It’s the fourth Sunday of June, Gay Pride Sunday, at The Riverside Church in New York City. This is a day for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to celebrate their God-given, God-created essence as human beings. Moreover, it is a day for the entire church to celebrate God’s wondrous rainbow of diversity. Clearly, there is not agreement across denominational lines regarding gay and lesbian people, but because of this controversy, Riverside’s celebration becomes the perfect example of how congregations must ultimately struggle to identify and then tell an alternative story to the world and to one another.
I go downstairs to the assembly hall at 9:00 a.m. for a Gay Pride breakfast. Representatives of different organizations from around the city line the walls, standing behind tables overloaded with literature, postcards, and sign-up sheets for various activities. Music plays in the background. I watch a slide show play in a continuous loop, showing pictures of the Maranatha group from Riverside, a gay support group founded with the blessing and encouragement of the late William Slone Coffin Jr. over 25 years ago. There are warm embraces, laughter, and real conversation. Everyone enjoys the breakfast of sausage and eggs, but unlike the polite conversation that typically takes place before and after a morning worship service, I sense that something real and powerful is happening at this gathering.
Later in the morning, like watching a riot of happiness shift location, I see everyone at the breakfast make their way to the magnificent nave of the church. Because it is Gay Pride Sunday, all the participants in the service are members of the gay community. A special men’s chorus has been invited to sing. Two lesbian partners stand and share one of the scripture readings. Another couple offers the pastoral prayer. The guest speaker is a lesbian clergywoman from the San Francisco area. The Rev. Penny Nixon offers a marvelous sermon, speaking about “body theology” and how there is no way to have a theology outside our real bodily experience. It makes so much sense.
She ends her sermon, however, in a way I will not soon forget, and in a way that captures for me what it means for the church to share an alternative story with the world. She comes out of that great Riverside pulpit and walks right down to the people in the congregation. She holds her arms wide open. She says it might be hard for some people to understand this day of Gay Pride, which doesn’t receive much attention from churches around the country, at least not yet. But then, gesturing with her outstretched left hand, she says that “when you started your journey here, here at a place of shame, to wind up here” (now signaling with her right hand) “at a place of pride, it is nothing less than a miracle. It has been a long journey for some of us, but it is a journey we had to take, and God has been with us each step of the way.” That’s it—from a place of shame to a place of pride. This is the essence of the story we are celebrating here today.
The whole Sunday morning experience constitutes a different story for America, a prophetic story that pulses with justice and hope. The prophetic tradition is one of challenge and imagination: challenge to the status quo and imagination for another way of being in the world—God’s way, a way of peace and mutually satisfying community. The prophetic tradition constellates the stories of people who have been marginalized by race or gender or class or religion or age or sexual orientation, and then these stories are given a voice. When they are told with sincerity and theological integrity, a mystical door opens inside the heart, and gradually people begin to feel as if they can walk through the door, find their place, relax, be themselves, be in the company of others, and yes, be in the presence of God.
Not only do we have a chance within a community of faith to tell an alternative story—indeed we do—but also we have a chance to tell stories that really matter to the quality of the human experience. The Gay Pride story is not just a contrast to the story of Eisenhower and the monolithic sexual experience of the 1950s. Today it has the power to make a difference in the life of a young person who feels ashamed that he or she is different. Who you are, what you are, what you feel, what you hope for is welcomed and blessed by God and the community of God’s people.
Now, if the fourth Sunday of June isn’t convincing enough, then consider the next Sunday in the calendar year, Fourth of July weekend. For the righteous few left in the city of New York on that holiday weekend, and who actually show up for church, such a moment presents many theological and liturgical options, and each option tells or doesn’t tell a certain kind of story.
At Riverside we do not raise the American flag, nor do we sing patriotic songs, and to be sure there is no sermon extolling the virtues of God’s country—the U.S.A.—even though such practices can be found in congregations all over the country. We are unwilling to give the impression that God’s story, or at least the story of the church, is equivalent to the American story. It’s not that the church refuses to be patriotic; it’s simply that the church is trying to tell an alternative story—one that speaks of:
- the vitality of the separation between church and state, and how such a separation is not only good for the country but also good for the church
- global rather than nationalistic allegiance, recognizing that we are all God’s children and no nation curries favor with God
- the value of recognizing that God speaks truth to governmental powers, including the current administration in Washington
- the importance of having a “lover’s quarrel” with the country, one that loves America enough to work for an America that is good for all citizens
- the need to end war and poverty in this country, and particularly, bring to an end the misguided war in Iraq
To be sure, having just finished a long transitional ministry as the chief program minister at Riverside, I can say with all confidence that there is no place quite like this church, and I have no illusions that it is normative for other congregations. From the church’s founding minister, Harry Emerson Fosdick, to its recently retired minister, James A. Forbes Jr., Riverside has always been a special community of faith. What is transferable to other churches in other parts of the world, however, is this: communities of faith are free to act with courage, to use what they have to tell God’s story of peace, justice, and hope to the culture.
The pressure upon congregations to hold it together internally, to avoid losing members or revenue, and to keep a cohesive community of faith is real and should not be underestimated. At the same time, if faith matters, if it is to break through a cracked-up, overly storied, image-saturated culture, then congregations must live into the prophetic tradition, challenging what is and asking “Why not?” when it comes to what might be.
When the world would have preferred for gay and lesbian people to stay in their dark and lonely closets, Riverside established the support and activist ministry of Maranatha. When the country would have preferred patriotic songs, replete with red, white, and blue flag waving, Riverside questioned the Iraq war, questioned the national response to Hurricane Katrina, questioned the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, and questioned torture policies at Guantanamo. For all its internal and organizational chaos (insiders know this all too well), Riverside has had its share of shining moments, times when the congregation offered a different way of thinking and being the human family in God’s world.
There’s no way around it, making sure a congregation is neatly buttoned-down like a Brooks Brothers’ shirt fresh from the laundry (with extra starch) is c
ertainly one way for a community of people to order their life together. But if a church is willing to get a little messy, make a few mistakes—the kind of mistakes Jesus risked by being too forgiving or too compassionate or too vocal about justice—and if a church is willing to risk offending a few members (a few of them are extra starched, too), then it will move into the prophetic tradition of our faith. Telling God’s story, by its very nature, is subversive and controversial. But in the end it has the power to bring hope to people, many of whom are the very kinds of people Jesus committed his life to reaching.
R. Scott Colglazier is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and recently completed an intentional interim ministry with The Riverside Church. He is currently working on a major book project on doubt and faith.