Wednesday, July 06, 2011

One day, maybe

I grew up—quite literally—in the church. I saw the good and bad of Christians, the way they were treated and the way they treated others. When people at either end of the political spectrum or from any point along the religious continuum talk about such things, chances are good it reminds me of something I can relate to, even if the specifics are vastly different.

I was reminded of all that today when I read an article on Salon.com, “When a gay minister moved to a small Southern town,” by Brett Webb-Mitchell, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Webb-Mitchell took a temporary position at a church in Henderson, North Carolina, a small town he described as “an old-fashioned town, challenged by these modern times.” Not surprisingly, he was immediately subjected to a whispering campaign, mostly conducted anonymously over the Internet, as such things often are.
“As a gay minister, I'd heard nasty slights about me secondhand before, but I had never encountered it so directly. How could someone who didn't even know me criticize me? How could someone who called himself or herself a Christian spew such vile rhetoric?”
We might, in our prejudiced minds, think that this was to be expected in North Carolina, or that this is something Christians do, or whatever our favourite prejudice is. However, Webb-Mitchell also found love, support and a courage and strength of character among decent Christians.

I can relate to all this. I’ve seen close-up how petty and intolerant Church-going Christians can be, and I’ve also seen kindness and generosity of spirit. Still, I can’t understand what would lead someone to decide to go through all that. Did he not know, or at least suspect, what small-town North Carolina might be like for a gay minister?

There are places in a America where I would not want to live as an out gay man. Actually, there are places in Chicago I wouldn’t want to be identified as a gay man, either. It’s first and foremost about safety, about not being attacked or killed because of who I am. It’s also about not wanting to have to fight every day to be treated as a human being, first, and as a citizen and not as some caricature or monster. So I admire any gay person who can move past all that to do what they feel they must or are called to do.

Webb-Mitchell said of his experience, “I saw ugliness in Henderson, sure, but I also found love and support and new understanding.” I’m glad that he found good in all that, and that it wasn’t even worse for him. And I’m also glad that he had the courage to stick it out, despite everything. In doing so, he just may have helped dispel a few myths and lessened some prejudices. If enough people did that, then one day maybe experiences like what this article describes will be confined to the past. One day, maybe.

Tip o’ the Hat to Roger Green, who sent me the link.


Roger Owen Green said...

I'm sure you've mentioned this before, but I forgot; what denomination were you growing up?

toujoursdan said...

Still, I can’t understand what would lead someone to decide to go through all that. Did he now know, or at least suspect, what small-town North Carolina might be like for a gay minister?

It certainly would have been easier for him if he found an inner-city urban parish in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Seattle instead. But those tend to be "choice" jobs that attract a lot of competition. So that may be one reason.

Another may be that one genuinely feels that one's talents would be best served in a small town. Some liberal clergy want to be an alternative and compassionate religious voice in a sea of fundamentalism.

His experience is a sad one, but I am willing to bet that there are gay people in Henderson - young adults, older men and women in heterosexual marriages, etc. that saw him as a sign of hope and a role model, even if they couldn't come out and say it.

(And lets face it, the comments on most blogs are pretty awful, present one excluded.)

Arthur Schenck said...

Roger: Lutheran, though it turns out that so far, I've only used the word in three posts, the last nearly two years ago, so there's no reason for anyone to remember that. Honestly, I think that most of the time I just don't think to mention it, though other times I didn't want it to be a focus when my own background wasn't the point. For this post, it was the first one.

toujoursdan: Those are really good points. While I suppose I should've thought about the competition aspect, it didn't really occur to me that a preacher might want to bring a different, more inclusive perspective to small towns that perhaps don't hear such a message very often. That's a perfectly valid reason in itself, I think.

I completely agree with you about this preacher being a "sign of hope", something that I would think would be particularly valuable in a region dominated by more fundamentalist religion. It's one of the things that I think most makes his whole time there particularly worthwhile.

It's funny you should mention comments. In early revisions of this post, I cut out a section where I started talking about that; I decided it should be in a post of its own.