Thursday, September 7, 2017

We Don't March Because We Should. We March Because We CAN.

Psalm 139:13-16

I need to say, I need to tell you that this room, this sanctuary, this holy ground, is home to me. And, my God, am I ever so glad to be home. I will admit, that standing here, in this place, on this holy ground, on this Sunday that we call Pride Sunday here in Calgary, standing here, I feel like I’m about to preach to the choir. So, I ask your forgiveness as I say just a few things. I just need to say a few things. Out loud. Out into the open. I need just need to speak some of my thoughts out loud because not very long ago I couldn’t. And some of the youth of this congregation couldn’t.

I have not heard this mentioned here at Symons Valley, but I have seen in recent years on social media, questions being raised about the necessity of the Pride Parade. I know some who say that there’s plenty of awareness of LGBTQ issues, a parade is no longer needed. And to comments such as that, I would say, ‘well…you didn’t sit next to the person that I did on the big, long flight home from Zambia and you didn’t have to bob and weave your way through a biblical justification for same sex marriage.’ And I would also say, ‘you were not there at the “OPEN” Forum four short weeks ago with a bunch of theological students, one of which had the temerity to inform those of us United Church of Canada folks in the room that we should seriously considering repenting before God for our beliefs about sexual orientation and same sex marriage.’ Once you have experienced even just those two events, there can be no argument as to the necessity of marches such as the Pride Parade. Just because you get what it’s all about. Just because we all get it…we all know, just as it is said in Psalm 139, that thanks to God, each and every one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made—just because we know this to be true, this doesn’t mean everyone else does. That all people understand and agree with rights and freedoms for ALL people. No matter their gender. No matter who they love. No matter who loves them.

I have a special place in my heart for the country of Zambia—particularly for the theological college for the United Church of Zambia. It’s now a university but it is still a small, tight-knit community of faculty and theological students. There are currently about eighty students enrolled in the school. When I first went to Zambia in 2003, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was still raging and many, many people were dying. It was very difficult to talk with local people about the disease and the cause of its rapid spread through the country because to talk about HIV meant we had to talk about sex—an that was a very taboo subject at that time. Considering that I very well remember the 1980s in Canada when, as uncomfortable as it was, we had to talk about sex in high school because everyone was freaking out about trying to stop the spread of HIV here in North America. My high school, Paul Kane in St. Albert, was the first high school in Alberta that had dispensers with condoms installed in the bathrooms because the powers that be decided it was better to acknowledge that teenagers were, in fact, having sex instead of remaining in a state of denial. This was a highly controversial issue at the time but at the very least we were talking. The Zambians, in 2003, still could not talk openly about sex and, therefore, could not talk about HIV.

When I was there again in 2008, the United Church of Zambia had just declared that ministers needed to preach from the pulpit once a month about the sexual and reproductive rights of women. This was a huge step forward for addressing HIV and slowing its spread. I can still remember the teenage girls of one congregation going through one Sunday, yelling, this is the year of God’s favour. They had been discussing their cares and concerns about sex, sexual assault and their sexual rights in youth group and their response to the discussion was to march through the sevice and announce to the congregation that they, the girls of their generation, had not been forgotten by God. In fact, they were so confident of God’s love for them that they could not themselves from declaring, ‘this was the year of God’s favour!’

Considering it had been nine years since I was last there and maybe there had been further evolutions in the willingness to talk openly about sexual matters, I sent a note to a faculty member of the university asking what the current context was concerning sexual matters—would there be an openness to talking about sexual orientation? Issues concerning the LGTBQ community, especially transgender issues, matter a lot to the youth and young adults who were travelling with me to Zambia—could we talk about where the United Church of Zambia was on such issues? The response I received was a whole-hearted, “yes – we would be glad to have such a talk together’, he would make the arrangements.

The long and short of the discussion that took place was that all the theological students showed up. To talk about sex. That would never have happened fourteen years ago. That was the good news of the night. The bad news was that while the United Church of Zambia might be willing to talk more openly about sex, variations of sexual orientation beyond heterosexuality is mind boggling to them. To be Zambian is to be completely family-centered and family-focused. You marry only that person who is right and good for wider family. If you are in love, that is a happy coincidence, it is not the driver for marriage. You marry to expand the family. You marry to have children. Full stop. And so, the concept of same-gender marriage just doesn’t compute with them. I’m not even going to get into the gong-show of a discussion we had about being transgendered. It quickly became evident to the Canadians that the discussion we thought we were having was not the discussion that was taking place. Instead, we were very much schooled in the structure of the Zambian family system and that there was not yet room for marriages that did not produce children. And since that can happen only within heterosexual unions, there is no need to talk about two men or two women marrying each other. There was not much confidence in our statements that same-gender couples can most definitely have children of their own. 

So, as you can imagine, a few of us went to bed after the Open Forum with heavy hearts. The community of folks who had been so gracious and hospitable in welcoming us just a few days earlier, seemed now to be closed-minded and to have a narrow understanding of God’s love. I assured the group that the discussion itself was good news. The fact that so many even showed up for a talk that was clearly stated to be about sexual orientation was remarkable. The following morning, I spoke with the faculty member who had made the arrangements. He was very pleased with how the discussion went. He stressed that it had not been mandatory for the students to attend the Forum—in fact, he was shocked that so many attended. He told me it was so great for the students to hear the different viewpoints from the Canadians. I asked him about the comment about needing to repent, and he was quite dismissive of the whole matter. “Oh, him. He is a first-year student and he has A LOT to learn.” Our group was further encouraged during the closing worship at the end of our stay at the University when some students stood up and thanked us for the Forum, telling us that it is important for them to hear about these things so they can expand their own viewpoints and know that God is working elsewhere in the world.

You might have guessed that Zambia is not ready for a parade quite yet. Which brings to me to the necessity of us, here in Calgary, participating in parades for Pride. Because even if we think we get it, we cannot assume that all people get it. Sure, Zambia is not ready for a parade but there are lots of people who live in this country who still do not get it. The woman on the plane I mentioned earlier has lived in Canada for five years and she was flabbergasted when I explained some key differences between the United Churches of Canada and Zambia. Although she is from Zimbabwe, she is familiar with our United Church so I have to admit that I was surprised when she interrupted my elevator speech about how the United Church believes in same-sex marriage, blah, blah, blah—where is THAT explained in the bible, she asked me. And, in an artful and masterful verbal dodge—even if I do say so myself—I totally side-stepped the question and moved onto a different topic. I was going to be sitting next to her for sixteen hours and I had to rely on her letting me out of our row to use the toilet, so it was definitely in my best interests to remain on speaking terms with her. I had learned at the Open Forum that biblical warfare is not appropriate in situations such as these. My momma didn’t raise no fool. So I kept my mouth shut.

But that little talk got me thinking. Because we CAN march and parade through the streets, we should. We have to. Parades uplifting the LGBTQ community began in 1970. They were born out of a political action called Annual Reminders. A fellow by the name of Craig Rodwell began to organize yearly picketing each July 4th in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to remind the American people that members of the LGBTQ community at that time did not have basic civil rights protections—they were, in fact, denied the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as listed in the United States Declaration of Independence. And then in 1969, a bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York was raided by police to arrest its homosexual patrons—remember these were the days of strict laws against homosexual behaviours—some listed as simply touching a person of the same sex while dancing. The patrons, fired up by years of civil unrest in the States fought back and began what turned into a six-day riot. The riot fueled gay activism throughout the country and the following year, instead of simply picketing, the folks organizing the Annual Reminder, decided to march in New York instead. Notice I said march. It was not a parade but a march for civil rights. As time has gone by, whether they are referred to as marches or as parades, these public events of walking boldly together, holding a rainbow flag, has meant that world headlines have been filled with news about the progression of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. Laws have been slowly changing to ensure equal protections for all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of the United States and across many western and northern nations of the world. 

That is until The Donald was elected. And suddenly the laws upholding the rights of the LGTBQ community seem to be resting on quicksand. Being such close neighbours with the States, Canada needs to keep a close eye on what’s changing under the current political climate. We need to be vigilant in reminding our government that issues concerning the LGBTQ community are issues that concern all members of society for we are brother and sisters together. We parents and children together. We are friends and lovers together. And because God has declared that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. For as the psalmist says to God:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
 you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
We march because we can. We parade because who knows who is watching? Who’s paying attention. Who is being lifted up. Who is being reminded that they are loved. That they matter. That there is a place for them in this world. That they are not alone. That there are others like them. That they are members of a society that expect them to be productive not to be hidden away. To be closeted. We don’t know who we impacted at the Open Forum. We may never know. But I do know that we spoke with love and care. Those who were listening very closely, listening to see if someone, anyone understood their plight, they would have heard it that night. Let us go march today so others here in Canada can see too, that we know them. And they are loved.

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