Almost a year ago, the amazing Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece on the CNN Belief Blog entitled “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” Of the many reasons she elucidates, she fundamentally argues that the contemporary church must be more authentic and, consequentially, extend Jesus-like love to all people:“Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving . . . “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance . . . “We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.”
Last Wednesday, bundled in my wool coat against the (unwelcome) mid-April freeze, friends and i made our way to our neighboring school, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Two weeks prior, UMass became home to the first out Division I basketball player, Derrick Gordon. It was a huge moment for the Pioneer Valley, and a huge moment for breaking down homophobic barriers in a traditionally masculinist, homophobic space.
And not a few days later did the infamous Westboro Baptist Church announce that they would be making camp at UMass to protest Derrick’s courage. (Well, that’s not the way put it, but you know what i mean.)
I sprang into action, contacting as many of my Mount Holyoke friends as i could rallying around a counter-protest. Of course, the folks at UMass were doing the same thing, but rather than giving the WBC more airplay by orchestrating a massive counter-protest, these leaders created something called #UMassUnited. A movement, a march, and a rally focused on creating an uplifting, queer-positive space that celebrated the love between people of any gender and the love of our wider community. So that Wednesday, we MHC pilgrims rolled up with our poster boards and scarves ready to join their ranks.
We wanted to outshine the WBC so much that our love was greater than the hate they bore on their signs. We wanted to show that Derrick Gordon is a whole human being, whose sexuality should not have to be so politicized as it is only one facet of his identity. And we wanted to embrace all among us who were scarred by the venom spewed by the WBC.
That night, watching video clips and reading articles covering the demonstration, i knew we’d been successful. Almost every news outlet mentioned the #UMassUnited protest before mentioning the five WBC people who decided to show up for twenty minutes across campus.
I was quite chuffed to find my own sign was mentioned here, on LGBTQ Nation, and littered across Instagram. I meant every word and i was grateful that LGBTQIA people were so excited to see a Christian in their ranks.
But it was even more exciting to me to see how many other Christian signs there were in the crowd, people taking a stand for love and reclaiming a faith co-opted and corrupted by the likes of the WBC. Two of the speakers at the rally were pastors at local churches. The cohort of MHC students who i’d come with all bore signs with God-like themes: “God is Love” read one, another with 1 John 4:7 written out.
It never fails to amaze me, to humble me, and to keep me faithful when so many Christians come out for queer rights. And maybe this shocks me because, as much as i agree with Rachel Held Evans’ piece, maybe we are the majority. Maybe folks like the WBC have been given too much screen time and rallies like #UMassUnited aren’t as sensational to talk about.
I meant the front of my sign. I still mean it. But i had also made my sign double-sided, in part because i wanted people to still read it when i held it up in the air, and more so because there is a second message i think necessary to the one “Jesus loves queer people.” On the back, i wrote “Jesus Loves ALL of US.“
I was working very, very hard to mean the back.
The part about all of us. And as much as it singes my throat to admit it, all of us includes and included those five people from the Westboro Baptist Church.
The beauty of #UMassUnited was in the celebration of love, and in the refusal to give into the hate of the WBC. I may not welcome the WBC views, attitude, language, or theology. But i’m pretty sure Jesus would still welcome them to the table. Not out of approval of what they say, but because they, too, bear God’s image.
Whenever i am struggling to remember this all-embracing theology, i turn to one of my favorite human beings: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In a sermon given in 2005, he made this radical statement:
“This family has no outsiders. Everyone is an insider. When Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw…” Did he say, “I will draw some”? “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others”? He said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all.” All! All! All! – Black, white, yellow; rich, poor; clever, not so clever; beautiful, not so beautiful. All! All! It is radical. All! Saddam Hussein, Osama bin laden, Bush - – all! All! All are to be held in this incredible embrace. Gay, lesbian, so-called “straight;” all! All! All are to be held in the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.”
I love that. I love it because we have a religious leader who has fought injustice after injustice losing no steam as he fights the next battle. I love it because he says God loves terrorists, God loves us in our often fruitless labels.
And i love it because it means God loves broken me as much as She loves Derrick Gordon and those five people who came from the Westboro Baptist church.