Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Inclusive church in the community

Following on from my earlier post about an inclusive church service, in addition to attending a service, I had the pleasure of seeing the inclusive church in action in the community yesterday, as well.

I had been invited by Diana, to go and share in a picnic lunch on a blanket in Dolores Park, San Francisco, which was also an opportunity to offer spiritual advice to the local community.  Because of location, obviously much (if not most) of the local community is made up of members of the LGBT community.  Because it was warm and sunny, the park was full of people making the most of it ... there were people eating and drinking with friends, catching the sun, enjoying ballgames, walking dogs (and even a kitten!), holding hands, and relaxing. It's sad that I feel I need to add that last sentence, in case people think that gays in a park must automatically mean cruising, and it's sad that people who may assume that can't see the bigotry behind that assumption, or fail to recognise that - even if that were the case - that many straight people do it too (reference the Channel 4 documentary on 'Dogging').

Anyway, the group of us that gathered included a Deacon, two monks, a drag queen, a Rector, an Archdeacon, and myself.  We set up blankets, food and a sign advertising that we were offering spiritual advice. Although we didn't get much interest in the spiritual advice that day, we did have a guy come over who shared that the advice he'd received previously had really helped. He was walking by, collecting donations for the AIDS walk in a few weeks, so he was giving back to the community.  We also had a few people come over to say hello to some of our group that they knew, and there was no shame in doing so.

My experience of ministering to the LGBT community back home is that - often - they don't want to be seen to be talking to a person of faith, because of the LGBT community's experiences of faith communities; how they've been vilified and ostracised, or at best - allowed into our churches or groups, and demonised and dehumanised.  So, the two communities often have an inherent distrust of each other, which can make it very difficult to offer any authentic ministry to the LGBT community.

It was lovely to be gathered with such a diverse group in the midst of a very diverse community, and - once again - to be there with a sense of pride at being able to be present in a community without a sense of apology and guilt.  We were there because we genuinely wanted to help and affirm them for their sake, not because we wanted to change them into what we thought they should be, or because we wanted them to join our churches.  This was about them; helping them to make sense of their lives and their key life moments, and offering advice to help them become who they were created to be.

The ministry on the blanket had a sense of validity, through the hard work of the colleagues and friends I was gathered with ... they have spent a long time working in the community, and because of that, were able to be there without any sense of animosity or suspicion, which I think would be the case if a church group suddenly placed themselves in a park in the UK where the LGBT community was gathered to enjoy the sun. Through the way it has treated members of the LGBT community, the Church in the UK (capital 'C'), has largely lost it's credibility with the LGBT community (and it's not hard to see why).

My experience on Sunday was that it was both energising and inspiring to be in the midst of a community that had spent so many years in the margins, not as superiors, but as members of that community, offering ourselves and our ministry to them, and to have them view us without animosity.  We were simply an equal part of the community.

On the blanket in Dolores Park, offering ministry to the community gathered.
On the blanket in Dolores Park
After we left Dolores Park, Tommy, one of clergy invited me to join him in Aunt Charlies Lounge, one of the Drag clubs, to meet some of the Drag Queens he knows, and has ministered to (and with!). These ladies are part of the Grand Ducal Court of San Francisco, and I had the opportunity to chat briefly with a view of them, and met the reigning Grand Duchess, Paloma Volare.

These ladies obviously knew Tommy well, and had respect for him, and it was mutual.  They greeted each other with affection, and I learned of how these ladies worked extremely hard to raise funds for charity.  What was incredible to see was how his church and these ladies worked so well together, for the benefit of the local community.

They had raised most of the funds for his church to run their food pantry for a year, providing food to people in need.  However, he and his congregation had also helped raise funds for their charity concerns, which include AIDS charities, food charities, cancer charities, a community centre, and a nighttime ministry.  The Grand Ducal Court of San Francisco, of which these ladies are a part, raises around $50,000 annually for these charity concerns.  Tommy had helped them with that, and they share a concern for the local community, and are ministering together.  Tommy's church had included them in other ways, by offering ministry to them when they lost a dear friend, and by welcoming them into congregation functions, sometimes in drag, where they were celebrated and allowed to use their gifts.

This is another example of how much further inclusivity should go than merely stating that LGBT people are welcome.  This morning's church service I attended and these examples of inclusive church active in the community are examples of being truly inclusive, where people's diversity is celebrated, and the beauty and the gifts that they bring are encouraged and used for the benefit of the community around them.

Some photos of some of the ladies of the Grand Ducal Council of San Francisco
Some photos of some of the ladies of the Grand Ducal Council of San Francisco
I'm not for one minute suggesting that there aren't other forms of inclusivity, or that these are the best expressions of an inclusive church at worship and in the community ... after all, it's a big world out there.  I'm speaking from my perspective and experiences, and obviously mentioning my impressions of what I've seen and how it's impacted on me.

What struck me was how much good can be done in the community and for the kingdom, when people are included as they are, affirmed as they are, and encouraged and enabled to use their gifts, without having to feel shame, without feeling that they can't let people see who they really are.

This is a very good example of what the inclusive church looks like in the community.

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