Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University and a regular blogger for TheMennonite.org.
On the Monday after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Penn State community gathered to remember the victims of the mass shooting and to stand in solidarity with those who felt the pain of this tragedy.
I found myself deeply moved by the experience. I was touched by the Muslim students who opened the time by condemning the violence and reminding those gathered that Islam speaks for peace. I was moved by the endless stream of administrators vowing to work to continue to make Penn State a safer place that rejects homophobia, racism, islamophobia and gun violence. I felt the weight of the names as each victim was remembered by the reading of their name and a bell ringing out in their honor.
But I also found myself thinking of my own church community and my Mennonite denomination. Here we are, continuing to exist in an uncomfortable tension. As a delegate body we’ve affirmed a context of forbearance, agreeing to live with theological differences within our churches, especially around LGBTQ affirmation. We’ve also chosen to reaffirm our membership guidelines, continuing to officially exclude our LGBTQ siblings who long for full participation in our church body.
We’ve chosen to live in a theological paradox: on the one hand being open to our shifting diversity of opinion and on the other hand continuing to reject a growing movement toward LGBTQ affirmation.
As I stood on the steps of Penn State’s iconic Old Main building, I thought of the many Christian LGBTQ students I’ve met during my three years as a youth pastor and two years as a campus pastor. I thought about conversations with them about how long it would be until they felt fully embraced by our denomination. I thought about my peers who have left the church, or who are leaving the church, because they see it as a homophobic place that either doesn’t accept them or their peers. I thought about Jay Yoder’s opinion piece proclaiming that the church is killing its queer members. I thought about the calls for justice from the Pink Menno movement, which continues to participate in our denomination despite the fact that few of our churches fully embrace them. I thought about my pastoral peers, some of whom face steep consequences for working to include LGBTQ congregants in their churches.
One of the most touching moments of the vigil occurred when a Presbyterian pastor shared the Beatitudes with those who had gathered. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, he read, as LGBTQ students held each other with tears running down their faces. “Blessed are those who mourn”, he proclaimed, as LGBTQ parents wept for the realities that their children face in our world today. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, he exclaimed, as our community’s justice leaders bowed their heads at yet another candlelight vigil marking our violent world.
Here were people gathering together longing to feel a sense of connection, whatever their religious or sexual or gender identity was. Here was a body experiencing what it means to “be church” together beyond the walls of a church building.
In that space I also found myself lamenting that we, Mennonite Church USA, find ourselves in such a state. We passed a resolution affirming our Membership Guidelines with the hope that it would hold together the Mennonite body, only to watch three conferences and numerous congregations announce their decision to leave our denomination. Those who are leaving say we’ve lost our way, while those who stay lament that many voices still aren’t included. We’ve created a conference system where a pastor officiating a same-sex wedding ceremony may be harshly disciplined and suspended, while in another conference a pastor does the same thing and their credentials remain intact without review.
Our denomination is trying to figure out a way to be church in a world that continues to be faced with racism, Islamaphobia and religious homophobia and intolerance. I wonder what message our denominational polity is currently sending. My queer friends are expressing just how fearful and lonely it feels in the wake of a tragedy like the shooting in Orlando. They also express a desire to mourn this targeted violence.
Is your church capable of walking with its LGBTQ neighbors and members (closeted or otherwise) who are experiencing these emotions in the wake of an event like this? If not, perhaps it is again time to consider how our LGBTQ policies continue to make our siblings feel like outsiders.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.