A Guest Post by Kirsti Reeve
Kirsti Reeve recently attended her first Gay Christian Network Conference, and she was kind enough to share a reflection here on Where She Is.
Although I’d been part of the Bridges Across online community in the late 1990s (the first online forum devoted to bridging the divide between Christians around the issue of homosexuality), and had come across the Gay Christian Network (GCN) many times in the past, I had never considered attending their conference. However, last summer, at the Wild Goose Festival, Marg Herder sparked my interest in co-facilitating a workshop with her and Susan Cottrell. Our presentation was accepted, so I threw myself into some Skype planning, a group email exchange, and the scary joy of trusting the Spirit to do Her work. I booked my flight to Houston, got a hotel room, said goodbye to my wife, and went off, not really knowing what to expect.
The weconnect Women’s Retreat
The conference began with a women’s retreat on the Thursday afternoon, and this was probably my favorite event of all the official programming. Obviously, as a lesbian, I enjoy the company of women, and I loved the energy present in the room. The retreat had a cohesive theme, with the testimonies and the words from speaker Emmy Kegler on healing that comes from pain. She also provided art projects, which made for a nice contrast from just listening to spoken words, and gave voice to those who are more symbolic in their self-expression.
As a veteran of retreats where we have done the “write a letter to be mailed to yourself” exercise, the twist of writing a postcard that would be sent to someone else was a fun one. I look forward to getting mine in the mail and hope that my words can be a blessing to whoever receives the postcard I wrote. There was a palpable sense of the love and caring that had gone into the planning and organization of the retreat.
The Ideological Tightrope of Inclusion
GCN has a hard tightrope to walk. How do you validate and give space for Side B views (those who believe that LGBT Christians are called to celibacy), without having those views and that space be oppressive, invalidating, and hurtful to those from Side A (those who believe that same-sex relationships are valid and blessed), and vice versa? There will likely always be those on both sides of the divide who feel unheard or minimized or wounded by something that is said, either from main stage or in a workshop. It was interesting to follow the #GCNConf hashtag on Twitter, and to see the different reactions there, primarily from Side A Christians who felt their relationships were being minimized or dismissed, as well as from bisexuals, who were also not explicitly included, particularly in discussions of same-sex relationships from Side B speakers.
The pacing and programming for the weekend was well done, with plenty of time between sessions for meal breaks and to allow for conversations. I also enjoyed the first night “table swapping” activity, where numbers in our individual ID booklets took us to a new table to encourage us to share stories with people we otherwise might not have met. Other small details—such as the use of different colored lanyards to respect people’s privacy and desire not to be photographed, the addition of gender-neutral bathrooms, and the use of booklets and QR codes to ensure that everyone’s name was visible throughout the weekend—spoke to planning, care, and thoughtfulness on the part of the conference organizers.
The keynote speakers had obviously been chosen with a similar attentiveness to balance and detail. Broderick Greer, a gay African American man, challenged us on the opening night about the need for intersectionality and racial justice to be part of our movement for LGBT equality and liberation. (Watch the presentation here.)
Misty Irons, a straight, married evangelical Asian woman (who made a conservative case for same-sex civil marriage) managed to upset a lot of the Side A people in the room during her keynote by describing same-sex relationships as “fallen but not sinful,” which seems to be a fine hair to split. I appreciated her re-telling of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac to focus on the need to be obedient to God’s commands even when we think we know what God has said. Abraham trusted God enough to be willing to sacrifice Isaac, trusting that God would still somehow fulfill the promise to make him a father of nations. As Christians, we have a clear command from Jesus to love, so can we sacrifice our beliefs about what the Bible says and teaches, and, instead, practice loving our enemies and our neighbors as ourselves? (Watch the presentation here.)
The third keynote was by Allyson Robinson, the first known transgender woman ordained as a Baptist minister. Her talk also picked up on the idea of living from love; that since we have “won” the battle for marriage equality, how do we stop fighting and, instead, learn to live from a place of non-violence, not demonizing those with whom we disagree. Her claim of victory seemed a little premature, in a city that only a few months ago defeated a ballot motion for LGBT equality, and at the same conference where Jeff Chu was presenting a workshop on the sufferings of gays and lesbians in Uganda. Still, I appreciated her wisdom and vulnerability in calling us all to a higher standard of love and respect for others. (Watch the presentation here.)
Finally, Justin Lee, the director of GCN, wrapped up the weekend with a call to work for justice in all areas, to recognize where we do have privilege and to use that to help those who are marginalized. Again, the themes of inclusive love and intersectionality came through strongly. (Watch the presentation here.)
Missing Words and Music
All of these themes—social justice, inclusion, acceptance—are ones that resonate strongly with me and form a bedrock of my faith. So I was curious as to why the conference itself did not have me overwhelmed with emotion and joy in the way that other participants were describing their experiences.
I came up with two things. First, the use of language, particularly in worship and prayer. The first sign of this struck me during some of the worship songs used during the afternoon of the women’s retreat. While worship leader Rebecca Farlow state that she had changed some lytics to be more inclusive, there were still a copule of “fathers” and multiple “Lords” used to refer to God, and minimal feminine imagery.
There were exception to this: Emmy Kegler used a female image for God from Luke’s gospel in her presentation; the closing prayer did not gender God; and words from one speaker who very deliberately called God “She” during her testimony.
Particularly during a gathering that only consisted of women, it felt odd not to have more use of feminine pronouns and imagery for our Creator.
This lack of inclusive language for God stayed with me through the whole conference. In a gathering that celebrated our own diversity (and even had buttons for people to note the variety of pronouns they prefer), to restrict the Divine to just “He,” “Lord,” and “Father” seemed at odds with the gathering of a queer and inclusive tribe of folks. I do have to note the priest who gave the homily at the closing worship celebration took great care to never gender God with pronouns at all, and managed to do so without sounding forced or clunky.
I would love to see more consideration in future conferences given to language. After all, the words we use define our reality, and, as many speakers reminded us through the weekend, our words and our stories make a difference.
Second, the worship music, which so many people were praising (forgive the pun), left me unmoved. This might be due to my age, or my current preference for contemplative and liturgical worship, or the remaining wounds from the years I spent within evangelical Christianity, or some combination of all those factors, but it left me disconnected from the conference.
Coming down from my room, slightly late for the first evening session, I winced at the loud noise and assumed they had not yet started the evening event. To discover that the cacophony was the praise band, rocking out to a Chris Tomlin song with the volume cranked up to 11 was unexpected. I figured out quickly that, if, in the future, I showed up half an hour after the keynote sessions were due to start, or hung out in the hallway until they were done, there were still plenty of seats left in the room and, from my perspective, I wouldn’t have missed anything. I know there were people who were very blessed by the worship and found it to be one of the highlights of the event. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.
I appreciated the “mostly Episcopalian/Lutheran” liturgy on Sunday morning more, if nothing else than because it was good to hear some familiar hymns and prayers, and feel gathered with the body of Christ. However, I recommend in the future that whoever does the lyric slides familiarize themselves with the pace of the songs. Our entrance hymn of “Gather Us In” had the poor AV person completely lost, so they gave up showing the words at all until the last two lines of the last verse, leaving me (and perhaps the few others who knew it) trying to recall four stanzas and refrains from memory.
I was moved by the way in which communion took care to include all, with stations offering gluten-free options and a station with non-consecrated “bread of fellowship” for those whose conscience or beliefs would not allow them to receive communion outside of their denomination but still wished to be connected to the Body of Christ present in those gathered.
Workshop on Trauma and Healing
Our workshop on trauma and healing was up against some stiff competition, including the morning’s keynote speaker doing a Q&A and a live debate on the big Side A/Side B issue with the GCN director Justin Lee. I was expecting a small group. I was grateful to have 75 people show up, with open hearts and a willingness to engage and listen to each other, and I hope they took away some helpful ideas on the trauma that comes as part of being a queer person of faith, as well as some practical ideas for healing and recovery. I am grateful to my co-presenters: Marg Herder, for her vulnerability and wisdom she shared, and Susan Cottrell, for her compassion and mother’s heart that is healing by her very presence.
My 22-year-old self, from two decades ago, just coming out, convinced that I could not be lesbian and evangelical, would have lapped up everything the GCN Conference had to offer and hungered for more. At age 46, with a faith community that embraces my wife and I as family, with a 21-year relationship that has so many miracles and evidence of the tangible presence of God in and through our love, and with a faith practice that tends more toward the mystical and contemplative, this event was less “needed” for me, but more a confirmation, eliciting gratitude that the work is still being done. I’m grateful that the space of GCN exists for those people who do desperately need it, for whom the weekend was spent in tears and overwhelm, and who can, hopefully, leave with a little more of a belief that they are loved and accepted by God and by others just as they are.
My best moments, and the highlights of the weekend for me, all occurred outside of the planned programming. Meeting people on the shuttle from the airport who live only 45 minutes from me, and continuing to connect with them over the weekend, and, hopefully, beyond. The conversations at the exhibit hall tables, finding the people whose work and ministries are growing. The gift of hearing people’s stories after our workshop. A three-hour lunch in the hotel restaurant, going deep with a friend and connecting both through our pain and through our healing. An hour over coffee with another young woman from the shuttle, exploring the new and deeper faith options that she was finding since coming out. Dinner on Saturday night with four powerful women, eating Vietnamese food in Texas while discussing racial justice.
The Spirit of God was moving during those times, interweaving my spirit thread with others, making connections, sparking ideas. These memories and the growing relationships will be the greatest gifts I take home from the conference.
God Was All Over This Weekend
A final gift came when I snuck out of the conference to attend the 5:30 p.m. mass at a nearby Catholic Church. It was the kind of parish I normally would have stayed away from, on the extremely traditional end of the Catholic spectrum, promoting chant music over the guitar-based songs I’m more familiar with, and offering both Latin and Tridentine masses. However, it was the only Catholic Church within walking distance, and the pictures on the website showed some beautiful architecture.
There were maybe 20 or 30 folk there for the vigil service, and it was pretty bare musically—acappella chant from the priest and congregation for the mass parts—so I never even got to hear their famous organ. The priest’s homily contained an aside that there is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church, and I winced. However, what I took away from the service was the knowledge that God was all over this weekend.
The liturgy was for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The lectionary readings started with a passage from Isaiah, were God promises “a bruised reed I will not break, a smoldering wick I will not snuff out.” The second reading was from the book of Acts, where Peter visits the house of a Gentile, and declares, “I see now that God shows no partiality.” And the gospel reading was Luke’s account of Jesus being baptized, where the Spirit descends like a dove, and the voice of God declares, “This is my beloved one, in whom I am well pleased.”
Healing, inclusion, love. The themes couldn’t have been more clear. Even in a church where the priest would most likely call me “intrinsically disordered,” the Spirit was present, and I was welcome.
I knelt at the communion rail and smiled.
Kirsti Reeve is a lesbian Catholic Christian originally from England. She has lived in Michigan with her wife since 2003. Kirsti trained as a speech pathologist and worked as a researcher before following her passion to become a counselor. She specializes in working with trauma,
self-injury, and LGBT people of faith.
© 2016 by Christian Feminism Today and Kirsti Reeve
Index of GCN 2016 Conference Content on Christian Feminism Today
Introduction to the #GCNConf Series
Introduction to weconnect Featured Speaker Emmy Kegler
Interview with weconnect Featured Speaker Emmy Kegler
First Timer Reflections – Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton, PhD
First Timer Reflections – Sam Koster
First Timer Reflections – Bastian Bauman
First Timer Reflections – Kirsti Reeve