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LGBT organizing in the faith communities – Bringing Our Whole Selves to the Conversation

March 25, 2011

Yesterday, GVSU’s LGBT Resource Center hosted the 4th of five events this semester as part of their Change U program. Rev. Rebecca Voelkel with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force spoke to an audience during lunchtime about the importance of LGBT organizing in faith communities.

Voelkel is a pastor in the UCC Church, an author and part of what is called the Welcoming Church Movement. This movement of several decades works with faith communities in order to get them to adopt a community policy of being a welcoming and affirming place for people who identify as LGBT.

The pastor began her talk by telling her own story. Her journey began in part because of the TV show Little House on the Prairie, where she developed a “crush” on the actor Melissa Gilbert.

Melissa Gilbert, then played the role of Jean Donavan, the US Lay missionary who was raped and murdered in El Salvador in December in 1980. This led Rebecca to investigate Jean Donavan and then Archbishop Oscar Romero and the struggle for justice on El Salvador.

Rebecca then became involved in the US Sanctuary Movement and even began an Amnesty International chapter at her high school. Eventually, she went to El Salvador in 1987 as part of an accompaniment project of refugees who were returning from exile.

Rev. Volkel talked about the counter-insurgency movement in El Salvador, particularly Operation Phoenix, a campaign that resulted in the death of thousands of Salvadoran civilians. On this trip she met Salvadoran women and asked how they could continue to denounce the government even in the face of such risk. The woman said that she had lost children to the state repression, but she had faith in God, because God through the person of Jesus knows what a suffering body is like.”

Rebecca said that both of her parents were ministers, but she had never heard such a powerful faith testimony until this Salvadoran woman shared hers. She continued to work on Central American issues in the US and on additional trips to that part of the hemisphere. She also investigated Liberation Theology and it was in this investigation that she found the strength to come out as a Lesbian woman.

Rebecca talked about how there is no monolithic representation of religious beliefs, which is why she sees no contradiction with being part of the LBGT movement and the Welcoming Church movement. Some of the religious traditions, like the UCC Church, see it as their duty to work for justice with those in the LGBT community.

Her work takes places in three main arenas. First, she works within specific denominations, which can create space as a welcoming community. The second arena is to get people across all sorts of Christian backgrounds to have a discussion and to work towards justice around LGBT issues. Rebecca says it is important for this to happen because it is the Christian community that has been the main opponent of LGBT issues around the country. The third arena is with leaders from a variety of religious traditions throughout the US.

Lisa Weiner Mahfuz, an organizer within the LGBT community with experience in movement building, then joined Rebecca at the podium to talk about the work they have done together around Proposition 8 in California.

Both women then talk about the fight around Proposition 8 in California that passed in 2008, which was an anti-marriage equality proposition ironically named the Marriage Protection Act.  The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force was asked to do some assessment of the outcome of Prop 8 and Rebecca and Lisa shared some of the findings of that work.

Some of the findings from this assessment are:

  • Proposition 8 and most of the anti-LGBTQQIA measures are rooted in conservative religion, therefore religious opposition requires a religious response.
  • Pro-LGBTQQIA secular-religious partnerships are critical to future success.
  • A narrow political campaign frame hinders pro-LGBTQQIA religious work.

One of the reasons that Prop 8 passed, according to the presenters, was because the campaign did not connect to people of color and people of faith. In other words, the campaign was not rooted in specific communities, but applied a cookie-cutter approach that did not take into account specific communal identity.

One of the unfortunate consequences of Prop 8 was that the Right was able to further divide the African American community and the LGBT community by pitting them against each other around the issues of “rights,” which has been a strategy for the past three decades.

Another flaw of the anti-Prop 8 campaign is that it tended to push those most marginalized out of the conversation so that the immediate win is more important than the long-term goal……building relationships and a viable movement.

Therefore, it is critical to build strong alliances with religious folks and the LGBT movement. There are 900 welcoming communities in California, but of those 900 few of the denominations did a good job of mobilizing people to defeat Prop 8.

A model that both Rebecca and Lisa now use, based on what happen in California, has expanded to include LGBT sectors, economic justice sectors, communities of color, the disabilities community and faith communities when developing a campaign. However, when they first attempted this it was a disaster, which taught them it wasn’t enough to get people together to talk but to organize an inter-sectional gathering.

They kept asking themselves how were they going to build trust in relationship with each other? What became clear is that people in the LGBT community, a predominantly secular community, did not know the folks in the Welcoming Church Movement, which meant there was a lack of relationship.

Once they recognized this, they developed a common vision statement that reflected their collective desire for what they wanted the world to look like. Once they had this vision they wanted to talk about their collective values for the conference they were planning. Lisa then quoted Gandhi who said that, “every step along the way must have a step towards liberation.”

A good example of what this kind of work looks like is the document Beyond Marriage, which significantly broadens the discussion about who benefits from marriage equality. Rebecca says that this document moves beyond just same sex marriage to look at how immigrants could benefit from changes in marriage laws or even widowed senior citizens who are taking care of grandkids who they could claim as dependents with the health care.

The point that both speakers were emphasizing was the need to always be more inclusive and expansive when organizing around a particular campaign. This is important both because if means more people have a stake in working on the campaign, but more importantly is has the potential to build capacity for long-term movement building around social justice issues.

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