At the conclusion of last Sunday’s Annual Meeting, I was asked to send a summation out to our members, and I agreed to do so with my next minister’s notes. So, here goes.....
First, you need to know that this past Sunday, Unity of Birmingham was one of several progressive churches that were targeted by a demonstrator who stood on the sidewalk in front of the church carrying a sign, and whose “hoodie” was covered with various words and slogans. He was shouting into a bullhorn, until some of the neighbors threatened to have him arrested, and then he continued to shout unamplified, particularly at our members and guests as they made their way into church. I attempted to speak with him, but he was not open to considering any view but his own. Finally, before the service was about to begin, those of us who had gathered in the parking lot to make sure people could make it in safely went in to the church, and he eventually moved on to his next target.
So, now to the meeting. Towards the end of the agenda, there was a slide that asked for the membership’s comments. After a few comments about various parts of the church, one of our long-time members spoke about how he felt that there were a lot of people who felt that I had led the church down a path that they didn’t want to go without consulting them. He felt that my outreach to the LGBTQ community had cost us many members, and a lot of money. He repeatedly used the word “aggressive” when describing my advocacy for LGBTQ rights and my outreach to that community (although, when asked, could not give a clear explanation of what “aggressive” actually meant). His comments had an immediate effect on those in attendance, and sparked a conversation that lasted longer than the entire Annual Meeting had up to that point. At the end, the action step that we as a congregation decided to take was to form a group to discuss, study, and practice how to respond when we are confronted by resistance to our values and beliefs. I will be gathering some materials and working to help facilitate that, and we will be announcing soon when that group will begin meeting.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that the member who brought this up is someone I love, and as dear to my heart as the members of the LGBTQ community who were in attendance whose hearts were broken listening to him. He and many of our other members and former members have been afraid, and fear never lifts us up in consciousness. In order to help us all understand how that fear has done its destructive work in the life of this church, I would like for you to indulge me for a moment, as I borrow your imagination.
I want you to imagine for me, if you will, that you are a child again; perhaps in grade school. The bell has rung, and you have gathered your lunch box and homework to take home for the day. As you step out onto the playground to make your way home, you see a growing group of your friends and classmates gathered around. You make your way over to them, and you realize that there is something unpleasant going on; a fight perhaps. You push your way through to where you can see, and you suddenly realize what is going on. The Different Kid is on their knees, with tears running down their face, their clothing dirty and disheveled. If you look closely, you might see the beginnings of a nosebleed. You may imagine the Different Kid any way that is authentic in your experience: they might be a boy or a girl (or these days, someone that is both or neither); they could be black, brown, white, or any other possible flesh tone; they could be from another state or across the ocean; they could be Catholic or Jewish or Hindu or Muslim or Sikh or Presbyterian; they could be a child prodigy or learning disabled; they could be lesbian or gay or transgender or just plain Different. It really doesn’t matter, because their crime (for which they have already been convicted in the court of general opinion and for which they are at last being punished today) is simply that they are Different. Different from you; different from your friends; different from most everyone. And they need to be taught the lesson that being different just isn’t safe; not around here. And so, the Servants of Status Quo are administering the required punishment, right here and now. Now the next part of the story is yours to write. What do you do? Will you join in the crowd, and cheer on the enforcers, oohing and ahhing at every blow that lands, and giggling appreciatively at every cutting word? Or will you just stand by, frozen by fear, not wanting to watch, but unable to look away? Will you turn your back and hurry home, clutching your books a little tighter, and locking the door once you reach the safety of your own home? Or maybe, just maybe, will you be the one who jumps into the middle of the crowd and shouts, “YOU LEAVE THEM ALONE!”, and lifts the broken and crying child from the ground?
Most of us would like to think we are that last person. And most of us would be lying to ourselves. The truth is, time and time again, from the time we are children until we are whatever age we are now, most of the time when we have been confronted by the status quo bullying someone who is different, we have quietly slunk away at best, and at our worst, have joined in the attack. Crowd behavior is its own brand of psychology, and one of the most disturbing for those who study it. Human beings will do things in groups they would never dream of doing alone. The Holocaust is a prime example; we see many yet on the nightly news on an all-too-frequent basis. And the bottom line reason that humans react that way in groups can be summed up in one word: fear.
We are afraid to stand up for what is right for one simple reason: we’re afraid we’ll be next. We don’t want to be beat up on the playground; we don’t want to be hurt all the ways we can be hurt or lose all of the things we’re afraid of losing, or not get all of the things we want to get, just because we’re different, too.
And so, this church has lost members and money, and had some of those who remain stuff their feelings, because they are afraid. They are afraid of explaining to their relatives or their business contacts or their neighbors why they go to “the gay church”. They’re afraid of being attacked for not being Christian. They’re afraid of sounding like bigots in this church and heretics in another one. You see, it’s just too easy and all too Southern to simply nod your head as your conservative Christian mother or boss or wife or friend or total stranger is talking about how sinful homosexuality is and how God is gonna punish those faggots by casting them into Hell for all eternity. Because it’s really not your fight after all, is it? And why can’t things just go back to the way they used to be, when all your gay friends were in the closet where it was nice and easy for everyone to pretend they don’t exist? Why do people have to talk about that stuff anyway? You’re probably a little afraid of the very idea of it, to begin with, at least subconsciously, because you just don’t understand it. Because it’s different. And different isn’t safe. And it just isn’t right when you have to explain what “Homo sex” is to your seven year old daughter because she saw it on the sign a protester was waving at you when you took her to church on Sunday.
So I want you all to know, all of you who have been afraid, particularly those of you who will protest this characterization and loudly proclaim you’re not afraid of anything and anybody, that I feel for you; I understand your conscious and subconscious fears; I understand that I have been insisting on a change to the Status Quo, which is also scary, and I understand that I have been highlighting how different we are in the Land Where Different Is Dangerous. I understand those feelings. And I have no intention of changing the course of my ministry because of them. And you need to understand why.
The Sunday that Christine and I came to this church for our interview weekend, the title of my talk was “Radical Inclusivity”. During the Q&A we had with the members, we were asked about our advocacy of the LGBTQ community. Christine answered for both of us that that is one issue for us upon which there is no grey area. We promised that we would be reaching out to the LGBTQ community (among others) if we were hired. You all offered us the job before we could leave town. We accepted, with the understanding that we could take you at your word.
As I explained in some detail to those in attendance at the Annual Meeting, I have been an ally to the LGBTQ community before “ally” was even a thing. My first two college degrees were in theatre and film; I had countless gay friends; I had gay roommates. When I married Christine, I gained two gay children. And then into all of this I have to consider what it means to me to be a minister of Jesus Christ.
For most who claim that title in Alabama, “ally to the LGBTQ community” is not a part of the job description. But it is for me, because I understand the Principles Jesus taught as not just applying to one kind of people, but to all people. I believe in our Oneness, which makes me an advocate not for gay rights, or black rights, or women’s rights, but for HUMAN rights. And where we are falling short on Principle in our everyday lives I will point it out, because that’s where our Principles matter. The Principles of our faith are meaningless if we keep them locked up in church. If you are not applying the Principles we teach at home with your family, at work in your business, in the voting booth and our capitol, and in fact in every aspect of your life, then you are wasting your time and a seat in our church on Sunday. Go see a movie if you want to be entertained. But if you want to lift your consciousness up to where the Christ is calling you, open your mind, soften your heart, deny your fears, and activate your love. Join us at Unity of Birmingham, as we build a loving, healing, inclusive, joy-filled family.
Yes, I personally advocate for LGBTQ rights and inclusion, particularly in helping to create safe spaces here in Birmingham for LGBTQ youth, because so many of them have been turned out of their homes and churches by people who claim to be “Christian”, which puts those precious children at a much greater risk of homelessness, drug addiction, human trafficking, and suicide. And of perhaps the worst fate of all: the living Hell of feeling completely separated from the Source of all Love, God.
But this does not mean that I have not advocated other causes in this community. I frequently talk about how 12 Step has changed my life, and I serve as an ambassador for every flavor of 12 Step Recovery program going. I have attended events sponsored by Faith In Action Alabama, and repeatedly encouraged participation by members of this congregation in that group’s work, which is currently focused on the over-incarceration in Alabama, particularly among our African-American community. And I am part of the US Attorney’s Civil Rights Round Table, which looks to help our US Attorney’s office identify areas of concern across a wide array of civil rights issues. I was thrilled when our Women of Vision and YFM sponsored a Flag Day outreach at the nearby Greenbriar assisted living facility, and am also thrilled at our new Outreach Team, which has been collecting supplies for a variety of causes around town. The truth is, there have been plenty of opportunities in a variety of causes for members of this community to make a positive difference in our church and our city for anyone who is willing to actually do the work.
So, whether you ended up being one of those few individuals who stepped in to stop the bully, or one of the people who was frozen with fear, or one who ran home, or one who piled on, or one of the bullies, or the Different Kid on the ground, you are welcome at Unity of Birmingham. If for some reason you have a problem with me reaching out first to the broken and battered kid on the ground, then you have some serious inner work to do. If you need help with that, please see me for your homework. And if you have felt like that Different Kid, for whatever reason, I want you to know that you are safe at Unity of Birmingham, and you will be as long as I am the Senior Minister.
With love for all,
Reverend Charles Perry