TOMS shoes founder Blake Mycoskie spoke last month at an event sponsored by Focus on the Family. The event, “Feet on the Ground,” focused on Mycoskie’s efforts to provide free shoes for children in Africa. Focus was seeking to become a distributor of TOMS shoes in Africa, until Mycoskie was called out by the magazine Jezebel for his participation in the event.
There’s nothing inherently political about distributing shoes to African children, of course. In theory, it’s a good thing for Focus to spend less time trying to police sex and more actually helping people, but they’ve not really cut back on the former. And Focus On The Family isn’t the only group TOMS could have turned to for collaboration, nor is it the only Christian group involved in charitable missions. It carries significant cultural and political baggage, for good reason. TOMS is at major risk of alienating a constituency that has enthusiastically adopted their product, including yours truly.
Mycoskie responded, distancing himself from FotF:
Had I known the full extent of Focus on the Family’s beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak at their event. It was an oversight on my part and the company’s part and one we regret. In the last 18 months we have presented at over 70 different engagements and we do our best to make sure we choose our engagements wisely, on this one we chose poorly.
Focus president Jim Daly expressed disappointment over the incident and hoped he could still broadcast the interview he did with Mycoskie about TOMS’ mission in Africa.
“Yes, we believe marriage is a sacred, lifetime union between one man and one woman. Yes, we advocate in the public policy arena for laws that uphold that truth,” Daly said in the statement. “But the same Bible that tells us God’s design and intent for marriage tells us all people are created in His image and are worthy of dignity and respect.”
We can quibble about whether or not Focus’ actions against LGBT people could even come close to offering the community “dignity and respect,” but my question is this: Have we come so far down the road of partisanship that we can’t even come together with people with whom we disagree to help children in Africa get shoes?
If we trot out the old, tattered, “What would Jesus do?” question, I think we’d find Jesus helping put shoes on people no matter who his shoulder rubbed up against while doing it. While I can find no stories of Jesus partnering with his opponents to feed the hungry or give them shoes, I can find an instance where he dined with a Pharisee (Luke 7)—something his disciples probably worried would tarnish his reputation as an adversary of that particular group. Jesus had no trouble reaching out to those he with whom he disagreed; and on some quite weighty matters indeed.
I certainly do not agree, or condone, how FotF treats LGBT people or spreads lies about them (something they fully believe is done in “dignity and respect”), but how in the world are we going to show them the truth about our community if we steadfastly refuse to work with them in areas where we can agree, or lambast companies that will work with them on areas of common ground?
Soulforce has been trying this for years. They have held conversations with their adversaries and staged bus tours to try to open lines of communication between LGBT people and the religious right. These steps are important because it is through these kinds of activities that anti-LGBT organizations like FotF can get to know us and understand us, and perhaps, in time, accept us for who we are.
The better response here would have been for Mycoskie to also partner with an LGBT group—or perhaps the LGBT-welcoming United Church of Christ—to do a similar partnership, then suggest that all the groups come together to make it happen. Imagine, Focus, the UCC, and a national LGBT group all coming together to help those in need. This would be an important and historic step toward reconciliation: toward a world of distributive justice instead of the politics of annihilation. If Focus refused, then, of course, they would show their true colors and we could be rightly indignant.
Otherwise, how in the world can we ever change the hearts and minds of those who oppose us?