“Tyler”, the president of the college’s secret Lesbian, Gay, Straight, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning student alliance, sat across from me at my desk.
“We’re protesting”, he said. “Next week, in chapel. Will you help?”
“What are you planning on doing?” I asked, immediately feeling apprehensive.
He took a deep breath. “As soon as they start, we’re going to stand up, and turn our backs to the stage. We want to show everyone that we don’t feel seen on this campus – that we feel like people are turning their backs on us. Will you do it with us?”
About 56 years ago now, Martin Luther King Jr. sat in jail in Birmingham, and wrote a letter to white pastors, asking them, essentially, to stop talking and get involved in the Civil Rights Movement with tangible, real actions, not just words. He was asking them to value justice more greatly than order. What he wanted would have cost them dearly, and they knew it. MLK Jr.’s letter was in response to a letter eight white pastors had written, directed toward him, called “A Call to Unity” – in which they argued that Civil Rights should be decided in the judicial system; in other words, by talking. Talking by the people in power. Talking by white people. These men all actually had good intentions, I believe. They were church leaders who were in favor of decreasing racism and mostly in favor of pursuing integration. (The road to hell is paved with good intentions, so they say.) But they wanted to do it at their own pace, without much personal cost to themselves, and by using the system that was causing the oppression in the first place. As my friend Julia Sibley-Jones pointed out yesterday in her Sunday School class – time always benefits the powerful, and never the weak, the oppressed, the minorities.
The day Tyler came to my office, I had been working at a small, Wesleyan college for about four years. It was my first job out of graduate school, and I had thought that it would be easy to return to the South and work at a Christian school more on the conservative side. These were my people, after all. I could handle them, no problem. Besides, it was 2008, the economy sucked and I needed a job. Plus, I really was excited to start a career as a librarian.
It wasn’t so easy.
As it turned out, the four years I had lived in the Washington, D.C. area were some of the most formative of my adult life. It was the first time I was really around people who were unlike me – religiously anyway. I grew up in very conservative churches where it was clear that being straight and conforming to strict gender norms and roles were what you had to be if you were going to be a good Christian. I went to college at UGA, and while I had friends with different backgrounds as a music major, it was easy to spend all of my social time in the bubble of people who grew up exactly as I had. The changes that I went through while at the University of Maryland, first for an advanced music degree, and then for my master’s in library science need their own post(s) to be explored, but the summary is that I got to know many people very different from me, and I came away permanently changed. One of the truths I’m so deeply grateful to have come to understand is that your sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not God loves you and whether or not you can be and/or get to be a part of a faith community.
In the first couple of months working for this particular college, I had come to find out I was actually among the most liberal faculty on-campus. (Which I’m sure some of my more far-left friends will find amusing.) There were about a half dozen of us who would meet regularly over lunch to feel some solidarity around political, social justice, and diversity issues. We tried to figure out how we could support the students who had been showing up in our office, especially the ones who were gay and trying to figure out how their identity was going to work with their faith. In addition to struggling with issues that any college student might have – like what career to pick or how many loans to take out or what clubs to join – they also were feeling lonely, angry, and suicidal, as members of a community they were coming to understand would always exclude them unless they decided to be celibate or deny their sexuality.
So we did our best to support them, mostly by talking with them when they needed it. We wanted them to know that not everybody thought that being an LGBTQ person who planned to fully embrace their sexuality was incompatible with faith. And while I think it genuinely helped these students, it was all under the table, all secret. Then “Tyler” and a couple others started to get their fellow LGBTQ students and their allies a bit more organized. They formed a gay-straight student alliance and started meeting regularly. One of the faculty members from our group began officially advising them, they started a Facebook group, and all of a sudden it was all a lot more out there.
Our faculty group decided it would be wise be proactive and ask for a meeting with the president. Some of the new gay-straight student alliance members came too. While the conversation was cordial in tone, it was clear in intent. The student group wouldn’t be allowed to exist, officially, so the faculty member from our group couldn’t be its sponsor. We as faculty were to (at least publicly) support the Wesleyan views on sexuality. Both the students and us came away from that meeting feeling like they would be watching.
The next week, Tyler was sitting in my office. Would I do it with them?
I’m not especially proud of my answer.
“Tyler, it isn’t the time for this,” I said. “Everything is too volatile right now. It will just make things worse. Do you want to get kicked out your last semester of your senior year?”
That’s what I said out loud. What I was thinking was “there is no way in hell I can do something to jeopardize my job. My kid is on my health insurance, and we need two incomes. And it won’t change anything, anyway. They made their position clear in that meeting. I can’t do this.”
I knew then, and I still know now, that I made the wrong choice that day. I was a coward, and I justified it with my words, issuing my own “Call for Unity” that was essentially an excuse to enable my own need for security and safety. I wish now that I had been more brave – oh, how I wish it!
Soon after the faculty member who advised the gay-straight alliance group, whose story is not mine to tell, was let go. A couple weeks later, I saw another job open at a school across town. I interviewed, I asked direct questions about the atmosphere for gay students, I got the job, and I left. These were all the right things to do, but they didn’t cost me much, personally.
Since 1986, we have celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. day as a federal holiday every year. I have heard people trying to disguise the racism they don’t even realize they still possess argue that we should have a general “Civil Rights Day”, rather than MLK Day. I think it’s because most white people are basically fine with Civil Rights as an ideal, i.e. the “I Have a Dream” MLK. The most famous lines from that speech are ones that talk about the future, about ideals, about what could be. It lets us tacitly agree, go home and have nice conversations about how far we’ve come and how we can still do more — and then go back to work and forget about it the next day. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” MLK is much harder to dismiss, and it contains the essence of who he was a leader – someone who showed up to walk the streets, to carry a sign at a protest, to be barked at by dogs and snubbed by the powerful. Actions. The “Letter” exhorts us to get off of our moderate butts, unapologetically choose the side of the oppressed, and then stop waiting and talking and DO SOMETHING about it. In the same letter, he also said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Which basically means that we are never off the hook; we are never done; we are always looking, noticing, and then acting.
I believe truly that that is what we are called to do as Christians. Micah 6:8 calls us to “act justly” and “love mercy” and 1 John 3:18 tells us that we show love not with “words or tongue but with actions and in truth”. But absent of that even – it’s just simply what we should do as humans walking together on this screwed up planet. We need to use our words, yes, because they are powerful – whether in person or in social media — but our actions are really what show what and who we love.
I let one opportunity pass me by some years ago, but I can hope and pray I get another chance. I can even actively look for one.
What about you? What chances did you miss? What opportunities do you have, now?