This opinion article first appeared May 9, 2011, in Religion Dispatches.
It can be argued that Mother's Day is the most popular secular holiday in our churches. Attendance increases, special music is featured, pastors pay particular attention to crafting messages that affirm the place of motherhood in keeping families and communities faithfully knit together. So it seemed fitting that Believe Out Loud, a trans-denominational effort to promote LGBT equality in mainline Protestant congregations, focused on Mother's Day to launch its new campaign to invite one million believers to "sign up" for full LGBT equality in our churches and society-at-large.
A centerpiece of this effort is a new video with particular relevance to Mother's Day. The video features that fateful, frightful walk down the church's center aisle by a visiting family. How many of us can remember such a walk? This family unit, however, happens to include a young boy with two moms. After inhospitable stares and gestures from pew-sitters, the family is welcomed by the pastor. A familiar music track enhances the emotional impact. The video is a sweetly stated reminder that all should be welcomed in our churches. Its target audience is clergy and lay leaders who silently believe in LGBT equality but have yet to take steps to express this welcome publicly. Hence, the campaign calls on church leaders to "Believe Out Loud."
It's not just a video thrown out into cyberspace to make a point. The video is backed by an extensive web hub with literally hundreds of resources and an interactive community to help pastors and parishioners begin this conversation in their churches. The video is a hook. It touches the heart and prompts viewers to learn more about the campaign in order to take meaningful personal actions that advance the cause of LGBT justice in our congregations.
To get the word out, Believe Out Loud organizers backed the launch of this viral video with a multi-layered, web-based advertising strategy that included a significant ad buy on the Sojourners web site and email newsletters — home to one of the largest networks of progressive Christians in the United States.
So, you can imagine our dismay when Sojourners refused to run our ads. In a written statement, Sojourners said, "I'm afraid we'll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides."
Taking sides? What are the sides here? That young children who have same-gender parents are not welcome in our churches? That "welcome, everyone" (the only two words spoken in the ad) is a controversial greeting from our pulpits? That the stares the young boy and his moms get while walking down the aisle are justified? I can't imagine Sojourners turning down an ad that called for welcome of poor children into our churches. So why is this boy different?
I called the folks at Sojourners and asked what the problem was, what the "sides" in question might be. The first response was that Sojourners has not taken a stance on gay marriage (the ad is not about gay marriage); or on ordination of homosexuals (the ad is about welcome, not ordination); that the decision, made by "the folks in executive" (why such a high level decision?) was made quickly because of the Mother's Day deadline. The rationale kept shifting. The reasoning made no sense.
I served as Director of Communication in the United Church of Christ in 2004 when CBS and NBC refused to air the "bouncer" commercial. It was déjà vu all over again: shifting rationales, trying to claim the ad was about something that it was not about, administrative excuses. The statements from Sojourners were the very same arguments we heard at the UCC. This was bad enough coming from network execs in New York, but from Sojourners?
Few can doubt the need for this campaign. Public Religion Research finds that two-thirds of Americans blame the recent spate of young gay suicides in part on negative messaging that queer kids receive from the religious community. With an election cycle just over the horizon, LGBT concerns are very likely to be a topic of conversation on the airwaves, in our congregations and around the dinner table in many places around the country. Are our church leaders equipped to thoughtfully address this topic? Do they have practical tools to begin (or advance) the conversation forward in our churches?
Believe Out Loud is more than four years in the making. Virtually every mainline Protestant LGBT denominational advocacy group is a partner, making it a credible place for church leaders to turn for help on this issue. We have asked ourselves why Sojourners, a preeminent voice for justice in the religious community, rejected our ad buy. Does the organization not really believe in welcome for "everyone" in our churches or do they believe everyone is welcome, but they are afraid to "believe out loud" for fear of alienating some constituents? On one level, it doesn't really matter. Their dilemma, apparently, is a ringing testimony for both the urgency and the necessity of this campaign since the issues they confronted are similar to those that face congregational leaders in addressing this concern within their settings. In recent years, American society has made significant strides forward towards full equality for LGBT persons. Tragically, the church has lagged well behind.
Clearly, there is more work to be done.
The Rev. Robert Chase is Founding Director of Intersections International, a multi-faith social justice organization in New York City. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Believe Out Loud is a project of Intersections.