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Illustration Courtesy of Wes Magruder
I received an email once which went something like this:
Hi, my partner and I are trying to find a church home. We haven’t been in years, but feel the need to reconnect with a faith community. We’ve thought about visiting your church, but I don’t know what your congregation would think about having a gay couple attend service. We aren’t looking to cause problems, but we also don’t want to be rejected. Do you believe it would be safe for us to visit this Sunday?
As a United Methodist pastor, I tried my best to make church a safe place for everyone. To ensure the safety of children and young people, we implemented programs like Safe Sanctuaries and Ministry Safe. Boards of Trustees worked hard to ensure that the facilities were kept accessible for the elderly and disabled.
But I will admit that I never had thought about how to make my church safe for gays and lesbians, their children and families. What does “safe” even mean in this context? I was pretty sure that nobody would attack them physically, or throw stones. I was also confident that no one would pull out a “God hates fags” sign.
Yet I was certainly aware that there are looks that kill, glances that judge, attitudes that quietly condemn. And it occurred to me that there was no way I could keep these things from happening.
Officially, of course, our church wants to be friendly: “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.” But this comes right after we state that we do not “condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” For that reason alone, any church that bears the name “United Methodist” automatically feels unsafe to homosexual persons.
The truth is that I really can’t make church safe for gays and lesbians. I can’t make church safe for anyone. Churches are filled with people who struggle to love, accept others, and live the Golden Rule. Church committees are full of folks who are racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic. Pews fill up every Sunday with people who don’t know what or why they believe.
That’s what human community is like. When you walk into any crowd, it’s always a crap-shoot whether you will find folks who act out of love or fear. When you enter into any sort of relationship, there is a chance you will be rejected, used, or betrayed. It simply might not turn out well.
Life in community entails risk. And the so-called Christian community might be just as risky as any other. In fact, you might have reason to believe that it could be a greater risk, especially if you attend one of those churches which reads the Bible literally.
After thinking through the matter carefully, then, here’s how I wish I had responded to that original email several years ago:
Thank you so much for writing. Of course, you’re always welcome at First Church. I will do everything in my power to make you feel accepted. However, I am not sure I can guarantee that you will be ‘safe’ – and trust me, that’s a good thing.
Church is not a safe place for anyone, if I can be honest. The fact that we gather in community on a weekly basis means that we are all risking something. We risk becoming familiar faces to each other, and more than that, we risk opening our lives to the other. Once we start to recognize you and your partner as regular attenders, then we are going to start to care about your lives. We will miss you when you’re not around, and will wonder where you are. We might even bug you with a nosy phone call or email.
I’m not sure what everyone in the community will personally think about your relationship. I can’t speak for them. They might say the wrong thing to you. Your feelings might even be hurt, or your sentiments offended.
You will then have a choice to make. You can leave the community, citing real and present prejudice. Or you can stay in the community, in spite of the prejudice, and stand your ground as an integral part of the community.
All I can promise you is that, while you may not be ‘safe,’ we will stay in relationship with you, like family. It may be a raucous, dysfunctional, not-safe-for-Thanksgiving kind of family. But we will not let go of you. We will not abandon you – that I can guarantee.
Until the entire church recognizes you as whole and acceptable, you may find our congregation a risky bet. But I’m gambling on the hope that grace wins out in this community.
Hope to see you Sunday.
The Rev. Wes Magruder has 16 years of pastoral experience in diverse contexts from the suburban churches of North Texas to the mission fields of Cameroon, West Africa.