Posted December 31, 2013 by Marg Herder
This post is part of my series on the 2014 Gay Christian Network conference. EEWC-Christian Feminism Today is partnering with GCN to present GCN’s 2014 weconnect Women’s Retreat. Complete information on the conference can be found here. My introduction to the conference and the weconnect Women’s Retreat can be found here.
Two days ago I introduced Where She Is readers to Susan Shopland, chairperson of the Gay Christian Network Board of Directors. Susan will be presenting a short talk during the weconnect Women’s Retreat, and will be presenting a workshop with son Ben and husband Mark later in the GCN conference.
Susan and I corresponded via email, and I loved her answers to my questions. I’m thrilled to share them with my readers today. This is the second post of two (click here for the first post). I refer to her story frequently in my questions, so I urge you to read her story here prior to reading the interview. It’s a great story. My questions are in bold, her answers are in normal type.
I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that the churches “are the last great obstacle to a truly inclusive society.” But it is so difficult to work within any “non-welcoming” church to affect change. My friends who have been trying to do this are exhausted. Over the years they have been torn to shreds by vicious words, not to mention isolating and shaming behavior. It’s so much more self-sustaining to remove yourself from a situation where you or your ideas are clearly not welcome, or are even vilified.
So how do we do it? How do we make change if we can’t bear being among the people who oppose us? Or are our efforts best expended somewhere else? If so, where? Is it perhaps most effective to abandon the efforts to change these minds?
You could not have summarized our experience at our former church more accurately if you had been a member and gone through the “discernment” process with us! “Vicious words . . . isolating and shaming behavior” – you said it so well!
And this is where I struggle now. It really is easier, and in some ways healthier, to be worshiping in a more accepting place right now. I am thankful that we seem to have found a place where we can rest and heal. But I will not feel the healing is complete until I have found a way to handle the occasional inevitable encounters with people from our old church. I don’t want to “play nice” and pretend that we never were in conflict or that I’m okay with how things turned out. But I don’t want to lash out in anger, either. I long to be able to “speak the truth in love,” as Jesus did. And I readily admit I am not there yet.
My son was mentored for a brief time by a Spiritan priest at the Catholic university he attended. That priest told him that the work of the Holy Spirit is like breathing: the Holy Spirit breathes us in for times of rest and restoration, and breathes us out to the next place we are called to serve. Our task, he said, is to become as light as a feather so it is easier for the Holy Spirit to move us in and out. My husband and I are in a “breathed in” phase right now with regard to church. We are not in a hurry to join the church we are currently attending, even though we are being restored by the welcome we find there. We are waiting until we feel ready to be “breathed out” again; for me, I think that will be when I am able to face those encounters with members of our former church with grace.
You said in your bio, “[I was forced] to confront my own deceitfulness in living a compartmentalized existence (my ‘church’ self who never spoke up about ‘controversial’ subjects, my ‘work’ self who never spoke up about faith) . . .” I don’t remember having heard anyone refer to a compartmentalized existence in terms of deceitfulness before, and it hit me like a brick. As someone who has gotten past this, and who also has years of looking into human motivation, why do we do this (compartmentalize)? How can we find the courage to become integrated, authentic people? Is it courage? Are we called to do so?
I think it’s fear: fear of rejection, fear of rocking the boat, fear of conflict, fear of being unequipped for the conversations. And in some cases, fear of actual harm. I can’t fault anyone who stays in the closet, because coming out means risking actual harm (the young person who is still dependent on parents, for example, or someone who risks actual abuse if they come out).
For me, it just reached a point where the inauthenticity became harder to tolerate than my fear of what would happen if I started speaking up. And if my son could take the risk, how could I not? I will say it makes a huge difference to have support; I am deeply grateful to the members of GCN who have mentored, inspired, supported, equipped, and empowered me.
Called? Yes, I feel called. I had another dream at the Orlando conference. It was the last morning of the conference and I woke up feeling restless and irritated. I was puzzled because the conference had been a wonderful experience and the feelings seemed out of place. Then I realized I had been in the middle of a dream:
I am waiting outside a house. I belong in this house – it is where I live. There are a lot of other people waiting with me. Someone is in the house, occupying it, and we are unable to enter. Somehow I know this is a temporary occupation and we will be able to enter eventually. But it is taking so long, and I am growing impatient. I decide to knock on the door. Someone answers the door but tells me I cannot enter yet. I go back to the area where the other people are waiting and sit down. After a while, I begin to grumble about how long this is taking. Several of the people urge me to go knock on the door again. With a sense of frustration, I complain, “Why do I have to knock again? I already knocked once. Why can’t someone else knock this time?”
I shared the dream with my roommate, another GCN mom, and we both knew – without any discussion – exactly what it meant. We are outside God’s house, waiting with our gay Christian brothers and sisters who have been kept outside for so long. And we are called to knock on the door, over and over again, if necessary, until all God’s children are welcomed in.
You are an active and vocal supporter of your gay son, a mom who lives into your words. I think there are many of us whose families accept us and welcome our partners into our families but don’t feel any inclination to become active in promoting our equality (or opposing efforts to further marginalize us) either politically or within the church.
I think the involvement of all our straight allies, especially our families, in the struggle for equality is imperative if we are to have any hope of ending institutionalized discrimination in political and faith communities. What, if anything, do you think could mobilize these families who stand by, inactive?
You sure don’t ask easy questions!
I think of the Venn-Brown scale again. Acceptance and advocacy are two steps apart. And yet acceptance is so much better than hatred or dislike!
I think exposure to both the message and the models are critical. In my case, it took some time to gather the resources and learn the language before I could speak effectively. So preparation is important, too.
From the contacts I have, I think the mama bears are beginning to growl. Christian parents are beginning to realize they can support their children without losing their faith. The closing of Exodus has left an opening that we can fill with a healthier message.
Connecting with other parents seems to be a catalyst, and that is happening in a number of ways. Parents who connected at the Gay Christian Network conference last year have stayed in touch all year, and I am part of a threesome of GCN members who recently started a parent forum. We have a mom and dad (Robert and Linda Robertson) speaking at the Chicago conference this year. We also have a mom (Susan Cottrell) who has developed a resource for parents which she hopes to have ready in time for the Chicago conference.
Research on social conformity teaches us that if at least one member of a group goes against the group norm, others are empowered to do so as well. Look out, Chicago; here we come!
Related Content on Where She Is:
And There Was Singing (Sunday)
Rachel Held Evans’ Presentation Summary (Saturday)
We are Broken (Friday)
There Will be Some Tears (Thursday)
weconnect – Introduction to GCN Board Chairperson Susan Shopland
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 1
weconnect – Introduction to Featured Speaker Reverend Audrey Connor
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 1
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 2
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 3
Introduction to the Gay Christian Network’s weconnect Women’s Retreat