Thursday, August 06, 2015

Flying pigs and affirming Baptists

Greenville News photo

"I just looked outside my window, and pigs were flying by!!!" my friend, Patrick --- an Iowa boy who now lives in California --- quipped yesterday after I shared a news story from The Greenville (South Carolina) News headlined, "First Baptist opens its doors to same-sex couples."

That's not a surprising reaction --- those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender learn early in life that "Baptist" on the sign in front of a church is a clear signal to keep driving unless you especially enjoy hearing yourself denounced from a pulpit.

And, no, this doesn't mean Baptists are hateful people --- because as a rule they're not. The rank and file just attend churches within a Christian tradition where the gates of heaven are barred against LGBT people and think little of it --- in part because they're not gay and assume that their offspring aren't either. Motivation ranges from conviction to habit.


Greenville's First Baptist, although among the mother churches of the 1845 Southern Baptist Convention, is an exception for a couple of reasons, most notable according to Jim Dant, senior pastor, a long history of moderation within a denomination noted during the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st for its extremes.

The congregation left the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999 as it ossified and affiliated with the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship --- hardly gay friendly, but an advocate for the traditional Baptist stance of congregational autonomy. That autonomy allowed the Greenville congregation to forge its own path and reach consensus --- to live as a community with varying opinions about gay issues while opening the doors unreservedly to LGBT people --- including membership, leadership, ordination and marriage.


I wish I could point to affirming Baptist congregations in Iowa, too --- but they're few and far between. First Baptist Church of Iowa City is the only one I can make guarantees about. It is affiliated with another umbrella group for moderate Baptists --- American Baptist Churches USA --- and also with the LGBT-supportive Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptist Churches.

Beyond that, it's a crap shoot --- and LGBT people for whom church is important still would be better advised to just keep walking past that "Baptist" sign and toward a congregation in a friendlier denomination. Too bad about that.


But that doesn't mean that the witness of First Baptist Church of Greenville --- and First Baptist of Iowa City and other Baptist congregations scattered across the country --- is not of considerable significance.

I was reminded of that the other day while rewatching the final episode of a long-running public television program, "In the Life," which had begun reporting LGBT news and telling LGBT stories 20 years earlier when such things were not being done by the mainstream media. That was no longer the case in 2012, so the series exited gracefully.

The final episodes featured the recollections of various program producers, including Dan Karslake, whose piece on a new documentary, "For the Bible Tells Me So," aired during January of 2008.

"For the Bible Tells Me So" was a pioneering work --- we hosted a public showing of it at St. Andrew's Church not long after it was released --- that featured among others the Rev. Irene Monroe, who suggested that LGBT people "take back" the Bible. "The very tool that's used as a tool of oppression, we can turn that around to be a tool of liberation," she said.

"The day after that show aired, the first time, across the country," Karslake recalled, "I got an e-mail from a gay kid in Iowa.

"He said: Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday, I wrote the note. Last night, I happened to see your show on PBS, and just knowing that someday somewhere I could possibly go back into a church with my head held high. I threw the gun in the river. My mom never has to know."


I've run into that gay kid from Iowa more than once during the course of a relatively long life --- including here in Chariton --- and witnessed first-hand the difference a welcoming congregation of any denomination can make to a kid for whom faith is important but who has despaired within the faith community he or she once considered home.

In my case, the congregations that caught these kids as they were falling, nourished them, then sent them on their way were Unitarian Universalist or Episcopalian. It's a big reason why I keep going to church.

And we should celebrate, too, when the doors of a Baptist church creaks open and the sun shines in.

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