Monday, March 5, 2012

pondering a peaceful counter presence

It's hard to imagine, today - as bud-covered tree branches give way to the cold wind - but last Thursday, I got a mean sunburn sitting outside the dentist's office as our daughters got their teeth cleaned/examined.  For reading material, I'd brought along two local papers we receive for free each week.  Immediately, this headline caught my eye: Grace Covenant Brings DOMA/Gay Marriage Spotlight Here.  As I read the article, I literally felt myself getting a little sick to my stomach.  I can walk to this church from my house.  We have friends that attend there.  I've attended Bible studies there, and our kids have enjoyed VBS there.  The church's "where love touches people" bumper stickers can be seen all over town.  Ugh.  

I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to attend the rally, proudly wearing my "Protect All NC Families - Vote Against Amendment One" button.  Not to cause trouble, just to ... I don't know what, exactly.  I just felt a responsibility to somehow make it known that yes, we are a Christian family, and yes, we get up and drive to a church building on Sunday mornings, but no, Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council do NOT speak for us.  Many Christians in this community will be voting NO on May 8, not in spite of our faith in Jesus, but because of it.

Turns out I wasn't the only one feeling this way, and so a dozen of us met in the nearby Target Starbucks to figure out how we'd stage a peaceful counter-presence.  We decided it was best to stand on the opposite side of the street, so as to not cause any trouble about being on the church's property.  Representatives from the church came out offering us hot coffee, which we gladly accepted - it was COLD!  

The response from drivers was mixed.  We got those "happy honks" that say, "we're with you!" along with thumbs up and other positive gestures.  We got fewer "unhappy honks", thumbs down, and less-than-positive gestures. Folks pulling in to the church didn't quite know what to make of us and I truly feared we'd witness a wreck, as drivers straining to read all our signs nearly rear-ended one another. Thankfully that didn't happen! Not the kind of reaction we were looking for.
What WERE we looking for? As I see it, we had two target audiences.  The first was the community at large:  drivers passing by, people who will read about this in the newspaper's follow-up story, even people who will read this blog.  The message to the community is simple:  not all Christians feel that way.  We stand WITH our gay brothers and sisters (as well as the over 200,000 straight couples currently living in NC in domestic partnerships, who would have rights denied them by this amendment), not against them.  The gospel, to us, is one of reconciliation, not of accusation or division.  We come bearing the name of Jesus, too.

The second audience, and truly secondary, was the church itself.  Our message there, first shared in emails to the pastor, and - that evening - in conversations with members, as we were able, was simple.  "You have a wonderful reputation in this community, one of grace and love, and of putting that to practice in wonderful deeds that benefit many people. But THAT bus is a symbol of hate - there's no getting around it.  Tony Perkins co-opts faith and the gospel to promote his political agenda.  By aligning yourselves with him, we feel that you are - by default - alienating yourselves from many in the community you wish to serve.  Please reconsider."

After standing in the cold for a good half hour, three of us decided to go inside and hear what they had to say:  the mother of a grown, gay son, a self identified former "ex-gay" lesbian, and myself.  As we walked in the door, we were greeted by our old friend, "the man bearing coffee".  I asked if we could come in.  He smiled and said, "Of course, I'm sure yall won't cause any trouble?", leaving that last part hanging. "That's never been our intention".  

Turns out he wasn't the only one who knew who we were.  Beyond the church's own volunteers, there were guys with communication devices in their ears in front of us, beside us, and behind us - just like secret service!  Cool!  They were clearly with Perkins' crew.  Having their full attention was frankly, pretty awesome.  I felt a little bit like Mary-Louise Parker's character in Red.  (I'm sure they thought I had a glitter bomb in my bag or something... )

We took our seats near the back as the praise band was wrapping up my absolute least favorite worship song (care to guess what it is?)  I'd been in this sanctuary several times before; this particular evening it wasn't remotely full.  Both the balcony and the side sections were roped off, and the remaining pews were only sporadically filled.  I'd expected standing room only, for such a famous speaker (not that I was disappointed).

The lead pastor introduced Tony Perkins.  As he took the stage, I was taken a little aback at how alike they look and sound?  Maybe it's just me.  He got a standing ovation.  We kept our seats.  If we didn't stick out before, we sure did now.

He started out talking about his time serving in the Marines.  He asked any veterans to stand, and we ALL applauded them, heartily. ;)

From notes I feverishly took during his presentation:

He's very funny and charismatic.  He's seriously good at this - part preacher, part politician, part salesman.  He mentions Dr. Dobson, which draws another round of applause.  
"the heart and soul of America" and "nothing more foundational than the family" and "a mom and dad and kids" (that last one brings another roaring round of applause)
"it's time we not be afraid to stand up and say so"
"without a moral compass, our nation is lost"
"as followers of Jesus Christ, we aren't going anyhwere" (applause again)
"people call you hateful for speaking the truth, but silence is hateful" (yep, applause)
Ephesians 6:10-18.  Obvious choice. And he's a marine!  What could be more perfect?
"we are not in a political battle, this is a spiritual battle - those on the other side are not our enemy, they are actually being held captive by the enemy... these have become political issues because the church has been silent on them for too long".  I'm beginning to rethink my disbelief of reincarnation - because I have to blink a few times to convince myself that I'm not, in fact, listening to a younger, thinner, less-deep-voiced Jerry Falwell. 
He literally gets down on one knee - "Amens" are flowing freely from the crowd, now - as he says, "we don't wrestle these forces at the ballot box, we wrestle them on our knees before God"
"we are battling for this community and for the fatherless children" - he quotes statistics about how many kids are growing up without dads in the house.  (It's at this point that I felt myself getting HOT.  I mean, my knees were bouncing uncontrollably. I was livid, thinking about the families I know, where gay couples have adopted kids, take in foster kids, love and raise as their own beautiful kids that no one else wanted. I could see their smiles and their tenderness as they walk up for communion together week after week ... I was having to practice deep breathing techniques to keep it together.  We joked, later, that I was worried about my lesbian friend "losing it" - turned I was the one about the lose it in there, and I'm not even gay!)
He continues more about the armor from Ephesians - belt of truth, sword of spirit, etc...
"We must never lay down the sword! We must never walk away from the word of God!" His Bible is held high. Amens resound.  
Now he starts encouraging them that pastors are running for office, taking over school boards and city councils, rewriting textbooks.  Applause. "only 1/3 of citizens who claim to be Bible believing Christians are registered to vote, and only half of those actually do vote" (???) "the NC DOMA has been blocked by the legislature for years - NC is the last in the traditional south not to have one. our winning record is 30-0, let's make it 31-0, because if the other side gets even one victory they'll claim the tide has turned." "some call this a divisive issue, but among Bible believing churches who truly believe Jesus is the way, there is no division on this issue". (really??)
Segues into funny, endearing story.  This one is about a phone call he received from his six year old son asking about a letter he'd found, asking for money. "Why do you need money, Daddy?"  He says he has important work to do for God, and that the people on his staff have to be paid for all their hard work and time.  So his son puts two quarters in an envelope and mails it to FRC.  He says he keeps those two quarters on his desk all the time.  Looking around - I see tissue boxes are in good supply, but fail to find any barf bags.
"My son didn't understand everything about what I'm doing, but he knew his father had important business to do, and so even though he couldn't understand it all, he gave his all.  Are you willing to say Yes to Your Father?  You may not understand all of His business, but will you give your all tonight?  Let's bow our heads and close our eyes..."(This is the first time I really thought about slipping out early. Not the "bow your heads close your eyes" thing.  Anything but that. Later I told my husband that I literally felt like Snape, offering a counter-spell, as I whispered aloud prayers of my own while he prayed.  He never said Amen, which - to anyone who grew up baptist - is a clear cue that the "raise your hand" thing is coming next.  It did.)
"As you keep yours heads bowed and your eyes closed, I'd just like to ask if there's anyone here tonight who would be willing to say Yes to their Father - Yes, I'll give my all to Your work, God - I see that hand, thank you - I may not understand it all but I give myself to You, Father - yes, thank you I see that hand, and that one, hands going up all over the room, praise God...."   
Gives his website address repeatedly. Pastor returns to stage joining him for questions from the audience.  

I looked at my colleagues, wondering if either of them would raise their hand?  Neither of them moved.  And neither did I.  I'd come in ready with a couple of real whoppers, but nothing in me felt compelled to ask them, now.  The questions grew less and less interesting; after two in a row about Obamacare and Muslims, we decided to slip out. I noticed the lobby was full of lap-tops all set to the FRC website. Convenient.

 Coffee-man followed us out, thanking us for not causing any trouble and letting us know that he wouldn't allow us to put anything on the cars.  I told him I did have fliers with me, but that we had no intention of putting them on cars.  As I handed him a couple, I told him that we were more interested in face to face conversations.  The mother from our group spoke up and said, "I actually agree completely with everything he said about the need to support strong families - I just can't understand how this amendment brings that about in any way, whatsoever?"  I commented that his church has a great reputation in the community, that they've done many wonderful things and their bumper stickers are seen on cars all over town, but (pointing) I said, "But THAT bus contradicts all that." He was sort of speechless.  He said something about not hating anyone and being welcoming to all, to which our lesbian friend spoke up and countered that she did not feel remotely welcome.  She told him that if she told him her story of her experience with churches, that he would sit down on the curb and cry with her.  He seemed touched, and agreed that Jesus would share a meal to discuss our differences together.  I'm hoping my diplomatic friend Bill can make that happen.  

All in all, it was really an anti-climactic evening.  I didn't run into anyone I knew "on the other side" (which would have been difficult).  We weren't arrested (ha!)  In fact, all I'd prayed for had come to fruition:  

Peace, Light, Love.  

I see this not as a stand-alone event, but as the beginning of a conversation with churches in this area.  I firmly believe that the lines are being drawn - and if we do not intentionally choose where we stand, the lines will be drawn around us.  Not everyone should stand on Statesville Rd holding a sign or waving a rainbow scarf. Not everyone even has to agree whether or not homosexuality is a sin!  But we do have to think for ourselves, and think hard, about whether or not we want to participate in writing discrimination into our state's constitution.  Because that's what this is.

May conversations continue, and may they be fruitful with the message of reconciliation!

I will hold on hope! 


Megandy said...

wow, what a well-written and powerful story. thank you for sharing it, michelle! my heart is bursting with pride as i read your blog. i hope you know that it means THE WORLD to me and so many others that you are willing to stand up and be a voice about this issue. so many people scoff at the right-wing extremists, thinking that they are too ridiculous to win. but, sadly, they often can pull together a voter turnout that can be very damaging. thank you for raising awareness about this issue. the next step is to get folks out to the voting booth on May 8th! i am no longer a resident of NC, but i'll be doing my best to motivate all my NC friends to vote! again, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for standing outside of this event, and for sharing such a powerful re-cap of it in your blog. you are a blessing!

Bob said...

Thank you, Michelle. Your article was articulated very well. My wife and I are straight advocates for the glbt community, serve as associate pastors at an affirming church under a gay senior pastor, and are on the BOD of Kathy Baldock of
Thank you for speaking out. As we all keep lighting candles in the dark, more and more people will begin to see the beautiful people around them that they didn't see before.

Bob and Jan Bare

Bob said...

Thank you, Michelle. Your article was articulated very well. My wife and I are straight advocates for the glbt community, serve as associate pastors at an affirming church under a gay senior pastor, and are on the BOD of Kathy Baldock of
Thank you for speaking out. As we all keep lighting candles in the dark, more and more people will begin to see the beautiful people around them that they didn't see before.

Bob and Jan Bare

Julie said...

Hi Michelle- I just read the article "Love/Hate, Church Walks Fine Line" and saw your name and blog address. I love your blog! It was very inspiring to be there with you all last Sunday, glad we all connected. Hope to see you again soon! Julie Crandall