Stepping Out of Shame

Kirsten Freed shared the following reflection on her experience in Pittsburgh, originally posted on the Coming Out Strong blog. She is currently the volunteer intern with BMC (Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests) and supports the Kaleidoscope program.

From BMC’s website:
Kaleidoscope is a supportive and resource-sharing network for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), questioning and allied people on peace church campuses, but includes those in high school, young people in general, and those young in spirit. Kaleidoscope provides opportunities to make connections, receive support, and be active in local communities. Faculty, alumni, and supportive individuals are also involved within the church and beyond. Ways Kaleidoscope provides support for students on campuses and young adults include:

  • Establishing educational programs for residence life staff and interested individuals.
  • Keeping the lines of communication open between faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
  • Connecting students, young people and recent alumni via its email listserv, K-Scope.
  • Increasing youth and young adult presence at BMC gatherings and retreats by offering scholarships.

photo by Lisle Bertsche

Kirsten contributed to our work in Pittsburgh by being a supportive and resourceful presence in the Hospitality Room and by leading a number of workshops.  As always, we are grateful for our collaborative relationship with BMC and we recognize that without the foundation of decades of advocacy, education, and peaceful presence, our current experience would be very different.

Thank you Kirsten for sharing this thoughtful post!



“Stepping Out of Shame”

by Kirsten Freed

I wanted to write a reflection about the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh that highlighted the positive. Indeed, there were deep currents of strength, resilience, and hope, sprinkled with moments of joy, anger, laughter and sadness. I could tell you about the Pink Menno hymn sings where I felt more connected to “my” faith community than I have in years. I could share the experience of attending worship services organized by Open Letter pastors where many shed tears of deep emotion. I could paint a verbal picture of Ruby Lehman proudly sporting a homemade button identifying her as a “Pink Menno Grandmother.” I could describe the big smile on my face when amongst all the roaming groups of colour-coded youth-group-identifying T-shirts, I saw one group who had chosen to put their church name on a pink shirt. I could try to remember and list all of the positive, encouraging, and hopeful interactions I had with other convention attendees. But with all these experiences to choose from, I find myself dwelling on one of two negative encounters – one that tried to use shame to put me in my place.

I am having no trouble putting aside the more obviously aggressive encounter with two middle-aged business-looking men who approached me and my pink-clad buddy to direct us to a change ministry website. Perhaps I dismiss it as ridiculous because it is so overtly offensive.

The encounter I can’t get out of my mind was a very brief exchange I had with a motherly looking woman on the street. I was standing on a corner a few blocks from the convention center, being a human sign post for those looking for directions to a college panel taking place off site. (BMC, Pink Menno and Open Letter had to rent space outside of the regular convention.) As she walked past me in a crowd of other convention attendees, the woman asked “how old are you?” “I’m thirty,” I responded, to which she threw over her shoulder from some distance away, “then you should be old enough to know better.”

This brief and at first glance fairly innocuous comment has such power because it stands upon a long and deep history Mennonites have of using shame to keep everyone within the community in line. I was skeptical the first time BMC’s director Carol Wise mentioned the use of shame as part of Mennonite culture. Two years at BMC has shown me the truth of this observation. It hurts me to see our supposedly pacifist and community-oriented church turn to emotional and spiritual violence to punish or correct community members they see as stepping outside of a boundary of acceptability.

The thing about shaming, though, is that it only works if you let it. Shaming loses all power when it is recognized for what it is. Since I am proud to identify with a movement toward an lgbtq welcoming church, the attempt to shame me only fueled my determination to be a present, visible and vocal “sign” that a church that includes lgbtq people is both possible and good.

On an individual level, shaming often takes the form of cold shoulders and social isolation (our 21st century version of shunning). Some people retreat and some people stand firm. The difference doesn’t seem to be how harsh the behavior was, but rather how much shame was experienced.

photo by Caitlin Desjardins

At a congregational/district level, this can be seen when congregations, (even in liberal districts), won’t become publicly affirming for fear of discipline, while others go forward anyway. This is threat of “discipline” is really all about using shame (you’ve done something bad deserving of punishment) to keep congregations from challenging the status quo. What, after all, can a district actually do to a congregation? Most districts have figured out that revoking a congregation’s membership looks bad and accomplishes little more than burnt bridges and revenue loss. The current tactic of choice seems to be threatening a pastor’s credentials. When the bluff is called and the congregation continues to support their pastor, there is nothing more for the district to hold over a congregation’s head – they end up looking both mean and weak.

I encourage you to take a moment now and again to remind yourself what values you are grounding your actions and choices in. It is much harder for someone to make me feel ashamed of my actions, when it is very clear in my own mind that I am making conscious, thoughtful, and belief-based choices. Hold your head up high!

Kirsten Freed
Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests

originally posted:

2 comments on “Stepping Out of Shame
  1. Jonathan Beachy says:

    Thank you Kirsten for sharing such a deeply committed, and painful, but freeing encouragement. You have spoken from your heart, and from truth! Thank God at 64 I am old enough to know better, to know that your “shamer” is still not old enough to know what you know at 30! Chosing to lean on “the ever lasting arms” instead of being pushed by arms of rejection or shame into a cul de sac of self loathing puts you right in the middle of a cuddle sack of God’s love made real by those who know the truth of God’s love, and are free! Be loved, be blessed, be real!

  2. Deb Bergen says:

    The power of motherly figures, eh? Reminded me of one analyst’s comment on the Montgomery bus strike and similar actions – because whites in the south had given so much of the work of raising their children to dark-skinned nannies/mamies, there was a strong unconscious attachment that resisted violence to them, and a vulnerability to a confident older black woman telling them they had mis-stepped. Flaunting one’s gray hair may be for women what wearing a tie is for men in a protest action – disorienting and persuasive.
    Obviously it’s a power used with more or less skill. The comment you report does leave me momentarily speechless, in it’s reliance on SOOOO much unspoken shared worldview. Old enough to know better to – what? not stand on street corners? not use larger posters or a megaphone if you really want people’s attention? dress more appropriately for the weather? smile – or not smile – at people? was there a grammar mistake on the sign? should it have been in more languages? Like – really? That’s the best she could come up with if she was targeting pink??
    It highlights the weakness of single line statements thrown out, rather than engaging stories. It’s as likely as anything that half a dozen people in the vicinity thought “oh cool! this is a service for young people! Especially ones that don’t want to turn into bitter older people!” Lord have mercy on her soul.
    And yet she found the emotional button. So true that nonviolent work on change requires deep awareness of values (including personal views on violence), and the greater work of reaching deeper into the reason we participate – that love which we know can embrace both us and the one who wants to shut us out. That’s why effective nonviolent movements include deliberate desensitization (James Lawson’s students spent months recalibrating responses to crude names and being spit at, Gandhi’s were dragged across caste limits before facing armies) – after solidly grasping their own honorable existence.
    Thank you for recognizing and analyzing what happened here and sharing it – shame can only spread in darkness.