gun violence and homophobia is possible. But, I have to hold to my faith and believe that we can, however minimally, make an impact and fight for inclusion and respect, and provide safe spaces for God's created diversity.
Please hold in prayer the families of all those who are affected by this tragedy.
-Rev. Scott A. Ressman