Thursday, September 18, 2014

Voila! (one parish's rapidly achieved, relatively low key, and profound sign of welcome)

“Do we have a gender neutral bathroom?”

the new gender neutral restroom at
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Salem, OR
“No, though there is the ADA-accessible bathroom by the sacristy.”

“Well, can we make that a gender neutral bathroom?  Can we order a sign this week?  If that’s what people need to feel safe, then that’s what we need to have.  And we need to advertise it.”

And voila.  St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salem, OR, was going to have a gender neutral bathroom in order to make sure trans folks knew they were welcome in the space.

How did we get here?  Let’s back up. 

I am one of two interim priests serving this good-sized parish in the capitol of Oregon, known throughout the state for the excellence of its music programs.  Worship is traditional, and conversation is lively.  The Very Rev. Lin Knight serves as interim rector.  He asked me to serve as associate beginning January of this year.  I asked him if St. Paul’s was ready for a 34-year-old tattooed lesbian priest, and he laughed.  I heard later he sold me to the staff as a “perky blonde.” 

Lin had served St. Paul’s nearly a decade ago as interim as well.  During this time, the Oregon Supreme Court ratified its Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), prohibiting same-sex marriages in the state of Oregon.  Since St. Paul’s is in the capitol city, and since the Episcopalians had been getting a lot of press about the election of Bishop Gene Robinson, the paper called Lin to get a statement about this decision.  He told them that he believed the church should be in the business of strengthening all committed relationships. 

Well, I wasn’t here, but I heard this caused quite the kerfuffle.  Letters were flying. The senior warden asked that Lin make a public apology and state that he was speaking for himself only, and not the church.  The parking lot was on fire with chatter. Lin held the center with his signature grace, and eventually the parish calmed down, with many coming to him to thank him quietly for his words.

By the time I arrived, the church had settled into the place where I think many – if not most – Episcopal churches stand today.  Generally, most parishioners support full inclusion of cisgender gay and lesbian worshippers and clergy, and support efforts for full civil rights for GLBTQ folks.  They are stronger in understanding cis gay and lesbian issues than trans issues.  They are proud of being able to worship with people who may not be fully accepting of gay and lesbian people as well.

I was warmly welcomed and started the fun part of being an interim, which is getting to shake things up a little.   On occasion, I have been accused of preaching a “political” sermon.  (As has Lin.)  We’ve both been curious about this word, which is used primarily in the church as shorthand for, “What you are talking about makes me uncomfortable.  Please stop talking about it.”  It’s a silencing tactic rather than a meaningful adjective.  We thought we could explore that term in a non-defensive, open way over the summer.  We moved to a summer schedule and left an hour open before services for people to come in and have informal conversation about “political” topics.  We covered Israel and Palestine, Ferguson, immigration, climate change.  And for three weeks, we talked about sex. 

the whiteboard
(note: the term 'transvestite' is crossed out
because it is now considered derogatory) 
In one of those sessions, I did the world’s fastest Queer/Trans 101.  We defined terms, and moved quickly into talking about “queer” and “trans” as umbrella terms for a variety of identities.  (Many of them grew up hearing “queer” as a slur, and were very hesitant asking about it.  I said to not use it if it still carried negative connotations for them, but also explained how we need a word for, really, “everyone who gets beat up” as a result of sexual or gender identity.)  I made sure they knew that the vast majority of violence against queer folks happens to trans women of color. 

The white board with all the notes from this quick overview was left up all week, in the main meeting room of the church.  All the regular groups who meet there saw it, and it provoked a good deal of discussion on its own.  At staff meeting, on Wednesday, the parish administrator said that she had heard lots of people talking about it.  A few staff members chimed in and said they were curious, too.  I volunteered to answer any questions they might have, and off we went.  Eventually the conversation turned to welcoming queer folks at St. Paul’s, and we arrived at the conversation at the beginning of this post.  I had mentioned that one of the most contested issues for trans people is bathrooms, and our liturgical co-ordinator asked the opening question of this post. 

And there we were.  That part of staff meeting – from “So people have been noticing the white board…” to ordering a sign for the bathroom – took approximately ten minutes.   No mess, no months of agonized debate. 

Here’s what I think led to this easy ten-minute no-struggle conversation:

1. Calm clergy leadership, relaxed and committed to their values
2. Thoughtful, inquisitive adult faith formation unafraid of difficult topics
3. Most importantly, the laity’s absolute commitment to good manners and intentional welcome, even in a new situation where not everyone understands what the issues are

I think we forget about manners in the conversation about justice a lot.  Give me  staunch Christians with good home training any day when we’re faced with questions about how to be places of radical welcome.  By “manners” I mean that quality of a well-trained hostess, whose first priority is ensuring that her guests are comfortable and having a good time.  She may not appreciate someone’s taste, or personality, but as long as they are in her house, they will be made comfortable to the best of her ability.  It means the basic willingness to put another person’s needs before your own.  The St. Paul’s staff was still learning basic language and many of them have never knowingly met a trans person.  And yet – their number one concern was that people feel welcome in the space.  No questions on that front.  This is what someone needs to feel safe here?  We will provide it. 

This is the best of who we can be.  And on one sunny, sleepy, summer afternoon in Oregon, it meant a shift toward wholeness, and grace, for one community.  It meant marking one more little plot of land in this vast world as safe, as home. 

The Reverend Shelly Fayette, formerly the Interim Associate Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salem, Oregon, is the new Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Seattle, WA.  Congratulations, Shelly!