All are welcome in this place!


Smack dab in the middle of the weekly bulletin for my church for June 2, More Light Sunday is the message, “All are welcome in this place! New faces and voices are always welcome and add to the spirit of our worship, education, mission, and fellowship.”

I found two news stories in the past six weeks reflecting that element of shalom.

ITEM: Sacramento State’s unique approach helps bring a peaceful end to campus protest

“‘President Luke Wood oversaw a peaceful end to a campus protest over the Israel-Hamas war, one of the many that have taken place at universities nationwide in recent weeks…

“‘I did 92 listening sessions, 75 minutes each, with over 1,500 of our students, faculty, staff,’ Wood said… 

“‘I got to first tell you how I feel as a person, as an individual, and really as a Black man, I get a heightened level of anxiety,’ Wood said. ‘When people are in fear, they respond in a protected mechanism, which doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes.'”

The campus encampments broke up in a couple of weeks, without violence or calling in the police. 


ITEM: A group of Jewish and Palestinian women uses dialogue to build bridges between cultures

“They call themselves Zeitouna — a group of six Jewish and six Palestinian women in Michigan that have been meeting twice a month for more than two* years. The name is the Arabic word for olive tree, and their motto is ‘refusing to be enemies.'” 

*Based on the Zeitouna website and the CBS broadcast story, this should be TWENTY years, going back to right after 9/11.

“The safety of the group and their environment has allowed the women to remain committed to each other in the face of Oct. 7 and the war that followed.”

“‘You absorbed my pain, as I absorbed your pain. It’s important to just have a space, a place where everybody is there with open arms,'” Wadad Abed, one of the group’s members, said during a meeting.

“Diane Blumson, another Zeitouna member, told CBS News, ‘There’s room in a humanitarian way to recognize the trauma of the other. And people have lost that ability right now.'”

Members of Zeitouna were invited to the Arab-Jewish group at a nearby university to share their methodology. 


The Scripture reading for June 2 was Mark 3: 20-35. The last five versions of the NIV selection: 

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

To me, this is saying that community is where you find it, whether it be a college president swimming against the tide, a group of women from different faith traditions swimming against the tide, or churches responding with open doors. 

A “conservative Christian” group called My Faith Votes notes in a recent email, “America is changing fast. We are more divided and intellectually lost than ever before. That’s why it is more crucial than ever for Christians to have a firm foundation and to align their views with the truth of God’s Word.

“Not to mention, when Christians think biblically, they vote biblically — something of grave importance this presidential election year.”

I absolutely agree with this sentiment, although I know that we would not agree with what “the truth of God’s Word” is. My God is a big-tent God.

Not incidentally, my church had a float of sorts in the Pride Parade yesterday. My daughter and I participated. The big mistake I made was falling to wear my knee brace. 

Cemetery angel

RuthCokerBurksThe First Presbyterian Church in Albany, NY is celebrating 20 years of being a More Light community, which means “seeking the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry, and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)”

For the service on June 5, our guest preacher, and leader in the adult education class, was Tony De La Rosa, the interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency for the denomination.

Tony admitted that he struggled with the recommended readings, or liturgy, for the date. Both 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17 involved women seeming to lose their children, only to have Elijah and Jesus, respectively, bring their sons back to life. How would this fit in with a More Light message?

Then he came across this article about a woman named Ruth Coker Burks, “the cemetery angel.”

For about a decade, between 1984 and the mid-1990s and before better HIV drugs and more enlightened medical care for AIDS patients effectively rendered her obsolete, Burks cared for hundreds of dying people, many of them gay men who had been abandoned by their families. She had no medical training, but she took them to their appointments, picked up their medications, helped them fill out forms for assistance, and talked them through their despair.

Sometimes she paid for their cremations. She buried over three dozen of them with her own two hands, after their families refused to claim their bodies. For many of those people, she is now the only person who knows the location of their graves.

In both of the Biblical tales, the mothers were overjoyed to get their sons back. Yet these young men in Arkansas with AIDS were abandoned by their families.

Tony read much of this next part:

Burks.. was 25 and a young mother when she went to University Hospital in Little Rock to help care for a friend who had cancer. Her friend eventually went through five surgeries, Burks said, so she spent a lot of time that year parked in hospitals. That’s where she was the day she noticed the door, one with “a big, red bag” over it. It was a patient’s room. “I would watch the nurses draw straws to see who would go in and check on him…

Whether because of curiosity or — as she believes today — some higher power moving her, Burks eventually disregarded the warnings on the red door and snuck into the room. In the bed was a skeletal young man, wasted to less than 100 pounds. He told her he wanted to see his mother before he died.

“I walked out and [the nurses] said, ‘You didn’t go in that room, did you?'” Burks recalled. “I said, ‘Well, yeah. He wants his mother.’ They laughed. They said, ‘Honey, his mother’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming. Nobody’s been here, and nobody’s coming.'”

Unwilling to take no for an answer, Burks wrangled a number for the young man’s mother out of one of the nurses, then called. She was only able to speak for a moment before the woman on the line hung up on her.

“I called her back,” Burks said. “I said, ‘If you hang up on me again, I will put your son’s obituary in your hometown newspaper and I will list his cause of death.’ Then I had her attention.”

Her son was a sinner, the woman told Burks. She didn’t know what was wrong with him and didn’t care. She wouldn’t come, as he was already dead to her as far as she was concerned. She said she wouldn’t even claim his body when he died. It was a hymn Burks would hear again and again over the next decade: sure judgment and yawning hellfire, abandonment on a platter of scripture. Burks estimates she worked with more than a thousand people dying of AIDS over the course of the years. Of those, she said, only a handful of families didn’t turn their backs on their loved ones. Whether that was because of religious conviction or fear of the virus, Burks still doesn’t know.

Burks hung up the phone, trying to decide what she should tell the dying man. “I didn’t know what to tell him other than, ‘Your mom’s not coming. She won’t even answer the phone,’ ” she said. There was nothing to tell him but the truth.

“I went back in his room,” she said, “and when I walked in, he said, ‘Oh, momma. I knew you’d come,’ and then he lifted his hand. And what was I going to do? What was I going to do? So I took his hand. I said, ‘I’m here, honey. I’m here.'”

Burks said it was probably the first time he’d been touched by a person not wearing two pairs of gloves since he arrived at the hospital. She pulled a chair to his bedside, and talked to him, and held his hand. She bathed his face with a cloth, and told him she was there. “I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath on earth,” she said.

I’m not sure there was a dry eye in the sanctuary.

And though we have a way to go, I’m so thankful that our understanding of AIDS is such that these scenarios play out far less often than they did in first decade or more of the AIDS epidemic.

As President Obama offers his final LGBT Pride Month proclamation, let us hope for increasing understanding amongst us all.


Presbyterian Church allows gay ordination

The votes reflect a shift in attitudes within the church, and within American society, as public attitudes against homosexuality have softened.

I knew that the vote was coming, but I didn’t know what the outcome until I saw the news stories about the Presbyterian church allowing gays to serve as ministers and lay leaders:

“A debate that has raged within the Presbyterian Church for more than three decades culminated Tuesday with ratification of a measure allowing the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and lay leaders, while giving regional church bodies the ability to decide for themselves.

“With the vote of its regional organization in Minnesota, the Presbyterian Church USA became the fourth mainline Protestant church to allow gay ordination, following the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches and the United Church of Christ.”

The MSNBC story actually gave the best description I saw of the process: “The change to the Presbyterian Church constitution was approved last summer by the church’s General Assembly, its governing body. But under church rules, such changes must then be ratified by a majority of the 173 regional organizations known as presbyteries.

“Late Tuesday, at a meeting in St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb, the Twin Cities Presbytery put the measure over the top with a vote of 205 to 56, becoming the 87th regional body to vote yes. About 90 minutes later, the Pacific Presbytery, representing parts of Southern California and all of Hawaii, added its voice, voting 102 to 60 in favor.

“It was the fourth time the church had voted on issues related to gay ordination, and the votes reflect a shift in attitudes within the church, and within American society, as public attitudes against homosexuality have softened. Since the last time the matter was brought to a vote, in 2008-09, some 19 presbyteries have switched their votes from ‘no’ to ‘yes,’ including some in relatively conservative parts of the country, such as central Nebraska and northern Alabama.”

The More Light Presbyterians, who have been working “for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA),” explain the specific language.

I’m happy about the vote, but also relieved. Truth is that there have been a number of gay Presbyterian elders and deacons across the country. They or their congregations had been in technical violation of church polity and theoretically could have been brought up on charges, as has happened to some pastors in various Protestant denominations, though it would be unlikely to actually take place in the Presbyterian church without some additional issues involved.

Actually, I suppose it was more the theological disconnect, such as the Catholic church’s teachings on contraception versus poll after poll noting that about 70% of the church ignores the policy.

Here’s an article on this topic from
A National Hockey League player for marriage equality.

The Daughter’s First Gay Pride Parade

This experience reminded me of the years my father used to drag me to civil rights events when I was a kid. I didn’t always understand the nuance of the activity…

We almost didn’t make it.

I have participated in the Gay Pride Parade in Albany at least a half dozen times. And since this was the 40th anniversary of the Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Council (CDGLCC), reportedly the longest continuously-running group of its type in the nation, this was a particularly significant event this year.

This past Sunday just seemed too complicated, though. The Daughter was having a dance recital later that afternoon, and the weather was looking threatening to boot. But The Wife had volunteered to serve coffee after church, and that involved cleanup afterward.

So I suggested that The Daughter and I at least watch the parade. The Sunday school assignment of the junior high kids at our church that morning was to work on the float with some parishioners and one of our pastors, so The Daughter was at least aware of our congregation’s involvement. And she watched it being finished after Sunday school.

As we waited for the noon start time, I decided that we could find the More Light Presbyterian contingent and at least walk with them from the park to the church a couple of blocks. I see State Senator Neil Breslin with probably the most well-known gay rights activist in the area, Times Union blogger Libby Post who wrote, before the parade, about unusual acceptance at a local high school. (I agree with someone’s assertion that “tolerance” of gay people seems akin to “tolerating” root canal or “tolerating” veggies you don’t like but eat anyway; not an adequate word at all.) There were other local pols there as well; US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was not there, but there was a float representing her.

So, The Daughter and I start walking with the Presbys. At an entrance to the park was the small, but apparently vocal “God can cure homosexuals” band. While most people along the parade line cheered our group, I heard at least one guy from the Westboro-like cabal refer to us as “an abomination”; I think this was supposed to hurt our feelings.

Picture courtesy of Kevin Marshall

We’re about back to our church when I see our car. The Wife had parked it right along the parade route, so we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while anyway; might as well keep walking.

In the car that was part of our contingent was a cardboard Jesus wearing a rainbow lei, bobbing up and down in the moon roof; it was a big hit.

Later, she watched the event coverage on TV (I taped four stations, and caught three reports), and she was only slightly disappointed that she didn’t get any air time.

This experience reminded me of the years my father used to drag me to civil rights events when I was a kid. I didn’t always understand the nuance of the activity, but I DID know that it was Important. And occasionally, fun.
From Salon: Polygamy vs. gay marriage; An exclusive clip from “8: The Mormon Proposition” explores the historical irony behind the LDS anti-gay campaign.

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