Introduction to Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church

Ted Grimsrud—September 6, 2016

[What follows is the introductory chapter to my new book, Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church (Peace Theology Books). The book is a collection of fifteen essays, blog posts, and lectures written over the past sixteen years that traces my efforts to help encourage the Mennonite community to be more inclusive of sexual minorities. This introduction sets the context for the writings and touches on the argument of the collection as a whole. To learn more about this book, go to its website.]

This book, Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to be a Welcoming Church, gathers materials I have generated over the past 15 years. What the book is about, in a nutshell, a challenge to heterosexist Mennonite resistance to churches welcoming sexual minorities. These articles, lectures, and sermons were my contribution to discernment processes happening in Mennonite settings. I have only lightly edited them. There is some redundancy in the pieces, but the reiteration of elements of my arguments for inclusion seemed to me to be a way to be more clear. As well, retaining most of what I originally wrote helps provide a sense of this collection as a historical document. While the case for welcome I make in these essays remains relevant for the present, this collection also serves as an account of the struggle over these past 15 years.

It’s been an interesting time, with quite a bit of tension and stress, along with some joy and some sense of accomplishment. I’m not sure what kind of whole these various pieces create, but it seemed worth the trouble to find out. Reading the collection over now, I do see a coherent perspective, an application of Jesus’s message of God’s love for all people to this one particular set of issues. Let me begin, with this Introduction, by giving an account of how I came to add voice to the struggle.

A culture of fear

I began my twenty years as a faculty member at Eastern Mennonite University in the fall of 1996. From the beginning I felt some tension. I did want very much to get along with the institution and willingly expected to work within the confines of stated expectations for faculty members (for example, during those early months I willingly refrained from drinking any alcoholic beverages, as per the Community Lifestyle Commitment document I signed).

On the other hand, I have always seen my deepest accountability to be to the gospel message. By 1996, I had come to some solid conclusions regarding the tensions swirling in Mennonite communities over how the churches and broader structures should respond to their gay and lesbian members. I did not come to EMU with the intent to lead a reform movement on campus or in the wider denomination, but I was ready to play a role if opportunities arose—and I expected they would; it seemed that the movement of history was going to require that.

However, early in my time on campus, I remained quiet and did not anticipate engaging these issues for some time. As it turned out, in my second year I was interviewed for an article in the student newspaper. I can’t remember the details except that my comments were brief and general. However, they did hint at a welcoming stance. Toward the end of the semester on a Friday afternoon, I was visited by Sam Weaver, a senior fundraiser on campus who I had not met before. I was surprised to see him until he started to tell me that I needed to be very careful about what I said publically; that it wouldn’t do to be seen as going against “the church’s position” of non-acceptance of “homosexuals.”

Sam’s visited frightened me. It turned out that all the top administrators were off campus that day, so I had to wait until the following Monday to contact Bill Hawk, the academic dean. I called Bill as soon as I could and asked him if I had anything to be frightened of. He emphatically said no, that Sam had no standing in relation to the academic wing of campus and had no business trying to intimidate me. A few days later, I ran into Daryl Peifer, the vice-president for advancement and Sam’s boss. He apologized profusely, said that Sam was out of line and would never do that again.

So, I felt reassured. I realize now that I even felt a bit emboldened. Maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about expressing myself. There still was a strong sense on campus, though, that one needed to be very quiet if one did not accept that “official” condemnation of “homosexuals.” It seems remarkable for me now to remember the feeling on campus at that time. There surely were a large percentage of people who did desire EMU and the churches to move in a more welcoming direction, but we had little way of knowing who each other were because of the fear of speaking up. One prominent member of the campus community decided to leave EMU and privately cited EMU’s “culture of fear” as one reason for the decision.

The Welcome Letter and beyond

An important catalyst for challenging the fear was a one-page advertisement in The Mennonite Weekly Review, February 17, 2000—nearly 1,000 members of Mennonite congregations in North America signed the ad. It included a short statement advocating for inclusion of LGBTQ people in the churches and the affirmation of same-sex marriage.

This ad was written and signatures solicited by a committee that had formed two years prior to the placement of the ad. Titus Bender, longtime EMU professor of social work and a rare faculty member who had taken a public stand, was one of the original members of the Welcome Committee. He recruited me to go with him to an organizing retreat of the committee a few months after its work had begun.

I helped organize a gathering at EMU of supportive faculty and staff to discern whether to sign the ad. It was an empowering moment when we held our first meeting at EMU, not knowing who would attend. As people kept wandering in, all of us felt a boost. As it turned out, 20 or so faculty and staff signed the letter. We did so anxiously, amid rumors that EMU’s board of trustees would not approve contracts of faculty who signed the letter and that staff signees would also be putting their jobs at risk. These rumors turned out largely to be unfounded.

Though I didn’t realize it, I was the only ordained person in Virginia Mennonite Conference to sign the letter. This fact led to some rather intense interactions with conference leaders over a number of years. I faced pressure to resign my ordination and threats that it would be taken away. As it turned out, after a year long series of meetings with three conference overseers (Myron Augsburger, George Brunk III, and Wayne North), I was “approved” as theologically sound and continued to be a minister in good standing. However, not long after that approval was issued, my congregation (Shalom Mennonite Congregation) switched its membership from Virginia Mennonite Conference to Central District Conference. As a consequence, my ordination credentials were also shifted to Central District. (My experiences were a small part of a broader dynamic at the time that led to the loss of my wife Kathleen Temple’s ordination—told in this paper by Kelly Miller.)

I think we may see the Welcome Letter process as an important moment in the ending of the “culture of fear” at EMU related to discussion of these issues. Many of the people who came together for the initial discernment process concerning the Welcome Letter continued associating, and when a longtime and beloved EMU staff person was fired due to her partnered relationship with another woman, a new group on campus emerged, informally called “the Friday group.” These people organized opposition to the action against our friend. We did not manage to get the action overturned, but we did signal that silence would no longer be necessary.

Another group emerged, originally called the Open Door and in time renamed Safe Spaces. The Open Door was started as a support group without formal EMU affiliation, but meant to provide encouragement for LGBTQ students and their friends. After a few years, Safe Spaces formed as an approved student group. It’s participation level for some time ebbed and flowed, but eventually it became a firmly established part of the campus community.

At the very beginning of President Loren Swartzendruber’s tenure in 2004, a visible protest of EMU’s discriminatory dynamics led to Swartzendruber’s commitment to a study and discernment process on issues of welcome and discrimination. A committee was formed as part of this process and asked Mark Thiessen Nation, theology professor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and me to engage in a series of public debates. One of these happened in 2005 as part of a chapel service before approximately 600 members of the campus community. In that service, I explicitly advocated a welcoming approach, including support for same-sex marriage. I felt some anxiety about taking such a public stance, especially as a member of the Bible and Religion department. I was assured, though, that since this was an “academic exercise” of point/ counterpoint, and I wasn’t doing stand alone advocacy, I would be fine.

These events led to a book Mark and I published with the Mennonite Publishing House, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality. I learned only after the book came out that the head of MPH cleared publication with President Swartzendruber—who again approved of this as an important part of the university’s role as a place of discernment and debate about issues facing the churches. I think it is significant that in the 12 years that Loren and I shared employment at EMU, he never once even hinted to me that my advocacy for welcome through writing, teaching, and speaking needed to be constrained or posed a threat to my standing on campus.

From this time on, open advocacy of welcome became a safe activity on campus. I no longer felt fear about articulating my views. Then, EMU administrators decided to consider ending the school’s hiring practices that excluded people in same-sex intimate relationships. The school began a discernment process that gained a good deal of attention. This “Listening Process” concluded with the formal decision in 2015 that EMU would no longer discriminate. Though the process drew a lot of negative attention for a time, the decision appears to be on solid footing.

My contributions

This book, Mennonites and “Homosexuality, collects a number of my contributions over the past fifteen years to the discernment processes at EMU and in the broader Mennonite world. I have organized the essays into four sections. The first and briefest section contains two short pieces that explain a bit of my own journey, how I have come to the positions I argue for in the rest of the book. The second section contains various pieces that make the case for how the Bible may be read in support of a welcoming stance. I have spoken and written on numerous occasions on these topics. What I have included here is a representative sample.

The third section presents some of my analyses of the dynamics among Mennonites over these years. These pieces are pretty negative in tone, reflecting my own experiences with the institutional Mennonite church and, probably even more, my awareness of even more negative experiences that many others have had. I realize, though, that this negative emphasis reflects only one part of the big picture.

I could write in a positive way about values from the 16th-century Anabaptists that have partially been embodied in this tradition. In fact, I have done so.Certainly, these values provide much of the sensibility that leads me and others to be critical of how Mennonites have responded in such hurtful ways these past thirty years as the presence of LGBTQ Mennonites has become more apparent. That is, it is because of appreciation for the ideals of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition that many of us have sought to challenge the churches to change.

I could also write more, in a positive way, about the history of resistance by LGBTQ Mennonites and their friends. This is a story that needs to be told, and hopefully will in the near future. Here, I will simply point readers to three now older volumes edited by Roberta Showalter Kreider that have made an excellent contribution to providing access to those who have so courageously been part of the resistance movement. However, I have decided it would be best simply to go ahead with what I have in my discussion of Mennonites, recognizing that the context for these several essays is a place in the middle of a contested struggle in which I have been a partisan—though I like to think that my contributions here still are accurate and fair-minded.

The final section of the book contains numerous pieces where I respond to others’ writings that are a part of the voluminous literature on Christians engaging sexuality issues. This is not meant as a comprehensive selection, rather simply an essentially random collection of critical reviews, both favorable and unfavorable, of a wide selection of writings on our themes.

To conclude the book, I include a fascinating research paper by my friend Kelly Miller. Kelly wrote this paper for her senior history thesis at Goshen College (here’s a link to the longer, original version of the paper). She tells the story of how Virginia Mennonite Conference defrocked my wife, Kathleen Temple, due to Kathleen’s welcoming convictions. Kelly’s paper gives us a clear and sobering case study of how Mennonites have failed to respond graciously to the presence of sexual minorities in their midst.

The use of the term “homosexuality”

I have to confess that I have not been especially skilled at keeping up with the rapidly evolving set of terms that are used in discussions about the issues this book addresses. I have tried to use words carefully and in editing these essays have sought to update the usage where possible. I have settled on the acronym “LGBTQ” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) as it seems to be the most widely used term to talk about the class of people who self-identify as sexual minorities.

I am not totally comfortable with that term; it seems a bit impersonal and alludes to some elements of the broader set of themes that I don’t speak to in my writing. However, “gay” doesn’t seem always to work, perhaps in large part because it also has been used (probably most commonly) to refer only to males. “Queer” seems like a good term, and it is increasingly popular. Some people I respect greatly, though, are not happy with it—perhaps at least in part because of the extremely negative connotations it used to have. I think we should do the best we can and be patient with one another as our language evolves.

One term that I do feel fairly clear about, though, is “homosexuality” (and “homosexual”). These are terms that clearly now do have negative connotations and are imposed on sexual minorities in hurtful ways. So I will not intentionally use either word without scare quotes. However, I can think of a useful way that “homosexuality” (with the scare quotes) might be used. That is to refer to the way the heterosexist forces think of LGBTQ people. In this sense “homosexuality” refers to a construct or stereotype or dynamic of “othering” sexual minorities. And it refers to the actions of the heterosexist forces to try to exert control over these minorities and their friends.

So, when I title this book Mennonites and “Homosexuality” I have in mind how heterosexist forces have resisted churches moving in welcoming directions. I now realize that speaking against this resistance to welcome is the main theme of this book. Not all of the essays directly allude to the resistance, but it is because of the resistance that everything here was written.

What I offer, then, is a collection of responses to the ways Mennonites have dealt with the presence of LGBTQ people in their midst. Some of my responses directly address Mennonite activities and some are focused more generally on theology. To say this book is about “homosexuality” then is actually to say that it has a pretty narrow focus. What the book is about is heterosexist Mennonite resistance to being more welcoming to sexual minorities.

I am not trying to speak on behalf of anyone else here, but simply to gather my own rather personal reflections that have sought to challenge Mennonites’ exclusionary thought and practice.

With gratitude

I am grateful to my various conversation partners over the years, both those I have agreed with and those I have disagreed with. I think of one such “partner” in particular (who I will not name) who argued with me vociferously for years in an online forum. At one point I decided to try to be much more patient and simply lay out my arguments in a careful and non-confrontive way. Lo and behold, in this one instance, my conversation partner actually changed his mind, rather decisively. As far as I know, this is my only “convert.” I am glad to know that such an outcome is possible, but even more I am reminded that this conversation is hardly ever a debate that can be “won.”

As with all my thinking, my best, favorite, and longest standing conversation partner is my wife, Kathleen Temple. She also has paid a price for her convictions on these issues, but we have both only grown more convinced that the gospel that we pledged to serve as Mennonite pastors is a gospel of welcome. At all times, for each of us, having the other’s presence as co-conspirator and as soul mate meant more than we could ever say.

Finally, I want to offer a special word of gratitude for my LGBTQ friends over these many years who have helped me see the human face of my theological and ethical convictions. I am in awe of the courage, the self-knowledge, and the clarity of conviction I have seen in them over and over that has guided and encouraged me.

I don’t want to attempt anything approaching a comprehensive list, but I feel the need to mention a few special people. It starts with two old friends, Amos and Janalee, who each in their own unique journey allowed Kathleen and me to be present in holy ways. It’s hard to imagine this book existing without those two friendships.

Our time in the San Francisco Bay Area was crucial. We met Wendy and Ellen when they babysat our toddler, Johan, at a Pacific School of Religion new student orientation event. We became close friends and gained many insights from our many conversations. We weren’t very faithful attenders at First Mennonite Church in San Francisco, but we greatly valued our time with such a comfortably inclusive congregation.

Along with Amos and Janalee, Lamar was a terrific friend during our years in Eugene. Since we moved to Virginia, we have learned to know some wonderful students in process of finding clarity about their sexual identity. Pretty much everything I have written and said in these past 20 years on the themes of this book has in its background a sense of how will this relate to the work that these young people are doing to clarify their own sense of identity and to find their way (or not) in the churches.

Finally, I want to mention a crucial mentor, conversation partner, and inspiration, Lin Garber, the Mennonite sage of Boston. Lin is legendary for many things; for me, he has been a great source of information and confirmation. As well, he has been a wonderful model of a gay man who has embodied an extraordinarily positive spirit and sense of patience in his witness to Jesus’s message of peace and its application to the arena of “Mennonites and ‘homosexuality.’”

I’ll conclude by expressing my gratitude to the work of the Brethren and Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender Interests. BMC has been a beacon of hope and empowerment for countless Brethren and Mennonites for over 30 years now. Whatever progress the churches have made in their struggle to be welcoming is in large part due to BMC. I have not been closely connected with BMC, but I have always drawn courage and guidance from their witness.

[This excerpt is from Ted Grimsrud, Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church (Peace Theology Books, 2016), pages viii-xv]

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1 Comment

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One response to “Introduction to Mennonites and “Homosexuality”: The Struggle to Become a Welcoming Church

  1. I have just finished reading Dave Jackson’s book Risking Grace. I was impressed by how powerful the personal stories were. It is true he has a long section dealing with biblical interpretation, going over all of the “homosexual texts” and an explanation of his approach, But is is the stories that makes it live.
    If you haven’t read the book, it is really worth taking the time to read it.
    I know you’ve worked hard on your material, but I suggest that incorporating stories of some of the hurt and joy you have encounter in your concern might enliven your writting

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