As I pulled into the parking lot of Bethany UCC, I wondered what I was doing driving the nearly two hours out into the middle of rolling, rural countryside south of Hickory to attend a forum on the role of churches in improving the lives of LGBTQ people.
After all, this is the state the rest of the nation has come to know as the place where crazy legislation is being debated that forces transgender individuals to use “the bathroom assigned to the gender of their birth” rather than their gender identity or expression. When I told people in Colorado, where I live, that I was going to live and serve as a pastor in North Carolina for a year, they naturally thought I was going into hostile territory for a religious and political liberal on some sort of mission to convert the homo- and trans-phobic “heathens.”
How wrong that assessment was!
What I found was familiar people, telling the same kinds of stories, and organizing for legislative and community advocacy for gay men and lesbians, bisexual, transgender and questioning folks, many of whom grew up with religious backgrounds they had to leave because their churches, communities, and schools were fearful of who they were.
People like Ryan Papciak, a Master of Social Work student at Appalachian State in Boone and is interning with OUTRight Youth of Catawba County; Aerea Long, a Catawba County resident who works in the tech sector; Alan Wilson, a Catawba County resident and small-business owner ; and Kathy Wood, a professor at Ashford University who works in aging services, is on the Board at OUTRight Youth, and is a candidate for ordination as a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. They were on a panel and told their stories as folks deeply affected by a hostile climate and deeply involved in LGBTQ advocacy.
And the speakers were also diverse: Bill Long, a retired family practice doctor who is president of OUTRight Youth, Crystal Smith, a licensed professional counselor with her Master’s in Christian Counseling from Gordon-Conwell, an evangelical seminary in Massachusetts, and Julie Peeples, senior pastor of Congregational UCC in Greensboro, an Open and Affirming church.
The host church’s pastor, Colleen Samson, led that church to a recent decision to become Open and Affirming, and this forum was one of the major initiatives they’re making as a congregation committed to inclusive ministry, because they believe Jesus would’ve hung out with and welcomed LGBTQ people as disciples.
In Longmont, CO, I’m a member of the local Safe Schools Coalition, which works to prevent bullying (whether LGBT-directed, or just the perception that somebody is LGBT) and improve school climate. So I was prepared to offer my two cents from my experience in a “progressive” area of the country. But what I found was that North Carolinians are founding Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools, creating safe places for youth who are coming out and have been rejected by their families, congregations, fellow students, staff and administrations.
Just like we are in Colorado. And just like in other places around the country.
Because it turns out there are no longer any cultural backwaters. The same media that paints such a one-dimensional picture of states like NC also has made it possible for LGBT kids not to feel so alone, as though no one is having the experiences they have.
And that media, particularly social media that’s implicated in cyber-bullying, is also a tool for organizing people to change the climate in their areas.
Michael Barrick, the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, works in LGBTQ advocacy for Equality North Carolina. He told the story of a recent visit to the North Carolina Zoo with his 31 year old son, who lives elsewhere. And the son remarked on how much diversity there was in NC. “This is North Carolina,” Mr. Barrick replied. “That’s what North Carolina is: diverse.”
Throughout the evening, I observed two things: One, a clear view of the realities we are up against in changing minds and hearts in the face of oppressive state legislation and the climate in NC society; and Two, a whole lot of HOPE created by the way God is moving in churches like Bethany, and Congregational in Greensboro, and The Congregational Church of Tryon, where I pastor, and gathering likeminded people who believe change is possible, anywhere.
The most important thing that came out at the end of the evening: become educated about the issues, and VOTE in November!