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