Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis: Medieval mystic and the woman she loved

“St. Hildegard of Bingen and Her Assistant Richardis” by Lewis Williams, TrinityStores.com

Hildegard of Bingen was a medieval German nun, mystic, poet, artist, composer, healer and scientist. She founded several monasteries, fought for women in the church and wrote with passion about the Virgin Mary. Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women, especially her personal assistant Richardis von Stade. Hildegard was declared a doctor of the church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. Her feast day is Sept. 17 (today).

The title “Doctor of the Church” is a rare honor, bestowed upon only a few saints whose writings have universal value to the church. Their “eminent learning” and “great sanctity” must be affirmed by the Pope. Currently the Roman Catholic Church has only 33 doctors, including three women.

The friendship -- or love story -- between Hildegard and Richardis is included in a 2009 film from German feminist director Margarethe von Trotta called Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. Von Trotta is one of the world’s most important feminist filmmakers and a leader of independent German cinema. Von Trotta allows Hildegard to speak for herself by using a script based on Hildegard’s own writings and a soundtrack filled with Hildegard’s music. Watch a trailer at the end of this post.

Richardis von Stade (center, played by Hannah Herzsprung) and Hildegard (left, Barbara Sukowa) in the biopic “Vision” (from zeitgeistfilms.com)

Hildegard also inspired a play by lesbian feminist playwright Carolyn Gage. In the play “Artemisia and Hildegard,” Gage has two of history’s great women artists debate their contrasting survival strategies: Gentileschi battled to achieve in the male-dominated art world while Hildegard created women-only community to support her art by founding a nunnery.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the tenth child of a noble family, was offered to the church as a “tithe” when she was very young. She was raised from the age of 8 in the hermitage that later became her Benedictine abbey. She founded two other convents where women performed her music and developed their artistic, intellectual and spiritual gifts. She spent almost all of her life in the company of women.

“Hildegard: The Vision” by Tricia Danby

She had visions throughout her life, starting at age 3 when she says that she first saw “the Shade of the Living Light.” She hesitated to tell others about her visions, sharing them only with her teacher Jutta.

When she was 42, Hildegard had a vision in which God instructed her to record her spiritual experiences. Still hesitant, she became physically ill before she was persuaded to begin her first visionary work, the Scivias (Know the Ways of God).

"St. Hildegard of Bingen" by Plamen Petrov

Hildegard was nursed in her illness and encouraged in her writing by Richardis von Stade, a younger woman who was her personal assistant, soul mate and special favorite. Whether or not they were physically intimate, Hildegard’s actions suggest that she was a lesbian in the sense that her primary love interest was in women.

In 1151, Hildegard completed the Scivias and trouble arose between her and her beloved Richardis. An archbishop, the brother of Richardis, arranged for his sister to become abbess of a distant convent. Hildegard urged Richardis to stay, and even asked the Pope to stop the move. But Richardis left anyway, over Hildegard’s objections.

Hildegard wrote intense letters begging Richardis to return: “I loved the nobility of your conduct, your wisdom and your chastity, your soul and the whole of your life, so much that many said: What are you doing?”

Richardis died suddenly in October 1151, when she was only about 28 years old. On her deathbed, she tearfully expressed her longing for Hildegard and her intention to return.

“The Universe”
by Hildegard of Bingen

Wikimedia Commons
Hildegard’s grief apparently fueled further artistic creation. Many believe that Richardis was the inspiration for Ordo Virtutum (“Play of Virtues”}, a musical morality play about a soul who is tempted away by the devil and then repents. According to Wikipedia, “It is the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.”

In an era when few women wrote, Hildegard went on to create two more major visionary works, a collection of songs, and several scientific treatises. She was especially interested in women’s health. Her medical writings even include what may be the first description of a female orgasm.

“Hildegard of Bingen: Vision of Music” by Tricia Danby

As a church leader, Hildegard had to support its policy against homosexual behavior. But she often wrote about the divine feminine and the dignity of women, presenting sexuality in a generally positive way. She wrote, “Creation looks on its Creator like the beloved looks on the lover.” Many readers today delight in her erotic descriptions of marriage as a metaphor for the union of a soul with God. Hildegard writes:

The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions.
With interior yearning, grace and blessing are bestowed.
It is a yearning to take on God's gentle yoke,
It is a yearning to give one's self to God's Way.

In the Symphonia, a collection of liturgical songs to Mary, Hildegard writes with ecstatic passion of her love and devotion to the Virgin Mary. She extols Mary as “greenest twig” and sings the praises of her womb, which “illuminated all creatures.”

Her songs to Mary are available for listening in the following video and on the Sequentia recording, “Hildegard von Bingen: Canticles of Ecstasy.” Her music is still just as beautiful today.

Hildegard died on Sept. 17, 1179 at age 81. The sisters at her convent said they saw two streams of colorful lights cross in the sky above her room. She became a saint by popular acclamation.

The icon of Hildegard and Richardis at the top of this post was painted by Colorado artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). He studied with master iconographer Robert Lentz and has made social justice a theme of his icons. This post also features images of Hildegard by artists Tricia Danby and Plamen Petrov.

Hildegard appears as a young woman in new portraits by Tricia Danby, a spiritual artist based in Germany and a cleric in the Old Catholic Apostolic Church. Her images reveal a sensuous side to Hildegard’s rapturous connection with God.

Stained-glass artist Plamen Petrov of Chicago is known for his window showing the male paired saints Sergius and Bacchus at St. Martha Church in Morton Grove, Illinois. His Hildegard window shows her illuminated with beautiful aquamarine colors.

LGBT-affirming creation theologian Matthew Fox has written two books on the life and work of Hildegard. The newest is Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, which presents her as an "eco-warrior" who meets such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Howard Thurman, Dorothee Soelle and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Fox also wrote Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildegard was the subject of a major sermon by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori when the House of Bishops met in Taiwan on Sept. 17, 2014. “Hildegard speaks scientifically and theologically of divine creativity as viriditas, reflecting both greenness and truth… Hildegard’s vision motivates all healers of creation who understand the green web of connection that ties creation together in Wisdom’s body,” she said. Click here for the full text. (Thanks to Ann Fontaine at Episcopal Café for the news tip.)








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Related links:

Pope sets date to declare two new church doctors (Catholic News Agency)

Ritual to Honor Hildegard of Bingen by Diann L. Neu (WATER)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Hildegarda de Bingen y Richardis: Una mística que amaba a otra mujer
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

The Hildegard and Richardis icon is available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com






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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Radclyffe Hall: Queer Christian themes mark banned book "Well of Loneliness"

Lesbian author Radclyffe Hall is a crucified Christ figure in a 1928 cartoon by Beresford Egan

A queer Christ figure is the main character in the world’s best known lesbian novel, “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. The book was banned for obscenity in England in 1928, not just because it portrayed same-sex love, but also for using religious arguments to support “inverts” -- a 1920s term for LGBTQ people. Hall, a devoutly Catholic British lesbian, was herself pictured being nailed to the cross in a satirical cartoon from the era.

Radclyffe Hall
Hall (1880-1943) is widely recognized as a pioneering lesbian (or perhaps transgender) author. But her Christian side is often downplayed because of the conflict between Christianity and homosexuality -- what was then called “congenital sexual inversion.” Hall lived with those contradictions and tried to reconcile them in her books. Today the Jesus in Love Blog focuses on the role of Christianity in Hall’s life and work.

The Well of Loneliness” ends with a desperate prayer that has been echoed by countless LGBTQ people and still rings true now. The prayer is uttered by the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Gordon. She was born on Christmas Eve and named after the first Christian martyr. As a girl she had a dream “that in some queer way she was Jesus.” Like Hall, Stephen grows up to become a masculine woman who wears men’s clothes, has romantic relationships with women, and identifies as an “invert.”

At the climax of the novel Stephen has a vision of being thronged by millions of inverts from throughout time: living, dead and unborn. They beg her to speak with God for them, and then they possess her. She speaks for all queer people from the past, present and future as she gives passionate voice to their collective prayer:

“God,” she gasped, “We believe; we have told You we believe…We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!”

Such themes led to obscenity trials for “The Well of Loneliness,” even though the novel is not sexually explicit. It gets no more risqué than saying, “She kissed her full on the lips, as a lover.” In Britain it was condemned and all copies were ordered destroyed. It was only published in America after a court battle.

British judge Chartres Biron was especially outraged that Hall defended LGBTQI people by affirming that they are part of God’s creation. In his decision Biron wrote::

“I confess that the way in which the Deity is introduced into this book seems to me singularly inappropriate and disgusting. There is a plea for existence at the end. That of course means a plea for existence in which the invert is to be recognized and tolerated, and not treated with condemnation, as they are at present, by all decent people. This being the tenor of the book, I have no hesitation whatever in saying that it is an obscene libel, that it would tend to corrupt those into whose hands it should fall, and that the publication of this book is an offence against public decency, and obscene libel, and I shall order it to be destroyed.”

Both sides of the controversy were satirized in “The Sink of Solitude,” a series of cartoons including “Saint Stephen” by Beresford Egan. One drawing shows Hall nailed to a cross wearing her trademark sombrero. A near-nude Sappho leaps in front of the martyred author and Cupid perches on the crossbeam. The crucifixion is witnessed by the evangelical Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks, who helped enforce the censorship order.

Hall was upset to see herself portrayed in a way that she considered blasphemous. The drawing strengthened her resolve to write a modern version of Christ’s life as her next novel. Titled “The Master of the House,” it concerns Christophe, a compassionate carpenter born in Provence, France to a carpenter called Jouse and his wife Marie. He ends up being crucified during the First World War.

Writing the book was so spiritually intense that Hall developed stigmata on the palms of her hands during the two-year creative process. She believed it was her best book, but it got bad reviews and sales slumped. In America the book was seized not by police, but by creditors because her publisher went bankrupt.

Almost all references to “The Master of the House” describe it as a deeply religious book without further explanation. Actually it is an adaptation of Christ’s story for modern times. One of the only detailed summaries comes from the Delphi Classics edition of “The Complete Works of Radclyffe Hall.” It states:

“This 1932 novel concerns Christophe Benedict, a carpenter who lives in Provence. Almost saint-like, he is deeply spiritual, compassionate and experiences visions of a previous life as the Carpenter of Nazareth. He is attracted to girls, but refrains from having a relationship, held back by some unknown power -- his closest friend is his male cousin Jan, (but this is not a novel about homosexuality). When the 1914-1918 war begins, he enlists and is posted to Palestine. A close encounter with the enemy leads to a dramatic turn of events.”

Hall’s religious devotion dates back to 1912, when she was in her early 30s. She converted to the Roman Catholic Church under the influence of her first long-term lover, Mabel “Ladye” Batten, who died in 1916. Ladye was a Catholic convert too, as was Hall’s next lover, Una Troubridge (1887-1963). All three of them were part of a trend. A surprising number of upper-class English lesbians and intellectuals converted to Catholicism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conversion was a way of rebelling against English society while maintaining connection with tradition. Hall was also interested in Spiritualism.

An independently wealthy heiress, Hall gave generously to the church. One source says that she and Troubridge left their money to the church after their deaths. Hall died of cancer at age 63 on October 7, 1943. She is buried with Ladye in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

At the time of her death, “The Well of Loneliness” had been translated into 14 languages and was selling more than 100,000 copies per year. It has never gone out of print. For decades it was the only lesbian book generally available, and therefore it made an enormous impact on generations of queer people. It remains on many lists of the top LGBT books.

Hall is the subject of several book-length biographies, including “The Trials of Radclyffe Hall” by Diana Souhami, “Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall” by Michael Baker, “Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John” by Sally Cline, and “Radclyffe Hall: A Life in the Writing” by Richard Dellamora.

“The Well of Loneliness” has sparked controversy not only from conservatives, but also among the LGBTQ community. The novel is often criticized for expressing shame and self-hatred, defining all lesbians as masculine, and presenting a stereotyped butch-femme lifestyle. Hall has long been classified as a lesbian, but now there is debate over whether she was a transgender man. Secular LGBT readers tend to dismiss the religious aspects as embarrassing and irrelevant relics of a bygone era.

One scholar who affirms the role of religion in Hall’s work is Ed Madden, English professor at the University of South Carolina. His article “The Well of Loneliness, or the Gospel According to Radclyffe Hall” is included in the 2003 book "Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture,” edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain. It was originally published in the Journal of Homosexuality, where the abstract summarizes it this way::

“Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel, 'The Well of Loneliness,' is repeatedly described as a "bible" of lesbian literature. The novel itself repeatedly alludes to biblical stories, especially the story of Christ. Yet there has been little sustained analysis of the biblical language of the novel. Most feminist and lesbian critics have dismissed the biblical allusions and language as unfortunate and politically regressive; religious critics have ignored the novel. This essay reexamines the biblical nature of the novel, especially its portrayal of the lesbian Stephen Gordon as a Christ figure. The study further claims a creative and interventionary power in Hall's use of biblical narratives and tropes, a power traceable in public reception to the novel and in courtroom reactions to the use of spiritual language in a text about lesbianism. By writing the life of a lesbian as a kind of gospel of inversion, Hall turns a language of condemnation into a language of validation, making her use of biblical language a kind of Foucauldian "reverse discourse." The novel's power lies in its portrayal of a lesbian messiah, and in its joining of sexological and religious discourses.”

Another scholar who writes in depth about the queer Christian aspect of Hall’s work is Isabella Cooper. She was a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at the University of Maryland in College Park when she wrote “The Passion of Stephen Gordon: The Messianic Lesbian Artist in Radclyffe Hall’s 'The Well of Loneliness.'” The article appeared in the Transverse Journal in 2011. In the article she states:

“The Well’s readers have frequently noticed the deliberate parallels Hall draws between Stephen and Christ; they have also noticed Hall’s identification with both. Some readers have mocked the novel for precisely this reason. Hall’s strategy of creating an alter-ego/ protagonist and identifying her with Christ reflects her understanding of her role as a Christian lesbian artist. She attempts in this novel to perform a powerful work of redemption for those whose desires society and the Church label sinful. In order to combat the stigma of sinfulness, Hall fashions (and speaks through) a protagonist whose Christ-like suffering and self-sacrifice challenge her readers, and whose ability (by the novel’s end) to reconcile her commitments to her faith, her art, and her sexual identity enable her to take on a messianic role.”

Hall would probably be the first to insist that she was no saint, but she is included in the LGBT Saints series here at the Jesus in Love Blog because was a pioneer in the effort to reconcile Christianity and homosexuality. Thank you, Radclyffe, for voicing a prayer from queer people of all times: “Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!”

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Related links:
Radclyffe Hall (glbtq.com)

Radclyffe Hall, E. Lynn Harris, and Franz Kafka: Christianity, Queerness, and the Politics of Normalcy” by Margaret Soenser Breen (International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies)
Joan of Arc and Radclyffe Hall: Inspiration and Influence” by Steven Macnamara

Full text of "The Well of Loneliness" free online (Gutenberg.net)

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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year. It is also part of the Queer Christ series,which gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts



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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mychal Judge, gay saint of 9/11 and chaplain to New York firefighters


“Holy Passion Bearer Mychal Judge and St. Francis of Assisi” by Father William Hart McNichols

Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to New York firefighters and unofficial “gay saint,” died helping others in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center 13 years ago today on Sept. 11, 2001. He was killed by flying debris while praying and administering sacraments at the World Trade Center. Father Mychal (1933-2001) was the first recorded victim of 9/11.

He responded quickly when extremists flew hijacked planes into the twin towers. He rushed with firefighters into the north tower right after the first plane hit. Refusing to be evacuated, he prayed and gave sacraments as wreckage crashed outside. He saw dozens of bodies hit the plaza outside as people jumped to their deaths. His final prayer, repeated over and over, was “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”

While he was praying, Father Mychal was struck and killed in a storm of flying steel and concrete that exploded when the south tower collapsed. Father Mychal was designated as Victim 0001 because his was the first body recovered at the scene. More than 2,500 people from many nationalities and walks of life were killed. Thousands more escaped the buildings safely.

After Father Mychal’s death, some of his friends revealed that he considered himself a gay man. He had a homosexual orientation, but by all accounts he remained faithful to his vow of celibacy as a Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan order.

The charismatic, elderly priest was a long-term member of Dignity, the oldest and largest national lay movement of LGBT Catholics and their allies. Father Mychal voiced disagreement with the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexuality, and found ways to welcome Dignity’s AIDS ministry despite a ban by church leaders. He defied a church boycott of the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens, showing up in his habit and granting news media interviews.

Many people, both inside and outside the LGBT community, call Father Mychal a saint. He has not been canonized yet by his own Roman Catholic Church, but some feel that he has already become a saint by popular acclamation, and the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America did declare officially declare him a saint.

The icon at the top of this post was painted by Father William Hart McNichols. He shows Father Mychal with St. Francis of Assisi as the World Trade Center burns behind them. The text that accompanies the icon describes Father Mychal as a Passion Bearer who “takes on the oncoming violence rather than returning it… choosing solidarity with the unprotected.”

McNichols is a Roman Catholic priest based in New Mexico. He has a deep connection to New York City because he worked at an AIDS hospice there in the 1980s. Both McNichols and Lentz have faced controversy for painting gay-affirming icons. They are two of the 11 artists whose life and work are featured in “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More ” by Kittredge Cherry.

“(Saint) Mychal Judge being Welcomed by the Franciscan Saints” by JR Leveroni

New this year at the Jesus in Love Blog is “(Saint) Mychal Judge being Welcomed by the Franciscan Saints” by JR Leveroni. Deliberately painted in the primitive style of folk art, it goes beyond the iconic news photo, sometimes called the “American Pieta,” that shows firefighters carrying Father Mychal’s limp corpse at Ground Zero. In Leveroni’s vision, saints replace the firefighters to carry Mychal onward to heaven. He holds his red firemen's helmet in his left hand. Leveroni has also painted gay martyrs Matthew Shepard and Saint Sebastian together. A variety of male nudes and religious paintings can be seen on Leveroni’s website (warning: male nudity).

Another icon of Father Mychal was done by Brother Robert Lentz, is a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons. He is stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“Father Mychal Judge” by Brother Robert Lentz, trinitystores.com

Stories from the life of Father Mychal are presented in the book, “Mychal's Prayer: Praying with Father Mychal Judge” by Salvatore Sapienza, a former monk who worked with Father Mychal to build St. Francis AIDS Ministry in New York City. The book mixes prayers with stories from the chaplain’s life. It begins with Father Mychal’s own words, a text that has come to be known simply as “Mychal’s Prayer”:

Lord, take me where You want me to go;
Let me meet who You want me to meet;
Tell me what You want me to say; and
Keep me out of your way.

For an excerpt from the book, see my previous post 10 years later: Mychal Judge, gay saint of 9/11. Sapienza is also the author of Seventy Times Seven: A Novel, a novel about a young Catholic brother torn between his sexuality and his spirituality as an out and proud gay man.

The film Saint of 9/11 - The True Story of Father Mychal Judge is a complete and uplifting documentary on Father Mychal’s life, including his gay orientation and his support for LGBT rights.  Its producers include Brendan Fay, who directed “Taking a Chance on God,” a biopic about gay priest John McNeill.

Another gay man who died heroically helping others in the Sept. 11 attack was rugby champion Mark Bingham, who lost his life while fighting hijackers on Flight 93. His story is told in my previous post at this link.

On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, may these images and stories inspire people with renewed dedication to peace and service to humanity. An excellent interfaith selection of prayers for peace is available at WorldPrayers.org. It includes prayers by Father Mychal as well as Sister Joan Chittister, Dr. Maya Angelou, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Dr. Jane Goodall, Rumi, Lao-Tse, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad, Jesus and many more.

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Related link:

Saint Mychal Judge Blog

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Mychal Judge is the first recorded victim of 9/11 -- and also the first saint in the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series began on Sept. 11, 2009, and has grown to include many saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies. They are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

The Mychal Judge icon is available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com



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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Give now: New computer for Jesus in Love

Please give now for a new computer system to support my work at Jesus in Love for LGBTQ spirituality and the arts. My current computer is 10 years old.

Donate now by clicking the “GoFundMe” button below or visiting my GoFundMe page.

My fundraising goal includes a new computer and monitor, software, warranty, tax, installation, peripherals and accessories. A detailed wish list with prices is at the bottom of my donate page.

When you give, you bring hope, stand up for artistic and religious freedom, and liberate people to experience the divine in new ways.

I did a lot of research to find the right computer system at a low price. This system includes the cost of assistive technology that makes the computer accessible to me with my disability.

It’s getting harder every day to use my 10-year-old computer. It still uses the old Windows XP. It won’t start on cold days and crashes on hot days. Sometimes the cursor disappears. It keeps freezing when I visit up-to-date websites. The last straw came recently when I lost the work I did editing the Jesus in Love Newsletter due to my obsolete computer. Please help!

Since I launched JesusInLove.org in 2005, it has grown to include the popular Jesus in Love Blog and Newsletter, plus the Spanish-language blog Santos Queer. The Jesus in Love Blog receives 127,000 page views per year and the e-newsletter has almost 1,000 subscribers.

One reader says, "Jesus in Love is the most radically progressive and life affirming Christian LGBT site on the Internet that I have ever seen. I find its message both inspiring and empowering."

I am passionately committed to Jesus in Love because it grew out of my own personal journey as a lesbian Christian. Jesus is Love is my personal project and I rely on your funds to make it happen.

Many thanks to EVERYONE who has given their time, talent and resources.
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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Mel White stands for LGBTQ religious justice then and now

LGBTQ religious activists (from right) Kittredge Cherry, Mel White, Rev. Tanis and Dexter Brecht made an impact at the National Council of Churches annual meeting in November 1994 in New Orleans.

Soulforce founder Mel White spoke for LGBTQ religious rights 20 years ago at a forum that I organized as part of the 1994 National Council of Churches annual meeting in New Orleans.

Mel is famous for confronting the religious right, but that day he challenged what he called the “unsure middle” that enables them to attack LGBTQ people. His message still rings true now.

“You are responsible for the deaths of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters because they come to you and they get indecision,” Mel told NCC leaders at the event that I organized as national ecumenical officer for the LGBTQ-affirming Metropolitan Community Churches.

He began by detailing the threat posed by radical conservative Christians, but he reserved his anger for the “unsure middle” that enables them to attack LGBTQ people.

“If I had my say I’d never step into the halls of NCC for one more word of dialogue. NEVER! I’d go to the community. Every conversation with you is a conversation I lose with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who are dying,” Mel told the audience of more than 50 people, including NCC General Secretary Joan Campbell.

Back in 1983 the NCC voted to postpone indefinitely MCC’s application for membership, leading to a decade of “dialogue” on homosexuality and Christianity. Many of its member churches are liberal denominations that also used long years of dialogue to delay decisions on same-sex marriage, ordination of LGBT clergy, etc.

Today I can see progress on equality for sexual minorities in the church, thanks to Mel and many others like him.  The middle has moved, but Christian conservatives (and those whose silence supports them) still need to be challenged for spreading hate and discrimination.

I remembered Mel’s speech recently when I read a question posted now at Soulforce.org. Mel founded Soulforce to end religious and political oppression of LGBTQ people by using non-violent resistance in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Christ. Their website asks: “What is your favorite Soulforce memory or activist lesson learned over the years?”

My memory actually dates back to a few years before Mel founded Soulforce in 1998 with his partner Gary Nixon. But the seeds of Soulforce already seemed to be stirring in his soul.

Mel White was a high-ranking insider in the Evangelical Protestant movement in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He ghostwrote autobiographies for such famous right-wing televangelists as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham. Meanwhile he was spending decades trying to “cure” his homosexuality with “ex-gay” therapy, including prayer, fasting, exorcisms and even electroshock treatment.

Then he came out as gay in 1993, transferred his clergy credentials to MCC and became a national media sensation. He was interviewed on hundreds of radio and TV broadcasts, including a full segment on “60 Minutes.” His bestselling autobiography, “Stranger at the Gate: To be Gay and Christian in America,” was published in April 1994, just months before he spoke at the NCC forum.

Others in our Metropolitan Community Churches delegation at that meeting included Revs. Tanis of MCC San Francisco, Dexter Brecht of Vieux Carre MCC in New Orleans, and Carolyn Mobley of MCC of the Resurrection in Houston.

Mel and I shared a variety of experiences over the years. We have much in common as LGBT religious activists/authors who have also worked as ministers and professional writers. In addition to experiencing Mel’s tough talk against the religious right, I witnessed his weakness for chocolate-chip cookies on that same weekend in New Orleans. Another time he let me wear his jacket one chilly night when we walked on the beach together. We still keep in touch.

But the day Mel confronted the National Council of Churches stands out as a milestone memory. Today I have fresh appreciation for the activist lessons that Mel embodied when he joined me at the NCC meeting: Silence and indecision by the “unsure middle” can allow bigots to triumph. So speak up, speak out.
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Related links:

Council of Churches Avoids Vote on Homosexual Group (New York Times, Nov. 10, 1983)

Church for Homosexuals Asks to Join Council (New York Times, July 26, 1981)

Gay Church Fails in Bid to Join National Council (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 14, 1992)


Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

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