Today is the Day of Silence, "a student-led national event that brings attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools." All around the country people have taken a vow of silence in order to bring attention to a matter that cannot go unnoticed. For too long my brothers and sisters of the LGBTQQ community have been silenced, overlooked, and excluded, especially by Christians. So while I remain silent today out of solidarity, I also vow to use my voice to speak up for my brothers and sisters.
You might say that up until the age of 25 my whole life was a "day of silence." I grew up in a fairly conservative evangelical atmosphere. Traversing the topic of homosexuality was like navigating a field of land mines in a shopping cart. For the most part I avoided the topic altogether; a luxury that I could afford since I am heterosexual. Thus, my life contains no drama of heated exchanges, protests, parades, or scandals. Yet after years of ignoring the issue, I now believe that my life's silence on the topic of homosexuality actually declares a loud and important message, especially since I am a follower of Jesus.
It wasn't that I grew up in a town where people consistently raged in protest against homosexuality. It's just that my community never talked about it. As far as I knew, there were no homosexuals in my community (though statistics state otherwise!). It just happened that diversity in race, religion, or sexuality was as distant as the nearest shopping mall some 70 miles away. Put simply, nobody knew any homosexuals so nobody had to take the matter seriously. It was not an issue concerning real human beings in our community; it was more like an opinion about Coke or Pepsi. I learned at an early age that it was okay to neglect issues that did not directly affect me or my community.
I add this clarification because my silence on the matter of homosexuality was the natural result of my social and geographic location. Therefore, I don't believe that my silence is something that deserves blame per se. We cannot help where we are born and in what kind of community we are raised. I do, however, believe that following Jesus demands that I reflect critically on the blind spots in my own life - those areas of silence and neglect. The more I reflect the more I am convinced that my silence on the matter of homosexuality opposes the mission of the church, the mission of Jesus.
I began reflecting more on this particular blind spot during and after college as I experienced more metropolitan culture. I remember one particular trip to Philadelphia to visit my sister and the embarrassment I felt when she admonished me for using the word "gay" as a synonym for "stupid" - a habit that I and many others had picked up in casual parlance on a "Christian" campus. As one who has worked with teenagers for over 5 years, I can tell you that teens, mostly boys, still use the word "gay" as a synonym for "stupid." I can't imagine how hurtful it would be if someone started using the term "hetero" to describe things that are ugly or worthless. For me, it took my sister, living in Philly and having gay friends, to begin putting faces on the concept of homosexuality. It was only when the issue became human that I saw how hurtful my language was.
Over the past four years in Philadelphia I have encountered more and more faces to associate with the term "homosexual." But not just faces: I have learned names, voices, personalities, laughs, and the unique spirit residing in each of them. Perhaps the most powerful of my experiences came this past summer during my 11-week internship at UPENN Hospital. For 11 weeks I served as a chaplain and faced some of the most challenging and intimate moments of my life. This was the kind of experience where you don't just want friends, you desperately need them. And for 11 weeks, walking close by my side, I had not one but two gay men - one of whom was my supervisor; the other a fellow chaplain. My CPE supervisor, a gay black man, cared for me like a son. He taught me more about myself and what it means to live in Christian community than I learned in three years at seminary. And the other man became a kind of big brother to me all summer. He noticed when I was down and made sure that I was OK. His gratuitous care for other human beings in the hospital was beautiful. He is indeed one of the most compassionate men I've ever met. What is more: both of these men are self-proclaimed Christians; one ordained Baptist and the other a faithfully married seminarian working on his M.Div.
These experiences tested my own view on homosexuality. For some time I've considered myself to be "affirming" of the LGBTQQ community. I considered it sufficient to "affirm" people of different sexual orientation; to practice a kind of humane acceptance. For years I was content with this opinion and simply stored it away in my theology somewhere for the day that I might actually have to put it to use. It allowed me to feel good about not being a "hater" and I considered myself a better follower of Jesus for holding such a loving opinion. The problem, however, was that it was just that: an opinion.
Just recently I have come to believe that my approach to simply "affirm" homosexuals is not sufficient. In fact, I'm not even sure if it's Christian. What good is an opinion if it has no hands or feet or voice? Didn't Jesus say that salt with out any taste is worthless? And that a light that has been hidden is also useless? So what good is my love and "affirmation" toward homosexuals if it doesn't provoke me to act?
This is where my heart is at on this Day of Silence 2012. I believe that my love for those of all sexual orientations should provoke me to stand up and act. I am no longer content to simply "believe" something in my head and sit idly by as gay teenagers commit suicide because nobody will advocate for them. I cannot be a part of a church that sits comfortably in its homogeneous heterosexual community while my homosexual brothers and sisters are neglected, persecuted, and excluded.
My shift in thinking about homosexuality has been caused by many different experiences; but all of them involve coming face to face with real human beings and hearing their stories. Reflecting upon this blind spot in my life reminds me that you cannot love what you do not know. But I believe Jesus challenges us to know and love everyone. After all, Jesus does not allow us to maintain the impersonal category of "them" or "those people." Jesus' radical way challenges us to see everyone as "Neighbor." Perhaps Jesus knew that we cannot love others until we meet them face to face; until we see them as our neighbor.
One of the most profound of my neighborly encounters came about 8 months ago when I heard a young man share at a conference in San Diego. His name is Brian Ammons and he is homosexual. He is an ordained Baptist minister and teaches Duke University. In a powerful testimony, he shared with us about his exile and return to the church and I'd like to share just a brief excerpt of his story here. You can listen to the FULL version here.
"I fell in love with Lazarus... who spent 4 days rotting in a tomb. Only to hear Jeus' voice calling, "Lazarus, Come out." But Jesus does not roll away the stone himself; Jesus does not go into the tomb and wake Lazarus up; he does not aid his friend the short journey out of the tomb (which might not seem so short to a dead guy whose hands and feet are bound). Jesus calls on Lazarus to take the initiative; Jesus calls on his friend to practice resurrection. Coming out of the tomb requires standing up and walking. ... instead of taking direct action in aiding his friend Jesus turns to the crowd and directs them to do the unbinding. For me, this is perhaps the most significant and overlooked part of the story. This is the part that keeps me coming back. The last words of the story are "Unbind him and set him free." Jesus' command is a powerful directive to the community of believers. Jesus calls Lazarus into resurrection; but then he calls the community to overcome their propensity for spectating and get involved. Resurrection is a communal event. It is a team sport. Unbind him, set him free. This is Jesus' words to those privileged enough to bare witness to one emerging from the tomb. It is the work of the community to unbind and set free."
I don't know about you, but I identify with the community standing around the tomb; the people who are standing around waiting for Jesus to fix everything only to hear Jesus say, "You! You go help this man! Unbind him and set him free." And that is what the Day of Silence is all about for me. It is about the power or Resurrection - for all people.