Friday, June 24, 2011

Hands Around the God Box: Prayer and protest for LGBT religious rights

Kittredge Cherry speaks at Hands Around the God-Box, a prayer demonstration to end homophobia in the church. A rainbow ribbon stretches across the stage. MCC founder Troy Perry is clearly visible in a dark suit at the front of the crowd. Standing next to him is Otis Charles, Episcopal bishop who came out as gay in 1993.

Protests for LGBT rights in the church have been going on for years. Hands Around the God Box, an interfaith prayer demonstration to end religious homophobia, was held 17 years ago today (June 24, 1994) at the Interchurch Center in New York City. Let’s gain strength for today’s challenges by remembering our past and honoring those who helped us get this far.

More than 500 people from 15 lesbian and gay religious groups joined hands and were linked by a rainbow ribbon that completely encircled the Interchurch Center at 475 Riverside Drive. The box-shaped building housed the headquarters of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and many other religious agencies. We are highlighting this historic event here as part of our celebration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month.

I will never forget the solemn power of our combined prayers as LGBT Christians and our allies joined hands at the God Box. The building is huge, covering an entire city block, and our group of 500 barely managed to surround it -- with help from a super-long rainbow ribbon. The need for churches to accept LGBT people is just as true now as in 1994. Our prayers for full inclusion continue.

The peaceful demonstration began at noon Fri., June 24, with a short worship service. “We are here to open people’s minds and hearts and let God out of the Box,” I told the crowd in opening remarks as one of the organizers of the event.

Another speaker was Rev. Nancy Wilson, chief ecumenical officer (and now moderator) of Metropolitan Community Churches. “Today 475 Riverside Drive is our Stonewall Inn. We need to turn the tables on the religious ‘police’ of our day, and fight back,” she said.

Demonstrators then joined hands around the building in silent prayer for full inclusion of lesbians and gays in religious life. NCC General Secretary Joan Campbell and many NCC staff members joined the demonstration, even through the NCC refused to grant membership or even observer status to MCC, which ministers primarily in the LGBT community.

The event concluded with tying a rainbow ribbon around the God Box to symbolize continuing prayers for the church to honor the diversity God created.

Hands Around the God Box was coordinated by myself (Kittredge Cherry) as MCC national ecumenical officer and Kim Byham of Integrity. It was held as part of Stonewall 25, celebratingon the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion that launched the LGBT liberation movement.

The Washington Post covered Hands Around the God Box on June 25, 1994 with an article by Christopher Herlinger of the Religion News Service titled “Gays Returning to Religion, but Few Arms Open: Little Acceptance of Homosexuals 25 Years After Stonewall Uprising.” The article stated:

“A protest yesterday by a coalition of gay and lesbian Christians at the Interchurch Center here spotlighted what Wilson and other protesters called the ‘exclusion of lesbian and gay people from full participation in the life of the nation’s churches.’

The protest, a ‘human chain’ around the Interchurch Center, was called ‘Hands Around the God Box,’ -- a reference to the building’s popular nickname. The building, in upper Manhattan, is home to a number of denominational offices and the national headquarters of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical organization.

The 32 member churches of the council are divided over the issue of homosexuality.”

The Christian Century magazine covered the event with an article titled “Gays and lesbians protest at church center” in the July 13-20, 1994 issue. They quoted NCC head Joan Campbell on why she attended the protest: “Our churches are very united on civil rights for gays and lesbians, and there are places we can be supportive. We don’t go as far as the MCC wants us to go, but there is a fair distance that we can go, and that needs to be made visible.”

Some said that Hands Around the God Box was the spiritual heart of the whole Stonewall 25 celebration in New York. Reaction to the God Box event was summed up later by Mary Hunt, cofounder of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and ritual, in her sermon the next day: “How about those Hands Around the God Box people? What a feat of religious athleticism: holding hands, singing, praying, protesting and talking to the press all at once ought to merit some sort of miraculous metal or actual grace!”

Hundreds of LGBT Christians circle New York’s Interchurch Center to protest religious exclusion in Hands Around the God Box. This photo was published in the Washington Post on June 25, 1994.

Demonstrators join hands around the God Box to pray for an end to religious homophobia. This photo by William Tom was published in the August 1994 issue of “Keeping in Touch: News and Notes from the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.”

The Washington Post covered Hands Around the God Box in an article titled “Gays Returning to Religion, but Few Arms Open” on June 25, 1994.

Online references:
More Light Update, a publication of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. March 1994.

Voice of Integrity: the quarterly publication of Integrity, Inc., the lesbian and gay justice ministry of the Episcopal Church. Summer 1994.

The Christian Century magazine, July 13-20, 1994.
Gays and lesbians protest at church center


Elizabeth Jensen-Forbell said...

We were there - it was an amazing experience!

Trudie said...

It's like the little bit of leaven in the dough that Jesus spoke about. We're here, we're queer, and God's plan is working!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Yes, the seeds we planted at Hands Around the God Box are still alive and growing. Elizabeth, I’m happy to connect with someone else who was there. Trudie, thanks for reminding us of Jesus’ statement that God’s realm is like leaven in dough.

Somewhere I have a video of Hands Around the God Box that I plan to find and convert to digital so I can post it online -- on a slow day when I make time for the project. I’m eager to see it again myself.

This year I feel especially connected to Hands Around the God Box since I have been blogging about current LGBT leaders confronting church authorities -- John McNeill in Rome and Alma Lopez in Ireland.

Turtle Woman said...

It was a great day, and I still have a little snippet of that ribbon as a souvenir! 25th anniversay of Stonewall... hey that was the month that was... we left for New York shortly after the O.J. car chase and murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman hit the news in Los Angeles. Ah, gotta love the 90s.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Hands Around the God Box was in New York -- and tonight, exactly 24 years later, New York passed a law for same-sex marriage. Amen!

Turtle Woman said...

That same date coincidense was amazing... that's what it takes folks! Yahooo!! My theory of gay marriage passing in new york... closeted gay male republicans finally got a conscience, either that or they were threatened with being outed :-)

Terence Weldon said...

I love the idea that after long and frustrating delays, the eventual passage of NY's marriage bill came so close to NY Pride weekend and the anniversary of Stonewall.

I did not know about this before this post, but reading it in the context of the above, set me thinking about the broader history of the path to queer inclusion in church, beginning with the launch of MCC from tiny beginnings, and Dignity in the Catholic church. Stonewall came after these, but I would think that the movement to coming out in church that they began, will surely have been further stimulated by the encouragement that Stonewall gave to coming out, and to LGBT activism, in secular society.

These thoughts led me to develop my own post on Stonewall(at Queering the Church) as a reflection on some of this history of queer inclusion in church. It's a huge topic, for which I have only begun to scratch the surface - but this post was the spark, for which I thank you. I have included a passage of your post, and a link, in mine - as well as a link to your existing post on the Saints of Stonewall

Kittredge Cherry said...

Many people seem to think that LGBT political groups are on the forefront of social change
and religious groups lag behind. Thanks, Terry, for pointing out the truth -- that LGBT religious groups were actually AHEAD of the LGBT political groups, getting organized BEFORE Stonewall. I knew that Troy Perry held the first Metropolitan Community Church service on Oct. 6, 1968, but I didn’t realize
that Dignity also began pre-Stonewall. Thanks for your insights and for quoting me with links to this blog.

Turtle Woman said...

I don't think spirituality lags behind politics. I think spirituality and faith zoom ahead.
Because our society is so secular, we often forget things like this.
If we look at the spiritual contributions of lesbians and gays throughout herstory, the amazing thing is the incredible work queer people do. Anytime people are outside the system and not taking care of kids, amazing new things emerge. And cleverly we found monestaries and nunneries because what better place for gays and lesbians to carve a place for themselves in scary medieval europe, for example!!