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June 20, 2004 (Pentecost 3/Reconciling in Christ Sunday)
Webmaster's note: Three members spoke on Reconciling in Christ Sunday.
When Jim Cartwright asked me to provide a historical perspective on LCH and our status as a Reconciling in Christ church, I was hit by this incredible wave of emotion. My throat tightened, and the tears welled up in my eyes. It was during that one moment that I realized how profoundly this incredible journey we've taken has affected me and my view of the world. It is a story I'm proud to share.
I'd like to tell the story that I've seen unfold at LCH through a series of vignettes--those memories that are so real and vivid that you feel as if it all happened yesterday.
The recent part of the story began with a man I never met, but feel like I know and whom I need to thank. His name was Walter Williams. I know that he was a member of the choir and of the church council. And I know that he died of AIDS in 1988, surrounded by the love and support of many people here today. I've heard the story of the choir going to the intensive care unit to sing some of his favorite hymns. And I've often heard of his courage as he found a way to help the many people who loved him as together they dealt with the ravages of the disease. Ask a long-time member of the choir about Walter, and you will hear stories that will make you simultaneously laugh and cry.
When I joined the church in 1989, it was apparent to me that this was a place where all people could feel welcome and where a diversity of opinions was welcome. In retrospect, I've always felt that these were lessons that Walter had helped teach in his own unique way.
Jump forward to 1991--The next chapter in the story. This is when the members of LCH learned that we had been assigned an intern from the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. I was officially "fresh meat" and had been selected for the church council. In a moment of desperation, the group had selected me as president. We heard glowing reports about this young man and were all very excited to have him join us. However, there was just one problem. PLTS had asked him to sign a lifelong vow of celibacy. He had refused, and the committee from his home state withdrew their support of him. Basically, this meant that he was kicked out of the seminary.
The church council was faced with a dilemma. Should we honor our commitment to this person whom was so obviously gifted or should we follow the rules? The council with the guidance of Pastor Don Johnson and Pastor Fritz Fritschel had many very long, prayer-filled discussions. We knew that it could be divisive and push people out the door. However, we also felt that we had an obligation to stand up for what many of us believed--that all people are loved by God and welcome in his church.
Our ultimate decision was to gather input from the congregation, but to make the decision during a council meeting. What followed was a meeting in Isenberg Hall that was one of the pivotal parts of this story. I wish I could appropriately describe what happened on that day. The ground rules were that everyone could feel free to voice their opinions and everyone agreed to listen and not to judge. People were incredibly honest and open as they talked about their own feelings and their confusion and their faith. No one pretended to have the answers, but everyone in that packed room knew that this would be a pivotal time in the life of LCH.
I also suffered from an internal debate. I knew that regardless of the decision the church council, there would be people who would leave the church. If we opted to invite him, there would be people who didn't understand and would leave. If we opted not to invite him, we would alienate people who believed we were not following God's will and opening up our hearts to all of God's creation.
As every good Lutheran woman is genetically disposed, I talked to my mom about this. You must know that my mom was a woman with faith that did move mountains but who lived in rural Nebraska and wasn't surrounded by people who were ready to question the church. One day as we talked, she told me that she had gone to the pastor of the church where I grew up to talk about this issue. As they talked, this pastor in this very rural Nebraska congregation said to my mother, "People who are threatened or don't understand the needs of gays and lesbians will always be able to find a church community. Gays and lesbians have spent their lives being rejected by organized religion and need a community they can call their own. If they must leave, let them leave in peace. They will find a new church home."
"If they must leave, let them leave in peace." Those words followed me as I went with Pastor Johnson to call on some of the people who were struggling with the decision. I vividly remember one military family. They were wonderful members of the church. However, at that time they were dealing with the same issues of sexuality in the military and felt bombarded. It was tremendously painful to hear their pain, but I kept remembering the words of the small town Nebraska pastor, "If they feel they must leave, let them leave in peace."
Ultimately, the church council voted to invite this man to be our intern. For those of you who had the wonderful opportunity to work with him, you know that he is truly an incredibly gifted man who is full and overflowing with God's grace. He is a man born to minister to others. The year that he was with us was incredible and also got us into lots of trouble.
I always joke that I thought I was going to be the church council president for an independent Lutheran church because we would have been kicked out of the ELCA. However, each time someone from the synod came to talk to us, they didn't hear the strident tones of protestors, they heard the rational and inspired tones of people of faith. And those stories of faith came out as people in the gay and lesbian community shared their very powerful stories.
Our intern's time with us was truly a gift from God. His internship was not about sexuality. It was about ministering to God's people--all of God's people.
The natural extension of our experience was to go through the process of becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. For me, this part of the journey was easier. By inviting this intern into our lives, we were forever changed as a church congregation.
The path to the RIC designation did require a vote of the congregation. In order to truly understand what was happening, we held a series of meetings in small groups to go over a LCH study on sexuality. These were a wonderful way to share our faith stories. Again, I have this vivid memory of Charles Berkstrasser, a Methodist deaconal minister who played a very key role in the church. He was sharing the story of some horrible experience he had when someone threatened him--just because of who he is. As I expressed my horror, he looked at me and said, "Don't worry Mary. I might be gay, but I'm still a white male, which means I have it easier than you as a woman in today's society."
As I remember, the vote to become Reconciling in Christ was unanimous. There were not questions that this is who we were meant to be as a congregation. It became one of the most important ways for us to define ourselves as a congregation. Ultimately, I think all of the study and discussion led us to the conclusion that we were a place for all of God's people--a decision I see everyday in all kinds of ways.
After our positive experience, the next step was to see if we could work with the Synod--these folks who thought we should be kicked out of the church for welcoming this intern.
Rusty Walker and I were candidates for the Synod Assembly in Orange County. It was 1993. There was a motion for the synod to become a Reconciling in Christ synod. The debate was intense. It had started one day and then moved to the second. Back and forth, the debate went as people eloquently described their opinions.
Finally, an older gentleman came to the microphone. In his hand, he held a thick sheaf of papers. I paraphrase, but he said, "I came to this assembly to oppose the concept of being Reconciling in Christ. I carefully prepared my testimony at home so that I could come before you to share my views. However, last night when I was working on my speech, I realized that my opposition wasn't about what the Bible said or what society told us. It was about hate." He went on to explain that he had felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as he was preparing and now believed that he needed to support the motion.
You could have heard a pin drop in the packed meeting room. Shortly after this powerful testimony, they took a vote. As they counted the votes, Rusty and I somehow knew that it had not passed. To our delight, we were wrong. The RIC resolution passed. To this day, I still feel it was the hand of the Holy Spirit at work among us.
In the past 10 years, there have been numerous efforts to roll back that resolution. There have been multiple efforts to reverse the decision. Each year, these efforts have been defeated.
And now, we are part of a living history--multiple examples of how the combination of faith and good people can help chart the direction of the church.
My assignment was to present for today's message was to talk about the history of our path to become a Reconciling in Christ church. Although I know this is important, it pales in comparison to the things I see in the church everyday. The history is fascinating, but the present is fascinating and the future is promising. Yes, it is important to know where we've been in order to chart where we want to go. The excitement is to see and understand what truly can be.
Thank you for the chance to talk about this issue that has made a huge impact on my life. And, most of all, thank you to the people who have shared their stories with me.
I grew up as one of the more fortunate ones, growing up in an open minded family. My parents have always accepted anyone to come across them. And have taught me the same way. If you know me well enough, you would know that I am a very strong opinionated person. I don't like to let people change my mind. That's probably the only way I've been surviving high school, that and my friends. People want to be with the in crowd. And you always have to be careful about your reputation, because you always care about what other people think.
I thought I had it hard when my mom said I have empathy for other people, always carrying they're burdens on my shoulder alone. It's harder on three of my best friends: Justin, Dennis, and Koa, who happen to be gay, the three people who changed my outlook on life entirely.
I met Koa at the beginning of this year and we immediately clicked, as if he were a brother my parents forgot to give me. I've known Dennis since middle school but only really started talking to him this past year. My best friend Margaret used to have the hugest crush on him for 2 years. Ironically enough, they're best friends too now. Both Koa and Dennis are still trying to hide themselves from the hungry evilness of high school and its judgments. I started hanging out with them just this year and it's been the most controversial year of my life.
Religion started becoming the new fad in the school. And it also seems to have become the biggest trap. It seemed to hurt people more than help them. One of my best friends, Justin, had unfortunately fallen into the trap. It seems the way of religion in our school is that you can turn to God but you have to be a certain way for him to love you. Hence being gay is absolutely not acceptable. Justin, being the kind hearted guy he is, took those words into thought. And he confronted us with his new life mission. He decided he was going to be straight.
You could just imagine the anger that shot through my veins when I found out it was because a girl told him that God doesn't love gays. I could have put my foot in her mouth right there. But that would be un-churchlike of me.... All I could do was stand there and accept it; letting him know that no matter if he fails or succeeds in his mission I love him either way, even if he would have believed God won't.
Gay people always seem to be held in less regard than others. As if straight people were superior. And it hurts seeing them suffer through school with out people knowing who they really are. They see how people treat the gays that are out in the open. It's a scary world we live in. But ill tell you something, a gay person saved my dad's life. And at one point this year, I would have crawled in a hole and died with out caring if Koa and Dennis hadn't been there for me.
I owe so much to them for keeping me the strong person I am today. They've taught me that you can't let society bring you down, you'll never be happy in life, and as long as you're true to yourself, your friends would never leave you.
I was born in Minnesota and probably grew up going through life as many boys and young men do. The exception in my life was that I was Gay or Homosexual and knew it from the very beginning. It always felt like a bird taking to flight. I had difficult times at different junctures in my life. In school and in the military there were times that I wish I could have become invisible. I am sure there are those whose attention to my like did make me feel that way. It was difficult to find a balance where to feel as a peer and know that no matter what my life was going to be okay. Church, in growing up, was another area that gave me great difficulty. There was never anything positive about my life that would let me feel that God truly loved me for who I am. Counting cracks in the sidewalk was a normal routine as my head was always down, trying to avoid eye contact. I grew up in a small town and because there were only four of us about the same age or in the same grade in school I guess it was necessary to bond in some ways to have some sense of friendship. As a matter of fact there were a few times I was actually protected.
After graduation from High School, a couple of month later, I went into the military. This was a time of toughening up and being away from home. A totally new environment, but if I had hoped that my life would change, it did not. Feelings that I had to deal with were soon buried by drinking. As natural as it was for me to be gay, it seemed as natural for me to become an alcoholic, although this is a very unplanned plan. It just happens as a process. I found through alcohol I could feel as an equal and many time felt that things were okay. Even though many of my friends in the military knew I was gay, they were good to me and we partied a lot. Maybe we were all a bunch of strange assorted creatures thrown together and somehow had a need to survive.
After two hitches in the service, I decided to get out while I could do that honorably. Also I was drinking very much and felt that maybe a change would be good for cutting back. I became a civilian and found that to find friends that I could relate to I would have to go to the gay bars. And so I did and my drink just continued on a got worse. I developed many gay friends and from my perspective we al drank alike, even though we did not.
There is a song that was put out my Johnny Cast that much expressed how my life felt on the inside. It is surprising how good we can look on the outside and how miserable we can feel on the inside. The song is "Sunday Morning Coming Down." The words go like this:
The best way I can describe what was going on my life is what I hear at a baptism. "You are marked with the Cross of Christ forever." No matter how hard I would try to get away from God I could not do it. I was brought up as a believe and would have to reconcile myself and get back to my roots.
As you fast forward my life, I ended up in Honolulu, through an ad in a Honolulu Men Chorus Concert program, I found what drew me to Lutheran Church of Honolulu. It was a Saturday night that I read about this church and the next morning I decided to come to LCH and how happy I have been since. I have truly felt loved and cared about. I found that I could be honest about who I was. You have come to know me and the fact that I have been sober since January of 1975, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, and have dealing with prostate cancer since 1996. It was in 1996 that I came to this church and it was like the student was ready and the teacher appeared.
It says in 1 Corinthians 13: 12-23, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love--these three; but the greatest of these is love." Philippians 4:9 says "The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you."
Not only have you shared the peace and love of God with me, you have allowed me to share the same with you. Because of Lutheran Church of Honolulu I now feel whole and completed knowing there is more to learn. Whenever I have been in this Church I have always felt as though I belong and am a part of. I just want to say "Thank God and Thank You" for how I feel today.
Copyright © 2004 Lutheran Church of Honolulu
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