By Paul Chaffee
Good reasons abound for not addressing LGBTQ* communities in an interfaith journal. Many TIO readers, no doubt, disapprove of same-sex marriage. Most Christians and Muslims, except for their progressive, liberal wings, have serious problems with homosexuality. (So do most people in Communist countries like China and Russia!) These problems evoke everything from ostracism and persecution to execution, depending on the town and country. In Africa, except for South Africa, life, limb, and liberty of LGBTQ people is threatened daily.
So the issue, however difficult, is a justice issue and cannot be evaded.
The good news is that the interfaith movement has been largely immune from the conflict. After all, inclusivity and mutual respect are the life-blood of interfaith culture. Our differences are treated with care and discernment, usually, and sexuality from an interreligious or intrareligious perspective has rarely been addressed by most interfaith organizations and programs.
But as the culture changes, as communities become increasingly diverse, as basic rights are slowly forged for LGBTQ people, the religious/interreligious issues insist on themselves.
The first fruits of interfaith dialogue about sexuality suggest that it will be a relief from the cultural warfare of recent years. A workshop on same-sex marriage from the perspective of different faiths was packed at North American Interfaith Network’s Connect last year in Atlanta. It was passionate, nuanced, and ultimately respectful.
PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is into its fifth decade and never stronger. The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, was founded in 2000 and is thriving today, addressing the needs of young religious LGBTQ leaders and communities.
“Gay evangelicals press fellow believers to rethink homosexuality, stop stereotyping gays” was the headline of a story from AP’s Rachel Zoll two weeks ago. And two days ago, Huffington Post reported that Fuller Theological Seminary, the flagship of evangelicals seminaries in the U.S., now has an official gay-lesbian student club.
You won’t find the morality of homosexuality debated in TIO this month, though the first three articles make dramatically clear why religion and sexuality is such a tough subject.
Instead we focus on stories from and about the brave voices in different traditions who came forward first to welcome LGBTQ people into our shared sacred space. To get to know these people is to witness how precious and courageous they are. They follow in the tradition of Gandhi, King, and Mandella.
Making a Difference
In the late 1990s, a large United Religions Initiative (URI) Charter-writing summit at Stanford University went on for five days. At one point, a person took the microphone and spoke to the assembled, with tears running down his face. He asked that we not allow this new interreligious organization to become homophobic. When he gave up the mike, eight or ten Indigenous leaders from South America ran up to him and put their arms around him. They said, “We’ve been there too! And we’re with you.”
That afternoon Charles Gibbs, the founding executive director of URI, visited various regional breakout groups for question and answer sessions. In one, some elderly male leaders representing several faiths asked why Charles had allowed a pervert to take over the conference. They planned to leave, they said, but wanted to hear his rationale before departing. Without hesitation, Charles said that gay and lesbian people were fully respected and accepted in this new community, brothers and sisters in the work, that they are wonderful people, as highly valued as anyone else. The complainers stayed and helped make URI an incredibly diverse network of nearly 600 interfaith groups around the world.
Charles retired from URI last month, after 17 years of remarkable work, an exemplar of what bridge-building in the midst of radical cultural diversity can achieve.
The quote from Alexander Pope is actually “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Charles is no fool though, nor are the contributors to this month’s TIO. Rather, they are angels in our midst willing to go through hard times for the sake of love and compassion.
* A note about the Q in LGBTQ. It has two meanings. Many take it to mean “queer,” an inclusive word to sum up lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered culture. For others it means “questioning” and stands for all those still in the midst of their sexual development who feel unsure of themselves and their identity.