Power And Oppression In Progressive Spaces

The entertainment and political worlds have been rocked by the courageous women who have revealed their “Me Too” moments, in an effort to let their voices be heard, and to shout boldly and loudly that these moments are not only oppressive and despicable, but most importantly they are no longer welcome. The irony in this pinnacle moment is the ignorance we have to the broader assault on women, particularly women of color, within progressive spaces or what many of us consider to be ‘safe’ spaces.

Earlier this year, a 69-year-old African-American long-time activist in the progressive faith movement was violated, albeit not sexually, but in a clear example of the dominant hegemonic culture seeking to use its power and influence to silence the oppressed. In late August, Reverend Elder Darlene Garner was fired from more than a 19-year career and commitment to the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC).

Even more challenging for an activist like me, is to see that this power dynamic has touched a safe space, a progressive faith-based institution. Many of us, those within MCC and, in fact, some outside of MCC, believed that MCC as an institution represented a more inclusive, social justice driven place of worship – the house in which we can all worship freely, without oppression and angst, but together and with hope. Sadly, the events of the past year have really undergirded the fact that MCC is not absolved from oppressive actors, while also illustrating to us that more work must be done.

Let’s put this into context. There was a contentious moderator election during the MCC 2016 general conference; none of the four candidates, including Rev. Garner, were elected. Once the interim moderator was selected, the interim moderator single-handedly decided to remove Rev. Garner from MCC leadership. Worse still, the decision to fire Rev. Garner came without any rhyme or reason, and was guised as a “staff restructuring,” yet, no other departments or staff have been impacted. From my activist perch, this was a very clear depiction of the dominant culture within MCC asserting itself against the tremendous strides made to live the inclusivity that emanated from MCC’s vision and mission.

Since the late 1970s, Rev. Garner has worked tirelessly in MCC to build a more loving and diverse community for LGBTQ people of faith all over the world. In 1993, when Rev. Garner became recognized as a spiritual leader within MCC, she took on multiple leadership roles to ensure that people of color within MCC had a voice. Much of her work can be seen in the Conference for People of African Descent, the Darlene Garner Institute for Latin American Leadership Formation, and most recently, during her time leading MCC’s office of emerging ministries.

This moment is bigger than one individual person wronged, though wronged she was. It is a proof point that we must be vigilant and mindful that such moments can happen in all sorts of power dynamics, even in the very institutions that “preach” about liberation and unity.

The reminder for me is clear: we have to call out oppressive acts and actors, no matter where the cancer of oppression lies. And today, it’s in our midst, not just in Hollywood or Washington, but in the church, trying to stronghold one of the faithful.

It is my hope that the Garner story is one that inspires us to do better, but to also serve as a reminder to never forget that these power dynamics are not limited to the rich and famous, but can seep into our progressive safe spaces. Thankfully, it’s not too late for MCC to rectify this wrong, but until then, we must continue to call it out.

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