At Anchorage Pride there was a single protester spewing hate and vitriol. Just a few hundred feet away from him the First Presbyterian Church had o to the public for the Pride celebration, and made a statement that included “We know that historically, the Christian church has been frequently horrible to the LGBTQIA community. We're sorry, and we want you to know that you are loved here.” Similarly, members of the Church of Freedom in Christ Ministries apologized to attendees at a Pride event in Manila, Philippines last month. In 2010, Kevin Harris of The Marin Foundation founded the “I'm Sorry” Campaign as a way that he and his Christian friends could show attendees of Chicago Pride that they wanted to apologize for hurt that they have caused.
Religion and faith have been a constant presence in my life. I started these interviews in hopes that I would be able to create an article about faith options for those in the LGBTQIA+ community. When I received this response I could not find a way to edit his words.
The Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary's Episcopal Church was interviewed for this article through the internet while he was in Taylor Texas, standing outside of the Hutto Detention Center, where children and families have been torn from one another and confined separately for the crime of crossing the US-Mexican border to seek asylum. As he completed this interview, over five hundred clergy, bishops, and leaders of the Episcopal Church were gathered before the immense fortress singing, " We see you. We love you. God loves you. God is here." From inside through the bars and windows came hands extended, fingers spread in the sign for victory and peace.
RJ:When were you called to be a spiritual leader?
Rev, Michael Burke: I grew up as a kid in a pretty poor family in a small town in the Adirondack Mountains of northern NY. I was 5 years old when MLK and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. I have three indelible images seared into my mind from about when I was 12 years old. One was of the bodies of US soldiers being unloaded at Andrews Air Force base, Vietnam soldiers the same age as my brothers. Number two was of US Army tanks rolling through pine ridge reservation on their way to Wounded Knee in '73. And third was that of Bob Dylan singing "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall", a song about the loss of innocence and the call to mission, to a crowd of thousands in a heavy downpour on the University of Colorado campus in 1976. All these images came through my family's small black and white television, through which I first learned of the world. I wondered where God was in all this. Perhaps that was when I was first called to be a person of faith, or more likely, that call comes every morning when I open my eyes and accept the gift of yet another new day. Despite the searing pain and deep weariness of the world, it is a place of profound beauty, where God's spirit moves with every breath, every rustle of the wind. Every morning, I hear Jesus say, "OK, lets go do this again."
RJ:Why do you think there is such a divide in beliefs about this issue?
RMB: I think there is a divide because of the very different ways in which we see the world. Most of the anti-LGBTQ+ protesters you see are influenced, by various degrees, by what is called fundamentalism, even when many of those would claim they are not "fundamentalists." Fundamentalism is 19th century reaction to the rise of modernism, the term given to modern science, critical inquiry, and the questioning of received sources of authority. Often they experience the contemporary world as a challenging and frightening place, and many social and intellectual changes of the past several decades have eroded their sense of safety. Science, evolution, critical study of the Bible, the full equality of the genders, and social liberation movements are experienced as threats to their faith and self-understanding. At the other pole (and of course between the two poles exists a vast continuum), are Christians who have not simply entered into what is known as modernity and post-modernity, but see in it the work of God in the world. While they can be quite critical of many aspects of both ( such as the rise of selfish individualism, materialism, environmental degradation, militarism, colonialism, economic exploitation of workers, sexual abuse and commodification, the breakdown of the family, etc.), they largely embrace modern science, celebrate critical thinking, and have found their place in the forefront of social liberation and justice-seeking movements. They understand the holy scriptures of the Hebrew and Christian traditions as holy and inspired sacred stories of humanity's relationship with God, progressively unfolding in depth and knowledge, with currents and countercurrents. The Bible holds a prominent place for them, being an entire library of love stories between humanity and the divine, of brokenness and healing, captivity and liberation, sin and redemption, playing out over centuries in the mixing of many near eastern cultures. For Christians, it shows forth the unique and central person of Jesus, who they understand as revealing the very heart of God, a God who very essence is Love incarnate in human form. A Love so life-giving and liberating that nothing in this world, not even death itself, can overcome it. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the pivotal story of our own redemption is enacted. The long and painful struggle for equality and justice for all is simply inseparable from the work of God's Holy Spirit in the world. It is precisely BECAUSE OF their decision to follow and walk in the way of Jesus that they stand in solidarity with the poor, the dispossessed, the exploited, and the marginalized.
RJ: There are many in our community who have had negative experiences with people from different religious organizations. If you could say something to them what would it be?
RMB: Religion is a powerful force, for both good and for evil. Many have been exploited, abused, shamed, and manipulated in the names of various religions. The Christian faith itself has a history of capitulation to and collusion with the darkest parts of Western history. Many of the LGBTQ+ community, in particular, have been traumatized in the name of God and Jesus. To them we say, " We see you. We stand with you. We ask forgiveness for our own brokenness and participation in your abuse. Your story is, for many of us, also our story. There has never been a moment in which you were not fully loved by God, even when you have been persecuted by those who claim to have been "following Jesus." To this day, many of these persecutors simply do not know what it is that they do. Even hatred and evil can put on the faux cover of love, and humanity's capacity for self- deception is remarkable.
RJ:What advice would you give to Christians who feel that their faith does not allow them to support equal rights?
RMB: For those who feel their faith does not allow them to support equality, I say, "Listen!" Listen to the small still voice of God. The God of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. The God made known in Jesus. Beneath the false certainties, the unyielding dogma, the fixed view of the world, so carefully divided into the "clean and the unclean," the "saved and the unsaved," the "sinners and the righteous," listen! Does not the God whose heart brought into being the vast expanse of interstellar space, the intricacies of the interrelated web of creation, the mysteries of the human heart and mind..., does not this God move in ways far deeper than our simplistic thoughts and black and white binaries? Listen also, without defensiveness or the compulsion to argue, to the varied experiences of those within the LGBTQ+ community. Walk with those from whom you seem to differ, not just for a day or a season, but in a lasting way. Learn to love in ways that challenge and break open your heart. Yes, it will hurt. It will require repentance and sacrifice. But most of all, trust God. That God will safeguard all of our hearts, and the Spirit of truth will lead us into all truth.
RJ: In Anchorage, Christians For Equality has been a vocal and valuable part of each battle for equality. Can you tell me about your involvement with the organization?
RMB: I was present at the founding of Christians for Equality, which was born out of our common experiences during the Summer of Hate, back in August of 2009. When I was walking into the Assembly chambers to testify on behalf of the Anchorage non-discrimination ordinance, I was spit upon by a women in a red shirt who hissed at me, " Blasphemer!" The next day faith leaders gathered in recognition that we were up against a spiritual darkness fed by fear and mistrust. We met to pray, to organize, and to give common witness to a different way of walking in Gods redemptive love made known to us in Jesus. Clergy and lay people from over forty faith communities and a dozen denominations have met monthly ever since. We work with individuals and families struggling with issues of sexual identity and faith. We find loving, nurturing, fully accepting faith communities for those who feel called as a matter of conscience to take the painful step of leaving their own churches because of bias and judgement against LGBTQ+ friends, coworkers, couples and families. We are a central gathering point for people who want to work for peace and justice. While Christians for Equality has gone on to hold educational forums and do advocacy work on issues of homelessness, the campaign to raise Alaska's minimum wage, immigration reform, and interfaith understanding, our core commitment is to issues of equality.
RJ: How do you feel about groups that decided to protest things like Pride Celebrations and events?
RMB: Groups that protest Pride Celebration or strive for divisive legislation or ballot initiatives, despite the great pain and very real trauma they bring to the lives of Alaska families, are, in the long run only helping us. Jim Minnery, perversely enough, has helped get us to where we are today. His repeated attempts to deny equality to others have unmasked the fear that masquerades as love or religious fidelity. His own work was used by God to bring us together. I previously only knew a handful of openly non-binary and transgender coworkers and parishioners. Today i know dozens: families, elders, moms and dads, people of deep Christian faith and people with no religious community, even those angry at God and people of faith, and they are part of the amazing LGBTQA+ rainbow of who we are all as God's beloved. Today the church I serve celebrates the presence of many from the LGBTQA+ family. We laugh, we cry together. We marry, we bury, and we baptize children from diverse families. We break bread and we strive for Justice together. And when I go down to an event at Mad Myrna's, or any Pride event, I am hugged and welcomed as an ally and an old friend. Dylan wrote, "Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content." or as is sometimes attributed to St. Augustine, "God writes straight with bent lines."
You can connect with CFE on Facebook or on the web:www.christiansforequality.org.