It’s 4:00 in the morning, the sun has been up for nearly two hours (moments after it “set”) and I am still awake. Sweden in the North during this time of year means lots of light. Who wants to sleep when it is so lovely out? At 3:00 a.m. I decided to go for a stroll. There is something delicious about a walk in the middle of the night in the light. It felt like I was cheating or something. Birds chirping, air warming, and nearly everyone sleeping. I experienced a new construct of what I assumed night is supposed to be.
Tonight I performed Transfigurations at Ålidhemskyrkan, a Church of Sweden congregation. I performed at this same church back in January 2008 (The Re-Education of George W. Bush). This time they had me present as part of the confirmation class training. The performance, post-show meal (deliciously prepared by Alex and his partner) and discussion were open to the public and widely advertised in the paper. Cool to see a church being so very open and clear about welcoming a program about gender issues, particularly transgender issues and the Bible.
After the show we discussed how churches can be affirming and not simply tolerating. In a nearly all white Swedish church, the sudden influx of a bunch of people from Eritrea would be an event that most people could not ignore (and hopefullly most would celebrate). If 5% of the church members were suddenly from Eritrea, the church staff would take notice, and would discuss the needs of these folks, ways to help them feel welcome, ideas for being sensitive to their culture, etc. Perhaps there would even be a staff training to ensure that this new group of people were well cared for affirmed in the church.
Similarly we can see about training staff to ensure that the church is a safe and genuinely welcoming place for transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay and queer individuals and families. Simply posting a statement that the church is a welcoming place does not make it so. In order to be radically welcoming the church leaders and members must think and work. Since most TBLGQ folks experienced outright rejection and conditional welcome at previous churches, a truly welcoming and affirming church will need to go out of their way to make it clear that they provide a nourishing place for TBLGQ folks.
At the Church Resource Expo that I attended last month in Esher, England, I visited many stalls of prominent ministries and church service suppliers. I stopped by the booths of Mercy Ministries, Youth For Christ, various book stores and discipleship programs. I initiated conversations that went something like this,
ME: Cool stuff you offer here. I know of some young people who would be interested in your ministry. They are sincere Christians, who would both give a lot to and receive a lot from the programming that you offer. They happen to be transgender, bisexual, lesbian or gay. How well would they fare in your organization?
RESOURCE: We welcome all people.
ME: Yes, I understand that, but if they came to you with say questions about their faith or maybe an eating disorder or simply becuase they want to be stronger believers, would they get the help they need without their sexuality becoming THE issue that you insist needs to be addressed.
RESOURCE: We don’t really deal with sexuality. It doesn’t come up.
ME: Wait, you run an organization for youth and you don’t ever talk about sex?!? Seems like a pretty important issue. Okay, so they will not be told they have to change their sexuality in order to be part of the group?
RESOURCE: Well, we do believe in the Bible…
ME: Yeah, so do I and so do these young people. The Bible doesn’t condemn a loving relationship between two men or two women. The Bible doesn’t condemn a gay, lesbian or bisexual orientation. The Bible actually affirms the lives and contributions of gender-variant people.
RESOURCE: We don’t see it that way, but they would still be welcome.
ME: Welcome to recive your services, to give contributions, to fill the seats?
RESOURCE: Yeah, they will be very welcome.
ME: Okay, I want to make sure we are clear here. A young person comes to your ministry. They have peace and clarity about their sexuality. They attend your training courses, meet many new friends, grow in their faith, contribute more and more time and resources to the work you do. After they devote two years of their lives to your ministry, they decide they want to give even more, to take on a leadership role, to lead a course. As an openly transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer person, you are telling me that they will be able to serve in a leadership position in your ministry?
RESOURCE: Well, no, but then an adulterer or rapist wouldn’t be able to either.
ME: I find it offensive that you equate the lives of these transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer people to adultery and rape. These are young people committed to God, living thoughtful responsible lives with peace in their hearts. They are not cheating on their partners and they are not rapists. Some are single and waiting for a partner. They choose to be honest with themselves and others about their sexuality. Would they be able to serve in your ministry?
RESOURCE: Um, no.
ME: So I should tell them that yours is not a safe place for them.
Perhaps you should let people know up front that you accept them under certain often unspoken conditions and that the same conditions do not apply to transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay and queer folks as to straight, gender-normative fellow believers.
Maybe it sounds harsh. I don’t think so. I believe that these ministries and ministry leaders need to see exactly what they offer and the sort of burdens they lay on people’s back. Too many of these places have not done the work to find out what the Bible actually says and does not say about these issues. They revert to the traditional renderings of a handful of texts without considering if what has been handed down to them is correct. They follow the traditions of man and have not taken the time and effort to seek God on these vital issues. They speak with authority about things they do not understand and end up driving faithful followers away.
Perhaps because they are not transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay or queer, they can live their lives avoiding these matters. They can go months, perhaps years, never giving them a second thought. Some of us have spent thousands of hours praying, researching, seeking answers–not trying to find something that our “itching ears want to hear,” rather in many cases we weanted very much to hear that it is wrong to be the way that we are, believing it must be so, only to discover that our teachers are wrong, our parents are wrong, the authorities are wrong.
How refreshing to be in this church in Northern Sweden and see and hear people who affirm transgender people along with bisexual, lesbian, gay and queer people. They get it that it is about love and identity and authenticity. They no longer conform to the pattern of the world that for too long said that heterosexual gendernormative people are the only ones truly allowed at the table (and only males in leadership positions). Instead they have renewed their minds and continue to do so in order to better understand God’s will. They are the richer for it.