Exile

On my homeward commute in DC, as I change from metro to bus, I pass by the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, on the corner of 16th and Eye St NW. There is a large banner proclaiming the words of Jeremiah 29:11:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This promise is one that Yahweh makes to Israel in anticipation of the end of the Babylonian exile.

“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile. (Jer. 29:12-14)

3rd Church of Scientist
Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington, D.C.

This scripture, hanging larger than life above me, broke into my workday, and stirred something deep within me. This is a passage I committed to memory while still in middle school, attending summer camp at Forest Home. It has stuck with me, taking on deeper layers of meaning with each passing year of my life. Having left Washington thirteen years ago for New England, returning this spring has felt very much like a return from exile. There are a dozen More Light congregations, an active More Light chapter, and an even an organized LGBT affinity group in my workplace. It is overwhelming at times to have so many options, so many communities offering so much hospitality and so warm a welcome. This experience of return has brought clarity and definition to my experiences of exile as a queer Presbyterian, including the exile of exclusion we collectively experienced as LGBT Presbyterians, a geographic exile brought on by living out of range of More Light congregations, and an exile of living queerly in a welcoming congregation that has nonetheless largely failed to resist heteronormativity.

The removal of G-6.0106b has felt like the end of the exile of LGBT exclusion in many ways, from Rev. Scott Anderson’s re-ordination in 2011 through Rev. Laurene Lafontaine’s installation this fall in Rochester, MN. These new/renewed calls and ordinations of so many out Presbyterians are indeed cause for celebration, and yet the exile continues as I know that for every hard-fought call we celebrate, there are a dozen that remain unanswered. Even many of our most progressive More Light churches would have trouble calling an out minister. There are too many who remain in an exile of exclusion in the PCUSA, whether through unanswered calls or through the PCUSA’s refusal to treat same-gender relationships equally. It is part of the experience of the exiled to remember upon those among exiled who didn’t make it back. There are so many of us who have moved on, forever lost to the PCUSA.

In 1998 I went into geographic exile when left my church home at Sixth Presbyterian in Pittsburgh for a new job in New Jersey. There were plenty of Presbyterian churches in my area, but none were More Light. I attended a few that were the closest thing to it: they had passed inclusion statements, or had opposed the newly ratified Amendment B. I expected this strategy to bear fruit because five years earlier when I moved to Pittsburgh I had started attending Sixth when it was not (yet) More Light. But I did not experience the kind of welcome I knew at Sixth in these NJ churches. Now mind you, Sixth is indeed extraordinary, so I was spoiled. But the fact that these churches I visited in NJ are STILL not More Light fifteen years later is affirmation that I was barking up the wrong tree. These were “tall steeple” churches where inclusion was preached (except when Tom Gillespie was guest preacher, but that is a story for another time). The difference was that these churches were not willing to risk their privilege for justice, and without that kind of solidarity these Presbyterian places that should have been my spiritual home became unsafe, places of alienation to which I could not return.

I chose then to travel two hours to New York City’s upper east side to attend church at Jan Hus Presbyterian. I became a member of that extraordinary congregation, but soon found how difficult it was to really be part of that community because I could only attend Sundays, and not every Sunday at that. They went to great lengths to keep me involved, asking me to participate in services or after church activities most of the time to give me extra reason to travel that far. But the misalignment of my physical and spiritual homes meant I continued to be in a state of exile. I felt alienated from the churches in my area, and while the warm welcome from Jan Hus eased this hurt, I was frustrated that I could not fully participate in the community I did find welcoming due to my geographic constraints.

After a transitional year in DC, during which I attended Westminster, I moved to the lesbian mecca of Northampton, MA, which would become a land of even deeper geographic exile for me as a Presbyterian. How could I have been in exile in one of the most queer-friendly communities in the country? It has two open and affirming UCC churches, a very queer friendly Unitarian Society, and a welcoming Episcopal church. When I moved there, I chose to attend the only Presbyterian church within a 40 minute drive, one that had just a couple of years earlier accepted a gay pastor who came out to them. So it came as a shock when I arrived to find that they had called a new pastor whose first act was to condemn a local high school’s performance of the Vagina Monologues, and that they had decided to sell their building in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood and move to a white exurb. I did meet some kindred spirits there, two MLP members who left the congregation shortly after I stopped attending. These two were engaged in ministry with three local campuses, including the one where I worked. I participated as I was able in campus ministry events, and we continued as the remnant, dreaming of some kind of wider Presbyterian presence that could relate to the campus communities in the area. But on Sundays they bounced around between UCC and Methodist congregations, and I followed suit. The complicity of this Presbyterian church in economic, racial, and gender injustice was deeply disappointing, and was the final straw that pushed me to join a UCC congregation.

Thus in 2005, after ending a decade of service on the PLGC and MLP boards, I joined one of the local open and affirming UCC churches I had been attending. While I found this congregation friendlier than the other UCC church in my community, people did not get to know me beyond a “good fences make good neighbors” passing of the peace each week. Patient with New Englanders by this point, I persisted, and ended up on a slate to be elected Vice Moderator of the congregation. I served out my term in that position but still only got to know two other members in any personal way. At one point a friend from high school came to visit with her three month old baby, and people seemed to take an interest. Old folks wanted to fawn over the baby. Lesbian couples thought we were a couple and suddenly were more interested in meeting me. I thought, well, at least I’ve broken the ice now and I can get to know these people better. But the next week it was like they didn’t recognize me without my “family” attached. Because I was a singleton without kids, I could not find a way in. They were nice enough, but there was no real connection. I then realized it wasn’t the coolness of reserved New Englanders but rather the heteronormativity of a “welcoming” congregation that had me locked in solitary, even as I served in leadership. This congregation simply had no room for an unpartnered queer person without children.

This exile hurt and alienated in a deeper way, in part because of my previous experiences, and in part because of the singular and personal nature of the rejection. I was not alone when tall steeple churches in NJ rejected me and all my LGBTQA siblings due to their unwillingness to risk power and prestige to resist G-6.0106b. I was in good company when my local Presbyterian congregation became uptight and white flight, not only because of the two MLP comrades who joined me in leaving, but also because I knew we were part of a larger community standing with pro-sex feminists, poor people, and people of color. But in this Open and Affirming UCC church, I felt utterly alone when they seemed to welcome so many lesbian couples yet shut me out because I did not conform to their family norms.

My move to Washington has been overwhelming, with so many opportunities for Presbyterian community, with congregations diverse in multiple dimensions where I feel I am able to finally be myself. And so it is an end to the exile for me, for now. But I think about the patchwork of More Light churches, and the patchwork of LGBTQ equality and inequality across the US, and I wonder how More Light presence aligns or doesn’t align with LGBTQ friendly laws. I lived in an LGBTQ mecca that was a Presbyterian desert. I know of the good work of many More Light churches in LGBTQ unfriendly communities. Our churches in different states have different priorities for their LGBTQ justice work depending on their location. What does our MLP work look like in states with less LGBTQ equality, and what does it look like in LGBTQ havens? What work do our More Light congregations still need to do to be truly welcoming?

You can learn more about Donna Riley at our MLP Movement Authors page. All her posts can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Exile

  1. The truth is that is was a start, a victor in a very long war. There will still be holdout regions, churches, pastors and hearts of our brothers and sisters, and perhaps we will never reach some in this life. But our youth are so inspiring in their unconditional love, so there is much hope. Love is patient and kind, and does not insist on its own way. Why? Love needs to get close to do its work. Love takes time. If we are patient, the exceptions will be fewer and fewer. Pray for those that “went over the wall” to more reactionary traditions. Every battle has casualties. Lots of life is two steps forward, one step back. Survival, then thriving in love is the best revenge. However bad it is to know the haters, it is worse to be them. Love them, pray for them. Many are victims of atrocious sexual mis-education and un-education, and no rational though can overcome their gut reactions. Bathe in the love of good fellowship and heal from the daily battles. God loves you, Jesus loves you, I love you, love yourself as God loves you, unconditionally, and be whole.

    Love and peace,

    David

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