I remember that day in seminary well. I walked into the chapel for our midday worship, and by the end of the first hymn, tears were streaming down my face and I sniffled and sobbed until the benediction. It wasn't that I was particularly moved by anything in the liturgy. I just needed a safe space to process some of the things I was learning in my classes.
Most people have at least one of these days in the seminary experience when some piece of personal faith and worldview is shattered to make way for God's truth. For many the moment occurs when a professor tells them something like, "The exodus from Egypt probably never happened..." or "The gospels weren't written by Jesus' disciples..." For me, it was learning at the age of 23 the real nature of sexual violence against women.
We were reading a book in my pastoral care class about how to counsel women who are survivors of acquaintance rape. Part of my upset in learning about sexual violence in this class centered around my finally understanding what happened to a good friend in college--someone who had been raped by a boyfriend. And part of it was that I was shocked to be experiencing, for the first time, sexual harassment and discrimination as I began to take on pastoral roles in the church. But mostly it was the realization that the annoying harassment and the pesky glass ceilings were all directly related to the real threat of physical violence against women, including myself and my friends.
All those little oppressive moments that I was experiencing--the creepy men, the fear of going certain places by myself, the cat-calling, even the fact that I'd never seen a woman consecrate communion--they all added up to a culture that placed less value on my voice, my body, and my agency. And they formed the foundation of what I now know to be called "rape culture", a world in which violence and sexual criminality against women is normalized.
I have been thinking about that day in seminary a lot as we in the United Methodist Church prepare for yet another trial of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who was charged by the church with performing the same-sex wedding of his son. On Wednesday, our church's highest court will hear his case argued for the third time, and they will decide once and for all whether or not Rev. Schaefer will be allowed to serve as an ordained clergyperson in our denomination.
This weekend, several churches gathered to hold a prayer vigil for Rev. Schaefer in Union Square, but I must admit that I have had some doubts about how important this particular case is right now. The doubts come from a string of hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals that have come to my attention in the last few weeks. Right now, a transgender woman is fighting permanent brain damage in a Brooklyn hospital after being knocked unconscious by a plexiglass board. Just days before, a gay man was shot also in Brooklyn in another bias crime. And many of us know of other incidents that have gone unreported in our communities.
So, with all the physical violence against LGBTQ people here in New York City, how can we focus our prayers on a trial going on in Memphis for a straight, white, cis-gender man who wants to keep his credentials in a denomination that commits acts of discrimination every day against LGBTQ people in the name of God? How can we be concerned even with marriage equality when people are trying to hurt and kill our friends and neighbors?
But the thing is...it's all devastatingly connected. Like "rape culture", a culture of violence and intimidation toward LGBTQ people has its foundation in the little oppressions: the way we talk about or are afraid to talk about sexuality and gender in the church, the way we "civilly" put allies and LGBTQ clergy on trial for ministering to people equally, the way we call certain kinds of relationships sacred and certain kinds profane, natural and unnatural, blessed by God or damned by God. All of it adds up to a culture that places less value on LGBTQ voices, bodies, and agency. And all those little things create the foundation of the violence and intimidation being felt on the streets of our precious LGBTQ-"friendly" city, not to mention in homes and schools across the country and around the world.
Rev. Schaefer saw the connection between church and violence. His long journey toward acceptance and, now, activism began when he found out his son was gay and considering suicide, largely because of what he had been taught in church. So, you see, this week's trial in our denomination is not just about marriage equality. It's not just about some guy named Frank. It's about speaking up against a culture (and a church) that devalues, violates, and harms. It's about speaking up against a world that beats and shoots LGBTQ people in their own streets. It's about oppression and violence and courage and, in the end, what we understand to be the kin-dom of heaven on earth.
During our prayer vigil for Rev. Schaefer and for the church, the verse Jeremiah 20:9 was read:
If I say, "I will not mention God,
or speak any more in God's name,"
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
Seeing those connections between discrimination and violence and knowing people who are personally affected, violated, and devalued by this culture of fear and bigotry is the burning fire within us that can no longer be shut up in our bones. And whatever our courts say about Rev. Schaefer's credentials, we can never be silent again. The lives of our friends and the faithfulness of our church are on the line.
Follow the trial of Rev. Schaefer on Twitter with #MinistryonTrial.
(Photo by Elyse Ambrose Minson from the October 19, 2014 vigil for Rev. Frank Schaefer in Union Square, New York City)