For the better part of the last 30 years, my father has been a social justice activist serving as a leader within his Christian denomination, most specifically in various leadership roles where he could be an advocate for anti-racism education, universal health care, peace with justice in the middle East, and for full inclusion of our LGBTQ family within the body of Christ.
His activism actually dates back further, to the early 1960s when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Ala. His work in the 1990s and 2000s reflected a great depth of thought and commitment as he educated himself and others like him about the importance of recognition of the role of white heterosexual privilege in society and the need for collective repentance for ignoring structural sin regarding race, gender, class, and sexual preference. He worked to transform institutions that might inhibit the full expression of personhood for all of God’s children.
This June 14-20, I’ve decided to take a hiatus from recurring personal and professional commitments in Tennessee to instead attend the biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) — or just PCUSA for shorthand — as a volunteer for the More Light Presbyterians (MLP) Communications Team.
I’m going to Detroit as a volunteer for MLP, but I am also a Ruling Elder in our denomination, and I had applied (but did not get chosen) to attend as a voting commissioner, a role my father held twice at previous assemblies. I’m going to Detroit to meet and mingle with my new friends in the LGBTQ family of PCUSA, having been active myself in the wider LGBTQ movement and community since the late 1980s, particularly in the Radical Faerie movement, with its rural intentional communities nestled in the hills and hollows near where I reside in Tennessee.
I’m going to Detroit to advocate specifically for love and marriage equality within my national church polity because I believe that Jesus Christ is love, that Jesus is more radical, more inclusive, and more loving than we can even imagine, especially for the previously excluded, especially for the LGBTQ family within our church.
In Detroit this summer, my denomination may vote to make it possible for ordained PCUSA ministers to preside at same-gender marriages in our churches in localities where it is legal to do so. If successful, that vote would then be ratified regionally by our more localized governing bodies called Presbyteries. Even though my father’s battle with Parkinson’s had confined him to a hospital bed since early this year, I had dreamt of wheeling his bed onto a van, taking him downtown, and taking him to the MLP dinner and worship and even to the assembly where parliamentary procedures and progressive politics might converge if the Holy Spirit moves so. Now that dream won’t be possible, since Daddy left this life and went home to Jesus on Thursday, May 8, less than a month before his 74th birthday.
In the years that Daddy attended, the votes usually leaned toward the conservative side and halted progress towards inclusion. When the PCUSA activists get to Detroit, we don’t know how the votes will go. Our denomination has both political and theological progressives and conservatives. But MLP and all its other progressive allies within PCUSA have practiced revolutionary patience, trusting God and the moral arc of the universe, that as Martin Luther King taught us, always bends towards justice. Even as we have stayed at the table, some of our conservative friends have ditched the denomination entirely, even to the point of whole congregations leaving.
In one of my father’s last columns for Network News, the newsletter of the Witherspoon Society, which is now Presbyterian Voices for Justice, he wrote about the need for trust and collaboration between the conservatives and progressives within PCUSA. Speaking specifically to the struggle for inclusive ordination standards, he wrote:
“I don’t have any simple answers, but I do know that I can’t expect conservatives to trust me if I am unwilling to trust them. I am going to begin by respecting those who differ from me on important issues; listening to them, finding out what I can learn from them, and how I am called to grow and change. I invite you to do the same. I also invite you to join me in working on trusting and enabling each of our Presbyteries to work with candidates for ordination, regardless of sexual orientation, with the care they deserve as Children of God.”
Working as a university writing and literature professor in a conservative college town in the Bible Belt, I have seen the views of Christian students change on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion over the last decade. Just in the last two years, I have been awestruck how the video for the rap/pop song “Same Love” by Macklemore has evangelized for inclusion, changing the hearts and minds of teens and twentysomethings.
My own views on marriage have changed since I first marched in the streets for LGBTQ rights. I once saw marriage rights as a ruse, only as the wrong cause, only as a tool of sexism and the State. I once encouraged heterosexuals to also abstain from marriage — because its coercive charms only imprisoned people’s free sexualities! Throughout the 1990s, I didn’t identify as a follower of Christ, but my parents, they kept introducing me to Presbyterians whose commitments to peace and progressive/radical politics never failed to blow my mind.
God was up to something then, working on transforming my radical cynicism and youthful hedonism. And God is up to something now, surprising devout followers and doubting friends alike with the bold, shocking love of Jesus.
Andrew William Smith is an English professor by day and DJ by night who works as the Faculty Head of the Tree House environmental living and learning village at Tennessee Tech. He’s an activist, poet, blogger, ruling elder in the PCUSA, Vanderbilt Divinity School seminarian, and aspiring preacher. He blogs at http://unlikelysundayschool.blogspot.com/ and teacherontheradio.blogspot.com. Follow Andrew on Twitter @presbyhippy .