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Sermon by Rev. Elyse Ambrose: Pride & Prejudice

Rev. Elyse Ambrose


This sermon originally appeared on the blog for Church of the Village

Happy LGBTQ Liberation Sunday to you. We are truly blessed to be gathered here in this sacred space in a spirit of inclusion, and freedom, and pride… celebrating and affirming each and all whom God has made in God’s own image.

Today, in part, we celebrate this church’s heritage of liberation and hospitable welcome to all experiencing various forms of oppression, namely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. In 1970, it was in the building of our own Washington Square United Methodist Church (one of the congregations that makes up the Church of the Village) that the leading radical gay liberation groups that formed immediately following the Stonewall Uprising, the Gay Liberation Front, had one of its early meetings. And as many of you know, it was also in this very building that the first formal meeting of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, as it was formerly known) took place in 1973. Also, we remember one in the pastoral lineage of this church who was the first openly gay minister with a congregation in a major Christian denomination in the U.S., Rev. Paul M. Abels. And, there’s many more stories like these about our community for which we give thanks to God. It is truly among our greatest commitments to God and to one another and this wider community, to uphold and continue to expand that legacy of welcome, developed all those decades ago.

And, so, I would like to offer up for our own theological, ethical, personal and political reflection on this significant day, the sermon “Pride and Prejudice.” Is anyone here familiar the novel by Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice? Well, full disclosure, my sermon has nothing to do with that book. At least not that I know of… I just thought it was a cool title. But also, I think pride and prejudice are really helpful starting points as we hear what the Spirit might speak to us in light of today’s celebrations and today’s scripture.

I remember once a few years ago, I posted a quote on Facebook from the labor movement leader and activist, César Chávez, that read, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” Immediately, the religious police descended upon the comments section of my page to tell me what the scriptures says about “pride” and how God condemns such an expression. Well, it’s true… In our faith tradition, pride is often identified as the root of all sins thanks to Augustine. One scripture utilized against the Chávez quote was from Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” So, needless to say, in Christianity, pride in general gets a pretty bad rap.

Though I think it’s clear that this person and I weren’t talking about the same kind of pride, it seems helpful for us to think about pride more deeply as a faith community because of the negative perception of pride in our religion. Contrary to some church tradition, I think scripture and Christian experience demonstrate that pride is a very righteous thing to have… something that each child of God should strive to embody. And in part, its Paul’s letter to the Galatians that leads me to this conclusion.

A moment ago, Jenn read the words for us, “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.” Or, as another translation says, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The situation in Galatia is that Jewish followers of Jesus are telling Gentile followers of Jesus that they have to be circumcised—or to have their traditional outward symbol of their relationship with God. They are saying if you believe in Jesus, you have to go through the way that we came. From the scripture, it’s as if Paul is saying, “No! These extra requirements to enter a loving relationship with God, these practices that do more to honor cultural norms than God, this letter of the law that ignores the spirit of the law is bondage… it is a yoke of slavery and Christ, through whom God has called you, has made you free! You don’t have to perform these acrobatics to be accepted as God’s own—God says that you are free! So you’re free.” Paul wants them to take a pretty bold and audacious step, one that requires some risk. They’re pretty new to the faith and Jesus was Jewish. So, “Surely the Jewish followers know better than we Gentiles,” they may have thought. But, no, Paul was telling them to tap into something deeper than tradition, deeper than religion or norms… to believe themselves worthy because of something that God had planted deep within them.

You are free

You know, I don’t know the religious affiliations, if any, of the people (except for one) who nearly 47 years ago threw off the shackles, the bondage of state and social oppression by fighting back against raiding police in what became known as the Stonewall Uprising. I think that in part they were led by something deep and enduring within them… something that caused them to stand firm, and never allow themselves to be bound again, as they had been so many times before that moment. And, I think that thing… that strength… that intrinsic anchor that caused them to tell themselves that they were worth fighting for… that iron-willed spirit sprang forth from pride. Pride that takes a powerful stand and says, “No! I know who I am. I am not ashamed of who I am. I am proud of who I am. I embrace and celebrate who I am. I fought hard to be who I am. I am here. We are here. And, no, you cannot beat us, and treat us like nothing because of who we are.” Pride stands against the harness of oppression, and demands freedom.

A similar thing seems to be going on in Galatia. “You are children of God,” Paul is saying to them. “God has called you. You are no lesser and no greater than anyone else, but you are God’s beloved. This may seem strange to disobey those who seem to have the authority, but the One who is above all authority says that you are in the family of God, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. You are free, and don’t let anyone make you believe that you are not. You are free.” That’s the pride that the children of God, those made in God’s own image, have; that’s the inheritance of those who know that they are the beloved of God.

And this identity is something in which one ought to take pride. Because it’s this pride that leads to freedom that humanity did not give, and humanity cannot take away. But, it’s not just freedom for freedom’s sake. It’s not freedom that says “I can do whatever I want” because that would mean being a slave to one’s own desires. It’s a freedom that takes us and expands us beyond the little box that is only concerned about the self. (Concern about the self is important. But there’s more than just the self.) It’s a freedom, according to today’s scripture, that leads to love. Love of self? Yes. But also love of your neighbor. If freedom does not lead us to be whole in love, it’s not freedom. It’s bondage.

And that’s what Paul’s long list is about. In the NRSV of the Bible, he says “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Maybe that list sounds familiar to some people. Maybe you’ve heard it among the long list of things you can’t do if you want to be acceptable in God’s sight. But, it seems to me, the treasure of this scripture is in our freedom, in our liberation, in our free will we often long for things that promise fulfillment but never truly gratify—which is what I think Paul, in his 1st century way, is pointing to. Things that promise joy and happiness, that promise and promise and promise but never come through. And they leave us feeling empty… unfulfilled. That’s not the abundance of life and joy that God wants for us. Feeling incomplete… never really moving toward wholeness and healing… That is not the kin-dom of God. And even though Paul says, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God,” it’s not to say that seeking after these things get us kicked out of God’s kin-dom… but rather, they so distract us from living into that kin-dom that leads to wholeness and fulfillment that we prevent our own selves from entering. And yet, thanks be to God, the good news is we are always welcome, and that invitation is always open to try again as long as we are here.

Friends, the scripture is revealing to us today that real freedom, true liberation frees us to love. And that’s not a cliché… it’s not a sentimental statement that everything is beautiful and okay, and we can skip in gardens hand-in-hand, and dance with the butterflies, and play all day because love is the way. There’s a time for time for this sort of lightheartedness, but that’s not all love can be. Love is not a license for inaction and passivity. Rather, love is our only and greatest means for transformation of ourselves and of our worlds for the better.

So love may look like a hug and a kiss after an argument. Or, love may look like demanding a change to our gun laws so that our siblings in a school, or in a theater, or in a dance club may be safe. Love may look like making sure trans folks, black or Latino folks, women, immigrants, persons of differing bodily and cognitive abilities, and persons of lesser economic means are centered and listened to first even when it decenters me or stands against my own self-interests. When the time comes, may we who are made free in order to love know what love would do.

Now, I hope that I have not given the wrong impressions about pride and freedom and love, or that I haven’t given the sense that any of these things come easily. I am sorry if I have. I think this moment that we are commemorating through the Pride March, this anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, gives us a very clear example of the cost of pride and freedom and of love for oneself and one’s community. It leads us to ask, what do we do when our walking with pride is halted by the brutal and unfounded notion that we don’t deserve to have this dignity? This civil and social equality? What do we do when prejudice clouds the way to freedom?

Prejudice

Prejudice: a powerful and dangerous form of bias. U.S. history does a notable job of showing us the power of prejudice… that it’s not just as simple as disliking someone or a group of people for no reason, but that prejudice in the hearts and hands of the powerful can mean discrimination, can mean enslavement, can mean deportation, can mean death.

The four people on my shirt—Sylvia Rae Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Stormé DeLarverie, and Marsha P. Johnson—all women of color, three trans and one lesbian—serve as reminders, for me as a queer woman of color and for us here, they are reminders of the cost of freedom, but they are also signs of hope. They were at the front lines of the Stonewall Uprising, standing against the power of the state and a sociocultural setting that declared the existence of their communities unlawful and deviant. Already minoritized in a variety of ways, these women each took an active role in their own physical and social liberation (because inside they were already free) paving the way for so many of the freedoms that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and questioning people and any others whose identity is labeled as sexual or gender deviant—those freedoms we experience today are because of them and those like them. Now, I’m not making an argument here for violent revolution or physical violence in general, but in their stories, in their witness there is a truth of what we must do when prejudice threatens our freedom.

When prejudice prevails, it is then that pride becomes even more vital. The strength to counter shame and bondage and danger with the acts of being more proud and more free and more committed to radical and transformative love is the most potent weapon we have against prejudice and its effects for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our world. When prejudice tells Syrian and Latin American refugees that they are not worthy of freedom, or that trans people are not respectable enough to be a part of gay liberation histories, or that Muslims are our enemies… all for no reason but unsubstantiated bias… that’s when we must even take pride in others as beings of sacred worth, and walk with them in the way to freedom.

And, even when our own judgments of ourselves based on internalized shame, guilt, and hatred tell us– and I’m not just talking to LGBTQ people here— it speaks to us all saying, “I am not worthy. My life does not matter. No one cares about me”… we have to listen for the voice of truth that says that our most authentic self is treasured in God’s sight, that we matter, that we are beloved just as we are.

And in that pride, we are empowered to do the difficult things that life sometimes demands… empowered to stand firm in the freedom that God has given us… and empowered to fight like hell if anything dares to take that freedom away.

May it be so.

 

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CAMBA’s Project Accept LGBTQ Youth (Project ALY)

 CAMBA’s Project Accept LGBTQ Youth or simply Project ALY, utilizes stories

of acceptance from supportive parents and families of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,

queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and teens in Brooklyn order to change underlying

causes of HIV infection amongst this highly at-risk group. The ultimate goal is to

promote parental and familial acceptance of LGBTQ youth, thus increasing self-esteem

and self-worth and decreasing risk of future health or mental health problems including

HIV infection and substance abuse. By encouraging parents and family members of

LBGTQ youth to become role models and share their stories of acceptance, we will help

break the silence, remove stigma, and motivate change throughout the community. In

addition to this, parents and family members who struggle with acceptance will gain

better understanding of the detrimental effects that disapproval and rejection can have on

LBGTQ youth and their decisions to engage in risky behaviors. By helping to increase

tolerance and acceptance, Project ALY will reduce these risks thus preventing new HIV

infections.

 

Project ALY consists of several components to promote structural change around

acceptance of LGBTQ youth: 1) an intervention that draws on a community identification

process, 2) the development and dissemination of role model stories and a toolkit for

parents/family members; 3) group presentations by Parent Advocates for parents and

family members in schools, churches and other community settings; 4) an ongoing

support group for parents of LGBTQ youth; and 5) a social marketing campaign. In the

Community Identification Process, we interviewed stakeholders and held focus groups

with parents/family members and LGBTQ youth in order to understand family rejection

of LGBTQ youth, identify solutions and appropriate messages for our target population,

and generate role model stories.

 

For this project, we are focusing on African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino youth

and their families in areas of Brooklyn most highly impacted by HIV: Flatbush/East

Flatbush, Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights, East New York, Williamsburg/Bushwick, Coney

Island/Sheepshead Bay.
For more information – Contact CAMBA here.

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Black Seniors: How Do We Fit Into the Black Lives Matter Movement? A Case for the Active Engagement of Seniors

By Dr. Wilhelmina Perry
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Huffington Post

I am an 81 year old Afro American. I proudly identify as a person who is active and fully committed to the Black Lives Matter movement. I was raised in a home in Harlem where race pride and responsibility were honored. In my home, my father was very much involved in both his church and his union. I remember very clearly when he would talk about racism and what it meant to be a Negro. We used this term during my childhood. We were taught that we had a responsibility to strive for personal achievement and to understand that our achievements were made possible by people who had come before us. This being so, ours was the obligation to “pass a hand to the people behind us.” As I grew older I learned more and refined these teachings into a clear political perspective. I came to realize that the struggle for social justice for my people would be continuous, and I had a responsibility to stay engaged.

I give you this brief summary of who I am to say that that there are many seniors, like me, who are seasoned in the history of the struggle with a strong and deep connection to the pursuit of social justice for the Black community. Black seniors over 65 years are approximately 4 million (U.S. Administration for Community Living.)

My generation represents a strong resource for the Black Lives Matters movement.
We are the people that have lived through several social movements including the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and the Black power movement. For those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, we have also lived through the gay rights movement. Mine is a generation growing into full adulthood during much civil unrest, the leadership of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. We were around when such pioneers as Shirley Chisholm, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. were strong leaders.

You may not know us as public figures, Civil Rights leaders or strong movement people, but many of us were the soldiers then and we can do it again. We do not have to be the leaders. We may be frail and experience physical limitations, but we are here. I know and others know that our future well-being and security (for the rest of our lives) depends on the work now going on. . My generation represents a strong resource for the Black Lives Matter movement. I know that many feel that it is our responsibility to teach the young people how to direct their movement. While I give some importance to this thought, I think our contribution can be more diversified. Some of us have a degree of economic security and are not burdened by multiple obligations. Our maturity brings a sense of self and self-worth freeing us to openly express support of the movement. A historical perspective allows us to affirm that change is possible and that strategies take different forms of engagement.

We are not all people who are watching the revolution on television. We have our phones and we are learning how to use them more effectively. We have computer skills, verbal and written skills. We can perform educational outreach services; bring research/ investigation skills and education in social settings and houses of worship. We have our social and religious affiliations that come from long term connections.

I believe the organizers of the BLM movement when they state on their organizational page, “We are committed to fostering an intergenerational and communal network free from ageism. We believe that all people, regardless of age, shows up with capacity to lead and learn.” The movement is larger than confrontations around police brutality, but it is rooted in the experiences of all Black people in this country who are disenfranchised and marginalized by a racist system.

We are a large population that can be mobilized to participate in this new movement being directed by young Black people. Many of us are already engaged, but it will take education, motivation and creative outreach to engage others.

The movement must make a case that links the treatment of young Black people to the overall marginalization of Black seniors who still live disproportionally in poverty and marginalized living conditions. The movement will have to make a case that the problems of gentrification , inadequate health systems, expensive rental units, crime are all linked to the criminalization and killing of young Black people. The movement leaders will have to find ways to utilize the social capital and skills that senior bring. In doing so the historical connections of the Black senior community to the Black church and its civil rights work cannot be minimized.

My words are not meant to be a complaint or a demand. They are meant to be a challenge and a plea to use us more fully.

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In Events, Transgender Posted

Transgender Day of Remembrance

FLOAD_TDOR_2015_update3
On November 21, 2019, we celebrated our first TDOR hosted by our two new members. We were honored with a diverse and distinguished panelists who presented different views of their experiences as trans men and women.  We also were entertained with song and poetry.  It was important for us to bring a faith perspective while we acknowledged the lives lost over the last year. Ours was a message of celebration in being who you are. Thanks to all who attended.

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When Evolving is Not Enough

By Dr. Wilhelmina Perry

Ever since President Obama announced that he is “evolving” in his views on marriage equality, the term “evolving” has become a key position of public figures and community leaders. We are appreciative that the President was able to move forward to support his new found beliefs with both policy resolutions and actions that are affirmations for same-gender loving people. However, the term is now codified in the public arena and there have been no challenges forthcoming, in fact, no one challenges the speaker for an explanation or an expectation of movement. The statement, in and of itself, has become the end goal.

 

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a person say that they are evolving. Usually, I would think that this acknowledgment is a positive thing. However, in a recent meeting with a clergy person, I heard the expression used again. This time I had a very different reaction, I found myself asking him, “What does this mean?” I believe that I asked the question in a perfectly professional manner, but I surprised myself because I realized that my question was accompanied by a great deal of personal passion.

 

Ordinarily, the statement goes unchallenged and I have included myself among those who have been accepting and appreciative of the response. This time it was different and I asked a follow-up question accompanied by a passionate declaration. This time with a bit of strong emotion “What does this mean? How long will the process take? Our children are being thrown out of their homes by parents who do not accept them. Our children are being bullied and harassed because of their sexual orientation and some are being killed. How long will the process take before you are fully accepting of who we are?”

Where’s the Pushback?

 

As I was saying these words, I realized that I was very emotional and, days after, I required of myself to understand why I was being so personally moved. Following this meeting, I gave much thought to my own self as someone who calls herself an activist for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and same-gender loving people. Through my own discernment, I came to understand that the rationale that one is evolving has been too often accepted with no pushback. Let’s look more closely at this expression and unpack the consequences of allowing the speaker to go unchallenged.

 

If we understand that the position of “evolving” places full control in the hands of the speaker, it gives me no idea about the eventual goal or state of being, or the timeline and the steps that I can expect along the way. I am left in a state of waiting and anticipation while I see the lives of homeless gay youth and transgender young people threatened daily as they try to find safety in their neighborhoods and families. Why can’t I expect more than “evolving” when a transgender young woman is murdered here in Harlem and there is no collective outrage from our community? Why should I settle for “evolving” when a local church can post hateful and dangerous statements about gay people on a large sign in the yard of the church, and there is no outcry from the community other than the newspaper ad initiated by my organization, LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent, and other community organizations, people and groups? What does it mean to be “evolving” if our lives continue to be in harm’s way and there is no collective response from clergy, community leaders and/or elected officials?

 

If you ask yourself these questions, you can see why I am not feeling comfortable or accepting of those who use the term “evolving” as a badge of courage and pride for which we should feel appreciative. It actually means nothing if the risks and threats to gay people continue in their churches and in the very neighborhoods where they live, and silence remains the response to acts of harm and violence. It takes great courage and risk to step up and out to support the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual transgender and same-gender loving people. Clergy and community leaders cannot sit and wait for their congregations to grow into acceptance. The role of a true prophetic leader is one who is willing to step forward and engage his members in educational experiences that lead to acceptance. Without this courage, there would have been no civil rights protests and none of the rights that we have gained thus far. It is not the responsibility of some of us. It is the responsibility of all of us.

 

Dr. Wilhelmina Perry is the Administrative Coordinator for LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent. LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent was formed by a group composed of clergy, divinity students, and people of faith who represent diverse religious institutions. The organization was formed to educate and advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and same-gender loving people. You can learn more about them atwww.lgbtfaithleadersofafricandescent.com.

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In Videographies Posted

LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent: Telling our Stories

 

The biography videos here  grew out of our desire to see our faces, faces of color, on the many websites where same gender loving people are telling their stories.  We wanted to offer balance and reality for all who seek assistance, guidance and hope as they struggle with being a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning individual. Click “more info” on the video screen to read a bit more about each person’s story.

 

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