Recently in Minnesota, a transgender man started a two-year term as a pastor in Outreach Ministry. He is one of the few openly transgender ministers in the US. For some reason, even though my spiritual life is active and I edit this column, I am taken aback when I hear of GLBT people deciding to go into the seminary. Why is that? My prejudice? Or does there just seem to be a lot to overcome in joining that spiritual path?
When Arlie Sims told me he was starting seminary, it made sense. I know Arlie. Maybe that made it different. He was active in Reconciling Ministries speaking at churches about the inclusion of GLBT people and voicing empowerment for us. Somehow I could see that he asserted an 'independence' for his spiritual life. When I saw that independence I understood his choice of this path. And we are lucky to have him following this 'calling' so he can help others find their independence and understand why that is important.
I HATE CHURCH. I LOVE CHURCH.
BY ARLIE SIMS
As a gay man, a seminary student and a lifelong United Methodist, I have a love/hate relationship with my denomination and with organized religion in general. As a man drawn to ordained ministry in a denomination that officially refuses to ordain out gay clergy or to honor the marriages of same-sex couples, I have a keen understanding of how spiritual meaning and wholeness have a way of thriving in the face of powers that would see them die.
In spite of the noisy and powerful groups in my denomination who would nail down the 'truth' by clinging to worn-out dogmas, the United Methodist Church is still home to many progressive congregations and ministries of social justice that change lives and transform the world one person and one neighborhood at a time. I've witnessed one example in a rousing worship service at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, the most diverse congregation I've ever worshipped with. During my first worship service there, individuals shared personal stories of how they were impacted by the church's many social services and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs; the African American minister gave a down-to-earth but highly spirited sermon on social justice and liberation, telling the listeners to 'believe in yourself because your Creator believes in you'; and the black/white/latino/asian/gay/straight/bi/transgender/single/married/multi-generational/multi-class congregation rose to its feet over and over again as the similarly diverse gospel choir stirred us up so that staying in our seats seemed impossible. Their joyous arrangement of 'While On Others Thou Art Calling, Do Not Pass Me By' had a very special significance in the context of that lovingly radical church.
I'm currently a co-facilitator for a gay men's discussion group at my church. Twelve gay men ranging in age from mid-20s to early 60s meet at the church weekly to discuss their coming out journeys, their sense of how sexuality and spirituality are inter-related, their various life stages, their health and addiction concerns, their relationships with lesbians, their relational and sexual lives, and the ways the church has both hurt them and begun to be a resource for their healing. Each week two or three of the men approach me to say what a gift it is to participate in the group. It's clear how hungry many LGBT people have been to be involved in a faith community that relates directly and meaningfully to their experience and that ties them into something larger than themselves.
Recently, a gay Jewish friend expressed an interest in exploring whether the faith of his childhood had anything to offer him as an adult. I was excited to accompany him to a service at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation ( JRC ) in Evanston. There, again, I was aware of a powerful sense of meaning as ancient prayers and rituals were made relevant to the contemporary experience of the congregation. In one joyous moment, members of all ages grasped hands and danced around the sanctuary in a style that has been part of Jewish life for centuries. Though JRC is not an LGBT congregation, during the announcements a lesbian member showed off the congregation's new banner for the upcoming Gay Pride Parade. People—families, straight couples, elderly persons, youth, the rabbi—smiled and nodded and seemed proud to be involved.
Most readers could list ways they have been hurt or even abused by organized religion. I grew up a sensitive gay boy on a farm in southern Illinois, attending tent revivals and hearing hellfire and brimstone sermons on a regular basis, so I can mention examples without pausing to think. But to the extent that I have sought and discovered a truly progressive community of faith, to the extent that that community is comfortable with questions and doubt and dialogue, to the extent that I can bring my whole self—including my sexuality—I have found faith community to be a good place to find meaning, to reflect on values, and to let go of old empty rules in exchange for principles of compassion and transformation for myself and for the world.
To that extent, the church is worth my time and my gifts. Here I've found a place for ministry, a place where the particular experience, sensibilities and wisdom of LGBT people fit particularly well. In more and more congregations, LGBT seekers are finding places where they are welcomed and celebrated. In other cases, they find that LGBT sisters and brothers have come together to form communities of faith for themselves. The person from whom my religion derives its name would be pleased, I think. He might take up some plain old water and make it into wine for the welcome party. That's seeing possibility where there seemed to be none, and that's a queer kind of gift.
Arlie Sims attends Broadway United Methodist Church and participates in its Candidates for Authorized Ministry program for persons blocked from ordination because of their sexual orientation. He is a student in the Master of Divinity program at Chicago Theological Seminary.