By Paulette Niemiec
Several speakers gathered at the Bethlehem United Church of Christ in downtown Ann Arbor Saturday for the Inclusive Justice Conference. The goal of the meeting was to facilitate work between the LGBT and religious communities in order to fight the prejudice, discrimination and hateful attitude that exists today towards lesbians, gays and transgender people. The religious themed workshop featured politicians, equal rights activists, pastors and laity of a variety of faiths including Christianity and Judaism.
“‘Sacred Activism’ is what we are calling it,” said Rev. Roland Stringfellow, one of four panelists chosen to speak to the audience of approximately 50 people who attended the conference. Stringfellow, Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Ferndale, spoke out boldly throughout the day in favor of educating those in the community on scriptures and religious arguments to combat those that have been used to demonize homosexuality. “Organizing in faith communities is important to the LGBT community because it’s the laity who are articulating the issues,” he explained.
This theme of sacred activism resonated throughout the seven hour event and summed up what most of the speakers and educators were attempting to achieve at this year’s summit. Emotionally charged speeches, education workshops and informative presentations dominated the day. One of the most heartwarming speeches during a workshop was presented by Tom Nelson, entitled “Building Relationships and Allies in Faith Communities.”
Nelson, author of “An Ordinary Catholic: A View from the Pew” and graduate of Notre Dame University, shared the story of realizing his son was gay, as well as recounting his son’s suicide attempt. Nelson explained how he had lived his life following the strict teachings on homosexuality in the Roman Catholic Church. He maintained conservative views until he learned of his son’s brush with death. By writing his book, appearing at religious themed conferences and speaking to other Catholics every chance he gets, Nelson feels he now is doing all he can to be an advocate for the gay community.
“I reflected and realized it was my ignorance that fueled my former beliefs,” Nelson tearfully explained following the seminar. “I spent six months in the library researching the subject of homosexuality before I came to this realization. All my years of education at Notre Dame and my Catholic upbringing didn’t do me any good when I had to confront the fact that it was my failure as a father, and ignorance on the subject of homosexuality, that led to me pushing my son so far away from me that he attempted suicide.”
Now as Co-President of PFLAG Detroit (an honor he shares with his wife Linda), Nelson feels he is living a much better example of what it means to be a parent, especially a parent of a gay son. “If it weren’t for my son, I would have stayed in a world of ignorance and never learned the most important thing in life is to love.”
Another lay person, Ryan Hayword of the Methodist faith, taught the gathered assembly how to build relationships in the religious community in the same workshop as Nelson. “Finding allies, pastors, government/political figures, the LGBT community, friends, family, anyone and everyone who’s willing to fight for our cause is what’s important,” said Haywood, founder of “Rainbow Crossing,” a support group for gays and lesbians at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor. “Women didn’t get the right to vote by talking to women, African Americans didn’t gain Civil Rights by talking to other African Americans; you must talk to and educate the straight people in order to get any real justice in this world.”
As morning passed into afternoon, the panel of experts – Jon Hoadley, Kevin Hogan, Emily Dievendorf and Rev. Stringfellow–reminded the crowd of the purpose for the conference and theme. “We have here a Coalition of Welcoming Community, a Unity Coalition,” said Stringfellow. “That’s what’s necessary for us to have any success. We must stay unified in our efforts to educate the public and inform all that it’s religiously not a contradiction to support the LGBT community.”
Hoadley, a Democrat running for State Representative in Kalamazoo, echoed Stringfellow’s sentiments, “This is where we’ve made mistakes in the past. We had situations where the religious right spoke out against homosexuality and we had no voice to contradict what was being preached. The LGBT community ignored the efforts and mobilization of the conservative religious, and it wasn’t taken seriously, thus resulting in us losing or not winning in places like Royal Oak, where we should have won by a much wider margin.”
Hoadley acknowledged the fact that religious views (especially those of the conservative right-wing) have fueled the fire for arguments that have ultimately destroyed legislation geared towards protecting the rights of gays, lesbians and those considered transgender. He noted that religious groups organize and attend political rallies, raising concerns of would be voters and legislators to vote against proposed laws, often resulting in failed propositions that leave the LGBT community unprotected. Because of many religious groups’ tendency to rally against the LGBT community, Hoadley said he feels LGBT persons need to be more educated on religious issues and understand them as a threat to their cause.
Dievendorf’s views reflected these facts. “We have been trying for 30 years to pass an amendment through state legislation to protect people’s rights in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity and it still hasn’t passed,” she said, confirming that only 20 percent of the cities and commonwealths of Michigan have laws protecting the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people. Both Hoadley and Dievendorf agreed that these protections failing to pass stems from the lack of education and participation of the LGBT community in the religious community and vice-versa.
“If we’re not the change, the change is not what we’re going to see,” said Hoadley. With more religious workshops and seminars planned in the future, and with more churches, pastors and laity joining Inclusive Justice, perhaps that change will come.