Preaching as an Ally

January 2nd, 2019
This article is featured in the Preaching from the Margins (Nov/Dec/Jan 2018-19) issue of Circuit Rider

I remember the moment I realized that I was an outlier. I was at a Methodist church hosting a transgender faith conference in Corvallis, Oregon. I’d been invited to present a workshop on how to make your church more trans-welcoming, and, since I am not transgender, I agreed to do it only with the condition of presenting it with my friend Rev. Erin Swenson, a transgender Presbyterian minister. So I went to the conference in good faith with Erin. During a coffee break, I went to the fellowship hall and realized that I was the only non-transgender person in that space.

As a gay man, I’d been part of the LGBTQ community for years, but this moment, this space, was profoundly different. I’d sorted out the ethical questions, so I thought, of agreeing to speak at this transgender faith conference if properly collaborating with a transgender pastor for our workshop. In that Methodist church, however, I was confronted with a question: what does true solidarity look like as an ally to this historically oppressed and vulnerable part of our society?

Realizing you are an ally is the first key to building authentic relationships and doing ministry on the margins. I sensed a level of responsibility I had not felt before. So I began this journey of taking seriously the role of an ally to a community not of my own identity and life experience. In this particular context, it was the transgender community.

Not long after this epiphany, I was called to create a global faith and justice project with the mission to end violence toward and persecution of LGBTQ people and their families in the seventy-five countries where homosexuality is illegal and same-sex relationships are criminalized. Now I was a white man from the global north working with African faith leaders and LGBTQ activists in the global south, particularly in Africa. My mentor was Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Anglican priest and researcher who’d uncovered the global export of homophobia from members of the US religious right in the form of the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda.

At a roundtable meeting at Union Seminary in New York City, Kapya asked me to work with him on a project with African scholars, faith leaders, and LGBTQ activists that resulted in the historic “Sexuality in Africa” special issue of The Journal of Theology for Southern Africa published in July 2016. How could I do this work as a white man? After observing others doing this work of solidarity, I realized that the way for me to do this faith and justice work was the second key: accompaniment. I was invited by Kapya, and called by God and this ministry, to accompany Kapya in doing this work. I was literally and figuratively to walk alongside him.

I began to think about my speaking, teaching, and preaching in a profoundly different way as I followed my call and took my place at the margins of both church and society, particularly in the countries where the lives of LGBTQ people are on the line and at stake. Clearly these LGBTQ people and their families did not need to be preached at—they’d had enough of that. From the hostility of being called an abomination, to the threats of hell, to the pious “love the sinner, hate the sin,” they’d heard it all before. What had been eclipsed by that kind of preaching, sadly, was the life-giving and life-saving message of God’s love and grace.

The third key to building authentic relationships and doing ministry on the margins is the practice of intersectionality. We know that the faith and justice issues of our day are connected. One cannot address immigration without looking at poverty, racism, economic justice, and the violent situations that force people to seek safer places outside their own countries. As Audre Lorde reminds us, we do not live single-issue lives.

What does ministry and preaching with and from the margins look like? Surely we have the clearest example in the life and teachings of Jesus. He left the religious and cultural center of his day to encounter and live among those on the margins. Informed and inspired by the example of Jesus, I believe we can preach from and within the margins with integrity as we reflect on the responsibilities of being an ally to a historically oppressed or vulnerable group. I believe that we can preach from and within the margins with integrity as we walk alongside others. And I believe that on the margins, all faith and social justice issues are present and intersect. May we find our way to the margins as Jesus did and bring hope, life, and grace.

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