Remember that nervous feeling as you reach the end of the cafeteria line and then turn to face a room full of tables filled with people talking and laughing. Where do you sit? Will you make a new friend? Will you trip on your way across the room?
This feeling came up last month when ELM program director Jen Rude and I attended the ELCA Conference of Bishops. In fact, it happens several times a year for me when I attend the ELCA Conference of Bishops and ELCA Church Council meetings. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone throws a milk carton at me or slides their books over so I don’t sit down next to them (okay, that did happen once). But the unavoidable sense that I’m on my own comes up time and time again.
People do often ask, “Why are you here? The 2009 decisions were ages ago. Why do you keep coming back?”
Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries made an organizational commitment in 2009 to be present at these meetings in order to be a visible witness of LGBTQ rostered leaders, candidates, and seminarians in the church. Over the years, I have developed wonderful relationships with Bishops, Church Council members, and Churchwide staff who, like me, are committed to living out God’s work. I have witnessed powerful conversations about faith, the future of the church, and spirituality. I have deepened my own sense of compassion for those different than me. On a couple of occasions, I have been invited to speak to address questions about LGBTQ rostered leaders. At other times, I have experienced again the deep, biting, pain of exclusion that caused me to step away from the Lutheran church years ago. It has been a deeply challenging and spiritually enriching part of my work.
There have been times when I have been one of a handful of openly LGBTQ people in a room full of people discussing the future of LGBTQ people in our church. It is most often the case that my colleagues from ReconcilingWorks and I sit at the back of the room and observe conversations about our community happen around us. It’s true that the people having the conversation are the appointed and elected leaders of the church and we are visitors. It is also true that without even our silent presence, many of these conversations would likely be very different.
ELM invests in this work. Caring ELM donors contribute funds to pay for my travel so I can be present at these meetings. We believe that it is vital that we are present when the church invests time in talking about matters impacting LGBTQ rostered leaders and seminarians.
I am extremely grateful for the surprising and new conversations I’ve had with the leaders of our church. I have not forgotten a single time that a person looked up and smiled as I crossed the room and invited me to join their table.
When I think back on junior high, I often remember some of my darkest and most devastating days. I also know that I learned who I was in those days, and have never forgotten those who valued me for who I was.
I give thanks that I am able to do this work. I’m heading off to attend the ELCA Church Council this coming weekend and invite your prayers for the Council and others engaged in the work and life of the ELCA. And the next time you see someone looking for a place to sit, consider the good that might come from you offering a smile and the chair next to you!