MamaKath asked me to meditate on what it’s like to be part of a Christian church that “goes beyond doing just the LGBT thing.” This guest entry reflects my meditations.
About me: I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (here in New England, mostly the white-steeple churches on every town green), and have been since 1988. I specialize in transitional ministry, serving churches where the settled pastor has left for a new call or retired (or sometimes worse), and helping them reclaim who they are while they seek new leadership. Since 1993 I’ve served nine congregations in different roles, and my state “conference” as minister of communication.
Being with a church during change is sometimes challenging, but it’s also cool because people know I’m not staying. That gives us freedom to try out new things and push some boundaries where they need to be pushed. I’ve found that, above all, people in the churches I serve are looking for love and reassurance that God accepts them. It’s my job to remember that.
I’ve been at Mansfield Center for about a year. UCC churches decide individually on…well, just about everything…but particularly on the kinds of faith stances they will take. This church declared itself “Open and Affirming” in 1991. Then and now, the ONA stance is understood by UCC churches to mean that LGBT folks are welcomed equally with everyone else who walks through the doors and participates in the church’s life and ministry. Churches who go through the ONA process and vote on it are very conscious about that meaning; maybe even self-conscious. Things change over time, though. At some point Mansfield Center had a “Duh” moment, realizing that “Open and Affirming” meant something bigger than sexual orientation. Without detracting from the huge “chromosome barrier” that has kept so many loving people down, hidden, or away from church altogether, there are other barriers that are swept away by this statement: poverty, politics, physical ability, mental health, language.
When I started journeying with this church last October, I found that old and young were welcome. So were people with autism whose behavior would get them quietly excluded from many congregations. So is a family from Iraq, whose patriarch served as a translator for U.S. troops and therefore was living in constant danger along with his wife and seven children. This summer, the congregation agreed to sponsor them and they now worship with us regularly—bringing an Muslim flavor to our practice even as they take on a Christian flavor in theirs.
The ONA idea, still feared by some as “political,” has evolved into an agape practice in this church—and it fits well with my own outlook about what Jesus was trying to teach. God so loved the world that in ultimate generosity we were given the most precious thing God had. The rules and fences that humanity erected around that gift would have frustrated Jesus himself! They reflect our own fears and need for control, not the spirit of the gift of love God gave us.
I asked MamaKath to ask me five questions, and I’d do my best to answer them. So, here’s her interview:
MK: When & how did you feel the call to at least attempt "agape" love?
MM: Probably before I’d heard the word or knew what it meant. Like many members of the United Church of Christ, I grew up in that other big brand-name hierarchical faith expression, and felt the call to be a priest when I was maybe 12 years old. A year or so later, hormones kicked in and I figured out why that call would be such a problem for me. (Hint: celibacy seems pretty unnatural to me.) It was my first experience of the conflict between God’s all-encompassing love and human attempts to “improve” it by putting restrictions on it.
MK: Do you see your ministry as an effort to lead others to practicing unconditional love?
MM: Without question. Many of the places where I’ve been called to transitional work have little tensions and resentments bubbling just under the surface. There are folks who would figuratively lay down their lives for the pastor who just left, and others who are saying under their breath (and sometimes out loud) “Good-bye, and don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.” They hope the interim pastor (me) is going to do a “clean sweep” and get the “right people” into positions of influence. Hah! The kind of clean sweep I try to model is an inclusive one: clearing out the relationship clutter to make it possible for the right people and the other right people to be at the same table and talking again. I have taken my lumps from antagonistic people who are mad because I don’t feel particularly called to kiss their butts, but I also find that naming things for what they are tends to make room for love, respect, and healing.
MK: What does the following mean to you: "Life isn't easy but it should be simple."
MM: Ah, the essay!
Fewer meetings and more encounters. Fewer agendas and more action. Fewer rules and more good behavior.
Look, we could spend the next hundred years (or until Hartford becomes a beachfront community, whichever comes first) culling the Bible and looking for proof that God is for or against “the queers,” “the cripples,” “the illegals,” or whoever else we choose to name. This is how the prejudices of ancient societies get carried forward into our day, and there are some people who say that “because you’re a minister, you have to uphold these things.”
Guess what? I don’t. I was ordained a minister of the Gospel, not a minister of the Bible. My vows do hold me to rigorous study of scripture, but that word “Gospel” is not synonymous with “Bible.” It means “Good News,” and that’s what it’s all about.
I’m not here to make life even more complicated for people whose lives are already fearsomely complicated by circumstances. I’m here to say that God loves each of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we are. I think that’s a pretty simple message. Pretty profound, too.
MK: What are some of the things your current congregation is doing to open eyes & hearts to God and each other?
MM: I have to start with their expanded view of what it means to be “open and affirming.” Not long after I arrived a couple of our Deacons (elected to help serve the congregation in worship) approached me and wanted to know how I felt about the autistic young adult whose random vocalizations are a big part of the atmosphere during worship. They were relieved when I said it was okay with me, as I figured he was expressing his appreciation of worship (and even the sermon!) in the best way available to him. They had made the decision some time ago that he was welcome, and had met with some resistance from members of the congregation who were afraid it would offend the pastor!
I would say it’s not so much specific things the congregation is doing, so much as the way in which the congregation approaches its work. When the Supreme Court of Connecticut announced its decision to affirm same-gender marriages last October, my first thought was to consult with the church leadership about whether changes in church policy were needed now to take the possibility of performing a same-gender marriage into account. Their response was: We adopted the open and affirming stance, so what’s the problem?
MK: Is there a plan already in operation or on the drawing board to take this agape attitude beyond the congregation and into the surrounding communities? Do you feel that "putting a face on it" needs to part of the process?
MM: Fareed and his family are the best example of that right now. While we have adopted the role of “church family” for them, resettling them in northeastern Connecticut has been a huge and expensive undertaking. We had a community fundraising festival for them this past summer
Another member of the church remarked on how pleasantly surprised he was that the family had been so well accepted into the church’s life and the community’s life. I’m not. Fareed, Fatima, and their beautiful children have put a compelling face on what it means to be Iraqi, and I think it has made an agape stance possible for people who would otherwise say “it’s impossible.”
The Rev. Matt McCaffrey is an interim ministry specialist with the United Church of Christ, currently serving the First Church of Christ in Mansfield. He lives in Cheshire.