Soul Seeing: A New Paradigm for Pro-Queer Faith Communities

NEW YORK - MARCH 09: Artist Marina Abramovic (L) performs during the 'Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present' exhibition ope
NEW YORK - MARCH 09: Artist Marina Abramovic (L) performs during the 'Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present' exhibition opening night party at The Museum of Modern Art on March 9, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

In my work as a faith organizer at Presbyterian Welcome, I am often asked how congregations can be more welcoming of queer people. This question, born of a desire to create safer spaces for queer youth and adults, can never be answered simply. The Church's history of cavorting with heterosexism is far too complex to be undone with a few easily implemented changes to congregational life.

For instance, the movement to manifest God's love for queer people uses words like welcoming, affirming and inclusive to label our queer-loving congregations. Well-intentioned, the limit of this language and stance is that it searches for Others to include, welcome and affirm, placing power and agency within the congregations. A queer visitor becomes something to acquire, rather than a child of God bearing witness to the congregation.

We need a paradigm shift, a total reordering of the way people of faith relate to each other and the world. Queer-loving congregations need a new posture rooted in mutuality, honoring both the queer people seeking faith communities and the congregations that will bless and be blessed by them.

Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović offers a glimpse of a new paradigm. In 2010 Abramović spent three months performing in the atrium of New York's Museum of Modern Art. The premise of her performance was deceptively simple: as she sat frozen in the center of the atrium, an astonishingly diverse group of people was invited to sit one-by-one in the chair across from her.

Between each visitor, she closed her eyes and bowed her head slightly before raising it with newly opened eyes, her entire being devoted to her new guest. For as long as they sat across from her, she locked eyes with them. Woman after man after child descended into timeless moments where their faces showed, through tears and smiles, what it meant for them to be seen, to have their soul and worth acknowledged and honored. In rare and powerful moments, Abramović's reaction to being seen and honored in return spreads across her otherwise serene face.

Abramović offers people of faith a glance of what it means to relate soul to soul. In her space of radical hospitality, each person, including Abromović, is radically honored. No one is more or less welcome for what they can or cannot offer the other. Each is valued and respected for the very fact that they are created.

Faith communities can learn from three particular aspects of Abramović's performance of soul-to-soul relationship. She respects each person as an individual, welcomes them with vulnerability and shares in their passion.

Each queer person carries their own story with them -- a complex journey that must never be assumed nor reduced to a set of personal and political issues. When generalizations made about the "LGBTQ community" are applied to every queer encountered, personal stories are ignored and erased. Congregations must be willing, like Abramović, to take the time to get to know each person who visits them, rather than treat every queer as a generic representative of the group with which they are identified.

In seeing Abramović's performance I am immediately struck by the vulnerability required to sit across from a stranger and allow them to look into your eyes for minutes, even hours. When many queer people step through doors of a sanctuary resembling those once shut in their faces, they too enact radical vulnerability. Communities must recognize and reciprocate this vulnerability, allowing visitors to experience and get to know them fully as well. Coffee hour is not for poking and prodding the queer person with nosy questions, it is a chance for them to get to know the congregation as well.

Some of the most transcendent moments in "Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present," the documentary that tells the story of Abramović's MoMA retrospective, occur when she is visibly moved by the person across from her. Their emotions pierce her concentration and she is pulled into their passion. This sharing of passion, com/passion, is inevitable. As congregations get to know the queer people in their midst (and vice versa), they will not be able to help being moved to work until all people are treated justly.

If we are inspired by the radical hospitality of Abramović', if we take to the risk to see souls, welcoming congregations will be shaped and moved beyond an inclusive statement of faith into a new paradigm altogether. Work for justice will flow from the compassion born of relationships built upon mutual vulnerability. For, there is no longer us and them, only soul and soul.

You can read more at The Plucky Presby about the effects of Marina Abramović on John Russell Stanger's understanding of justice.