This summer I spent 8 weeks building queer community in a Christian village in the Wilderness of Washington state.

I departed one Wilderness, thrust into another: the Christian church confronting its jarring denial of full inclusion to LGBTQ+ people.

The recently released Nashville Statement, drawn up by conservative Evangelical “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” hijacks biblical language towards excluding the LGBTQ+ community from full humanity in the Church. It was released 12 days after I left my Wilderness.

This summer I volunteered and lived at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in Washington’s North Cascades, in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. I had visited Holden with my family for decades, lived there for a few years after college, served as teaching faculty, and last July, Holden was the place where I (finally, finally) came out as queer.

After having just spent a blissful week this May in my first ever queer-normative space (meaning built/led/populated by and designed for LGBTQ+ people) at A-Camp, a summer camp for queer women & nonbinary folks, I knew I needed to build some queer community of my own this summer. I also knew that as the teen coordinator, it was my responsibility to make that space available to youth as well. So I got to work.

ROUND TABLES AND SIMPLE QUESTIONS

On Mondays after dinner in the mountains, I hosted an LGBTQ+ “digestion walk” (okay, AKA “queer fart walk”) open to all LGBTQ+ villagers. It was simple. Before setting off on one trail or another, we went around the circle and shared our names, our pronouns, and our response to a brief queer question I’d come up with on the spot. “Who is a queer person you look up to?” or “What media was important to you as you were growing up?” or “What have you been pondering these days related to your queer identity?” Then we simply walked together. It was a revolution.

On Wednesdays I’d host an LGBTQ+ luncheon with the same opening ritual, sharing pronouns and stories, talking and laughing while eating salad or chili. We picked a round table in the giant, bustling dining hall, displaying a hand-painted cardboard sign “LGBTQ+ Lunch. Welcome!” and often had to squeeze in extra chairs.

This walking group and the round table were subtle and powerful ways to continue to claim space, come out to other villagers, and build a small, loving sanctuary for ourselves in a community that, just by nature of being a Christian space, however progressive it was, could feel hostile and alienating. It was also a way for me to come out to my youth and their families, and often some of my teens would join us at the table. Though I had private dialogues with villagers every day about LGBTQ+ identity and other justice issues (#BlackLivesMatter t-shirt day always spurred interesting convos from the crowd) it is essential to regularly and publicly claim space to bravely affirm the presence & inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the Church.

FAITHFUL WORLDMAKING

One morning a twelve year old in my youth group walked up to me tearfully, pulling me aside asking if I could talk. She wanted to join the Queer Lunch, but her family was in the village and she was not out to them yet. So later that day another queer staff member and I took her on a special walk just for her, eating ice cream together while walking through the village vegetable garden, discussing queer stuff: “Are there safe people you can be out to?” and other stuff: “What kind of music are you listening to now?”

Sometimes the weekly digestion walks boasted 5-10 people, breaking off into small chatting clusters, kicking up dust. Sometimes it would be one-one-one, me hearing about what it was like for another villager to be queer in the military, the trouble of finding a queer-friendly therapist, the joy of finding a comic book with queer characters. One time we hosted a Queer Media night, listening to Cameron Esposito, guffawing on the floor. Another weekend we did a “Queer Qamping” overnight hike with other queer women, communing with the open Wilderness as a queer space, laughing in the freedom of a rugged Nature that doesn’t care who we love, that doles out the same beautiful and unforgiving elements to everyone who trespasses, wind whipping our queer hair and rain hitting our queer faces and bears tromping through our queer pathways.

And it was beautifully intergenerational. One of my youth who is trans bravely shared a piece they had been working on that week, “10 Things I’ve Learned About Coming Out,” with our multi-age lunch table. Another trans teenager tried out their name the first time in public for the week they were in the Village. On our weekly walk, this teen was then able to hear a 65-year-old gay man recount stories of being outed at his blue collar job thirty years ago, and how he made it his life’s work to be out in every church where he is a member. Later in the summer, a nonbinary church worker in his thirties was able to exercise the pronouns he never gets to use on the job, and recounted his fears and troubles working in a conservative state with few public allies. He smiled and teared up as a 60 year old lesbian woman across the table talked about how her partner felt it was too late to come out as nonbinary and stop “wearing the costume of gender” that didn’t fit who they truly were. We listened. We held the space.

We were building queer community within Christian community, and every meeting felt like a small victory, a small healing, making our own way in the literal physical Wilderness and also the spiritual wilderness of a faith community that has not always loved us back.

This is what we in the realm of identity studies call “worldmaking.” That is, creatively acknowledging with lament that the systems we live in, the world as it is, has not been built for the good, the welcome, the thriving of particular marginalized communities. So we come together to make our own way in the Wilderness of the mountains and the wilderness of the Church, to center our own voices, to build the communities that are missing, to heal ourselves, to love ourselves.

BOLD, PROPHETIC, PROACTIVE

I tell these prophetic stories to share how sacred space can be built and ought to be built within the Church, and to emphasize how it must be done proactively and intentionally. I reiterate to heterosexual Christians and pastors grappling with what to do next that because of historic trauma and present very vocal rejection, the Church must acknowledge that it always begins at a place of hostility in relationship to queer people. Because the Christian norm has been exclusion, denial, harm, and violence towards the LGBTQ+ community, sustained, vocal, visible, proactive action is required to even arrive at a point of neutral relationship, let alone positive and centered in trust & welcome. As queer people, the unfortunate truth is that we can basically assume, until proven otherwise, that any Christian church and its members will hold a hostile stance towards who we are. This is sad. I feel sad writing it. This is not God’s vision of community, welcoming all as beloved.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum describes a helpful metaphor for proactive action towards unlearning and working against existing systems of domination. Here she applies it to working against racism, and it is also useful in understanding full LGBTQ+ inclusion:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.” (Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together at the Cafeteria, 1997)

Understanding Tatum’s paradigm, that means that Churches must be swift and active, openly and emphatically affirming, and show it in myriad ways:

-Certification vocal and visible membership & affiliation with a pro-LGBTQ+ faith organization or certification like Reconciling in Christ

Organizational Statement blatant, clear, and clickable inclusion statement on the first page of the church website

-Visible Symbols rainbow symbols on church bulletins, doors, signs, and flags

-Public Declarations immediate and clear public confirmations of support after anti-LGBTQ+ statements like The Nashville Statement

-Affiliation Groups Specific resources particularly for LGBTQ+ members, with public support from the pastor, like Bible studies, youth groups, coffee hours, counseling resources and spiritual direction, or service trips

For further reading on why the above affirmative stances matter, see this helpful resource: www.reconcilingworks.org/resources/ric/whysayso/

TO WHOM SHALL I TURN?

Rest assured, the people who are anti-LGBTQ+ within these churches have literally hundreds of thousands of congregations around the world they can turn to, who will gladly welcome them if they choose to leave because their old church has taken a prophetic stance on love and inclusion. Conversely, there are very few churches I know I can safely turn to as a queer Christian. As an ELCA Lutheran from Wisconsin, as of this writing, there are zero churches in my home synod (which is like a region or diocese) that are designated as open & affirming of LGBTQ+ people. Zero as in none.

I understand and affirm that for their own safety and in solidarity or protest, many of my queer friends and colleagues, many of my allied social justice comrades, have chosen to leave the Church altogether. We must acknowledge that this is because of the Church’s failures, not the failures of those who must leave it.

As for me: I defiantly claim Christ’s common table as my own, like that round table at Queer Lunch at Holden Village, always room to squeeze in more chairs. I will not leave the faith and the denomination I love or let it deteriorate further into a limited vision of God’s abundant love. I won’t let it. I’m going to keep worldmaking. Join me. “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

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Photo: Wilderness of Holden Village.

FOR INSPIRATION:

-#DenverStatement: www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2017/08/the-denver-statement/

-Christians United Statement: www.christiansunitedstatement.org

-Liturgists Statement: www.theliturgists.com/statement

-“Why I Applaud and Fervently Deny the Nashville Statement: http://auburnseminary.org/applaud-fervently-deny-nashville-statement/

MEDIA COVERAGE (curated by Christians United):

NOTE: Pride@Church. I first came out in a loving, welcoming Christian community. Now it’s my call to help other communities to be more equipped for this ministry with LGBTQ+ people. God calls us to be our full selves. Please consider sharing & donating: www.gofundme.com/prideatchurch

HELP ME SAY YES: Does my work speak to you? Consider adding to the “tip jar” so I can continue to consult & write and work for justice, and say YES to new projects: paypal.me/annaczarnikneimeyer

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