What do Letha Dawson Scanzoni, the wife of evangelical author Tony Campolo, and the son of former televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker have in common?
About as much as Christian Feminism Today and the Southern Baptist Church, you might say. But you would be wrong. Peggy Campolo, Jay Bakker, and, now, Letha Dawson Scanzoni all have been honored recipients of the Peggy Campolo Carrier Pigeon Award presented annually since 2007 to a person who gives “love, support, and a voice to the misunderstood children of God” by the Open Door Community Church, an Affirming Church in Sherwood, Arkansas.
Readers of Christian Feminism Today, edited by Letha, know that she also is the author or coauthor of many influential books, and in 2011, the Open Door Community Church honored her especially for coauthoring Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, HarperOne, 1978) and What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (with David G. Myers, HarperOne, 2005).
After her three-day visit to the church and its annual conference, Letha wrote her reflections about the entire trip for members of the EEWC Community Google Group (open only to members of EEWC-CFT). With Letha’s permission, we present here excerpts from her reflections.
—Linda Bieze, Guest Editor
Letha Dawson Scanzoni Reflects on Receiving the Peggy Campolo Carrier Pigeon Award
The Invitation and Award
I feel very honored to have been named as [the 2011] recipient of this award, named after Peggy Campolo, wife of the popular Christian speaker, author, and sociologist Tony Campolo. The couple are frequently featured together on programs about the church and homosexuality because they have agreed to disagree on the topic while still maintaining a loving Christian marriage.
Why Peggy Means So Much to this Church
The Open Door Community Church refers lovingly to Peggy as the church’s “patron saint” because she had encouraged Pastor Randy McCain not to give up his calling after he had been fired from his position as minister of music and assistant to the pastor in another church. He had been fired because he wanted to be out of the closet as a gay man and honest about his committed relationship with his life partner, Gary.
Peggy encouraged Randy to start a new church [in 1995] to minister to others who, like him, knew they were unwelcome to be truly themselves in other churches—unwelcome not only because of sexual orientation or gender identity but for any other reason that can cause some people to feel they don’t fit in or just don’t feel safe and welcome with their questioning and doubts. Pastor Randy does not refer to the [100-member] nondenominational Open Door Community Church as a “gay church” but, rather, a church where all people are welcome to experience God’s love and acceptance, free from the judgmentalism of so many other churches.
The Name of the Award
The Peggy Campolo Carrier Pigeon Award has nothing to do with actual carrier pigeons, but its name comes from Peggy’s humble description of her ministry on behalf of LGBTQ people as nothing special but simply part of following Jesus in sharing God’s love. Peggy calls herself “a carrier pigeon between the misunderstood and the misinformed.” The award was instituted to honor her as its first recipient and to bear her name in honoring all future recipients.
Meeting Peggy Campolo
Enroute by air from Norfolk, Virginia, to Little Rock, I noticed two women talking at another lunch table at the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport and recognized one (from her photos) as Peggy Campolo. She was flying in from Philadelphia and also had to change planes in Charlotte. I introduced myself and she stood up and hugged me enthusiastically. I liked her immediately. Then she introduced me to her friend Sue, who also was coming to the conference. The three of us easily formed a friendship and later sat together during most of the conference meetings.
Before that meeting at the Charlotte airport … I had only spoken with Peggy on the phone one time. We had almost met once before when we were both scheduled to be on the same program in Austin, Texas, in 2003, but she was unable to come so had sent a video to be played for that gathering. So meeting her in person now, and having an opportunity to spend some time with her was a thoroughly enjoyable and spiritually rewarding experience.
I would like to have had more time to talk with her informally but was glad for the time we did have in the midst of a very crowded program schedule. I was impressed with her indefatigable energy and sincere dedication to her calling of being a carrier pigeon carrying a message of God’s love between “the misunderstood and the misinformed.” Those who have been so misunderstood are so grateful for those who reach out to them in love as allies and advocates and didn’t hesitate to express their appreciation throughout the conference. (Peggy and I joked a bit about being grandmothers in our 70s and having so many handsome young men greeting us with hugs and kisses.)
Throughout the conference, I could see how Peggy poured her heart and soul into her ministry and into the conference. Sometimes, when she joined in the congregational singing or listened to the special music, a radiant and almost angelic look seemed to pass over her face as her deep love for God and these dear children of God shone out from within. She was savoring every minute of the conference, as was I ….
Meeting Jay Bakker
Jay Bakker, son of televangelists Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye Bakker, had been honored with the carrier pigeon award two years ago …. [He] was scheduled to be on the program again this year as one of the speakers. I was really looking forward to meeting him, knowing that he has become the co-pastor of an unusual church in New York that meets in a bar and reaches out to punk rockers and other people that more conventional churches neglect or reject.
Until recent years, I had known only a little about him and his sister, who had grown up in the glare of their parents’ TV fame as the couple who had laid the foundation for the 700 Club, played a major role in establishing the Trinity Network, later developed PTL, and had built a Christian theme park, Heritage USA, in Charlotte, North Carolina …. The Christian theme park venture had ended with both a sexual and financial scandal and left in its wake a prison sentence for Jim Bakker. Tammy Faye also was in the news for an overdose and addiction to prescription and over-the-counter drugs that necessitated treatment at the Betty Ford Center. Their teenage daughter ran away from home, and their son, Jamie Charles (not yet in his teens), acted out with alcohol and drugs in the years following.
Jamie now goes by the shortened form of his name, Jay …. He is a very likable young man. (Both Peggy and I joked later about something in him that called out the mothering part of us, and we found ourselves wanting to “mother” him.) He had been close to his mom, who died of cancer in 2007, and he really misses her. He says she taught him the importance of loving all people because God loves all people. (When the tragedy of AIDS struck first within the gay community in the 1980s, Tammy Faye was appalled to see other Christians condemning and shunning these patients who so needed to know God loved them, and so she reached out to them in spite of being harshly criticized by other conservative Christians for doing so.)
By coincidence—or Providence—Jay Bakker had the seat next to Letha on the flight from Charlotte to Little Rock. Letha continues:
He told me how disturbed he is about some of the teachings, including the subordination of women message being put out by some of the self-described “new Calvinists,” such as Mark Driscoll (about whom Kimberly George and I have written a few times in our 72-27 blog on eewc.com).
Jay told me about his close friendship with the Irish theologian/philosopher author Peter Rollins and how much he has learned from time spent with him, including the importance of doubt and questioning as part of faith. We talked about the age-old theodicy questions of trying to understand that which can’t be understood about how a just and loving God can permit so much suffering in the world.
Jay [also] told me about his personal thirst to study the Bible, always discovering new and wonderful things, and he grew especially excited as he talked about all the theology books he has been reading recently, being especially impressed with the writings of Paul Tillich. He likes to read ancient classics, such as the Confessions of Augustine, and modern writings by or about social change and justice activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr. (his hero), Gandhi, and others. Jay Baker’s latest book is Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society.
Saturday Evening at the Open Door Community Church: Concert, Speech, and Award
The evening service began at 7 p.m. with singing and then a wonderful concert by Kenny Bishop. After the concert, I spoke. Just a few minutes before I was [to give my speech], I suddenly decided to begin with my personal testimony because, earlier that day, one of the members of the church had been asked to sing and he had started off by saying that he didn’t know why but had suddenly decided to change his song at the last minute. He decided to sing, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”
So as I stood at the microphone Saturday night, I decided to tell what that song had meant to me, and I said I felt the young man had sung that song just for me even though he knew nothing of my connection to it. Some of you know my story about that and why it was almost my trademark song to play as a trombone solo years ago.
And I went on to tell how, in 2008, in the midst of static caused by all the hospital equipment, a radio station playing that song was the only station that came in on my Walkman radio as I sat in the waiting room outside my oncologist’s office on the day the decision would be made about my cancer treatment and the comfort that song brought me.
I had told that story to [guest speaker pastor] Juanita Rasmus that morning after she had told her cancer story. She asked me what I had learned from my cancer experience (having told of lessons she had learned). I said simply, “I remember thinking something like, This is what life is all about; this is what matters—’I’d Rather Have Jesus’—and no matter what the oncologist says, this is what I want my life to be about: serving God and sharing the message of Jesus to the end of my days.”
After this personal story, I began my prepared talk, titled “Exclusion, Inclusion, and God’s Expansive Love.”
I told four stories of people who had argued with God (or conscience) about who should be either excluded or welcomed and included in God’s family. Three stories were from the Bible and one from American literature and included Jonah’s anger at God’s acceptance of the people of Nineveh, Huckleberry Finn’s struggle over reporting the whereabouts of a fugitive slave, Peter’s vision of nonkosher food and a change of heart about Gentiles as he meets the Roman soldier Cornelius in Acts 10, and the Syro-Phoenician woman’s argument with Jesus about God’s care for Gentiles as well as Jews. I used alliteration (in this case, four words starting with the letter E, saying I had a bias toward E since I’m a member of EEWC!) to show four basic attitudes on exclusion and inclusion and how they relate to attitudes people can have toward LGBTQ persons.
When I told the Huck Finn story about his struggle over whether or not he should send a letter to the owner of his friend Jim, the runaway slave, or risk going to hell for helping steal “property,” as enslaved persons were considered, I read the final lines of that part of the novel in Huck’s own words. In that section, Huck recalls all the experiences that he and Jim had shared and the depth and closeness of their friendship. Just then, he glances at the letter he had planned to send because he had thought that rejecting Jim and turning him in would put him in right standing with God. He pauses, then picks up the letter and rips it to pieces, saying, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” As I recall, the audience enthusiastically clapped as I read those lines!
(I had included the Huck Finn story because it was Virginia Mollenkott’s and my inclusion of that story in our book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? that especially had spoken to Randy, the minister of this church, years ago in his own struggles about reconciling his faith and his sexual orientation.)
After I told the four main stories and the points I wanted to emphasize from each of them, I concluded my talk with a section on how religious and societal attitudes create unique problems about self-esteem for LGBTQ persons. I listed four three-word sentences about how these assaults on personhood can be counteracted and resisted and a positive self-image can be built.
The speech was warmly received and was followed immediately by a ceremony in which I was presented the Peggy Campolo Carrier Pigeon Award. I was deeply moved by the kind words spoken by Pastor Randy and Peggy Campolo. And I was especially surprised and touched as Pastor Randy read two beautiful letters of congratulations (without telling me who sent them until reaching the end of each). They were from [two of] my coauthors. I did not even know they knew about my receiving the award, but apparently Randy had notified them and asked them to participate in this way. I really felt I was receiving the award for them, too–Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, with whom I wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? in 1978, and David G. Myers, with whom I wrote What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage in 2005. (I know Randy also would have included the late Nancy Hardesty, who coauthored All We ‘re Meant Jo Be with me in 1974, since he mentioned that book, too. I felt a wave of sadness again at thinking about her recent death, knowing how much she would have enjoyed hearing about this event and would have been one of the first to call me after I returned from the trip.)
A whole row of photographers snapped pictures as Randy, Peggy, and I stood in front holding the inscribed three-dimensional marble award with a sculpted golden pigeon out in front.
Final Evening in Little Rock
On Sunday evening, a bunch of us [speakers and musicians from the conference] sat at a restaurant recalling both humorous and disturbing stories that highlighted the ridiculous legalistic teachings and attitudes of some fundamentalist pastors that some of [us] had grown up under and the spiritual abuse sometimes inflicted on those who were raised in those churches. Some of the rules about dress, hair length, and forbidden activities were totally removed from a gospel of grace.
We talked, too, about how those of us present at the table or in the car that night had moved out of such straitjacketed religion while still holding on to our faith and a steadfast relationship with God, apart from (or in spite of) the churches, organizations, schools, or traditions we had once been part of. It was a fascinating conversation.
My conclusion from all of this: In spite of so much that is gloomy and frightening in the times in which we live, I am convinced that the Spirit of God continues to move in our world like “the wind that blows where it will” and is at work in diverse ways and through many different traditions and manifestations—more than we can imagine—always renewing, restoring, and bringing grace, love, and hope in any age. I returned from Little Rock greatly encouraged and energized to keep moving forward. There is so much yet to be done. I’m glad we in EEWC-CFT can be part of it.
© 2011 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Originally published as “And the Carrier Pigeon Award Goes To …” in Christian Feminism Today, Winter (January–April), 2012 (Vol. 35, No. 4)