by Luke L Miller
My beloved pink siblings everywhere, so many of you weren’t with us in Orlando at the 2017 Mennonite Church USA convention. Orlando was an experience of an aching, haunting absence, an absence experienced most acutely through the beautiful joyous faces and hope-filled eyes of the queer youth who thrived under the sheltering wing of what all of us have built.
Last night, Saturday, after all the convention was packed and done, I was still riding that surge of creative, soul-shining, beloved-community-soaked (and giddy extreme-exhaustion-addled) energy that that I’ve experienced at every Pink Menno, the inhibitions were gone (that was so awesome hanging out last night Kate and Annabeth!) and my brain was connected pretty directly to my mouth, and the phrase that came out was something like “we’ve ripped a hole in the heart of the church with space for queer kids to thrive.” I wish you all could have seen how their eyes shone and their faces beamed safe, relaxed joy as they stood at the center of our hymn sings outside the delegate/summit hall. You weren’t there to see it, but I saw you in there, in those eyes, saw you shining through them. That’s how I knew you were absent, because I looked for you – I wanted to see you so badly – and the only place I could find you was in those eyes.
We were present. For the first time, the planners who had been delegated authority to plan the convention by the denomination specifically named the need for queer voices to be present in the church’s discernment process and sought us out. Twenty of us from Pink Menno, Inclusive Pastors and BMC were added to the Future Church Summit joining the queer and supportive delegates already attending from their congregations. For the first time, the inclusive worship service that we planned was an official worship service of the convention, was featured in the bulletin, and to my very rough looking-around-the-room estimation was our largest gathering yet. (Although since straight people got to choose a room for us this time, the lighting was HORRIBLE. Ugh. MC USA, please hurry up and put your queers in charge of lighting. You will seriously thank us.) Several seminars proposed by by BMC were accepted into the convention (LGBTQ pastors, congregational discernment about inclusion, and parents of LGBTQ kids). More than fifteen other proposals from Pink Menno related folks were rejected, including all the ones specifically for queer people. BMC had their booth in the exhibit hall for the second time in recent history and I heard there was a steady flow of folks stopping by to engage in real, meaningful conversations.
Pink Menno held our own space, a room we paid for, and one much further away from the Mennonite part of the convention center than in Kansas City in 2015. We had asked Glen to pay for our room as the denomination’s response to the destruction of queer space at the Orlando Pulse shooting. He said no (and took personal transparent responsibility for the decision in a refreshing non-Menno-bureaucratic way.) So, we had our pink room. Our usual stream of excited, wonderful, completely open youth came through (and loved the hats & shirts Kerry helped design). The pink room’s biggest hit was certainly the Pink Youth Summit, a three-hour mini-church-summit attended by about 40 kids. (Read the Pink Youth Summit notes here.) In addition, about 50 members and pastors from inclusive churches gathered to hear movement updates and learn about LGBTQ elders. We had small circle discussions about queerness and spiritual journey, and Hayley shared a Trans 101 learning event. We brought in boxes of pizza for lunch to debrief and relax. Many supportive delegates gathered in our space to prepare for the upcoming summit. In all, the pink room felt holy, wonderful, and safe, even if diminished in energy from 2015.
Pink overflowed into the heart of the convention like never before. Walking through the halls in my pink didn’t feel dangerous or even all that radical – they know we’re here! The work of past years of scary visibility has worked! Even the official MC USA convention shirts were a shade of mottled soft red that vertiginously teetered on the edge of a full, warm pink. And we were part of the summit. In the room, at the tables, a mature movement full of thoughtful engaged courageous (well-trained?) allies and brilliant blazing comet-in-the-sky queer God-imaging siblings.
2. The Summit
The denomination had only two truncated delegate sessions this year. The Israel/Palestine resolution passed earlier in the week, and there was a bit of one after the summit (more on that later). Somebody somewhere with institutional power (or maybe everybody everywhere?) came away from Kansas City knowing that delegate sessions weren’t working for the church anymore (stay tuned for more on that!) and a different process was designed. What emerged was the Future Church Summit. A couple hundred extra folks (to pull in underrepresented groups) joined the delegates at their table groups. We talked through questions like “what does it mean to follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?” and “what are the implications of our diverse identities within the church?” and “what do you perceive as central challenges in the world today?” Our individual responses were sent to a central team electronically in real time, went through a kind of magical human sifter called the theme team (thanks Annabeth!) and emerged as reports of the common themes and threads that ran through the responses.
We also addressed similar questions in “plenary” processes that in all honesty were pretty much kinder, gentler open mic times except you were sitting and looking at small groups of other people on stage as you talked. Our pink folks were there, and we shone! During the first of these sessions, two beautiful queer bodies headed for the line to get on stage (thanks Phil and Kate) and I felt the tension and fear rise in me that always rises when queer people are exposed in hostile spaces – a protective cringing against an inevitable backlash, a learned scared animal response. I breathed, and smiled, and that feeling passed. Pretty quickly. And it felt awesome. Here we were, in the room where it felt like it was happening, and our voices were clear and beautiful and strong and gracious. Some of us spoke directly to inclusion of LGBTQ bodies and lives. Others of us spoke more generally yet genuinely of love and the need for diverse voices. Some in bright pink spoke winsomely on other topics. I felt a real pride. Look at us! BMC, Pink Menno, Inclusive Mennonite Pastors, working and supporting and growing together… we’ve come a long way, and we are so strong.
I got up to talk on stage in response to “what are the implications of our diverse identities within our church?” I knew the Lord was upon me and I had some good news to proclaim. Here’s a paraphrase of what I said:
“For me the question of diverse identities is a theological and spiritual question and is fundamentally a question about creation. It’s a question from Genesis 1. Why did God create LGBTQ people and give us to you? We are healers, teachers, and prophets. You can’t heal the sexual brokenness of this church until you learn from the queer people who have been through long, hard spiritual journeys around sexuality.”
Wow, did it feel awesome to proclaim that message in that room! Also, I have no idea how the phrase “sexual brokenness” popped out of my mouth – whoa, how did that get in there? Weird things happen when you’re on that stage (right Addie?) Speaking of Addie, one of our very own shining-as-the-sun queer siblings opened an entire section of the summit with poetry and solo music on the stage (see video here). Their time was cut from 20 to 5 minutes right before they went on stage, but still…
There was a lot else that happened on stage, and even more that happened at our table groups. There was a kind of weird timeline thing where we tried to think about our history but mostly learned we needed a hell of lot more time to talk about history. There was active lament that more people of color weren’t represented on stage. We learned, predictably but in a comfort-of-home kind of way, that by far the top three aspects of our Anabaptism were still community, Christ, and peace. I can’t speak for everything important that was mentioned, or everything problematic.
I felt… kind of good?… as the summit was drawing to an end. It seemed like a real human community that was struggling to understand itself and work together. It seemed that some halting attempts toward justice (or at least an acknowledgment of the need for justice) for many people had been made. I had the thought at some point that “if this is the messy reality of being a church, maybe it’s really not that bad.” Some actual concrete ideas about structural change in the institution were articulated in the summit report compiled by the theme team: moving toward a congregational polity, simplifying of the confession of faith to be more like the Mennonite World Conference version, congregations relating to each other as adult siblings (CDC folks you are awesome).
We were joking Friday night trying to imagine how they were going to swoop in at the end and ruin it.
3. The Ambush at Orlando, or Whoops! They Did it Again
There was a short delegate session planned Saturday morning after the last of the summit. It seemed to have been billed as a short formality, something like accepting the results of the summit. A resolution had been circulated, already vetted and reworked by the summit planners and other various powers and principles. It read (you’ll want to refer to this later for comparison):
We the delegates of Mennonite Church USA affirm the collective work of the Future Church Summit, and we receive the FCS Theme Team’s report as the direction of our national body. We commend this report to the Executive Board, our churchwide agencies, area conferences and congregations as a guide for living into God’s calling for our church.
There was a short break. I walked around a bit, Tim headed off to staff the pink room, and I gathered in the back with a few other pink non-delegates. A long rectangle table was brought on stage and Ervin and Dave and Patty sat facing us. Patty led us in a song. The resolution was introduced and projected on the screen. Oops! There’s been a request for some open mic time. There’s only time for ten comments, and please get out of line if someone else has already made your comment. Oh there’s a line real quick! Oh look, the first eight people are actually making the exact same comment that they don’t like the summit document and aren’t comfortable that the resolution says that it represents the “direction” of the church. Wow, they all seem to really have very similar feelings about that word direction! (Also, is it just me or anyone else picking upon how they’re almost all from Ohio and Virginia? Weird.) A couple more comments, a white straight guy announces that he didn’t feel safe in the room, and the resolutions committee representative gets on stage. There seemed to be a feeling in the room that there isn’t comfort with the word “direction” in the resolution, so they’re going to rework the language. Why yes, there definitely was that feeling in the room. The first eight people in line at the unplanned open mic definitely expressed that feeling. Anyone else with that feeling? Do we care? Oh, we don’t. Okay! Well, it’s good we don’t care since the resolutions committee is already rewriting the resolution. Are people walking up to the resolutions committee to talk to them? Maybe. Is that a thing? Is that, like, something that can be done? Does anyone know? Does anyone care? Whoops, sorry if anyone cared about that, it looks like they’re back on stage and they have the brand new resolution for you! Here you go! Let me read it aloud while the old resolution is still projected on the screen. What’s that? Did somebody from the audience just yell something about God or something? That’s great, sir! We’ll definitely get that in there. A vague possible murmur will serve as definite affirmation that you all know exactly what is going on. Okay, great, and look, we’ll flash the new resolution on the screen (now with that God thing that that one guy yelled also included! Thank you again sir!). Do you all feel ready to vote? Do you want to talk to your table group about all this for a minute? Let’s make sure to do that. Okay!
I had texted Tim already. He was back in the room. Tim, you are a rock. Hayley, Kate, and Jason, you are my dream theme team – in the moment it takes me breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, your heads are together, your message is written and rehearsed. I don’t feel like standing up and yelling. It doesn’t feel like me. They do it, my dream team, they stand up at the back of the room and shout in unison:
“Don’t build a representative process and then undermine it!”
The mine underneath, however, has already collapsed. We already have a whole bunch of ayes. Somebody yells something about proper procedure, and we have to go back and approve the change of language. Is this a Robert’s rules thing, or an opinion of whether we like the old or new language better? What, oh sorry, we already voted. I’ll look that up later. And… it passed! Thanks so much everyone! Your summit is over, and boy was it a doozy! Hahahahaha. Let’s sing that song again. Ready? Here we go…!
Siblings, here it is, the new resolution that came out of that “process”, the words that will be used to interpret the work of the entire summit, those words that will grant or not grant power, take away or not take away power, make change or not make change:
We the delegates of Mennonite Church USA affirm the collective work of the Future Church Summit, and we receive the FCS Theme Team’s report. We commend this report to the Executive Board. We intend that this report be a dynamic document that is offered to the church to guide further discernment for living in God’s calling in agencies, conferences, constituency groups and congregations.
Can you go back and read the first resolution again, and read this one, and then let me know what you think? They seem different to me. I’m talking to my siblings now. I seriously want to know what other people think. To me, the first one seems to say that we agree that the summit report represents the direction of the church. To me, the second one seems to say something like “here’s something we wrote on a piece of paper and we all pray together as one body that the postman delivers it to the right address Amen.”
Mennonites, your violence is smooth and soft and you pack your tongue screws in the mushiest darkest velvet.
4. The Light
I felt angry and I felt grounded. A number of people came up to ask us what we yelled and why we yelled it. Tim started it, right away, his process work of getting with people from the resolutions committee to talk about what had just happened. And… and other stuff. I got out of there. There was awful lighting in that room anyway. I walked out the doors, and far across the convention hall there was sunlight coming through the windows. There was a pink circle around Phil, already singing.
There was more love there. So, so, so much more love. Infinite love.
We sang with such beauty and power and dignity and joy and pain and peace and anger and despair, all wrapped up together as one, uniting us, uniting our voices and uniting our spirits into one great Spirit. I was held and hugged. I looked around that wide ever-expanding circle, and my eyes took in the light from the face of one of our queer kids. One of your queer kids. Their face was open and relaxed and joyful and seemed to be full of such gentle, beautiful peace. I knew their spirit was at home in that circle, the circle we built, the circle you built, all you beautiful fabulous fierce sacred absent siblings, the circle you ripped into the heart of the church with your prophecy (I love you Jay) and your work and your pain and your courage and your despair and your defeat. The encircling wing, the warm brooding spirit, held our queer kid with such strong love. I didn’t cry for the church, for the Mennonites, for MC USA, for any of whatever it was that had happened or hadn’t happened in that room that had bad lighting anyway. That had already passed through me and was gone. But I did weep for how much beauty could radiate from the face of one safe, loved queer kid. It seemed infinite, seemed like infinite beauty, like one sharp searing glimpse of the face of God, so beautiful that I had to look away and weep while my pink siblings held me close.
Further Pink Menno steps
If you would like to discuss our Pink presence at Orlando 17 further, you can join our video call on July 20 at 7 pm ET / 6 pm ET / 5 pm MT / 4 pm PT. RSVP here for details: https://www.facebook.com/events/122922308316770/
Note on 7/11/2017: Text of final resolution has been corrected.