Every morning I read the daily selection from my grandmother’s Meditations for Women. She and my grandfather were lifelong members of their small Iowa town’s Methodist church, and whenever I visited as a child, which was often, our family accompanied them to Sunday worship. It was boring and I wasn’t allowed to read, but I liked standing for the hymns, leaning against Grandmimi, who rustled and smelled like perfume and hairspray. She’d been in the choir her whole life, but in her 60s, she’d retired, her lungs no longer up to the work due to two bouts of childhood pneumonia. Even husky and wheezing, though, her lovely voice guided me effortlessly through each verse. I especially loved the Doxology, and I used Grandmimi’s Methodist hymnal when Tex and I were planning the music for our wedding. I didn’t want the watered down UU version, because to my mind, the gorgeous tune isn’t complete without the Methodist-God-the-Father words, and that’s the version that lives in my heart.
In 1975, when my grandparents and their two daughters and husbands celebrated “100 Years of Marriage” (50th anniversary for the elders, 25th each for the younger generation), I experienced a pivotal moment of political awareness in that same Methodist church’s Vestry. My Southern California cousin, (her Methodist church had hot pink pew cushions — my favorite color!) had brought along a friend for the festivities, a very soignee young black woman. As the two of them made their entrance into the Vestry, I had been watching one of the other guests, the black adopted daughter of a local family, probably around 7 or 8. I’ll never forget the look on that child’s face as the glamorous California girl swanned down the stairs, nor will I forget the alacrity with which her white mom got going asking the older girl how to do her daughter’s hair. That moment of awareness about race and racism and loneliness and community is forever twinned in my mind with the linoleum and florescent lighting, the smell of perked coffee and the taste of Vienna sausages, jello salad, and well done roast beef from the heart of the heart.
When my grandfather died, I wrote his obituary and spoke about him from the pulpit of that church. I did the same when my grandmother died.
In the suburban Boston town where I live, the Calvary Methodist Church wears a big rainbow stripe on its sign along with the words, “All Are Welcome Here.” An impassioned letter in the local newspaper from Calvary’s minister about how her church doesn’t agree with their denomination’s powers that be on the issue of gay rights caught my attention last year, and I filed her away as a potential ally in the organizing work colleagues and I are doing in town for queer youth. Sure enough, we learned that Calvary’s Reconciling Team was interested in supporting our efforts, and they subsequently provided pizza and drinks for the members of True Colors, a queer and allies youth theater troupe that performed at the middle school. To our delight, Calvary went a step further, offering their church hall, free of charge, to the members of the homeschoolers QSA for a dance they were planning (I’m the adult advisor). Go Methodists!
Oh, but then. Five days before our Drag Extravaganza, when everything was all ready to go, the music cued up, the decorations and snacks purchased, the outfits agonized over and assembled, the event page busily ticking along, the emails sent out, the fliers distributed, the chaperones standing by, I got an email from the minister asking me to call her asap. An issue about the dance we needed to discuss. All unaware, an innocent babe, a lamb to the slaughter, I gayly picked up the phone and punched in her number.
The issue, dear readers, was drag. All through the 30-plus-minute conversation, I tried to understand what it is about drag she finds inappropriate, why it is she’s not comfortable with it, but she just couldn’t seem to tell me. No amount of my explaining about the cultural significance of drag to the queer community, no amount of appealing to her conscience about the deleterious effects of cancelling their fun on the youth, no amount of reminding her that they had reached out to us and we had accepted in good faith, not even letting her know that this whole thing was feeling homophobic to me, nothing, nothing would shift her. At one particularly frustrated moment, I blurted out, “It’s not like anyone’s going to come in drag as Jesus or anything!” Oops. Out of all the cogent and righteous things I said that morning, I suppose that’s the only one she’ll remember. And she didn’t budge. Change the theme, or you don’t get the space.
We didn’t change the theme.
I’m not sure why she wasn’t able to be honest with me. If she had said, “We bit off more than we can chew. We’re sorry, but if we let you do drag in our church, the big boys will have my head.” (I guess probably she wouldn’t have said “my ass in a sling”, but that’s ok, I still would’ve known what she meant). If she had said, “Please work with me on this – what can we do? How can my church support you and still move forward as an ally without me losing my job?” or whatever it was that motivated her to lay down the law. Instead, she told me several times that now was not the time to educate her about drag (isn’t that what they wanted? to reach out to us and learn?) and kept assuming I would understand their discomfort. In the end, it came down to her saying that it’s her church and she gets to say what happens in it.
We have already found another venue and date, and this homophobic disaster has been a catalyst for the planning of a town-wide visioning conversation about how to provide more systemic and sustainable support for our queer youth. We are using this huge disappointment to our advantage, and I am excited by the prospects for education, community building, and fun (the Drag Extravaganza will be bigger! better! more bitchin’ and bodacious!).
I’m not so sure what will happen over at Calvary, though. They opened the door to us, and we came skipping in wearing feather boas and glitter – far, very far, from approved Methodist dress code. The wounds perpetrated on queers by Christians* are deep, persistent, debilitating. Stepping up to that reality, moving into that fraught and messy relationship requires resilience, self-education, humility, careful listening, being willing to get out of the way, creativity, imagination, empathy. The work is theirs.
I am moving on. I have no investment in facilitating any of it for them, any more than I already have by responding to their outreach, then giving up a chunk of my hide (as Grandmimi would have said) in a half-hour long conversation – and better me than any of the kids. But for the Doxology, for that small Iowa town Methodist church Vestry and what happened there, for the connection I feel every morning with my long-dead grandmother when I read that day’s “Meditation for Women” (on the inside of the back cover is written in Grandmimi’s hand: “There is only one kind of poverty and that is to have no love in the heart,”). For all of these, I hope Calvary can do it.
I hope they can open the door wider, not slam it shut.
I hope they can go on to earn their rainbow stripe.