Rolling the Stone Away: LGBTQI Elders Meet the Next Generation of Christian Activists at a Watershed Conference

Speakers at Rolling the Stone Away - “Into the Third Millennium” Ray Bagnuolo, Keisha Mc Kenzie, Matthew Vines, Alex McNeill, Cedric Harmon; Bernie Schlager, facilitator. (via Facebook)

Five hundred years after Martin Luther’s reform, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex people, and allies celebrated fifty years of valiant efforts to make churches Christian—that is, welcoming, inclusive, and just.

The “Rolling the Stone Away: Generations of Love and Justice” conference, October 30-November 2, 2017, in St. Louis gathered 250 people who reviewed the struggles to make Christian churches inclusive of persons, genders and sexual orientations. Key to the discussion was what the next generation of folks plan to do to continue the work on their terms in these complicated times.

Longtime Methodist activist Mark Bowman combined his visionary leadership with wise funders’ generous support to make this extraordinary event happen. It was a spirited reunion of veteran church activists, a real-time unfolding of an important chapter of church history, and a powerful communal act of commitment to broaden and deepen the work. As longtime pastor Renee McCoy of the Metropolitan Community Churches said at the closing ritual, “I feel like I re-enlisted.”

The St. Louis gathering was a living tableau of the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network (LGBTRAN). The Archives Network, directed by Bowman, was founded in 2001 as a project of Chicago Theological Seminary. Since 2008, it has been part of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry in Berkeley. LGBTRAN is the go-to site for stories and information on scholars, ministers, activists, and denominational groups, many of whom assembled in St. Louis to rekindle old relationships, compare progress notes, and re-up for a new era. “History belongs to those who preserve their records” was a conference mantra as historians hastened to do oral histories and memorabilia were collected.

Moving liturgies grounded the gathering. A poignant time of remembrance and a queer All Saints service gave expression to the grief, loss, and deep appreciation that are all part of struggle. Spirited singing of old and new movement songs lent a celebrative vibe to the gathering. Once the dance music started in the plenary hall, even the most seasoned folks showed they still had their moves.

People came from the earliest days in 1964 when ministers and homosexual activists (yes, that is how they were described then) founded the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in San Francisco. Well before Stonewall, pastors there took on the police and city officials for their discriminatory behavior toward lesbian, gay, and trans people who simply wanted to have dances or go to bars to meet others. The pastors won. History records that Christian leaders were in the struggle for gay rights from the beginning—a small matter of pride given the enormity of anti-queer discrimination that the churches generated over several millennia.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the scandal of Christian ignorance unto injustice on same-sex everything became too obvious to ignore. Exclusion of qualified candidates from ordination, the spread of theological pornography like “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (From the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona humana 8), and insulting anti-queer preaching led countless people to leave Christianity in anger and despair.

Some even committed suicide because they were told God did not love them—and they believed it.

Progressive Christians found this simply intolerable. Steady pressure on denominations over decades resulted in big changes. William R. Johnson, the first openly gay United Church of Christ minister ordained in 1972, beamed broadly at this gathering. He is retired from distinguished service both in congregational and denominational leadership in a church that now has countless queer ministers, many of whom were not born when he was ordained.

Welcoming churches opened their doors, some more reluctantly than others, in the 1980s and 90s. Courageous people and groups stepped up to challenge denominations on their policies, to be test cases for ordination of same-sex loving people, to write feminist and queer theologies, to create ministries of inclusion, devise workshop services that embrace all, and to join in other justice struggles as out LGBTIQA people. Their work paid off as now many Christian communities welcome, ordain, and in some cases marry LGBTIQ people.

Many of those people were in St. Louis, where a veritable rainbow of elders from groups including Dignity USA, Affirmations, Integrity, and the Institute for Welcoming Resources shared their experiences. For example, Darlene Garner who has a long, distinguished history of ministerial leadership was part of a splendid panel of lesbian feminists and trans women who spoke candidly about their histories and challenges. Two women’s groups, the Conference of Catholic Lesbians and Christian Lesbians Out Together (CLOUT), served vital purposes and then dissolved.

HIV/AIDS took many gay men who would now be nearing retirement. That fact was obvious when we gathered at the final session. Participants formed concentric circles with elders in the center and successive generations forming rings around them. I sensed more women in the center. It was sad to realize that some of our stalwart brothers were victims of a disease that shaped all of our religious communities. During the pandemic, many friends cared for and comforted them, but sadly they could never be replaced.

Many bright lights in this movement have passed away already including historian John Boswell and Jesuit theologian John J. McNeill. Methodist minister and ecumenical leader Jeanne Audrey Powers, who came out as she approached retirement even at the risk of her pension, died just a few weeks shy of the St. Louis meeting.

Some key players did not make the reunion because of health challenges. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church that welcomed queer people when no one else did and evangelical feminist writer Virginia Ramey Mollenkott were there in spirit but unable to travel.

The meeting took place none too soon as human beings with these people’s track records have reason to be fragile in their later years. Social change work is exhausting, often thankless work. The St. Louis convening was a time to express profound gratitude. It was also a chance to bask in the goodness of hard work well done by countless colleagues whose shoulders are sore from pushing on sometimes-immovable stones.

Religious groups became key players in secular legal challenges. They weighed in against sodomy laws. The success of marriage equality involved heavy lifting by religious leaders. Many assured their congregations that morality would not take a nosedive and the sky would not fall in if committed same-sex couples were granted civil rights. Their efforts helped.

Trans women of color remain among the most oppressed members of an LGBTIQA community that has seen remarkable progress for some and precious little for others. They are survivors of racist and sexist violence; they report an astronomical HIV/AIDS rate. Many are shunned within their own communities. Transfaith, “a multi-tradition, multi-racial, multi-gender organization working to support transgender spiritual/cultural workers and their leadership in community” brought important insights to the meeting and a new vibrancy to the movement. They honored one of their own, the late Bobbie Jean Baker, and raised funds for the work of Black Trans Women in Christian contexts. Today’s movement leaders include many more people of color than in earlier times, though never enough given the systemic racism this movement is committed to end.

The meeting was not an exercise in nostalgia, rather a call to action. Renewed activism began with talks by local social justice leaders on the dire situation created by white supremacy and racism in St. Louis. Participants made significant financial contributions to local solidarity groups as well as moral commitments to keep those issues squarely in view.

Young colleagues sketched the contours of future actions. Because the elders focused successfully on sex and gender when it was imperative for survival, there can now be prodigious efforts by people from a range of genders and sexualities to eradicate racism and white supremacy, economic injustice, war, and ecocide. Contemporary queer leaders and allies are obviously light years ahead of where their predecessors started, for which the whole church ought to say Amen. Except it doesn’t, of course, which is why the struggles for sex/gender equality persist unabated. While the UCC and Unitarian Universalists are quite a ways down the road on things queer, the Roman Catholic Church, for example, has not yet placed a baby toe on the path.

Young people were thrilled to meet people whose books they had read or whose stories they knew. They expressed a desire for mentoring from such folks. But the edifying work of younger colleagues in groups like Soulforce and Many Voices: A Black Church Movement for Gay & Transgender Justice made clear that the mentoring must be mutual. Their new experiences, tech savvy, and global scope provide the movement, including its pioneers, with important tools.

I experienced “Rolling the Stone Away” as a watershed event. I predict that historians, beginning with those who conducted oral histories at the meeting, will talk about church justice work on sex/gender before and after this conference. Before, the first wave of church-related justice movements had sex/gender as their foci. They achieved obvious successes in membership, ministry, and marriage with more to come. After, if we embrace the reality of intersectionality and the responsibility to make justice for all, the second wave will unleash expanded energies in the form of exponentially more people engaged in rolling away the many stones. The task is making sure the rocks stay that way given the mighty forces currently pushing back.