More Light Presbyterian News

We’re working toward the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – and in society.
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44 years ago, a young Presbyterian pastor stood on the floor of the Presbyterian General Assembly and held up a sign that read, “Is Anyone Else Out There Gay?”Four years later, after the 1978 Presbyterian ruling that openly LGBTQ people could not serve in official leadership of the church, several Presbyterian churches who took issue with the ruling, declared themselves to be “More Light” churches, believing there was “yet more light to shine forth on the scriptures,” regarding the place of LGBTQ people in the life and leadership of the church.

The courageous acts of Reverend Sindt and those earliest churches sparked the beginnings of More Light Presbyterians. They knew the Spirit was calling them to shine their light on the darkness of ignorance, of isolation, of the mistreatment of God’s beloved LGBTQ children by a denomination which, at the time, failed to recognize the myriad of gifts brought by LGBTQ people. They knew the Spirit was them, and they courageously followed.

In the years since its humble, yet daring beginning, More Light has been at the forefront of LGBTQ organizing and advocacy efforts in the PC(USA) and in the world. We provide resources, education, and tools for faith leaders to fully welcome LGBTQ individuals into the life of their congregations. In addition, we work with interfaith and secular partners to build opposition to discriminatory legislation like North Carolina’s HB2 or “bathroom bill.” By creating communities where LGBTQ individuals know they will be fully seen and affirmed as the beautiful children of God they truly are, the More Light family has broken through the barriers of isolation and prejudice LGBTQ people experienced at the hands of the church for far too long.

For 40 years, More Light has worked with congregations to set the table of welcome for all who are hungry. This Thursday, April 19th, is Give OUT Day, the ONLY national day of giving specifically for the LGBTQ community. On Give Out Day, your support will enable us to share the meal. Through our various programs, we help congregationsbuild their capacity and develop new skills to deepen their welcome to LGBTQ people within their churches and in their wider communities.

We hope you will give to More Light on ThursdayThe table is set. Help us share the meal.

Salina Brett

I woke up in complete darkness one warm summer night in 1975. I had fallen asleep upon a bench in a tunnel behind the amphitheater set of The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It was about 1 AM. I was 14 years old and I was several miles from home without a ride.

“The Play,” as we locals called it, was a two-hour presentation of Christ’s last week on earth. It employed townspeople from around the area as actors and at the peak of its run, seated 4400 people a night. At my young age, I was merely part of the rabble praising Jesus with Palms for his Triumphal Entry at the beginning of the production and then turning a fist toward him during the trial and crucifixion scenes. It was add-on summer job to my 8-hours of bussing restaurant tables. I enjoyed both the acting and the few extra dollars it paid.

I’d obviously been short on sleep that evening and dozed off so hard that I didn’t awaken until long after The Play was over, actors were gone, and busses had ferried the audience to their motel rooms.

I was disoriented, but I knew that I couldn’t just stay there. I had to find my way out. The staff had turned off the dim tunnel lights hours ago. I’d been overlooked because I’d fallen asleep in the shadows. Rising slowly, I carefully made my way, step by slow step, until I reached a set entrance. I came out of the dark and stepped into the light of a full July moon drifting across a starlit sky. No cell phones in those days, so I began my trek home on-foot.

I never thought the story would be a metaphor for where I am now.

Last year, two weeks before Easter, I “got woke” as the cool people say. This time it was our Lord – the Father of Lights (James 1:17).

I have struggled with my gender identity since the days when I performed in The Play, but I’d managed to keep my struggle very much in the dark tunnels of my life. It remained hidden and safe, in a place where only God and I knew of it. Two weeks before Easter, the sermon focus was to be on the raising of Lazarus. You’ll recall that this man had been dead and in the tomb for a few days before Jesus called into the darkness and said, “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43) When I saw the preview of the church bulletin, I had a very sudden and powerful sense of God saying to me, “Salina, come forth!” 

Some of you may know the feeling. It’s like when your mom discovers some hidden sin (like eating your brother’s Christmas candy) and directs you: “Go apologize!”  You think “No, no, no!” but deep down, you KNOW that’s what you must do. Let me tell you: apologizing for eating Christmas candy is jelly beans when compared to attending church in a simple grey jersey dress, no make-up, no wig, and a male body. 

What I hadn’t expected is that the Light that would shine upon me was like the soft moon-glow that I experienced when I walked out of the tunnel that night in 1975. It didn’t shock my eyes with condemnation like an officer’s flashlight, nor did it blind me with overwhelming brightness like the sun after being in a dark building. It was enough Light to see.

The glow came not directly from God, but through the exceptionally supportive congregation of my church. I had hoped the gesture would be a “one and done” Sunday confession-offering to God, but He had other plans for me. Over the following months, I came further out of the darkness and into the Light regarding my authentic, created self. (Psalm 139) I am more active in my church than ever and I am becoming involved in local LGBTQ activities.

Recently, I’ve heard God speaking again. This time it is both Word to me and through me to you. The message is this:

“Be Light.”

Pastor Jenny, who is the interim at our church and a God-sent companion in my personal journey, recently attended a Next Church conference. The theme and workshops were filled with ideas and thoughts on how to revitalize and re-energize our churches. They are certainly not the only concerned Christian organization. The continued wane of denominational Christianity in the United States has been profound and unmistakable for several years now. During the conference, Jenny said that several metaphors were used to describe the phenomena, “desert” being one of them.

Many people tend to think of the desert as a dead and barren place. While it certainly isn’t the heartland of Kansas or the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it is not dead. Life is there, waiting for the next rain or the cool of the night before coming out.

I believe that the denominational church, including our beloved Presbyterian USA, is in exactly that place. For the outsider, church may appear to be a dead or dying place, but to those of us on the inside – we experience life and Light. I also believe that a big challenge we face is social climate change. Where others were once drawn to our packed institutional churches in the years of strong institutions (big stone city halls, banks, churches, and even club buildings), that is no longer the case. What was once lush is now a desert because of social climate change.

Inviting someone to church often feels like: “Hey! Come over here and sit in the desert with us. You’ll love it.”

 

You might get a hearty one or two … but for the most part, people prefer Sunday at the beach.

“Be Light.”

To me – this means we need to come out of our dark and desert places. We need to be authentic and in the open. We need to “Be Light” to those who are groping around in their deserts and tombs and dark passages hoping to find a gentle moonbeam of hope. We need to seek out the depressed, the discouraged, the lonely, and the overwhelmed, to Be Light to them.

It’s an old message, but here’s the new twist – who better to “Be Light” to the world than those of us who’ve spent time hidden “in the closet?”  Who better to “Be Light” than an LGBTQ person who has known social fear and rejection? Who better to “Be Light” than someone who has lost relationships because of WHO they are?  Who better to “Be Light” than someone with these life experiences … and still says, “Christ is my Light?”

I find it more than a little curious that the rainbow is used as the symbol for the LGBTQ community. A rainbow is formed by the refraction of sunlight through drops of water. Could it be that we are now at a place in spiritual history where the drops of water that created the LGBTQ rainbow are the tears of sorrow from our past? Could it be that the LGBTQ rainbow could symbolize “never again an overwhelming flood of tears?” Could it be that Divine Light shining through our unique, God-created LGBTQ spirits, might be the love-Light that God will use to shine through the tears of others as a rainbow symbol of hope?

I believe so.

It begins by coming out of our dark places and living authentic lives. It continues when we live a life that is Christ-honoring, as well as loving and accepting all others in this world as our brothers, sisters, and siblings.

I believe it is possible that a day will come when others will say: “I want to love and be loved the way the LGBTQ community loves the world.”  It won’t be about sex or gender – it will be about the love-Light that shines through us.

I want to close by sharing an example of an LGBTQ love-Light that remains with me. It came in the clay, mortal package of Gene Lyon. He was one of three men who played the role of Christ in The Play back in 1975.  A slim white man with long blonde hair, he certainly wasn’t the middle-eastern model of Jesus’ mortal form, but inside, he shined with the love-Light of Christ. I always felt his portrayal of our Savior was the best, better than even the professional actor/director who scripted and created the Passion Play. The difference, I believe, is that Gene had a genuine, humble love for every person he met. It shined brightly when he was on stage and did not dim when he was off the set.

Openly gay, Gene was also warmly accepted by our community. This, at a time in our country’s history when gay people were routinely incarcerated, abused, shunned, and murdered.

Gene has long since passed on, but his closing scene of The Play continues to shine within me. It was the ascension.  Gene, in a shining white robe with a spotlight upon him, closed the performance by raising his hands and saying: “And I, If I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” (John 12:32)

His smile was as radiant as the spotlight upon him. He shone from inside-out with the Light of Christ.

I pray that we might also be lifted up and shine brightly, not for any spotlight glory, but instead, that others lost in their shadows might see the beautiful, LGBTQ, Christian love-Light within us and discover a moonbeam of hope that will light their path to spiritual freedom.

 

Overture 11-12, From New Castle Presbytery: Affirming and Celebrating the Full Dignity and Humanity of People of All Gender Identities

Concurrence: Mission Presbytery, Presbytery de Cristo, and Synod of the Covenant

That the 223rd General Assembly adopt the following resolution:

Standing in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people, the 223rd General Assembly affirms its commitment to the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world. The Assembly affirms the full dignity and the full humanity of transgender people, their full inclusion in all human rights, and their giftedness for service. The Assembly affirms the church’s obligation to stand for the right of people of all gender identities to live free from discrimination, violence, and every form of injustice.

Making these affirmations, the Assembly acknowledges that the church has fallen short of these commitments and obligations. In the world and in the Church, transgender people too often experience and suffer discrimination and violence.  The church has failed to understand fully and to celebrate adequately the full spectrum of gender embodied in God’s creation. As a result, we have participated in systemic and targeted discrimination against transgender people, and we have been complicit in violence against them. The Assembly affirms the scriptural obligation to work for justice for all God’s children, and particularly here to work for justice for people of all gender identities. We have fallen short of this obligation, and – by the grace of God – commit ourselves to do better.

These affirmations and this commitment are rooted and grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the breadth of Scripture, and in the Reformed Tradition. Scripture affirms that all people are created in the image of God. In God’s creation, we see and experience God’s image expressed across a broad and life-giving expression of gender. Honoring the breadth and variety of our gender identities and expressions is one of the ways we can come to an even deeper understanding of who we are created to be in relationship to God and each other. The Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospel, and the Reformed Tradition affirm the dignity and worth of all people and call on individuals and communities to work for the well-being and protection of all people. Because we recognize that people of all gender identities are created equally in the image of God, we also recognize that we share a mutual obligation to stand for the right of all people and all gender identities and gender expressions to live free from discrimination and from violence. The image of God expansively and specifically includes people of all gender identities including transgender, cis-gender, gender non-binary people, and people of all gender expressions.

Accordingly, the General Assembly empowers, authorizes, and directs the Stated Clerk and the Office of Public Witness to advocate for the rights of transgender people and for legal protections to ensure and protect the full humanity and dignity of people of all gender identities. Specifically, the Stated Clerk and the Office of Public Witness are authorized to support the right of transgender individuals to:

  • to serve in the military, and every type of government and public service,
  • to full access to public accommodations, including gender inclusive restrooms,
  • to full legal protection against discrimination, particularly with regard to employment, housing, education, and health care,
  • to title IX protections for transgender students against violence and bullying,
  • to other legal protections that guarantee and safeguard the full rights of transgender individuals.

The General Assembly also encourages congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to welcome transgender and gender non-binary people into the life of the church and to continue to grow in compassion and knowledge about the full expression of our individual and respective gender identities. To that end, the GA directs the Presbyterian Mission Agency to consult with existing LGBTQ+ focused advocacy organizations to develop and/or adopt educational resources to support congregational and denominational learning, and encourages Synods, Presbyteries, Seminaries, and congregations to do the same.

Transgender inclusion is lived out in our congregations and Presbyterian institutions in the following ways:

  • Welcoming statements that specifically name transgender and gender non-binary people as included within the life of the church
  • Policies that are inclusive of transgender and gender non-binary people
  • Available facilities such as bathrooms that are either designated as gender neutral, or allow for transgender and non-binary people to use the facility that matches their gender identity
  • Worship, liturgy, and hymns employ language inclusive of all gender identities
  • Transgender and gender non-binary people’s pronouns are respected and used appropriately.
Rationale

Our call as Christians is to welcome the diversity of all God’s creation

  • “For by God all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through God and for God. And God is before all things, and in God all things hold together” (Col. 1:16–17).
  • “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3: 28).

The terms to describe and define sexual orientation, gender identity and expression evolve as individuals name the nuances of who they are created to be. While language is inadequate to keep up with the depth of human experience, the Directory for Worship also reminds us, “the church is committed to using language in such a way that all members of the community of faith, may recognize themselves to be included, addressed, and equally cherished before God” (W-1.2006b). For the purpose of this overture, we use the following description of the terms to describe transgender and gender non-binary experiences:

  • Transgender: an intentionally broad term that can be used to describe people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned t when they were born.
  • Gender Non-Binary: a term that is often used to describe people whose gender identity is not exclusively male or female, including those who identify with no gender, with a gender other than male or female, or as more than one gender.

In the world and in the Church, transgender people, and those who are gender non-binary, too often experience and suffer discrimination and violence. The findings of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey examining the experiences of transgender and gender non-binary people from all fifty states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico,and U.S. military bases overseas “reveal disturbing patterns of mistreatment and discrimination and startling disparities between transgender people in the survey and the U.S. population when it comes to the most basic elements of life, such as finding a job, having a place to live, accessing medical care, and enjoying the support of family and community.”

  • Of 28,000 respondents, just in the year prior to the survey (2014), 30% who had a job were fired, 46% of respondents were verbally harassed and 9% were physically attacked because of being transgender. Nearly one-third (29%) of respondents were living in poverty, compared to 14% in the U.S. population. The majority of respondents who were out, or perceived as transgender while in school (K-12), experienced some form of mistreatment, including being verbally harassed (54%), physically attacked (24%), and sexually assaulted (13%) because they were transgender. Transgender people of color have some of the highest rates of discrimination, unemployment, and poverty compared to white transgender people, and to people who share the same race. While respondents in the USTS sample overall were more than twice as likely as the U.S. population to be living in poverty, people of color, including Latino/a (43%), American Indian (41%), multiracial (40%), and Black (38%) respondents, were up to three times as likely as the U.S. population (14%) to be living in poverty. The unemployment rate among transgender people of color (20%) was four times higher than the U.S. unemployment rate (5%). The survey also notes that growing visibility of transgender issues has lifted up not only the voices of transgender men and women, but also people who are non-binary, “with non-binary people making up over one-third of the sample, the need for advocacy that is inclusive of all identities in the transgender community is clearer than ever.”

In confession, we recognize and name the places we fall short in our relationship with God and with one another. For the church, the Confession of 1967 acknowledges, “In each time and place there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, skees to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations” (Confession of 1967, 9.43). In this particular time, the testimony of the harm and violence transgender and gender non-binary people face daily in this country calls upon the church to act. We confess that the violence impacting transgender people is not new, and that the church has not yet been outspoken to claim transgender and gender non-binary people as created in the image of God. In our own denomination, transgender and gender non-binary people have longed to use their gifts within our sanctuaries and within ordained ministry. Our silence as a church has meant that those who are transgender or gender non-binary seeking to serve the church have not received calls to ordained service, or have felt unwelcome to bring their full gifts into the life of the church.  

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has previously affirmed the need for the church to stand for the dignity and worth of “homosexual persons” (the term used at the time of passage).  Given the disproportionate rates of discrimination and harassment faced by transgender and non-binary persons, the church is called to expand its affirmation of the dignity and worth to include transgender and non-binary people.

  • The 117th and 118th General Assemblies asserted “the need for the church to stand for just treatment of homosexual persons [sic] in our society in regard to their civil liberties, equal rights and protection under the law from social and economic discrimination which is due all its citizens.”
  • On Affirming Civil Rights and Nondiscrimination for All Persons, Regardless of Sexual Orientation. That the 214th General Assembly (2002) direct the Stated Clerk to communicate the following action to all clergy, congregations, and seminaries:
    The General Assembly reaffirms these resolutions adopted by the 190th General Assembly (1978) of the UPCUSA-
    1. Calls upon Presbyterians to work for the passage of laws that prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations based on the sexual orientation of a person.

In the Foundations of Presbyterian polity in our Book of Order, the church is to be identified as “a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions” (F-2.01). To that end, this overture embraces two specific actions: advocacy and learning, for the denominational leadership and agencies, mid-councils, congregations, and seminaries. It authorizes the office to engage in the issues of our day to advocate for the rights of transgender and non-binary people and for legal protections to ensure and protect the full humanity and dignity of people of all gender identities. At the same time it encourages learning in order to grow in compassion for transgender and gender non-binary people. Resources to support this learning can be drawn from a number of sources including:

Overture 11-13 From New Castle Presbytery: On Celebrating the Gifts of People of Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities in the Life of the Church

Concurrence: Mission Presbytery, Presbytery de Cristo, and Synod of the Covenant

Recommendation:

That the 223rd General Assembly adopt the following resolution:

  • Celebrating the expansive embrace of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the breadth of our mission to serve a world in need, the 223rd General Assembly affirms the gifts of LGBTQ+ people for ministry and celebrates their service in the church and in the world.
  • The Assembly celebrates that over the years, LGBTQ+ people have faithfully, lovingly, and courageously served in every kind of service to which Christian disciples are called – notwithstanding the church’s efforts to exclude them from particular types of service.  
  • The Assembly laments the ways that the policies and actions of the PC(USA) have caused gifted, faithful LGBTQ+ Christians to leave the Presbyterian church so that they could find a more welcoming place to serve, as they have been gifted and called by the Spirit.
  • At the same time, the Assembly gives thanks for the LGBTQ+ pioneers of the faith who have persisted in relationship with the Presbyterian church, at great personal cost and sacrifice, together with the whole of the LGBTQ+ community, moving the church toward a more generous, loving, and just understanding of God’s grace.
  • The Assembly also gives thanks for those who continue to seek deeper understanding, and more authentic welcome, even amid discomfort or uncertainty about how best to show hospitality, in the spirit of continuing Reformation.
  • Today, openly LGBTQ+ people are leading churches, preaching the gospel, serving those in need and otherwise using their gifts for ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
  • With an eye toward the future, the Assembly affirms God’s presence and call in the lives of all God’s people and commits to seeking justice, equality and inclusion for all in church and society.
  • The Assembly calls on the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Office of Public Witness and all who represent the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to actively work for the protection of human and civil rights, both in the United States and around the world, especially the rights of marginalized and oppressed groups, including people facing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • The Assembly calls upon mission co-workers and ecumenical representatives to advocate for justice and equality for all God’s people in ways appropriate to their cultural and ecclesiastical context.
  • The Assembly encourages all congregations and councils of the PCUSA continually to seek to expand their welcome so that all might know the Good News of Jesus Christ and encourages all other communions to do the same.
Rationale:

The Assembly celebrates that over the years, LGBTQ+ people have faithfully, lovingly, and courageously served in every kind of service to which Christian disciples are called – notwithstanding the church’s efforts to exclude them from particular types of service.  

They have served as ministers of word and sacrament, proclaiming the inclusive good news of God’s love for all people in Jesus Christ, embodying Christ’s expansive welcome at the table, and reminding the church again and again what it means to live with integrity into our baptismal identity as beloved children of God.

They have served as ruling elders, leading congregations with wisdom; they have served as deacons, loving and caring for the church and its people.  And, beyond ordination to particular service, they have served the church in worship, ministry, and mission, with countless acts of tender mercy.

Since 2011, councils have been permitted under the constitution to ordain people without regard to sexual orientation or any other matter not related to their calling, gifts, preparation or suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry. Today, openly LGBTQ+ people are leading churches, preaching the gospel, serving those in need and otherwise using their gifts for ministry.

Still, the General Assembly has never explicitly affirmed the gifts and lives of LGBTQ+ people, some councils have elected not to ordain some LGBTQ+ candidates; and some inquirers, candidates and already ordained deacons, elders and ministers do not feel free to serve openly. Many churches with whom we are in ecumenical relationship still do not ordain LGBTQ+ people. This overture, therefore, will serve an important purpose expressing the Assembly’s affirmation.

Overture 11-04 from Presbytery of Boise On Reclaiming an Historic Reformed Understanding of Religious Liberty

Concurrence: Mission Presbytery, Presbytery de Cristo, and Synod of the Covenant

Recommendation:

The Presbytery of Boise respectfully overtures the 223rd General Assembly (2018) to take the following actions to reaffirm and clarify the position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding the appropriate boundaries of religious liberty:

  1. To reaffirm the “Guiding Principles for Ethical Decisions Concerning Religious Freedom Around the World” as adopted by the 214th General Assembly (2002), as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s position regarding the intersection of religious freedom and human rights, and a sound application of the denomination’s Policy Statement, God Alone Is Lord of Conscience as adopted by the 200th General Assembly (1988);
  2. To reaffirm, consistent with these actions of previous Assemblies, and the principles of the Belhar Confession, that religious freedom is not a license for discrimination against any of God’s people, and cannot justify the denial of secular employment or benefits, healthcare, public or commercial services or goods, or parental rights to persons based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression;
  3. To direct the Stated Clerk and the Office of Public Witness to oppose legislative, judicial and administrative efforts at the state and federal levels to limit the protection of persons based upon race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression in the guise of religious freedom;
  4. To encourage synods and presbyteries to oppose legislative, judicial and administrative efforts at the state and federal levels to limit the protection of persons based upon race, ethnicity, gender, physical limitations, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression in the guise of religious freedom; and
  5. To encourage all Presbyterians to distinguish between our historical understanding of our religious freedom to practice the essential tenets of our faith, and the misuse of the term religious freedom as a justification for discrimination in the provision of secular employment or benefits, healthcare, public or commercial services or goods, or parental rights to persons based on race, ethnicity, gender, physical limitations, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
Rationale:

The misuse of “religious liberty” is costing lives and depriving individuals of basic human rights.  The federal government and state legislatures are considering and passing legislation, and adopting administrative rules and regulations, under the guise of religious freedom that in reality are nothing more (or less) than a targeted attempt to promote a singular religious viewpoint that does not believe LGBTQ individuals are entitled to the full scope of human rights to employment, healthcare and parenting rights. These laws give businesses, service and healthcare providers, government workers, and private citizens engaged in commercial activities the unfettered right to discriminate against others, deny them needed services, and impose their own religious beliefs on others, so long as they cite their religious or moral belief as the reason for doing so.  Similarly, individuals found to have violated laws guaranteeing against discrimination in public accommodations and the delivery of commercial services are claiming a right to assert religious freedom as a shield against liability for such discrimination. Categorizing discrimination against individuals on the basis of such individuals’ race, ethnicity, physical limitations, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression as an exercise of religious freedom flies in the face of the foundation of such freedom – the assurance of the dignity and basic human rights of all human beings – and should not be condoned by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The General Assembly, in its previous adoption of “Guiding Principles for Ethical Decisions Concerning Religious Freedom Around the World” by the 214th General Assembly (2002), of the Policy Statement, God Alone Is Lord of Conscience by the 200th General Assembly (1988), has laid a firm foundation for the necessity of and boundaries for the exercise of religious freedom.  However, neither statement addressed the misuse of religious freedom to justify denial of basic human rights to individuals based upon race, ethnicity, physical limitations, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.  Recent executive and legislative actions – such as the “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” issued May 4, 2017, and the so-called “First Amendment Defense Act” – seek to justify discrimination against individuals, particularly individuals who face discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression under the guise of religious freedom.  Likewise, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the United States Supreme Court is currently determining whether individuals can avoid liability for violating state anti-discrimination laws regarding public accommodations and the delivery of commercial goods and services by claiming a religious right to engage in such discrimination.  The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should speak with a clear voice for “the destitute, the poor and the wronged” (Belhar Confession) to affirm that “religious freedom” can never be a pretext for denying all of God’s children basic human rights and freedom from discrimination in secular employment or benefits, healthcare, public or commercial services or goods, or parental rights.

I grew up in the small, conservative town of Wilson, North Carolina. This is normally where I ask people whether or not they’ve ever heard of Wilson, and apologize to those who have. The town is no place for a young transgender man in the South. I was bullied because of my identity––assaulted and harassed […]
For the past several months, More Light Presbyterians has been working together with the Rev. Janet Edwards and our friends at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians on an important effort to correct a lingering injustice. We are pleased to announce, with the cooperation of the Board of Pensions, steps toward a solution. But we need […]

I grew up in the small, conservative town of Wilson, North Carolina. This is normally where I ask people whether or not they’ve ever heard of Wilson, and apologize to those who have. The town is no place for a young transgender man in the South. I was bullied because of my identity––assaulted and harassed simply for existing as a trans man in my hometown. I have been pushed around, screamed at, and slapped for being me. I knew I had to “get out of dodge”, and when I graduated high school in 2014, I moved to Greensboro, NC, for college.

Looking back, I regularly ascertain that I began working as an advocate when I was In high school. I noticed that many of the things that my peers would do to elevate their college applications were inaccessible to me and other underprivileged students. School clubs cost $10-$20, marching band fees were $200, theatre was $25 per show. Even school sports had a fee. I would skip school lunches for weeks at a time to pay for these activities or gas for my brother and I to attend school. It was this struggle that prompted me to fight to make these activities more accessible to poor students.

When I began attending UNC-Greensboro, I was double majoring in Trumpet Performance and Music Education. In my high school, the band room was a safe haven for me, and I wanted to create that space for other queer kids in the South as well. Although, I began to move away from teaching music, and towards teaching about equity. It was around this time that I changed my major to Economics to study economic mobility. I wanted to know more about ways I could impact the system that perpetuates generational poverty in rural america and across the world.

It was also around this time that the infamous House Bill 2 (HB2) would come to fruition in the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA). HB2 was a multifaceted policy that primarily impacted trans people, people of color, and the poor by attacking legal process to file claims of discrimination, over-reaching into local governments ability to raise wages, and limiting the right to use the bathroom. I remember watching HB2 move throughout the NCGA the day that it was passed. I say “the day it was passed” because it was quite literally passed over the course of 12 hours. I remember going out with my friends because I was so anxious about the measure. I remember feeling heat rise in my face when I saw that Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill that night, and I remember posting a picture of myself, asking if I should be forced to go to the women’s restroom.  I’ve never been so angry.

Hearing the news HB2 had been passed into law, I emailed the ACLU of NC and Equality NC. I knew I had to be a part of dismantling hate from the laws of NC. I had no idea that email would lead to me becoming a plaintiff against HB2, an influential lawsuit for trans rights in the South. We are in a time where we must rise up. Our community, communities of color, poor communities are under constant attack. I am excited to be joining the team at More Light. I am excited to learn how to gracefully engage with people of faith across lines of difference. I am excited to be a part of changing hearts while changing laws. I am excited to work with people of faith to build a world that reflects God’s heart. I want to invite you to join me in this excitement.

The work More Light is doing in local congregations, in North Carolina as a response to HB2, and across the country needs your support. Join me in this excitement and give $15, today.

For the past several months, More Light Presbyterians has been working together with the Rev. Janet Edwards and our friends at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians on an important effort to correct a lingering injustice. We are pleased to announce, with the cooperation of the Board of Pensions, steps toward a solution. But we need your help.

We are seeking to identify the pool of people who were legally married or in legally recognized civil unions (any legally recognized relationship conveying inheritance benefits) and in which the partner who was a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s pension plan died prior to 2013 (the year the plan began offering eligibility for same-sex spouses/partners to enroll in the plan).

Once we know how many people meet these qualifications, we will work with the Board of Pensions and other agencies of the church to identify adequate funding to pay the equivalent of survivor benefits to those who, under today’s rules, would have been eligible. While the Board of Pensions is under no legal obligation to make such payments, they have agreed to administer them if an appropriate funding source can be found.

Please read the letter below and share it with others who might be affected. And if you have any questions—or have suggestions or ideas about providing necessary funding to correct this injustice—contact us at hello@mlp.org. And thank you!

Please Help Us Find Some Lost Sheep:
A Pastoral Letter to the PCUSA

For some time, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA) has been working to reflect in the life of our church the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people (LGBTQ) in God’s heart. This is all good. It is also a process.

Situations of LGBTQ people in the church continue to emerge that call us to pay attention and reform in order to embrace LGBTQ people with justice and compassion–the way we want to embrace every child of God.

One such situation has come to light. More Light Presbyterians and the Covenant Network of Presbyterians are asking for your help to identify others for whom we can make this right.

We know that LGBTQ Presbyterians have diligently served God in the PCUSA all along. Before the change in ordination policy in 2011, Chris Glaser and Rev. Janie Spahr had the courage to come out. LGBTQ faithful labored in the church with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. And, as most do, these faithful servants were enrolled in the plans of the Board of Pensions. Their  congregations paid diligently into the plan in support of their enrollment.

And there is a good chance that some of these closeted LGBTQ clergy had beloved long-term partners–spouses in the eyes of God and in our eyes now, too. The most important thing is that they were not known to the church. They were not known to the Board of Pensions.

In 2013, the Board of Pensions began to make this right by including same-sex spouses among those eligible to receive survivor pensions. That 2013 policy has been the date from which they have marked this eligibility.

But LGBTQ people could be legally married a good while before 2013. In the United States, Vermont began civil unions in 2000. They were available in Denmark in 1989.

Unfortunately, the pension fund cannot make regular pension benefit payments for those the plan did not recognize as spouses prior to 2013. But, if another source of funding can be found, the Board of Pensions is willing to administer equivalent payments, as if those spouses/partners had been eligible under today’s rules. Essentially, those eligible for these payments would be survivors (of enrolled plan members) in a same-sex marriage, civil union or domestic partnership that conferred legal rights of inheritance, and in which the plan member died before January 1, 2013.

In order to secure funding within the church, we need to know how many such surviving spouses/partners there are. We have to find them, which is not so easy, which is why we need you!

We need you to make sure that LGBTQ members of the Pension Plan, both ordained clergy and other employees right now enroll their spouses with the Board of Pensions to ensure eligibility for survivor benefits. Please check to make sure the LGBTQ Presbyterian clergy you know have this in place. Please!

And, we need you to help us find the beloved, legal spouses of closeted LGBTQ clergy in the PCUSA who died before the 2013 revision in Board of Pensions policy. These may not be Presbyterian. They likely do not know of this possible benefit. We need to find them to make this right!

We know there is one. Shannon Clarkson and Rev. Dr. Letty Russell met in 1974 and began living together in 1975. In 2005, they celebrated their civil union in Connecticut in a ceremony with friends in their home. In 2007, Letty passed away. Letty began her service in the PCUSA at the East Harlem Parish in 1951. Most likely, payments on her behalf into the pension plan started then, too.

Shouldn’t Letty’s beloved partner of 32 years receive the equivalent survivor benefits? How many Shannons are there out there? We need to know to get this right!

So, please, contact the Rev. Janet Edwards at revjanetedwards@gmail.com if you know of a surviving spouse of LGBTQ clergy who passed away before 2013.

We need your help to find these lost sheep!

Janet Edwards, member-at-large, Pittsburgh Presbytery

Alex McNeill, executive director, More Light Presbyterians

Brian Ellison, executive director, Covenant Network of Presbyterians

 

 

Presbyterian Fun Fact

There are about 75 million Reformed/Presbyterian Christians worldwide and about 2.5 million belong to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

 

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