Bethel Symposium Presentation by Audrey Roth Kraybill

~Text by Audrey Roth Kraybill from her presentation at Bethel University

I stood in line, my heart pounding, waiting my turn to do something I hadn’t done in a long time: act up in church.

I was participating in a silent protest at a national delegate session of Mennonite Church USA.  I stood with a group called Pink Menno waiting to quietly and respectfully show that I totally disagree with church policy regarding   homosexuality.

One by one we entered the room, each of us carrying a photo of someone alienated by the church polity. Then it was my turn. I asked to carry a photo of a young man. I wanted to represent my 25 year-old gay son. I walked through the door and held my photo up high, holding back my tears.

Pink Menno is a movement that supports inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender members in the Mennonite church. It started in 2008 when a brother and sister imagined a church where all are welcome. They wear pink to demonstrate their support for LGBT members of the church, and to work toward changing its exclusionary polity toward them.

How did I, an average grey haired, bifocal wearing Mennonite Mother who prefers being gently draped in figure-disguising clothes find myself willingly crammed into a tight Pink tee shirt that accented every bulge? How did I, a Mennonite Mother studying for masters of divinity at a Mennonite seminary find myself doing ecclesiastical disobedience in the very denomination I want to serve?

I stood in line with Pink Menno because I could not do otherwise. I risked public, ridicule, rejection and alienation because my son and other children of the Mennonite church do it every day. It’s not that easy being Pink, but it’s the color of love.

There has never been a question of accepting my child as gay. He came out when he was 18 and I have no doubts that God loves him beyond measure, gay or straight. But since he came out, I had a growing, horrifying sense that the policies of the church I loved, the very church which had loved my son unconditionally before he came out, had excised him from the church with the rusty knife of homophobia cloaked in the guise of love.

I love my son, and I would follow him to the ends of the earth. When you’re a Mennonite mother of a gay child, that’s pretty much where you find yourself; at the edges of the church, of its community and blessing. I’ve come to call that place the borderlands.

My family won the genetic lottery. 10% of the population is gay. We have a gay son. Identical triplets occurs one in 300,000 births. We have identical triplet daughters. We hit the jackpot!

But when it comes to the church, only straight children win. Because of his genetic composition, my son can participate in church, but only at the cost of not being completely himself. He becomes a sinner when he exercises his God given gift to love and be loved. Couched in the language of kindness and caring, as in the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin,” the church says to be homosexual is ok. But as for falling in love, only straight Menno’s may apply.

And so, the borderlands of the church are Pink.

As I have struggled to make sense of where my son fits in the Mennonite church, I’ve been helped by writers of various disciplines who speak to issues related to the Mexican/US border. These writers use the word Borderlands to describe the area surrounding the border.  I don’t want to misappropriate the unique Mexican/American experience of life on the border, but writings from their viewpoint have helped me feel less alone in my own borderlands.

Mexican American Catholic priest Virgilio Elizondo is a liberation theologian. He speaks both personally and theologically about life in the borderlands. He says” The borderlands are often a lonely place where it is hard to find who you are. But they are a place that is fecund and fertile with new life, where cultures and people are forging and new thing together. It is a place to get lost and a place to be found. It can cradle you or bury you.”

As a Mennonite mother of a gay son I live in the borderlands.  When my son came out as gay I followed him as closely as I could: I did not want him to be without his mother.

Then I looked around the borderlands. I saw other LGBT children of the church who had been exiled by theological gerrymandering. But they were still part of the church, and they needed mothering too. I was a Mennonite mother who had already crossed the border of political and theological orthodoxy of the church. I would wear pink for them too.

And so began my trek across borderlands of the church, beyond my tidy view of Mennonite motherhood.

When I found my son and me banished to the borderlands of the Mennonite Church, I was furious. I lamented. Biblical laments can get pretty nasty. Biblical scholars say a lament always ends with reaffirmation of faith, when the writer finally can say;”But you are my God”. I lamented: I railed, cussed, cried, screamed.  In other words it took me a while to say, “But you are my God”.

It was hard to let go of the pain. It was inconceivable to me that my son who I adore would be distanced by the church. I felt betrayed. I am a Mennonite, a more with less cookbook-using, relief sale going wash-out-your-plastic-bags Mennonite woman. I was a missionary kid, and pastor’s kid.

But that’s just cultural. Theologically I’m a Mennonite because I believe Jesus presided over communion with “fringy people” because that’s where God is. Plus, I think Jesus didn’t hang out with them just to make a point, but because they were his people.

Somehow being a mother aching and seeking justice for my son, made me need new images of God. I needed a way to see God as mother. It would comfort me to know that his Mother God would search for him where I could not go, find him when I could not, hold him with love as I could not, and never let him go.

I wanted to see God as a Mother in pink.

I’ll admit I wanted a powerhouse in your face Mother God. I wanted her to be a towering PMS God with an oh-no-you -didn’t attitude.  I wanted her to pick up her whirlwind-self and do some Old Testament style wrath on those who hurt my son. She didn’t. As far as I know.

Yet she listened and answered my prayers. Instead of reigning down hail and brimstone as I kinda hoped she would, she lead me to something unexpected.

She gave me an icon. It must’ve been one of her ecumenical days because I don’t think she got the memo: Mennonites don’t do icons.

I grew up knowing God was male. It was an ironclad truth, just like the fact that Jesus looked exactly like the picture in the Sunday school room, a white man with long flowing hair and blue eyes. God was a Father. Not a mother. Period. The hymns we sang in at church proved it: we sang children of the heavenly Father; this is my Father’s world, and faith of our fathers. Mennonites don’t have images of God the Mother: God isn’t a mother, silly!

Growing up a Mennonite child when I did, anything smacking of Catholicism was seemed theologically dangerous and vaguely sinful. Our church was simple and unadorned so nothing could distract us from the voice of God. In fifth grade one of best friends was Catholic. She made being a sinner seem so exotic!  Catholic churches had beautiful statues of Mary: we had Formica cross glued onto the pulpit. It just wasn’t the same. And most of all, she got to wear jewelry of saints. Try putting Formica cross around your neck.  Life’s so unfair.

God the Mother remembered that. So she gave me a beautiful icon of my own. I have read various opinions by Mennonites on the use of icons in devotional and spiritual formation. Some have directly appropriated Eastern orthodox icons, some used the idea to make icons of early Anabaptists, and others caution against such borrowing from other religious traditions.

But I needed an icon which would help me reframe my imagery of God beyond God our Father.  Yes, we need to speak of God the Father. And gendering God can and even hurtful for some people. That is not my intent. It is important for me to know that Mother God was always watching out for those in the borderlands because I couldn’t, and the church wouldn’t. In addition to the familiar repertoire of imagery of God as Father, I needed God the mother who would never tire of walking the borderlands with her children. I needed to see her hold them and refuse to let them go.

So, somewhat self-consciously, I started by collecting thrift store Virgin Mary’s at Goodwill’s and thrift stores. There was quite the range of options: ones that thoughtfully included a planter, ones made of badly carved olive wood or, my favorite, plastic imitation ivory. I liked carrying one in my purse… until her head popped off.

Despite their artistic differences, these Mary’s were the same. Mary stood tall, her hands clasped in a ladylike prayer, her robes perfectly starched and her Halo solidly attached. She was a step in the right direction, but she felt too ethereal and detached for me. She pointed to a mother God who might faint if she had to walk across blazing heat of the borderlands. I kept looking.

Finally, I found her.

Right away I knew she was the one I’d been looking for. She was colorful. Her blue cloak was sprinkled with a firmament of stars. Bouquets of flowers surrounded her and she was backlit by a burst of sunrays. Her name was Our Lady of Guadalupe. Now this was an icon. She helped me see God our Mother, who even brought her own sun and stars to guide me through the borderlands.

Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to a poor Mexican Indian farmer in 1540 to encourage her people in the wake of the devastating Spanish conquest. She told him “I truly am your merciful mother, your mother and the mother of all who dwell in this land, and all of mankind, all of those who love me, of those who cry to me, and of those who seek and place their trust in me. Here I shall listen to their weeping and their sorrows. I shall take them all to my heart, and I shall cure their many sufferings, afflictions, and sorrows.” When I heard her story something moved in me and I felt the embrace of God the Mother

Chicana writer Nicole Stratten reflects on how deeply Chicana artists feel empowered by Our Lady of Guadalupe.  She says, “The Virgin of Guadalupe, as depicted by Chicana artists, is a superhero with the supernatural powers to stomp out patriarchy in one leap and the strength to take on racism and classism that has existed since colonial times all on her own.” I had never thought of God like that.  But icons help to broaden images of God. I could see God the Mother stomping in protest at injustices done to her LGBT children.

Now, besides fulfilling my fifth grade desire for jewelry, I am grateful to the Catholic Church for teaching me a new way to see God. Over the years, I have found deep meaning in this unexpected place. Our Lady of Guadalupe is loved around the world. She is seen as a tireless champion of people on the edges of things, for the oppressed, the poor, and the outsider. She is the compassionate mother for those who are abandoned, wounded or denied. She has changed me. She has taught me not to fear, that I am not alone because she reminds me my Mother God is with me, and my son.

Once you know Our Lady of Guadalupe, you will find her image everywhere. Her image is everywhere: jewelry, tee-shirts, calendars, tattoos.  Our Lady of Guadalupe phone case or bobble-head anyone? Sounds silly. But as one writer explained, this is because she belongs to the people and they feel she is intimately present in their lives. That is what an icon does. It is a reminder to look beyond it to the thing it represents. She reminds me that Mother God is with me, my son, and all the Mennonite children in the borderlands of the Mennonite Church.

Theologian Richard Beck in his book “Unclean” discusses the danger of Christians putting a dogma of purity over a call to hospitality. He says, “In the desire to secure purity, the faith community will begin to turn inward. The moral circle shrinks. The church begins to define it spiritual mission as the regulation of purity boundaries within the membership and between outsiders. Walls – – ritual, physical, and psychological – – are erected to protect and quarantine the faith community. It is the communal manifestation of incurvatus in se; a theological phrase describing a life lived “inward” for self rather than “outward” for God and others. The community has curved in on itself.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe helps me straighten that curve, to remember that God the Mother stretches outward and invites the church to do the same. She joins the messenger in Isaiah 40,

“A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert  a highway for our God.[b]
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken”.

The church bending in upon itself must be broadened and straightened so Mother God can walk within it, so the glory of the Lord can be revealed in it.

Our Lady of Guadalupe helped me to see a radically welcoming Mother God who commands that mountains of fear and prejudice be leveled and make a highway with room for everyone to walk with her. It is where she stands with her LGBT children because in God’s glory all are welcome. I stand there too. God the Mother plunked herself down in my life and said, I’m here and I’m not moving.” She has not left me comfortless. She has given me a vision and a hope.

I recently had a vision.

I walked alone in a windy, open barren place. The wind blew, kicking up whirlwinds of dust. I could barely see. Then, ahead of me, figures began to emerge from the swirl of white dust. As they came closer I saw a woman with thick, strong legs leaning into the wind, striding through the desert with quiet unshakable resolve. On her back she carried many people who could not walk. With each hand she held those recovering and learning to walk again. I was drawn to her. She gathered me into her brood and walked with her through the borderlands, helping gather in others who needed her.

Our lady of Guadalupe has taught me that there are no borders to God’s love; we are all made in her image. If Mother God is for us, then who can be against us? As she leaps across the borderland in a single bound, she flings open church doors and banishes injustice in a single bound.

That’s why last summer I wore a pink tee-shirt. Pink is the color of love. And I’m pretty sure Mother God wears it too.

It suits her.  It’s her color.

4 comments on “Bethel Symposium Presentation by Audrey Roth Kraybill
  1. Karen Haldeman says:

    Wow! How inspiring. I love it!
    Karen- Ethan’s mom

  2. Keith Schrag says:

    Wow!! This is amazingly beautiful and inviting. It speaks to my heart. Thank you so much for your journey with us…and many others….through the borderlands, wearing pink and La Virgen de Guadalupe and a symbol of hope and love:)

  3. Pamela Dintaman says:

    Audrey, I believe your pounding heart has always been a gift. I remember different times when you’ve been willing to stand up and share a needed word. This is true here too. Thank you for the time you put into creating your reflections. Our Anabaptist tradition brings us into an interesting place concerning purity. I believe some of that “separation/purity” mentality was needed in the 1500’s as people broke away from the state church; others found it so threatening that they hunted Anabaptists down; people needed to know who was in and who was out. (That’s my take on it.) But we’ve carried on that “purity” stream way beyond now to a place that constricts and chokes us. I gotta recommend the artist Yolanda Lopez…”Portrait of the artist as the Virgen of Guadelupe,” strong, running, approaching any fears with vigor. I’ll try adding a link:

  4. Lori Matties says:

    I had the privilege of hosting your son for a couple of weekends when he was in Winnipeg with Outtatown. He is a delightful person. I was impressed with his generosity and thoughtfulness. When I heard why he left the program, I grieved for him and for the friends he had made. I’ve kept him in my prayers off and on. I’m glad he has such an amazingly creative and supportive mom. Thank you for sharing your story. May Mother God keep you both in her arms of love and care.