The following is an interview with Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow and John Hernandez. John Hernandez is the Editor in Chief of Bear World Magazine. The magazine did a focus on queer spirituality and Rev. Stringfellow was honored to participate.
As we move through the Spring holidays towards the summer, we continue our look at bears and spirituality. As part of our mind, body, spirit theme this month we explored possible paths back to spirituality for queer people in general, and then took a deeper look at Queer Judaism with Rabbi David Dunn Bauer last week. This week we turn our eyes towards Christianity with Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, an out gay minister and proud bear.
Rev. Dr. Stringfellow is the Senior Pastor of Metropolitan Community Church Detroit who also works with congregations on LGBTQ inclusion as the Managing Director of the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies (CLGS) in Religion on the campus of the Pacific School of Religion.
In addition to that, Rev. Dr. Stringfellow has been consulted by media outlets numerous times regarding his work on marriage equality and religious liberty and the role people of color and communities of faith play in this national debate. He is also affiliates with the Black Bear Brotherhood, Detroit chapter.
Here is what he had to say about queer adults looking to re-examine their relationship with Christianity.
John Hernandez (JH): Is there a path of return for queer people to a religious tradition that may have alienated them as children/ young adults?
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow (RDRS): To travel back to a path of religious practice and community, there first has to be an invitation. I believe there is an internal invitation that comes from the need to have equilibrium in one’s life – the balance of mind, body, and spirit. This is also known as holistic health. It is good to work out your body for good health, have intellectual pursuits for your mind, but what often goes neglected is the spiritual side. If a person is feeling a disturbance or lack of peace, then this is an internal invitation to seek God once again. There are many Christian congregations that welcome LGBTQ+ individuals to come as their authentic selves. I call it “worshipping in Spirit and in Truth.” Even if the church of your youth still does not welcome you in your authenticity, finding another community that will is a great way of recovering from the “spiritual violence” inflicted as a youth.
JH: What LGBTQ+ welcoming Christian congregations you can recommend for queer people?
RDRS: I have been a member of the Metropolitan Community Churches for the past 18 years serving as clergy. The MCC was founded by the Rev. Troy Perry, who was shamed from his pulpit as a Pentecostal preacher. He considered taking his own life but was inspired instead to begin a church in his living room in Los Angeles in 1968 welcoming anyone who wanted to worship as their authentic self. Today, the MCC is a worldwide denomination in over 20 countries (visitmccchurch.com) and practices “queer liberation theology” and supports human rights globally. Even if there is not an MCC near you, there are many congregations that host their worship services online. My congregation, MCC Detroit, host a hybrid service (both in-person and online) each Sunday.
JH: Is there a need to reconcile your queerness with your religious beliefs?
RDRS: Some may believe there is no need to heal the “spiritual violence” that was inflicted by the churches of our youth. But just like carrying the burden of any violent act in our bodies and minds, it has a way of keeping us stuck. Spiritual violence is defined as any word or action used to shame or condemn someone in the name of God or a religious community. The natural response is to simply walk away from the hurt or embarrassment. However, healing only comes when we begin to separate those violent words and actions from the unconditional love of God. Our sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are gifts from God given so we may create love and accept others. I believe there are bridges found in the Bible to help queer people in this reconciliation process. One bridge is the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) who is a queer character told by the Apostle there is nothing to prevent him from being baptized and accepted by God. The same holds true for people today.
JH: Is it possible to be a solo practitioner of Christianity?
RDRS: It is certainly possible to be a solo practitioner of one’s religion, but there is benefit in practicing religion in a community. Going solo helps with the self-introspection and “spiritual spring cleaning” as I like to refer to it. Asking ourselves, “When I rest at night, am I at peace?” “Do I like/love myself?” Identifying the old tapes in our mind that criticize is a good way of doing introspection on a regular “spring cleaning” basis. Being a member of a spiritual/religious community provides the structure of receiving spiritual truths and the benefits of friendship with others who can give support when going through tough times.
JH: Easter just passed on April 9th. What does the holiday mean to you?
RDRS: Easter is the culmination of all of who we are as human beings. For the Christian, it is God’s promise that all that is wrong in this world and in our lives has a bright ending. The hope of resurrection (what is dead will live again) gives a peace that surpasses our negative circumstances. Easter means that I no longer have to deal with performance anxiety or trying to be good enough to be accepted. Because of my faith in Christ’s resurrection, God sees me as if I have lived a perfect life. Clearly, I am far from perfect, but in terms of following the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule or any moral teaching, I am not accepted by keeping these, but by through accepting Christ’s love for me. I also look forward to the jellybeans!
JH: Is there anything about your work or ministry you’d like to share?
RDRS: I began my ministry in 1990 as a pastor in the Baptist church. I was not a preacher on the “DL”, but I was someone who sincerely tried to change my orientation because I thought it was what God wanted (so I had been told). The more I denied my same-sex attraction, the more horrible I felt until I realized that I never had true peace in my life. I dared to accept myself as gay and that was when the presence of peace filled me. I left that church and enrolled in a theological school where I could study LGBT ministry – at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Today I work at PSR as the Managing Director of the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion. We train the next generation of queer theologians and engage in “sacred activism” with queer religious people to take a public stand for equality.
In the span of weeks, the LGBTQ+ communities in Michigan lost two giants of “Gay Liberation.” John Lawrence Kavanaugh died on December 17, 2021, at age 82 and James Willis Toy died on January 1, 2022, at age 91. I first met John in the early 2000’s as I was just peeking out of the closet. I attended a National Association of Black and White Men Together conference in Ohio and he was clearly one of the elder statesmen among the group. We struck up a conversation and he shared with me his passion for racial justice and gender equality. He had written a book called “Welcome to the Gay Age” in 2004 that he wanted to share it with me. I recall he wanted me to read the introduction that focused on was one of “the first apartheid law of South Africa was forbidding interracial marriage and the first law instituted by the Christian Roman emperors against homosexuality was forbidding homosexual marriages. Those laws against homosexual and interracial marriages are symbols of fear behind those prejudices and discriminations.”
John was a native Detroiter and one of the early organizers of the Detroit Gay Liberation Front (GLF) that began in January 1970 just six months after the Stonewall Riots in New York City. As the GLF began to become more racially integrated, many of the gay white men in the organization took issue when members spoke up to merge their Gay Liberation efforts with the Civil Rights protests happening in the city. In John’s oral history recorded in 1994, he recalled how painful it was to see the huge exodus of people of color after the majority voted the GLF would only focus on gay concerns. “Their contention was, single issue, let’s deal only with gay questions. Well, that’s a code word. What it means is let’s deal only with white male gay issues… Blacks, women realized what was being said and walked out. These were friends that were walking out. It hurt very much.”
When I moved to Detroit in 2013, I looked up John to let him know that I was to be the new Senior Pastor at MCC Detroit. I was stunned when he told me he was one of the founders of the church. Along with another dear friend, Jim Toy, they formed a Christian Caucus of the Detroit GLF in December 1970 in John’s apartment that evolved into MCC Detroit. John encouraged me to also reach out to Jim Toy, who then lived in Ann Arbor. As I would mention Jim’s name to other queer activists throughout the area, they all gave him reverence as the “godfather of gay liberation” in Michigan. When I finally did get to meet Jim at a statewide gathering of affirming and welcoming congregations called “Inclusive Justice”, he was clearly the elder statesmen among that large crowd.
Jim was one of the founders of Inclusive Justice (which I later became a board member and elected to be the Board President currently). My predecessor in the role of Board President, The Rev. Joseph Summers, wrote about Jim’s legacy of organizing in the LGBTQ community. “Toy participated in the founding convention in 1977 of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, established in response to fears that Anita Bryant would bring her anti-gay ‘Save Our Children’ crusade to Michigan. MOHR was precursor to Equality Michigan. He served on the ACLU Committee on Lesbian Women and Gay Men, which in 1979 successfully prodded the administration of Republican Governor William Milliken to rescind Michigan’s liquor regulation that prohibited bars that were ‘rendezvous for homosexuals’. When the AIDS pandemic emerged as a mortal threat to gay and bisexual men, Toy in 1986 helped launch the Huron Valley Chapter of Wellness Networks, later the HIV/AIDS Resource Center. He was also a key co-founder in 1995 of the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project. WRAP changed its name to the Jim Toy Community Center in his honor in 2010.” And these are just a portion of the vast projects for liberation that he was involved with.
I admired Jim (who wouldn’t) and was in awe of his courage and community organizing at a time when he could have lost his life for being so public with his activism and so unashamedly “out” about his sexuality. In 1998 as MCC Detroit was getting ready to celebrate our 45th church anniversary, I wanted to honor these two giants in the community and our forefathers of this ministry. As they both spoke during the banquet, they inspired us to become a radically inclusive community. As we prepare for our 50th church anniversary this year, we have adopted the tag line “Radically Inclusive since 1972.” We will honor both men for their love and support of our church as well as leading the way for so many to be their radically inclusive selves and to speak up and speak out against injustice in all forms. They both are sorely missed, and we will make it our mission to continue the trailblazing path they have begun.
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow with John Kavanaugh (left) and Jim Toy (right)
Connecting the Emancipation of Juneteenth with the Liberation of Black Lives - Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow
We live in heavy and stressful times. I recognize this heaviness as the four “P’s” – Pandemic, Politics, Policing/Protesting and Personal. All Americans, but in particular African Americans, have been impacted by the Coronavirus in disproportionate numbers; most certainly through witnessing “Jim Crow” justice play out as only a minuscule number of people have been held accountable for the events that culminated on January 6 at our nation’s Capital; we are exhausted from the trauma of the violence and death of too many Black citizens. And I do not know of anyone who has not had some personal grief over the past year that left a scar. If you live with a health condition like diabetes, high blood pressure, or are overweight, then “Rona” was especially hunting you down.
When the images were played of George Floyd being murdered in the street as he cried out for his mother to help him, I was unable to watch. I had my fill of Black trauma at that time, and I could not view another heartless action being perpetrated on a Black life. It was on a Sunday morning as I was preparing for our online church service that I happened to have the news on and the images of a young man named Elijah McClain, was being forcibly held down and injected with a drug that was meant to calm him, but police still believed him to be a threat and placed him in a chokehold until he died. On the footage we could hear him beg for his life by trying to explain, “I’m different! I’m different!” In the end, his pleas made no difference. This brother was going to die.
I lost it. While I am 30 years older than Elijah, I saw myself in his final struggle. Calling out, “I’m different” and wanting someone to hear and help me as a gay Black man in these United States. I was so injured after watching this young man lose his life. I wiped my tears and got online for church but could not keep it together. I began to cry again and needed to turn off my camera to compose myself before I began again. My four “P’s” converged at that moment and I realized I needed help. I needed someone to hear me.
Being a “Brother Outsider” within the straight Black community and the predominately white gay community, my voice gets ignored or undervalued. I know I am not alone, and I also know there are other “Sister and Brother Outsiders” who have it way worse than me. At least I have a pulpit (online and in-person) to share my thoughts and encouragement with others. Yet, I always think about those who do not have the privilege to express themselves or those who are permanently silenced, not because they have said or done anything wrong, but because of simply who they are.
At a time when the Black community should be focused on the liberation of people targeted harmful policing practices, some want to parse out those who are “different” from them. There is indeed a connection between the struggle to value Black Lives and the LGBTQ Lives. Many of us live at the intersection of multiple identities and we cannot parse out certain parts of ourselves just to be acceptable to someone who looks at us with suspicion.
Activist Mandy Carter of North Carolina, the founder of ‘SONG’ (Southerners on New Ground) wrote, “No one ‘owns’ a movement. The ideas and words are free for all to be inspired from. There were gay and lesbian Blacks who were discriminated against at lunch counters, drinking fountains, and segregated in society just as all other Blacks were in America.” The same is true today as it was during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. It is painful to hear “good church-going folk” say it is due to their religious conviction that they cannot welcome nor support a person who identifies as LGBTQ.
A coalition of equality organizations have banded together to create “The Colors of Pride” as a way of focusing on the Intersectional Equality of queerness, racial justice, and religious identity. This coalition is offering activities focused on the liberation of people targeted by unjust legislation, public polices and harmful policing practices and provides an opportunity to take a public stand to support equality legislation that promotes the safety of women, the LGBTQ community in general and the Trans and Gender Non-Conforming community specifically, and Black and Brown lives.
Juneteenth, the day of emancipation for enslaved Americans living in Texas on June 19, 1865, is a time of celebration many for Black folks today. Some will acknowledge June 19, rather than July 4, as the true Independence Day. During the tenure of the previous President of the United States, more attention has been given to the Juneteenth holiday and the massacre that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. All Americans must own the legacy of racism in our country and the continued impact it has on us. Many organizations have recognized the importance of acknowledging the intersection of multiple oppressions that many Americans face.
The Colors of Pride activities will conclude on Saturday, June 19 with a commemoration of Juneteenth. This Juneteenth commemoration will be unlike others that have come before as it will focus on the multiple identities of Black and Brown people and how the liberation of one group means liberation for all oppressed people. The Colors of Pride Juneteenth program premiers on YouTube on Saturday, June 19th at 12 noon EST / 9 am PST and is available to view any time after that. Interested persons can sign-up and find the link for this unique celebration at equalitytime.org/colorsofpride. They can also add their name to a growing coalition of religious people who support intersectional equality, receive a Tool Kit full of resources to become informed and active, and get access to recorded messages from nationally recognized religious leaders who discuss the impact of legislation that target vulnerable populations.
The goal is to create opportunities for allyship with the queer community, Black and Brown communities, and congregations by engaging religious communities to participate in pro-equality actions during Pride month. This is one way to have our all voices to be heard and valued, especially those not able to advocate for themselves.
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow is the Board President of Inclusive Justice of Michigan, a staff member of The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion, and the Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit.
The Colors of Pride: Taking Pride Outside of the Box for Intersectional Equality - Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow
Have you noticed that the Pride Flag has expanded its colors? Didn’t the original rainbow motif cover everybody? No, it did not. Unless you are intentionally invited to take a seat at the table, you are only an outsider. The new and expanded Pride Flag includes the pink, blue and white for the Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Community and black and brown colors to include Black and Brown lives that are a constant target for injustice and brutality.
The year 2020 and continuing into this year has created a heavy load in the lives of many that I call it the four “P’s” – Pandemic, Politics, Policing/Protesting and Personal. All of us have been impacted by the Coronavirus, most certainly through watching the political circus that culminated on January 6 at our nation’s Capital, heartbroken at the violence and death of too many Black citizens and the crisis at our country’s border. Everyone had something personal going on that left a burden.
But, within the dark cloud of the 4 “P’s” was the silver lining that opened our eyes to the struggles and pain of our neighbors and strangers. Sure, this time period made many retreat in fear and be concerned only what happened inside their four walls. But for others, the events of the past year not only expanded their vision, but their concern and actions for others.
In this second year of celebrating Pride Month in socially distant ways, a coalition of Equality Organizations have banded together to create “The Colors of Pride” as a way of focusing on the intersectional equality of queerness, racial justice, and religious identity. National organizations like the LGBTQ Task Force and local organizations like Inclusive Justice of Michigan, are offering activities focused on the liberation of people targeted by unjust legislation, public polices and harmful policing practices.
By incorporating the religious community in these activities, they are acknowledging that many people hide behind their religious convictions as reason for opposing the LGBTQ community. Either “quasi” religious conviction or religious silence has led to legislation that blocks the safety and support of Women, the LGBTQ community in general and the Trans and Gender Non-Conforming community specifically and Black and Brown lives.
“The Colors of Pride” is an opportunity for clergy and congregations to take a public stand for Intersectional Equality by engaging in activities such as adding their name to a national list to support equality legislation or participating in trainings to learn how to engage their representatives on these important issues. The Colors of Pride Week of Action commences on Monday, June 14 and concludes on Saturday, June 19 with a national commemoration of Juneteenth – the emancipation of enslaved Americans in 1865. This Juneteenth commemoration will connect to the liberation of Black and Brown lives today.
The goal is to create opportunities for allyship with the queer community, Black and Brown communities, and congregations by engaging religious communities nationwide to participate in pro-equality actions during Pride month. Interested persons can sign-up at equalitytime.org/colorsofpride to add their name to this growing coalition, receive a Tool Kit full of resources to become informed and active, and recorded messages from nationally recognized religious leaders who discuss the impact of legislation that target vulnerable populations.
This is one way of expanding the focus of Pride beyond the parades and festivals to action that will improve the lives of others in our ever-expanding community. This is taking Pride outside of the box for intersectional equality.
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow is the Board President of Inclusive Justice of Michigan, a staff member of The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion, and the Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit.
As we approach the end of the year, I have seen a seemingly endless stream of online chatter about the darkness brought by 2020. And while many of these conversations are rightfully filled with sadness, fear, and anger, I also urge us all to reflect on and cherish the bright spots of the year.
A personal high for me and so many Americans came in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination. It’s a landmark victory, and it gives me both hope and resolve for the work ahead. The fact is that despite the step forward on employment, LGBTQ people in most states, including here in my own home state of Michigan, remain vulnerable to discrimination in vital areas of life, such as housing, healthcare, and public spaces like restaurants and businesses.
I was also pleased in November to see Americans unite in record numbers for a president and vice president who have been strident supporters of dignity and respect for all LGBTQ people. When Joe Biden is inaugurated, he will be the most vocal champion LGBTQ people have ever seen in the White House.
My prayer for this holiday season, and hope for 2021, is that we continue these steps forward. We need to finish the evolution for respect, dignity, and equality for LGBTQ Americans that the Supreme Court accelerated in June. The best way to do that is to achieve what President-Elect Biden has called for: passage of comprehensive, LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections at the federal level.
Anti-LGBTQ discrimination is an urgent problem. Addressing it will transform us as a nation for the better. As a pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, I hear stories from congregation members about how they’ve personally been mistreated because of their LGBTQ identity. They speak about how the fundamental values of their faith, including loving your neighbor as yourself, compel them to support LGBTQ protections.
A lot remains up in the air – including two key seats in the U.S. Senate, which will determine partisan control of the Senate overall. January’s special election in Georgia is the last piece of the puzzle for what 2021’s national politics have in store. But regardless of the Senate makeup, President-Elect Biden has committed to pushing for an end to anti-LGBTQ discrimination. I encourage him to take decisive executive action early, including reversing many of the anti-LGBTQ rollbacks that the Trump Administration pursued over the past four years.
But I also want to see federal lawmakers from across the political spectrum – Republican and Democrat alike – come together to pass federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. Across the country, 72% of Americans say they support LGBTQ protections, including 61% of Republicans, 71% of Independents, and 81% of Democrats.
I do not believe this a partisan issue or about one faith tradition. This is about dignity and respect for all. After one of the most divisive political seasons we have endured, I urge all lawmakers, regardless of their party or religious conviction, to put forth legislation that would protect all their constituents. Please do not send a message that only those who you agree with are worth saving.
2020 has been undergirded by such deep pain, with challenge after challenge piling on top of us: the pandemic, the long overdue reckoning for racial inequality, our political system’s paralyzing polarization. And the outcome of so many of these challenges has been confusion about the pathway forward.
As we grapple with these existential questions, I take small solace in knowing that the path toward justice for LGBTQ people is not confusing. We know the answer: We must pass comprehensive nondiscrimination federal protections for all LGBTQ people. Passing this baseline of protection for every American, no matter where they live, no matter who they are or who they love, is one key step. We must never lose sight of a future where LGBTQ people are included – and where all our people can thrive.
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow
As we enter this new year, we have an array of emotions.
We feel joyous, as we have with each dawning of a year full of hope and possibilities.
We feel anxious, as we carry over the emotional heaviness from 2020.
We feel generous, as we desire to give to others who bore the brunt of devastating loss last year.
We feel skeptical, as we wonder if the change we seek will be manifested.
We feel blessed, for another day, another year, and another opportunity to seek your loving presence and for our dreams to come true.
We believed at the beginning of last year that 2020 was going to be a year of clarity, renewed focus, and great prosperity.
We now embrace the old saying, “Hindsight is 2020.”
Help us to see, to learn, to know that all that we endured in this past year does not define us.
It only makes us stronger and more faithful, more caring, more aware, and more committed to justice for all.
Continue to hold our hand throughout 2021 and may we be more like you.
Blessed Be Your Name
With a Supreme Court Victory Behind Us, Congress Must Finish the Job on LGBTQ Nondiscrimination Protections
“It is my duty as a representative in Congress … to represent everyone in my community,” Congressman Justin Amash says.
Last month, I joined so many across the nation in breathing a sigh of relief at a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming that the federal law prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex protects LGBTQ workers. For too long, LGBTQ people in the workplace have feared for their jobs, remained in the closet to avoid being fired and worried about the attitudes of potential employers because of a lack of protections from employment discrimination. Now, LGBTQ Americans can feel safe knowing that the law is on their side.
Despite this advance, critical gaps remain in our nation’s nondiscrimination laws, leaving LGBTQ people vulnerable to mistreatment in housing, schools and public places like restaurants and bars. Even in health care, as the country confronts the novel coronavirus pandemic, a majority of states don’t explicitly protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. And the Trump Administration has worked overtime to make it easier to deny care to LGBTQ people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As the White House attempts to sow division we know that nationwide, strong bipartisan majorities support protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in every area. Clearly, it’s time for Congress to come together and pass comprehensive federal nondiscrimination protections. Only then will we be able to finish the job and patch the vulnerabilities that leave LGBTQ Americans behind.
The Supreme Court ruling — a 6-3 decision authored by stalwart conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch — reflects the reality that Americans, by enormous margins, want to ensure that their LGBTQ neighbors and loved ones are safe from harm. Building these majorities and changing people’s minds has required decades of work, patience and time. It’s required LGBTQ people to share their stories, confront misunderstandings about their identities and engage in challenging discussions.
Every day LGBTQ people and our wide range of supporters have been hard at work for the past several years having frank and upfront conversations with our members of Congress. Here in Michigan, faith leaders and people of faith who support LGBTQ dignity and freedom have met several times with Congressman Justin Amash. They have urged Rep. Amash to join with his colleagues across the ideological spectrum in support of comprehensive federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. And he has heard their voices.
“It is my duty as a representative in Congress to defend the Constitution and represent everyone in my community,” Congressman Amash said in a statement to Inclusive Justice this year. “It is also my responsibility to set an example for public discourse by listening and communicating thoughtfully. … All at the meeting agreed on the need to show love and kindness to our neighbors and on the importance of having a civil conversation. The diversity of our country is a great asset, and we must be willing to listen to one another and not lose sight of how much more unites us than divides us. I’m thankful to Inclusive Justice for taking positive steps in the community to promote this kind of dialogue and mutual understanding.”
I’m heartened by these conversations with Rep. Amash. I believe that honest and open discussions about the issues that matter so deeply to our country and to our path forward. It is the responsibility of Congress, of all of us, to move closer to a country where no one faces discrimination in any area of life simply because of who they are or who they love.
It’s time for Congress to act!
On Monday morning, June 15, 2020, the US Supreme Court declared that federal law now protects LGBTQ workers from discrimination. The 6-3 opinion was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts. The decision came as quite a pleasant surprise for LGBTQ activists who have been working tirelessly on obtaining non-discrimination protections. For many of us, the flood of discrimination cases came as a result of marriage equality opponents not wanting to service same-gender couples in the businesses and their exclusion extended to the transgender community as well.
But no person devoted more to this particular cause than the woman at the center of the case, Aimee Australia Stephens. She did not live long enough to witness her triumph at the highest court in the land. Aimee died on May 12, 2020 at the age of fifty-nine, following a long illness. I was honored to attend a rally in her honor as she and her legal team were heading to Washington DC to argue her case. She told us that evening how she arrived at that moment. She had found the courage to begin to live her life no longer compartmentalized, but as the person she was born to be. In a letter written to the staff at the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Home Aimee wrote, “I intend to have sex reassignment surgery. The first step I must take is to live and work full-time as a woman for one year. At the end of my vacation on August 26, 2013, I will return to work as my true self, Aimee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire.”
Her employer responded with terminating her position and gave an offer of a severance package dependent upon Aimee agreeing to drop the matter. She contacted the Michigan A.C.L.U. for legal advice. They took her case, after several trials and appeals of decisions, all the way to the US Supreme Court. The case placed Aimee and her wife Donna in the center of a media storm. This was the first suit involving any transgender individual to make it to the High Court. I spoke with Aimee following her rally and I asked how I could pray for her. She told me she was tired and asked for strength. Deacon Michelle Fox-Phillips, Executive Director at Gender-Identity Network Alliance, and I gave her and Donna our prayers and blessings.
I found her to be a very humble and soft-spoken woman. I could only imagine the pressure she experienced with all eyes on her. After her day in court and she returned to Michigan, Aimee’s health began to decline. We continued to keep her and her legal case in our prayers. When her health worsened her attorney, Jay Kaplan of the Michigan A.C.L.U., reported that Aimee desperately wanted to see the outcome of the case. On a monthly conference call with state-wide activists in Michigan, he pointed out she paid a huge price with her health. When no other funeral homes in Detroit would hire her after she was fired, she was not able to maintain health insurance and was robbed of the medical care she needed.
This is why I call Aimee an “accidental activist.” She did not set out to open the door for all LGBTQ people to be protected from employment discrimination. But she did. All she wanted was to live her life in her authenticity and in peace. This is the courage and vision needed by all activists, yet some are never tested and tried in the ways Aimee was. She paid a great price of herself and it yielded a benefit for countless others. I like to think God heard and answered our prayers. With a majority of Conservatives on the High Bench, many of us doubted Aimee would prevail in her case. Yet, all Americans received a tremendous blessing all because Aimee had the courage to fight for herself.
The LGBTQ community still has a distance to travel. We who are activists point out, “Our nation has much to do to dismantle both legal and cultural systems of racism. Additionally, there are still critical gaps in our federal non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. While LGBTQ people now have legal protection from discrimination at work, discrimination is still permissible in stores, restaurants, and a wide range of public accommodations.” Thank God for Aimee Stephens and her willingness to use her voice to change the world. May she Rest In Power and may we continue to be inspired and moved to action by her legacy.
Our lead deacon at MCC Detroit called me several days into our mandated social distancing (I
cannot recall which day he spoke to me because all the days blend into one another) and asked if he could post encouraging words daily on our Facebook page. He commented that he had not seen many pastors or religious leaders publicly providing encouraging words and the people are scared. I responded that he absolutely could and should do that. He has always had a way of blending inspirational insights with scripture.
After reflection, I too could not recall hearing many religious leaders providing comforting
words or spiritual guidance in the immediate days after COVID-19 captured our nation’s
attention. That was understandable, after all, who has an emergency plan for a pandemic? Talk about being caught off guard!
I am skeptical of religious leaders who respond too quickly after a crisis with platitudes because they feel they must give people “a good word.” These faith leaders run the risk of over
spiritualizing the situation (i.e. “God will not allow a hair on your head to perish, and neither
will you.”) or downplaying the emotions of those they want to help (i.e. “Why are you so
fearful? Where is your faith in God?”). Over spiritualizing the moment and downplaying very
real emotions are examples of spiritual malpractice, in my view.
Being a local pastor comes with many expectations – being an inspiration dispenser, caregiver, community organizer and a spiritual leader during troubling times. What do we do in order to make it through perhaps the most unsettling global crisis we will see in our lifetime? How should we ministers feel when, as a global community, we are experiencing the same trauma as the rest of our community? How do we get our own bearings and provide encouragement for others when we have no idea what is going on?
I know of only one way to provide inspiration and a good example for others – and that’s being spiritually grounded. In times of emergency, the instructions given on an airplane before takeoff apply – before assisting others, put your oxygen mask on yourself first. Before I could minister to others during this crisis, I knew I needed to attend to my own fears and bouts of uncertainty by going into my “prayer closet”. I needed to get my own spiritual bearings before I could utter a word to members of my community.
The same practice I use for myself is the inspiration I share with others in these days of isolation, fear, and vulnerability. Being spiritually grounded means going to God in an honest and transparent way with our humanity and our emotions. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness. I am well content with weaknesses … for when I am weak, then I am strong” 2 Corinthians 12:9-11. This means not trying to appear stronger than we really are, (this would be ego.) nor being so disconnected from God we behave out of irrational panic, (hoarding food and supplies). As we become more transparent with God, the more we begin to rely on God’s strength and see ourselves and the world as God sees us. We gain a proper perspective, not a self-sufficient nor overly anxious perspective, but one where we are grounded in God. We feel safe in God’s arms, protected and covered, strengthened by comforting words written more than 2000 years ago that support us to this very day. We are reminded the world has survived myriad humanitarian crises before and why should this one be any different.
In my first sermon delivered from my home office last week, I encouraged others to not allow
resentment and fear to build up in their hearts. We need to practice forgiveness of those whom we blame for losing our jobs, losing our plans for the immediate future, losing our freedom – even if God is who we need to forgive for causing this “Act of God.”
I was later asked by someone, “How do you forgive when the offense is ongoing?”. That was a
question I needed to go back into my prayer closet to be able to answer. The answer I received was, when we are honest with God about where we are emotionally in the moment (i.e. angry, resentful, frustrated, afraid, depressed), we also need to ask God for help in order to get to the place where we want to be (i.e. hopeful, confident, fearless, faith-filled, trusting,). I believe we need to begin moving in the direction we want to be. Our actions are crucial. Is this “fake it ‘til we make it?” It could be, but I like to think of it as moving to where God is.
Referencing the wisdom of Psalms, I believe moving to the place we want to be through our
prayers and actions is a wise approach to becoming more spiritually grounded. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God ” Psalms 42:11. “You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word ” Psalms 119:114. We can hope in and give praise to God, even in fearful and uncertain times, because we are called to move toward those places of hope and confidence. And when we arrive at our spiritual destination, the place where God is, we are guaranteed to find “the peace that passes all understanding” Philippians 4:7.
My hope and prayer is that we each become more spiritually grounded by going to God in all of our honesty and humanity, discovering we are always protected – even if we become ill. There is peace in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and our God offers it overflowing. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27