KALAMAZOO – The broad, innovative and yet unassuming power of the Arcus Foundation was demonstrated on Friday, Sept. 11, at a private breakfast that drew over 70 members of southwest Michigan’s faith and social justice community. They were there to hear Bishop Gene Robinson discuss his journey as the first openly gay man to be appointed as a bishop in the Anglican Church – a church whose worldwide membership is said to be over 77 million.
“The conversation here this morning is about how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people participate in religion,” said Jon Stryker, founder and president of the Arcus Foundation, before introducing Bishop Robinson. “This is really a significant part of the work that we do at Arcus Foundation. For me, this meeting itself is a milestone in that work.”
Stryker opened the conversation with remarks about the intertwined – and often conflicting – roles sexuality and religion play in the lives of LGBT people.
“For many LGBT people, spirituality is the most profound dimension in their lives,” he elaborated. “Yet if they are open about their sexual orientation and gender identity, they are pushed away from their own churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other places of worship.”
“It is my personal hope that events like this one today can contribute to a rational, calm and meaningful transformative conversation that will ultimately change hearts and minds here in southwest Michigan, in this nation and beyond our borders.”
These opening remarks set the tone for an in-depth conversation with Bishop Robinson that was moderated by Tom Kam, deputy director of LGBT programs and director of the Arcus Foundation’s Religion and Values Program. In 2008, the Religion and Values Program funded 19 grants totaling $2,128,331; the amount represents just under 20 percent of the Arcus LGBT Program Grants last year.
Throughout his remarks, Robinson emphasized the impact of discrimination, fear and hate in his own life. His remarkable story, recounted to the Kalamazoo audience, held numerous examples of the challenges and changes during the past 30 years. He noted that, “Over 90 percent of all discrimination LGBT people experience can be laid at the feet of the religious community.”
In a gentle, engaging manner, he seemed to captivate those in the room, often using humor to move the audience along through some of his more painful recollections. “I often say that in the gay community, it is easier to come out as gay to your straight friends than it is to come out as religious to your gay friends,” Robinson said with a smile.
Robinson was raised in Kentucky to a family of very religious sharecroppers. He studied at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., but immediately attended seminary after his graduation when he felt a calling to ordained ministry.
The soon-to-be bishop kept his homosexuality a secret for much of his life, marrying and fathering two daughters, Jamee and Ella. Robinson came out in the late 1980, and has since feared that he would not only lose his marriage, but his position within the church.
“I was pretty hopeful that I could still have a life as a baptized person, but it was very clear to me that this decision would end my life as an ordained person,” he said. “And to become part of the institution the way a bishop is still kind of boggles my mind and soul because by virtue of being a bishop, I am the institution, and by virtue of being gay, I am anti-institution.
“So I think I’m doomed to live a bipolar existence, I guess. But I love it.”
Robinson was not the only one who believed he could never advance in the ministry, and his election as Bishop of New Hampshire was met with strong opposition from both within and outside of the church, as well as allegations of impropriety and death threats.
But, Robinson recalled, his chance to make history as the first openly gay bishop in the history of the church was not something he was going to pass up – even at the risk of being assassinated. “There are a lot worse things than dying. One of them is not living,” Robinson said to the crowd in Kalamazoo. “Seems to me that God is a lot more worried about life before death than life after death. Whatever happens after death, God’s going to take care of. We don’t know anything about that except that it’ll be good. What we’re in charge of is life before death, right? And not living your life – that’s worse than death.”
Steps toward acceptance
At the end of the dialogue, audience members had an opportunity to ask Robinson questions.
One of the common threads was seeking insight into how to engage their congregations to move forward on LGBT issues. Robinson encouraged them to be honest and open and most importantly to him,
“There is nothing worse than being ignored, not acknowledged,” he told the attendees, many of whom were looking for direction in their own congregations. “At the very least, when a clergy person is preaching a sermon and they’re talking about the various ills and sins in the world, just name LGBT people in the list of others who are poorly treated in the world … just to be sitting in a pew and hear yourself named, just recognized that you’re in the room, is astounding.”
Robinson explained that this was a key motivation for attending the worldwide conference of bishops last year, though he was the only bishop in the world not invited.
“I went anyway because I wanted those guys to remember that in every one of their congregations – I don’t care where it is – in Africa or Asia or South America, every congregation – there will be someone sitting there who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender,” he said emphatically. “So just to name that, to say I know that you’re there, is huge.”
He also stressed the importance of heterosexual people participating in the LGBT movement. “When more of America starts saying the old thing where ‘if one of us is treated unjustly, we’re all treated unjustly, so this is our issue as Americans,'” Robinson explained. “I don’t want to live in a country that treats people this way.”
Pressed by some in the audience that were still searching for solutions, he added with a tone of encouragement, ” I would say to you as an ordained leader: You may not have had this particular experience, but you can listen to us and believe us and then serve as interpreters of our experience to those who, at least right now, won’t sit down with me.”