From exile to embrace

From exile to embrace

Reflecting on the theme, "Welcoming the Exile," prompted a review of my history with Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. Between 1986 and 1992, we made the journey toward full inclusion of LGBT persons, including the ritual of blessing for same-sex commitments. I was in search of an insight that might illuminate a larger theology of inclusion.

From my balcony position of retirement, what I saw surprised me. Embedded in a pastoral journal entry from June 28, 1987, is an insight virtually lost during subsequent years. The journal entry took note of my "coming out" sermon about homosexuality. This is a portion of that entry:

"In the sermon today I worked with the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan… I presented the ways in which we victimize the homosexual person in our culture. No surprise in that. The congregation expects me to make the 'justice' point.

Then, I attempt an unanticipated twist, the very kind of surprise experienced in the original parable. I remind the congregation that Samaritans were 'the most hated, most discredited persons in Jesus' world. Yet, Jesus presents the despised Samaritan as the hero, the source of grace.'

Similarly, I reason, homosexual persons, among the 'most hated, most discredited persons' in our society, just might be the instrument of God's grace. Perhaps they are the bearers of the healing we need. Only they can help us tend to the wound of homophobia, that fearful prejudice that inflicts blindness and fosters prejudice. The congregation anticipated 'homosexuals need our care and advocacy.' They likely did not expect the reverse: 'We need what only our homosexual friends can bring to us.' "

Remaining on the surface as the focus of our discernment was the query: How will we be in relationship with LGBT persons in our midst and beyond our congregation? Can we embrace, not exile, by welcoming them into full membership? With considerable cost, Pullen said and embodied "yes, we will."

Now, some 15 years later, I see this action as only one face of our transformation. At that time, we defined LGBT persons as the exiles that needed our full welcome and embrace.

But in truth, all along a deeper, not so obvious, converting action was occurring. LGBT friends were offering relationships in which our inner exiled homophobia could be named, released and replaced with trust. In 1987, it was named in the Samaritan's witness: We heterosexuals are the exiles, and our gay friends hold the keys to our deliverance.

I grew up in a homophobic climate, a condition I internalized - or exiled - deep within myself. I lived and breathed the pejorative stereotypes of my Southern culture. Jokes about "fags" were unchallenged, along with taunts against Roman Catholics, Jews, blacks and "uppity" women.

Only now do I see clearly what I discerned in the Samaritan's witness from that 1987 sermon. I marvel at LGBT persons who, in the face of consistent condemnation from the larger church, still choose to love the church.

In church, that is, within our mutual participation in God's call to justice and the gift of mercy, they offered me, and other heterosexual members, the gift of a relationship. They provided a safe place within friendships that allowed our feelings, and their feelings, to be named and voiced.

In time, the polarizing categories of straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender melted into virtual insignificance. "I-You" became "We" who joined together in worshipping the God at work in the "welcoming of exiles" within us.

The exiled, fearful parts within us that create enemies to dominate bear many names: sexism, racism, classism, nationalism, as well as, heterosexism. But this is the good news: paradoxically, the excluded, the "exiled," the Samaritans among us, through their offer of relationships, become instruments of freedom from the force of our internalized, "exiled" fears.

Strangely, "by their stripes we are healed." Only by the power of God in these relationships of welcome can we - all of us - welcome home our inner exiles.

Mahan Siler is a member of Circle of Mercy Church (UCC/American Baptist) in Asheville, N.C. His book, "Exile or Embrace? Congregations Discerning their Response to Gay and Lesbian Christians," is available from Pilgrim Press.

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