In an op-ed published in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ken Pennings and Heather Rittenhouse of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists share some hopeful impressions of the recent New Baptist Covenant Celebration:
During the three-day event, former President Carter noted that Baptists hold diverse opinions about gay people. Best-selling novelist John Grisham called for the church’s inclusion of gay people. Rev. Tony Campolo wore a rainbow-colored stole. Hundreds of participants sported rainbow stickers to proudly reveal their support for gay people.
These are positive signs, to be sure. And yet it’s important to remember that organizations like AWAB and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (which also affirms the lesbian and gay experience) were not permitted to join the celebration as “official participating organizations.” In a July 18 e-mail to these two groups, Alan Stanford, one of the Celebration’s organizers, justified the exclusion of welcoming and affirming organizations by saying, “We can not hold together the large coalition of Baptists needed to create a new Baptist voice in North America and address the issue of sexual orientation at the same time.” Individual members of these organizations were allowed to attend the event, but the organizations themselves were excluded. Stanford asked for LGBT Baptists’ “forbearance and understanding.”
In their editorial, Pennings and Rittenhouse describe why the chose to participate in the event despite the official marginalization of the AWAB:
It seemed to us that if we built a response of protest, we would only have proved that we were operating from the outside rather than persistently and gracefully demonstrating that we were, in fact, on the inside. In effect, a protest would have broken down even further the ties that bind us as Baptists.
While I affirm their “bridge-building” approach and applaud their courage for undertaking a ministry of presence at the Celebration, I question the ultimate effectiveness of this kind of “demonstration.” Their attendence may have demonstrated to some that LGBT Baptists exist, and it may have helped to put a face on what, for most Baptists, has been an impersonal issue from which they could previously claim detachment. In the Baptist world, these are anything but small achievements.
But their approach did not and could not show that LGBT Baptists are “on the inside” of Baptist life. If anything, it accentuated the ongoing marginalization not only of LGBT Baptists, but of any Baptist who speaks out for a welcoming and affirming theology. “You can ignore us, but we’re not going away” may be a great slogan, but it is a poor strategy. It may preserve the appearance of unity–it keeps people on both sides of the issue happy–but it doesn’t promote justice. It doesn’t advance the Kingdom.
Organization is the heart of activism and the engine of social justice. As Ecclesiastes’ Preacher taught, there is strength in well-organized numbers. Majorities frequently deny minorities the right to organize as a way to maintain their status, which is precisely why freedom of assembly was enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Within a culture like ours that values such freedom, the next best way for a majority that wants to maintain its status to marginalize a minority is to downplay or deny the legitimacy of minority organizations. From my perspective, this is precisely what occurred at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration–and we offered no organized response.
Shortly after the Celebration’s organizers announced they would not let LGBT-affirming Baptist organizations participate, some of our leaders began to consider the possibility of holding an “auxiliary event…to discuss gay rights and other peace and justice issues,” according to Evelyn Hanneman, who was at the time the interim director of the Peace Fellowship and now serves as its operations coordinator. Such an event would have powerfully demonstrated that LGBT Baptists refuse to be marginalized or denied legitimacy. It is a shame that such an auxiliary event did not materialize; a great opportunity was lost.
As long as we allow our organizations to be treated as less legitimate than others’, our voice will be muffled. As long as we allow our issues to be thought of as less urgent than those of other constituencies, our issues will be brushed aside. The courageous support of straight allies such as Grisham and friends of unity such as Carter and Campolo will be squandered if we don’t do more than simply show up. A ministry of presence is vital, to be sure, but it is insufficient. We must “make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.” We will never see the change we long for, and we believe God longs for, if our motto is, “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going to say it too loudly if that makes you uncomfortable.”