The LGBTQ+ community is relegated to the sidelines all too frequently and talked about rather than given center stage to share their stories and experiences.
Last month, on May 11, at Spartanburg Methodist College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, that all changed.
Five LGBTQ+ theologians and spiritual leaders shared their theological understandings of themselves and our world – beyond the arguments straight clergy have about LGBTQ+ lives.
With over 100 people in attendance, it proved to be one of the richest and most powerful days I have ever experienced.
This day was the second event in a series that resulted from an LGBTQ+ needs assessment conducted in 2017 in Spartanburg. These events are part of an effort to build congregational support for the LGBTQ+ community.
The first event shared the needs assessment results with clergy and lay leaders. We had over 50 people representing 12 congregations attend the inaugural event.
Our next event, scheduled for October, will focus on what congregations can do to support the LGBTQ+ community.
The long-term goal of these events is to continue building a network of congregants and congregations working together to support the LGBTQ+ community.
The second event on May 11 was intentionally planned as a way of reframing the “issue” by stopping to listen deeply.
Wanting to affirm and encourage the freedom and creativity of LGBTQ+ people to develop and live their own spirituality, this event was all about listening – stopping to deeply listen to LGBTQ+ thinkers speak about their own lives in a setting where straight allies could suspend their own theological views and listen to what LGBTQ+ people say about their own spiritualities.
We heard Cody J. Sanders set the stage for us by sharing the importance of narrative in deep theological inquiry. He’s the pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an American Baptist chaplain to Harvard University and adviser for LGBTQ+ affairs in the Office of Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The gentle and grounded facilitation, the vulnerability and transparency of the stories shared, the invitations and thorough communication of the planning team with those of us speaking and with those invited to attend – all of this came together to cultivate a gathering beyond what I could imagine,” Sanders said.
Caroline Caldwell, founder and executive director of New Mind Health and Care and Upstate Pride SC board member, shared her belief that our connection to a higher power is crucially individual and personal.
She explained how her lens of unconditional love and the borrowing from other beliefs have helped her develop and actively engage God on a much deeper spiritual level that continues to surprise her.
“I felt blessed that a space was created in honor and respect for the essence and differences of spiritual connections for LGBTQ people,” Caldwell said. “It was especially a valuable experience because the majority of attendees appeared to be current and budding allies.”
Ashley Penn, a poet and activist and PrideLink advisory committee member, told how they (Ashley prefers to use gender nonconforming pronouns, such as “they”) have experienced “fire,” a warm and comforting sensation inside their body throughout their life. After realizing at a certain point they were living a lie and supressing that fire, they quit living that way and allowed the fire to reignite.
“LGBTQ theologies will be an experience I’ll never forget,” they said. “I met many brave souls, and we shared with open hearts. My voice was heard in my community that day. It was truly a cathartic and enriching experience.”
Finally, Shelton Ridge Love, a composer, arranger and piano instructor who serves as the organist at First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina, shared the challenges of following his passion for music in a deeply repressive space and concluded with a beautiful version of “It Is Well With My Soul.”
“It was so wonderful to be part of a panel of LGBTQ people striving to help others understand why I still hold to my faith despite years of abuse from various faith communities,” he said. “It was very encouraging to see such support from allies and fellow LGBTQ. I felt so spiritually uplifted after the day.”
The day wrapped up with a thoughtful worship experience facilitated by Davelyn Hill, a spiritual director and facilitator with Speaking Down Barriers, and led by our five speakers.
“The day was important to me because my voice (and people like me) was centered and valued. I also felt comfortable bringing all parts of me to the table. I felt safe enough to be brave,” Hill said.
Strangers sharing deeply personal experiences, acquaintances finding commonality in shared experiences, friends bonding over being heard. It was a day full of listening and dialogue.
It was a fantastic experience to sit in this beautiful room and listen to strangers being vulnerable with one another, sharing some of the most intimate parts of themselves. The power of narrative is a real thing. This kind of power is beautiful.
Even a few weeks after the event, I sit in awe of that day.
I want to encourage congregations to engage in similar conversations. This day happened when a group of straight clergy decided to organize an event where they took the back seat.
If this can happen in upstate South Carolina, it can happen anywhere.
It was an honor to be a part of something revolutionary. It was a gift to be a part of something filled with so much beauty, to sit with people in that sacred space where we experienced the deep, authentic, beautiful, powerful movement of spirit in our lives – just as we each are.
Anne Garner is a member of First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina, and is currently an MDiv. student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is serving as a ministry intern at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina.