Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis, Sunday March 11, 2012. 10:30 a.m.
I arrived at MCC, located on Broadway St. in Soulard at precisely 10:25. There were no parking spots left so I parked further down on the street and walked a couple of minutes to get there. I wasn’t the only one doing that.
The Metropolitan Community Church was founded in 1968 by a minister in Los Angeles who believed there should be a Christian church that was accepting and affirming of homosexuality. Affirmation of diversity and acceptance of diverse sexual orientations has been their mission ever since. MCC churches accept everyone and the main focus of their ministry is to provide a place of healing, acceptance, and growth in the Christian spirit of unconditional love.
I walked into what felt like a big family reunion. Not unlike at Emerson Chapel, people were hugging each other, saying hi, catching up on news, and just plain looking like they liked to be there. Almost everyone seemed to be either a sexual or gender minority. I saw a lot of trans folk. I saw a lot of same sex couples. I saw a lot of families. I also saw a lot of people of color. While it is still majority white, I would say that at least 15%-20% of the congregation was non-white. I saw Southeast Asian, Black and Hispanic people in attendance.
I was warmly greeted as I walked in the door and given a copy of the announcements. Once again, there was no printed order of service.
The MCC-GSTL building is very new. They used to rent the large sanctuary at the now vacated United Methodist Church on the corner of Washington and Kingshighway. When the UMC was closed by the diocese, MCC-GSTL had the opportunity to buy the building. They decided no. It is huge, old, expensive to heat, in need of repair, and even though gorgeous in a classical style, it didn’t match who they were. They decided it did not support their mission. It was finally time to take the plunge and get their own building. They bought property in a warehousey kind of area on South Broadway, not too far from the Budweiser Brewery, and built new.
Their sanctuary is very simple. A large rectangular sanctuary with stackable upholstered chairs, with the chancel on the long side of the rectangle, not unlike Emerson, although the sanctuary is probably twice the size. Like many contemporary churches there were two media screens, one on both sides of the chancel. There were moveable choir risers, a table holding the communion elements, and that was it. Very very simple.
They began with a welcome and announcements and asked any visitors to raise their hands so they could be welcomed. I felt pretty comfortable and the atmosphere felt very accepting. And after all, I was with Family. I raised my hand, along with several others, and we got applause and welcome packets. From that time on I felt like the people around me were kind of watching out for me to make sure I knew what was happening and wasn’t ever left to have to figure things out on my own. That was nice. It was nice to be seen and cared for that way.
Then began the singing. Up came the lyrics on the big screens. Everyone stood. The choir came up from the sanctuary and took their places on the risers. The style of music was no different from what I’d experienced at St. John Lutheran , Meadowbrook Mennonite Brethren, or non-denominational Faith Church St. Louis – contemporary Christian. The lyrics, however, were subtly different. ”All are welcome. You are welcome. God loves you. Jesus is with you. I’m so happy. Praise praise praise. We’re on this journey together praise Jesus.” That kind of stuff. Having the congregational singing augmented with a large choir (at least 40 people I’d say) felt so good, and to be honest, so familiar. This is the first service I’d attended all sabbatical that had a choir. The singing was spirited and loud. People clapped and shouted. Honestly I could have sung all day, even with lyrics that I wouldn’t necessarily use on my own. It felt that good.
When the hymns finished, the choir had the chance to strut its stuff and it was a great choir. They had no music in their hands. What a difference that makes. They weren’t staring into their choir folders but right out at us, engaging us with their eyes and their voices. Several members of the choir were showcased with solos.
I have to say quite honestly this is the best energy I had felt in any of the congregations I’d visited. Kind, warm, loving, happy, energized, and purposeful. This congregation knows exactly why it’s here. You can feel it every second of every minute. It is reflected in every aspect of worship – the opening words, the welcome, the music, the prayers.
There was a children’s story and the minister told it. She was white. She asked them what it takes to make a human being. There were the standard answers. Arms. Legs. Hair. Lips. A Brain. Then she said, it also takes a drop of God. There is a drop of God in every single human being and that means we should respect and honor everyone we meet, for we are meeting God. I was reminded of the Hare Krishna Temple, where I was told that every visitor is treated as if God has knocked on the front door.
(in response to a comment below) At this point the children were sent to their own classes. The sanctuary became an adult space.
When the minister took her place for the sermon, she was warm and relaxed. She preached extemporaneously. I wouldn’t say she was emotional in a mushy smarmy way, but emotional in an authentic way. She exuded calm and poise, grace and approachability. Her topic? Sexuality and spirituality. Let me paraphrase what I remember from the sermon:
So we’re talking about sexuality and spirituality. I bet if we’d put that on our sign outside the house would be packed! Why are we talking about this? Because we need to. We need to talk about the connection between our sexuality and spirituality because we live in a society that doesn’t really give us many places to do this in an authentic safe way.
Our community especially needs this. You’d think we talk about sex all the time because our sexuality is such a part of how we define ourselves as LTBTQ people, but we don’t. Those of us in the older generation, the only way we usually talk about sex is after a few too many drinks. Those of us in the younger generation, so much is hypersexualized that it’s hard to talk about the truth of the matter the way we need to.
Now, we as a community know what it is like to be defined by our sexuality. The society around us does it all the time. Our community, the lgbtq community has been hypersexualized. So has the black community. Those of you who are black know all too well, whether you are women or men, that blacks have been hypersexualized. This is a form of discrimination that has hurt all of us so much. I pray for the day when this is no longer the case.
We have to talk about sex because to talk about sex is to talk about God. That may sound strange in a church, but it’s the truth. There is a drop of God in all of us, and that means there is God in our sexuality. How we engage our bodies and how we share our bodies is about how we honor God and how we worship God. Pure and simple.
God and sexuality were divorced in the Christian church many centuries ago. The body was seen as depraved and earthly. The spirit or soul as that which connects us to God. This is how we find ourselves divided. It’s time to break down the divide.
Now one of the things we don’t talk alot about in this church is the diversity within our community. How many of you have heard about BDSM?
(there was a twitter in the congregation..)
Can anyone tell me what BDSM stands for?
(more twittering and nervousness. someone, a woman answers – Bondage, Dominance, and Sado-Masochism)
Thank you because I’m sure that if I tried to say it I’d get it wrong. This is a part of our community and we don’t talk about it because we don’t know how to. We’ve got leather men and daddies and bois, we’ve got bears and cubs and tops and bottoms and subs and doms and who knows what else. And that’s just in the gay community. Us lesbians, I think we’re a lot more boring. (laughter all around)
Well, in the BDSM community there’s a rule of thumb. Safe, sane, and consensual. Is it safe? Is it sane? And is everyone involved truly consenting. Imagine if all of us lived by that rule of thumb. Safe. Sane. Consensual.
I tell you here today, that this rule of thumb – safe, sane, consensual – this is how we honor God in our sexuality. This is how we honor the drop of God that is in us and in those we share our bodies and our hearts with.
I also know that there are all kinds of commitments that we make to each other in this community, and not all of them are monogamy. I have couples come to me to get married – either in Iowa to make it legal, or in Illinois to have a civil union, or sometimes just to voice their promises to each other in this sanctuary – and I know many of us have different kinds of commitments that we make to each other. It could be monogamy. It could be something else. I don’t think it’s my place to judge. I have a hard enough time disagreeing with the one wife I do have! But it’s not my place to judge.
What I say to everyone who comes to me, and what I say to you is this, whatever your agreement, are you faithful to it? That is the meaning of commitment, being faithful to your agreements, your promises to each other. Be intentional about your agreements, be sure that everyone has fully consented to your agreement, and then be faithful to it. This is how you honor God. This is how we live with and in Christ. This is how we live our spirituality through our sexuality.
These are the kinds of things we need to talk about, and it doesn’t stop here in this worship service. We will be talking about it in our classes, and we have places to talk about it online. Let’s start the conversation within this religious community, in this place where we come to honor and love God.
Be faithful to your promises, be loving to each other, be safe, sane, and consensual. Honor the drop of God that is in you, the drop of God that wants to be fulfilled in you.
In Jesus name, Amen.
That was the sermon. I was, to put it mildly, stunned. This woman had, in the span of about 15 minutes, touched on so many taboo subjects in Bible Belt Missouri that my head was spinning. Was I back in Toronto? Could I have really heard all of this in a worship service in St. Louis Missouri on Broadway?
I have had the hardest time figuring out the gay community in Missouri. I’ve lived in Springfield MO and St. Louis MO and to be honest, the community seems so very.. well… quiet and well-behaved and very self conscious. I came out in Toronto. The largest gay community in Canada, the third largest gay community in North America after San Francisco and New York City. The community has tremendous cultural and economic power in Toronto and it is extremely diverse and out there. Toronto Pride is the largest Pride in North America (an average of 1.5 to 2 million attend each year). If you are an elected politician in Toronto and you want to have any cultural capital for your political agenda, you will be in the Pride Parade. (Take note Mayor Ford.)
Which is kind of funny because Toronto Pride is wild. The nudists are out (with their little g-string oak leaves that blow in the wind so they adhere to the minimum legal standard for being clothed). The leather community is out. The drag queens and drag kings are out. The Dykes on Bikes head every parade. There are almost naked buff boys in sparklies all over the place. Every major corporation hires them to dance on their floats, from banks to insurance companies to Coca Cola and Labatts Blue. It is big business.
The first time I attended St. Louis Pride I almost fell asleep. It was incredibly well behaved. It was modest. It was relatively quiet, and then everyone went to Tower Grove Park and it felt like a big family BBQ. Don’t get me wrong. I have come to deeply appreciate St. Louis Pride, but I have had to find a place of understanding for why it was so different from the community in which I first expressed and formed my identity as a sexual minority. Why was it so contained in comparison?
Being LGBTQ in Toronto is no longer a minority experience. The community is very well integrated into the city as a whole. We have equal rights there. You are not a second class citizen anymore. You have cultural capital (and the law behind you).
That is not the case in St. Louis. You can still be fired and denied housing for being gay. If you are in a partnership and don’t have your paperwork in order and one of you kicks the bucket, you aren’t entitled to a thing. Your partner’s family could swoop in and take everything in your partner’s name, including children who may consider you their parent. Even if you do have your paperwork in order (which can cost $1000s), it’s not unheard of for families to contest this in court and win. On top of this we’ve just been through more than a decade of being used as a wedge issue to get out the conservative vote. Horrible things are said about us very publicly and very often and the people who say those things will and do actively use their political clout to keep us from having equal rights.
All of this has made this a much more cautious community. The St. Louis LGBTQ community does not have the same cultural capital and thus is has to be very mindful of the community in which it is existing. You just can’t take the same things for granted. In this context, what does happen at Pride St. Louis is downright daring.
When the minister said in her intro that “We don’t talk about sex,” I did a double take. What was she talking about? Gay people talk about sex all the time! It defines us.
But that’s in Toronto and New York and Chicago and San Francisco and Vancouver and Los Angeles where there are tens or hundreds of thousands of us. In St. Louis, in a more hostile community which has hypersexualized us, we don’t. We are much more circumspect about who we are and what it means to us to be a sexual minority. We keep our mouths shut a lot more.
In rural and smaller urban settings, the LGBTQ community is much more likely to self-censor and self-silence as a way to protect itself. But, there is a definite cost. The cost is shame. Eventually, you internalize the shame that has led to your silence. So there is a trade off. Your silence may buy you some safety, but often at a deep personal and collective cost. In our individual and collective silences is shame, isolation and self-loathing.
We also separate from each other in fear of being judged. We separate ourselves from those who can’t pass, who appear more marginalized than we. These are some examples of the unexpressed things we will often think to ourselves:
“I’ll watch a drag queen show in a bar where it feels more private but don’t expect me to acknowledge one in public.”
“If you look too butchy/faggy, I won’t acknowledge you in public because then people might associate me with you and then I won’t be able to pass anymore. So don’t look at me in Lowes, or Schnucks or Starbucks. Please, don’t.”
“And those polyamorous people. Oh no, we don’t do that. We are all upstanding monogamous couples. Those of you who are polyamorous, can you just go away for a while? We’ll get to you once we can get married. Then it’s your turn, O.K.? We have to look as respectable as possible to those straight people or we’ll never get anywhere.”
I think what this minister was carefully doing was expressing some of the things our community has silenced, and telling us that in silencing these things, we have denied the drop of God in ourselves and others. She was asking us to truly honor the drop of God that is in every person.
To which I say, Amen Sister.
Let me tell you something. Back in the late 1990s, when the political energy for same-sex marriage had just started to mobilize, I did not support it. I was not in support of working for the recognition of our relationships as “marriages.” There were many reasons for this.
1) I felt that the push for same sex marriage was about asking for heterosexual approval for who we were. I didn’t want to put myself in the position of asking for that approval because I had no faith that we would ever get it. Why make ourselves that vulnerable? Why need heterosexual people in that way?
2) I and many others were deeply concerned that the push for the equal marriage would drive underground many of the subcultures in the LGBTQ community that would be harder for the heterosexual mainstream to understand. The BDSM community. The polyamorous community. The bisexual community. Transgendered and transexual people. And indeed, it became clear over the years that the need for respectability did create implicit and explicit pressure for those who were on the margins within the LGBTQ community to hide themselves, to be silent, to step aside, so that “we” could present to the larger heterosexual society a sanitized, more “normal” version of who we were. This is where the phrase, “We’re just like you. We just want the same rights you have,” came from. Some subcultures in the LGBTQ community were very uncomfortable with this statement. It made them invisible. They felt as if they were seen as barriers to the goal of equality. Unmentionables.
3) Especially within the women’s community, many expressed a deep discomfort with the whole concept of marriage. Some of us, and at that time it included me, saw marriage as a patriarchal institution. There was no way a woman could find equality within it; the inculturation of power differentials and gender norms were just too strong. Why would we ever want to fight for that institution? Better just to stay under the radar and do things our own way.
So what happened?
1) I never in my wildest dreams would have expected such a rapid shift in public support for sexual diversity. I can’t believe how much has changed in 15 years. Clearly, I underestimated the ability of “the mainstream” to be as open minded as they have become. My own wedding is a case in point. We weren’t sure who would come. People from the church I grew up in called my parents to make sure they received their invitation. The minister of that same church came with her husband and her toddler to celebrate our marriage. She also provided considerable pastoral care to me as I worked through my grief about who did not come to my wedding.
2) I have come to understand that this isn’t just about getting heterosexual approval. It is also about fundamental civil rights. I began to understand what that meant when I myself entered into a long-term committed relationship. We’ve been together 10 years now. My partner and I have a stake in each other. We are completely financially glued together and we would benefit very much from being legally recognized as other couples are. We are more vulnerable for not having that legal recognition.
3) There is something very powerful about the institution of marriage. It has deep emotional resonance, spiritual beauty, and strong cultural meaning. There is no doubt that it can be a patriarchal institution. Anti-gay-marriage folks have done a pretty good job of showing us why and how. But, let’s not undermine the agency of millions of heterosexual and bisexual women and men who have entered into opposite sex unions with a strong commitment to egalitarianism and to doing the work to identify their own sexist assumptions. Marriage has changed – a lot – and it is changing again for the better because of every person who makes it their own.
I am still concerned and aware that some of the sub-cultures have had to become more invisible, silenced, in order to make the gains that we have. Polyamorous family units remain incredibly vulnerable – judged in both the gay and straight worlds for the form of their commitment, and very legally vulnerable. So are their children who could be taken away by a well meaning Department of Family Services social worker were anyone to lodge a complaint. The BDSM world – well it’s always been quiet and it just stayed quiet. But, for people who make that system of power dynamics their life, they have to be very careful. You could lose your children, your family, your friends, your job. And, both these sub-cultures run the risk of facing the disapproval of other LGBTQ people if it looks like their need for acceptance could risk the acquisition of equal marriage.
I was moved to my core to see the minister of the most prominent gay christian church in St. Louis legitimize BDSM and polyamorous relationships structures as having intrinsic sacred worth and value, and in fact having something to teach the rest of us about how to be living manifestations of that drop of God. I have friends in both communities and that’s the way I have always seen their way of loving, and will continue to.
Amen and blessed be.