Photos by Bethany Bohlen
I have always felt a strong pull towards vocational ministry. When missionaries came to speak at our church, they told us the journey was not always easy and often it was costly. But they encouraged us to lean into the desires we had to share God’s love for the world, because we always needed more people committed to sharing the gospel. I left those nights feeling excited.
When I had the opportunity to study, I ended up doing something I loved: communications. I learnt valuable skills I still use today. A year into my first full time job I became involved with a wonderful group of Christians who went to the local parks on Friday lunchtimes to have conversations with people about life and faith and the gospel. It was my favourite time of the week.
Concurrently, I had been growing into my sexuality, and feeling like the church needed more openness, both pastorally and theologically, to welcome queer people in. My passion for ministry narrowed as I discerned what seemed like a unique and wonderful opportunity: to create more room in my church for people of diverse sexualities and genders.
I started a prayerful and purposeful process, preparing to quit my job and applying to a couple of evangelical theological colleges. Disappointingly, I didn’t think like the other people training for leadership, and my lack of support for lifelong celibacy held me back from admittance. Those decisions were a real blow to my enthusiasm for ministry. I felt during that process that I had finally found what I was meant to be doing…
I discovered that as I had tried to create more room for others on the margins, I had lost the space I held myself. As I moved out to welcome others in, I drifted away from my place in the middle.
Alas, I trusted that God had bigger plans than I knew and that I would be guided somewhere different. Still, a part of me questioned why I wanted this so badly and whether my motives were off.
I went a few years getting involved in different LGBTIQA-supportive Christian groups, but where we seemed to make some progress, the vast size of the non-affirming church seemed to lurk above.
Then one day I was scrolling through Facebook, and someone shared an application link for a leadership training program to help equip Christians in making the church more LGBTIQA+ inclusive. It was run by a familiar organisation, The Reformation Project.
In December 2017 I received an email of acceptance into The Reformation Project’s 2018 Leadership Development Cohort, consisting of myself and 34 other Christian leaders. Fourteen days later we had started.
Each week I soaked up pages and pages of theology that reasoned with both affirming (the viewpoint that scripture affirms same-sex committed relationships i.e. marriages) and non-affirming (the viewpoint that scripture does not condone any same sex sexual or romantic activity) scriptural interpretations. Readings about racial justice, privilege, patriarchy, systems of oppression and intersectional identities, as well as practical tools for fundraising and community organising.
After three months of intensive reading and online responses, I flew to Chicago to spend four days with this wonderful group of passionate Christians, and I finally felt like I was where I belonged.
This collection of Christians embodied the inclusive, full-hearted, diverse church that we were all talking about. We wrestled with scripture and how we can use it to move the church forward into this beautiful community we had found in one another.
Dr Cheryl Anderson – Professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies – was one of our scholars-in-residence. Dr Anderson taught us a critical and inclusive biblical interpretation, that acknowledges the human agency involved in reading and applying the bible. Biblical authority is defined and made in partnership with others i.e. that the voice of God emerges from scripture in the context of dialogue, rather than handed down to us by one section of our community (privileged males). This approach sees Feminist, Liberative, Queer, Black, Asian theologies treated as equally valued perspectives next to White, Male theologies. Which means we more truthfully acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is inspiring the entire community of believers, rather than just certain people (Dr Anderson has so much to say on this and I really can’t do it justice in one paragraph!).
Dr Anderson showed us how we can apply the Bible in ways that acknowledge systems of oppression in the text i.e. the suppression of women, foreigners, people with disabilities, eunuchs and more in the Old Testament contrasted with the way the Prophets, Jesus and Paul talk about these people having an equal place in the new Israel.
I learnt that:
- Any supposed hierarchy that exists between humans, reduces the central mission of God to declare his equal love and value for all people.
- The entire movement of scripture, and Jesus himself, challenges earthly systems of restriction e.g. race, gender, class, ability,…
- Genesis poetically “bookends” the diversity of God’s good creation, rather than provides a complete inventory list of everything good that God has created.
- Churches can teach a power illusion when they preach that everyone is equal and how all ministers lead by serving, but they don’t acknowledge that their institutions are hierarchical, and that only certain types of people are promoted to positions of leadership.
- This conveys a message that Christians need to be heterosexual, middle class, white males in order to get to the centre of Christianity. Which means instead of having a diverse community of people from every language, tribe and nation praising Jesus as Lord, we can create a community of people from just one tribe, portraying to others that they need to look, pray, believe and behave more like them, rather than like Jesus.
Kenji Kuramitsu – a writer, educator, and student at McCormick Theological Seminary, passionate about Japanese American liberation history, and in decolonizing and LGBTQ advocacy work among faith communities – ran a workshop on “A Theology for Racial Justice”. He showed us how Christians who experience White privilege have a responsibility to our siblings who belong to racial minorities, and how this is profoundly Biblical. That we can learn from the story of Zacchaeus; an oppressor who publicly repents.
Zacchaeus acknowledges the ways he has exploited others in his community, and then physically repays all of the takings he has made through that oppression. He teaches us that reconciliation is not enough when we say a simple “I’m sorry” but don’t change any of our actions. Reconciliation is about proactively repairing relationships and systems, and bringing justice. In this act, Zacchaeus ruptures the inter-generational systemic oppression that he’s been part of. And we have the same responsibility.
Then, on our last day together, we shared Communion. And in that place of open, honest, diverse community, the liturgy brought all of these things together in my heart. I’d like to share just one excerpt of that service with you:
“This table and everything on it, belongs to God, whose hospitality is limitless. That limitless, divine hospitality welcomes all to the table, without exception. That limitless, divine hospitality bids all to come, to share this bread and all bread, to share this cup and all cups, so that none may hunger or thirst.
Let us pray:
Holy and merciful God, we confess our failure to be a just and equitable people. We confess to harboring fear and mistrust in our hearts. We fear the stranger and the other. Too often we have enclosed ourselves behind these walls, playing church instead of being church, preaching love instead of offering it. Talking about reconciliation, but avoiding justice. For this sin against holy hospitality, we pray for your forgiveness, knowing that your grace is also an empowering grace. And so, in the grace of your promised forgiveness we pray that you free us for joyful obedience as we strive again to model your holy hospitality. Amen.”
All of these culminated in me a revived knowledge that the Bible as the living and active word of God. Often I have sought to gain more understanding, knowledge, wisdom and truth from scripture – very passive and intellectually focused. The Reformation Project’s Leadership Development Cohort revealed to me that the Bible shares the story of a God who breaks chains, overturns authorities, breaks down hierarchies, and flips society as we know it on its head. THAT is how the Bible is the living and active word of God. To know and tell the gospel of Jesus, is to recognize the power of Jesus’ resurrection over and above all, and our responsibility is to continue to work for the same freedoms in the world.
I have returned home with an enthusiasm and energy for Jesus that I have not felt in a long time. A sense of excitement in sharing God’s justice, mercy and grace – in a way that absolutely changes lives for the poor, beaten and marginalised. As well as seeing how I’m complicit and responsible for others being discriminated against, because of my own place of privilege.
In tears, I thanked that wonderful group of people for showing me a true and beautiful embodiment of the gospel. And my emotion and thankfulness extends to the people who partnered with me in prayer and financing, to make this program happen, and to get me to Chicago in the first place. Your are the people who extend this beautiful inclusive body across the globe. And you have sent me out again with a renewed passion for Jesus, a renewed love for God’s church, and a renewed mission to welcome everyone to God’s table.
A few days after the cohort, as I was strolling through the streets of San Francisco, I saw a familiar passage of scripture through fresh eyes…
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Isaiah 40: 3-5
Please pray for all those who took part in this leadership cohort, and for me, as we discern how to use what we’ve experienced towards the flourishing of the church.
Photos by Bethany Bohlen