Going Where We May Not Want To Go (A Letter to My Congregation)

A NOTE TO THE READER, ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE NOT A MEMBER OF OPEN DOORS MCC:

I usually don’t recycle sermons for this blog, but I thought I’d make an exception in this case. Many in my congregation have been away from church this past Sunday, and I thought I would adapt my sermon from last Sunday as a blog post here. It holds particular relevance for us who are awaiting the 2019 Seoul Queer Culture Festival, but if anyone else is reading this at a time when you’re not sure what you should be doing in a particular situation, especially where you may expect confrontation or somethings adversarial, you might find it hellpful. Happy Reading!

Dear fellow partners in ministry at Open Doors MCC,

As you know, I’ve posted concerning the death of Rachel Held Evans. This past week, we’ve also marked the death of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community in France, which became the L’Arche network of communities supporting those with developmental disabilities.  

He was the son of a decorated Canadian military officer from Quebec, Georges Vanier, who was appointed as only the second native-born and the first Quebecois governor general of Canada. Jean, his son, first sought purpose through military service in the Canadian Navy, and then through academia, when he earned a doctorate in philosophy and taught at St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto.

In 1964, he made a radical decision – he left his teaching position in Canada, moved to a village in France caled Trosly-Breuil, bought a house, and invited two men with developmental disabilities who had been living in institutions to live with him. Other formerly institutionalized persons joined him, other persons came to serve as assistants to them, and it became known as LArche, ‘The Ark’. L’Arche homes and communities are now found throughout the world. He received many honors throughout his life, including the Order of Canada, the Legion of Honor of France, and in 2015, the Templeton Prize. Negative evaluations of his work are rare – in my research for this sermon, I found only one.

The interesting thing to me is that Jean Vanier and Rachel Held Evans, although from different countries, living and dying in different situations and circumstances, gained the same expressions of love and grief. I’ve been thinking about why this is the case. It has to do with more than their fame, or Jean Vanier’s universal admiration, or Rachel Held Evans’ widowed husband and orphaned children.

I’d like to suggest that in both cases, they offered the prospect of relationships with other people. Jean Vanier founded a profoundly successful movement to create communities for disabled persons because its basis was not charity or doing for others – it was about being in community with them, that in assisting them that one could learn from them and find a new way of looking at the world and themselves. In her own way, when Rachel Held Evans was in debate or discussion with those with whom she disagreed, she held out the invitation to relationship, not to confrontation. As her friends and co-founders of the Evolving Faith conference, Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu, wrote so eloquently in their tribute to her in the Washington Post, she should not be remembered as a rebel or a renegade, someone who was ‘against’ something. She was ‘for’ so much – for people, for expressing oneself, for giving, for honesty. As one ‘Bible teacher’ put it, ‘in an era of gross hypocrisy, she was alarmingly honest.’ Maybe that was how she was able to go into places and situations that many of us would avoid.

This ability to offer relationship instead of confrontation or judgment is what I see in two of the readings from last Sunday’s lectionary selections from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel According to John.

We commonly know these readings as ‘the conversion of Saul/Paul’ (Acts 9:1-20) and ‘the restoration of Peter’ (John 21). Well, in the light of the loss of these people who were beacons of the light of faith, I view these stories differently. One made the point that Jesus wasn’t offering Peter forgiveness or a restored position of leadership. He started by offering a renewed relationship – a meal, breakfast, which the risen Jesus prepares, and offers without conditions. As that meal is shared, the relationship is renewed with a simple question: ‘Do you love me?’ That love will lead Simon Peter, Cephas, into some dangerous situations, but it will ultimately allow him to make real the new life that is found in following Jesus.

Likewise, Saul’s calling (not really his conversion) also leads the disciple Ananias to into a situation which he views as dangerous: ‘God, you’re asking me to go to one of our mortal enemies?’ Yet, it is by going to that situation and being willing to engage Saul not as adversary, but as a potential new sibling, that leads to new life for this man who was once a persecutor of the people of the Way.

So, in the light of the examples of Rachel Held Evans (especially) and Jean Vanier, and as you’ve read in my previous post, I’ve decided that my place at the Seoul Queer Culture Festival is not on the festival grounds, but among those whom we would consider our adversaries, and who would consider us ‘enemies of the cross’ – not to denounce or deny, or to meet a fist with a fist, but simply to have conversations, to ask, to understand what it is that drives them to take the stands they take, to take the actions they take, to say the things they say.

Now, that’s where I believe I need to be this year. I won’t tell you where you should be in SQCF this year, but whatever you decide, try to be in the places where you can make or renew relationships, perhaps by helping out at the booth of another group, or by walking in the parade, or by talking to people about this gathering place. Be salt, be light, be yeast – be the presence that brings a new flavor, or illumination, or a new place of growth in people’s lives. That’s how we will be the most effective at SQCF this year, by engaging in relationship with others. That’s how we will bring the light of our Good News into the world.

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Waiting for Brigadoon?

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I must sincerely apologize. I misread the list of groups given booth space at the SQCF Pride Parade day. The Dding Dong LGBT Youth Crisis Center HAS been granted booth space, and I have amended my original post to reflect this. Again, my apologies for any misunderstanding caused, and best wishes to Dding Dong this year.

That being corrected, please read on:

I’ve been dealing with a significant disappointment in the last few weeks.

Open Doors MCC’s application for a booth at the Seoul Queer Culture Festival (SQCF) Pride Parade Day was unsuccessful, and for the first time in our history, we will not be officially present there.

I was angry enough to spit nails at first, I readily admit that. My congregation was not in favor of issuing a statement indicating disappointment, so I didn’t – that was probably a good decision, since I was too close to my anger and hurt to be constructive. Some friends have tried to convince me that it was not a rejection of us; others have said ‘Saying anything will just make things worse’. I also understand that the Organizing Committee for SQCF has been on the receiving end of some real vitriol from people representing groups who have been part of the Parade Day in the past and are not this year.

I will have no part whatsoever in threats of violence or directionless rage – it’s pointless and makes a mockery of any genuine feelings of disappointment. However, the fact remains that, for reasons I am not privy to, the SQCF Organizing Committee did not deem it appropriate to grant ODMCC booth space. Now that my original anger has mostly subsided, I believe I’m in a space where I can take a critical look at what the net effect of all this is. I don’t mean just criticize, although I will be making some pointed observations concerning what has happened. I mean to take an evaluative look at the situation as I see it, in terms of how it affects me, my community of faith, and the SGM (sexual and gender minorities) communities of Korea, particularly Seoul.

What you about to read may upset you. Some of you may question my right to express any view: ‘Who are you, cisgender, white, heterosexual, married, European heritage, man, to say anything about this? Go back to your corner of privilege!’

I can’t and I won’t. I have invested too much energy and time advocating for SGM persons, not only through my church work, but also by attending countless events for assorted groups held by SGM communities, both in Seoul and in other cities. If I’ve known about it and been able to go, I’ve tried to be there! Participants in our faith community, past and present, have expressed their appreciation to me that we have provided a safe place for them to have a spiritual life. I witnessed on behalf of an inclusive faith in the presence of a so-called ‘Christian’ political party, where I was shouted at and had fingers pushed in my chest. I went to the opening event of SQCF 2015, when there was a debate going on in the community as to whether people should come, and some leaders in the community were saying, ‘Don’t come’. I’ve held my spiritual ground while people have yelled at me (in English, so I would get the point) that I’m going to hell. I’ve marched in every Pride Parade at every Queer Festival I’ve been part of. I’ve been there in fair weather and foul.

Last year I led ceremonies of blessing of relationships when, as far as I know, no other affirming faith community was doing it. By the way, I profoundly disagree with the journalist who suggested to me that this action wasn’t that important because we didn’t call them ‘weddings.’ Poppycock, say I! Last year I held back an anti-Parade protester who was attempting to deface a parade truck while I screamed at police, ‘Get this guy off the parade route!’ To use Bruce Cockburn’s words, ‘I’ve proven who I am so many times the magnetic strip’s worn thin.[1]

Now, what do I see happening with the SQCF Parade Day this year? Well, whether they realize it or not, the Organizing Committee have made choices about what will be highlighted in the SGM community in Seoul. Many people simply aren’t aware of other events considered part of the SQCF. For many people, what they see on Pride Parade Day will be all they experience. What has been highlighted in the selection of booths is predominately Korean-speaking. In terms of direct advocacy groups, I’m glad to see legal, transgender, and parents of SGM persons (PFLAG Korea) included this year, including Dding Dong, the support center for SGM teens. There are some religious organizations, and some international human rights organizations, but they’re all being channeled through a Korean lens. ‘Well, use Korean!’ I’ve heard people say. I understand where they’re coming from. However, even if I were perfectly bilingual (which I’m not), English would still be my first language to talk to God in, to discuss matters of Spirit, and to talk about rights. English is also the ‘lingua franca’ between most of the expat/migrant groups here.

This year, though, for English-speakers, who have been ardent and supportive allies of/accomplices with the SGM communities here, there are two groups which reflect them – a burlesque group and an English-speaking queer/trans group, led by a well-known activist who has done very important performance art and drag performances here. Now let me say clearly – burlesque, performance art, and drag are all important parts of a positive, sexuality-affirming, pro-SGM scene. But is it the whole scene? Call it ‘sour grapes’ if you wish, but as far as I’m concerned, what the Organizing Committee has constructed, intentionally or not, is incomplete.

A more interesting point about all this, though, was raised by a friend who expressed their shock over and disagreement with the Organizing Committee’s decision to not grant booth space to ODMCC. They raised the question, ‘What has the Parade Day become?’ This is from an SGM person who is a veteran attendee of several festivals, who has seen it grow to the levels it has reached of over 100,000 attendees.

Well what HAS it become? Let’s consider that. For safety reasons, the booths have to be in an enclosed space – fair enough, the security is needed. However, does this enclosed space create a situation where SGM people and those who support them wait for the one day of the year when they can be who they are? And do SGM persons end up thinking that’s the only day they have?

That’s why I use the legend of Brigadoon, the legend of a Scottish village which appears only once every 100 years, as a metaphor. I’ve been an ardent defender of the ‘safe space’ concept. I’ve said in the past: ‘Most people in the SGM communities of Korea spend the other 364 days of the year in fear – fear of being fired from their jobs, shunned by their families and friends, evicted from their homes, excommunicated from their faith communities, and kicked out of their schools. Thank goodness they have this one day to celebrate and be comfortable being who they are, as social, spiritual, political, and sexual beings.’ I still accept that as being a good thing. But if this becomes the only day of the year when that happens, does the Festival Ground become a type of unreal place where for a few hours people can dress up in costume, celebrate being themselves, meet up with similar people, and then go back to their hiding places for the rest of the year? If that is happening to any degree, the SQCF is in danger of becoming a queer version of Brigadoon. If that IS happening, we need to ask what the Parade Day should be accomplishing.

Well, what SHOULD it accomplish? I would hope it can be a place where that safe environment empowers people, so that they are able to ‘come out’, even if it is to one trusted person, and say, ‘Here I am. This is me.’ I would hope it’s a place where people are empowered by networking with others to act and pressure government and organizations to increase the safety and legal standing of SGM persons throughout this country. I would hope this happens in many places at the festival. I would also hope that this can be a place where we act in ways which challenge those who would marginalize the SGM community – that’s what I think we at ODMCC did last year with the blessing ceremonies we held. If these things aren’t happening, the Pride Parade Day of SQCF is in danger of fulfilling the dictionary definition of Brigadoon: ‘a place that is idyllic, unaffected by time, or remote from reality.[2]

I am also aware that the Organizing Committee has organized a ‘Pink Dot’ event for the night before, modeled after similar events in Singapore, offering groups that weren’t accepted at the main festival a chance to have a booth at a pre-event. I suppose there might be a purpose to this, but it should also be remembered that in Singapore, ‘Pink Dot’ is THE LGBT+ event of the year. In other places that have held ‘Pink Dots’, my research indicates they have been single events in larger festivals or ‘Pride Months’. To me, ‘Pink Dot Seoul’ was not presented this way. It appeared to be marketed like a ‘consolation prize’ or even an ‘afterthought’ – ‘well, we don’t think you fit in the main festival, but you can have a guaranteed spot in the “pre-event.”’ It reminds me of what Sir Bobby Robson used to call the UEFA Cup in European football, a competition for clubs that weren’t league champions – ‘the Losers’ Cup’.

People are free to disagree with me, and we can discuss/debate/dialogue concerning the issues which the organization of this year’s SQCF raises. Maybe improvements will be made for next year, or maybe we’ll have the same or worse problems this year. Nonetheless, I raise these questions so that people will think about them and talk about them. Yet, I’m still left with a question: what should I do this year?

If my ministry is not meant to be in the Festival Grounds this year, maybe a better place for me might be outside the gates, meeting with people, especially with those who would consider me an enemy, and inviting them to actually have a conversation about what concerns them and what concerns me. This has been on my mind a lot as I mourn the loss of Rachel Held Evans, the American Christian writer who was unafraid to engage the defenders – ‘the white dudes’, as she called them – of the traditional American evangelical scene she was raised in and eventually needed to leave behind (she was also pro-LGBT+).

Maybe my place is in that much riskier, perhaps more dangerous, place. Perhaps I and the people I hope to talk to won’t agree on much, and I might even need to find a police officer to ensure my safety. However, my response might be the response of the Buddhist monk in Seven Psychopaths when he is told, just as he is about to set himself on fire, ‘This won’t improve our situation.’ He answers, ‘It might.’

[1] From ‘Pacing the Cage’, on the album The Charity of Night (True North/Rounder, 1996).

[2] In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary [online]. Accessed 30 April 2019 at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Brigadoon.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I must sincerely apologize. I misread the list of groups given booth space at the SQCF Pride Parade day. The Dding Dong LGBT Youth Crisis Center HAS been granted booth space, and I have amended my original post to reflect this. Again, my apologies for any misunderstanding caused, and best wishes to Dding Dong this year.

In Memoriam: Rachel Held Evans (June 8, 1981 – May 4, 2019)

rachel held evans

I’m heartbroken.

Rachel Held Evans could not survive the reaction she had to antibiotic treatment for influenza and died yesterday.

Her journey from unquestioning conservative faith to being a ‘done’ to a modern, questioning faith is an example to anyone that it IS possible to do the same. She proved that you don’t have to throw out the wineskins with the wine. She demonstrated it’s possible to have a new faith which doesn’t have all the answers but can still help give one’s life shape, purpose, and meaning. She did it with humor and wit, and without malice or hatred. Just in reading her, I could sense her big heart. And yes, she evolved to embracing an affirming stance for SGM persons.  I recommend any of her books to you as important reading if you’re wondering whether faith is possible in this time.

As far as I’m concerned, we have lost one of the great Teachers of the Church of the 21st century. A light has gone out, our world is a little dimmer for it, and it is our duty to shine more brightly to make up for it.

Loss, Part 2

‘A part of my soul has left me.’ – Pierre Trudeau, on learning of the death of friend Gerard Pelletier

This may sound rather melodramatic, but I have reason for starting with that quote.

I experienced another ‘hail and farewell’ gathering for an expat friend of mine a little while back. I’ve been to many of these over the years, one of which was a moment of reconciliation and transformation for me (see The Stories of Women…), so much so that I call it ‘the time Easter came early for me’. This good-bye was certainly not as dramatic as that, but it has had an effect on me in that it represents an accumulation of the feelings of dis-ease that have been lurking under the surface of my psyche.

The person I said good-bye to was heading back to the US with her Korean husband and her two children. I sang with her in the local expat chorus and chamber choir. We still kept in touch after I finished my time with those choirs, and as we conversed about our lives, I found out that she has two uncles (I think) who are Lutheran pastors. I also found out that members of her family are gay. That made for an interesting faith dynamic for her, because she attended a new conservative evangelical church in Seoul. One time she told me she would have to take the pastor aside and ask him, ‘What is  your position on LGBT+ issues?’ I don’t know what or if it happened, but she kept going, so I’m assuming she was able to find some way to continue being part of that church.

The thing I’m most grateful for from her is when she learned about my MCC ordination in April last year. Out of the blue, she volunteered to sing a solo as a musical offering. This offering helped to make my ordination a very special event. I’ve never forgotten it.

It was wonderful to see her before she left, and I was able to wish her health and blessings. However, there seemed to be a cumulative melancholy/blue funk which I began to feel when I first found out she was leaving and hasn’t really left me since. There are other friends and colleagues who have left, and to whom I didn’t get to say good-bye. And since then, there are a couple more people who have left or are preparing to take the next step.

Now, people have left before, I’ve gone to their farewell parties, or at least had a chance to say good-bye to them. Why are these leave-takings getting to me like they haven’t before? It seems as though this farewell represents the beginning of the end of an era, an era in which I experienced Korea in a particular way. They also highlight the loss of contact with other friends, friends who, in some ways, became my family of choice in Korea. This includes the first Korean friend I made here. I got to know him before I met the woman who eventually became my wife. Through him, I met other people – my ‘musical friends’ (thanks for the reference, Bruce Cockburn) who provided a connection with many aspects of Korean musical culture – one of them went on to release albums and become a radio show host!

But for a while, it’s felt like there’s only me. Younger friends have grown up, had kids, become engrossed with elements of their home life, I’ve gotten more involved with Sunday and SGM stuff, and my oldest friend has had to pay a little  more attention to his health lately. Is this just a temporary funk, or does it signal that I need to make more significant changes to my life situation? I don’t know – I just sense that I need to sit with this solitude for a while and decide where the next direction for me is.