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KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Friday, March 03, 2006

Walking the Walk

Okay, I'll come clean.

A heavy workload hasn't been all that's keeping me from posting here. I've had writer's block. It's not that there aren't plenty of stupid, fumbling acts by the Bush administration to serve as fodder. It's not even my continuing search for affordable health insurance getting in the way. It's a deep spiritual sadness that's silenced my voice. Now before you go running off in fear and loathing, let me say that I'm a progressive Christian—you'll hear none of that holy roller ban-abortion-and-put-prayer-back-in-schools stuff from me. Here's the story:

My husband Ed and I are looking for a new church home. We're looking into the United Church of Christ (UCC), the denomination with the cool "bouncer" commercial with the message that everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender identity, is welcome in church, because God doesn't discriminate.

We've been members of a local Presbyterian church since 1995. Our two sons were baptized there; I sang alto in the choir. Ed served as a deacon1 and a chaperone on several youth group retreats; I served on Session2 and on the Spiritual Life and Mission Committees. Our joining that particular church coincided with the arrival of a new pastor. We loved her sermons and her social activism. She inspired us to actually act on our beliefs, championing equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people and participating in peace rallies and protest marches. We were quite active church members. But this past November, after a tenure of almost 11 years, that pastor left to serve at another Presbyterian church.

We've come to see that our congregation is overall rather conservative and doesn't want to rock the boat on any issue, so it often avoids walking the walk even though it talks the talk. Having joined just about the time that the progressive pastor arrived, we didn't realize for many years just how conservative the congregation is; we mistook her views for the congregation's. We began to realize this just over a year ago, well before she left. Conservative isn't necessarily bad; it just doesn't create an atmosphere in which we feel we can make much of a difference in the world, locally or otherwise, when few want to consider anything not conservative. Even though our former pastor knows how we feel and urged us, before she left, to hang in there at the church, we feel as if we have been pushing a boulder uphill at church for several years now, being two of the few liberal progressives there. That takes more strength than we have. Even she, as a pastor, was worn down by the conservatives there.

We'd like a more activist arena in which we can put what we learn in church on Sundays to work the rest of the week, without feeling that it takes extraordinary effort each time to do so for anything other than "safe" issues such as world hunger. That takes a huge amount of emotional energy. We don't think that everyone in a UCC church will agree with everything we believe or vice versa, but we do think that there will be enough agreement there to enable more work to be done in the community on the issues that we feel called to work on.

Not many members of our local Presbyterian church want to deal at all with GLBT laypeople and GLBT ministers and their lack of rights in the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). Our church still sponsors a local Boy Scout troop even though the national organization Boy Scouts of America officially discriminates against GLBT people, which makes it appear that the church endorses such discrimination. In helping to put together an October 2004 Reformation Sunday worship service on justice versus exclusion, we encountered a great deal of resistance to the prospect of dealing with GLBT rights. After the service—which many people appeared to enjoy and which featured the gorgeous music of the New Century Singers, a GLBT chorus—we were told that our church "talks about the gay issue too much." (I guess some people don't mind enjoying stirring music performed by GLBT people, as long as they don't have to mingle with "those people" in church on a regular basis.) We were told that our church needs to "keep its head down" and not "make waves."

And very few church members want to deal with the fact that Americans are committing a sin by torturing Iraqi prisoners of war and by sending them to facilities in other nations to be tortured. The PCUSA recently sponsored discussions about the immorality of torture, yet our local church won't even discuss the issue openly because "it's political." Damn it, life is political! And if progressives of every stripe—religious or not—don't start speaking up, America—and then the rest of the world—is going to be taken over by radical fundamentalists of various kinds. We'll have no rights and we'll live in an atmosphere of constant mistrust, punishment, and hatred.

Over the years, Ed and I have come to believe that we can't remain silent when we see human rights being denied. We believe that to remain silent is to not live our faith. We believe that we are called to make a difference, and we want to be in a place where we can do that, not just say, "That was a great sermon!" and then take no action because we know no one else wants to. We don't want to keep our heads down. We don't want to keep quiet just because it's considered bad form in the church to speak up about equal rights for GLBT people or to speak out against U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners. Even if right now our life situation—heavy workloads, an engaged daughter, a middle-schooler, and a prekindergartner—makes us very short on time to serve in various positions in a church, we'd like to feel that we are in a place where our service would have much more of an effect when our situation changes again.

The sadness comes from knowing that we're going to miss seeing a lot of good friends each week. It comes from feeling spiritually homeless. It comes from realizing that what we thought we saw wasn't reality. There's enough garbage going on in this country that it hurts not to have a community of like-minded activists—people who will say, "Yes, let's work together on that problem. Together, we can make a difference."


  1. In the PCUSA, deacons are ordained to minister to those who are in need, sick, friendless, and in distress. They sometimes take on other duties that are delegated to them by the pastor or Session, including assisting with serving Communion.

  2. In the PCUSA, the Session is the governing body of the individual church. Only those church members who have been ordained as church elders can be elected to serve on the Session.


Anonymous said...

Sing it out, sister, even if it's the blues you're singing.

Lots of progressive Christian people are longing for spiritual homes, and you have the courage to tell us about your journey.

Meg said...

I so hear you. I so, so hear you.

I was sinking into real depression after the 2004 election, and after the third straight weekend in tears, including one when I left, distraught, in the middle of worship because I just couldn't do it anymore, I finally realized that the depression was church induced. I jumped ship.

Fortunately I had a place all ready to jump to, the Mennonite church right around the corner from our home that we had attended several years earlier.

The friend who pretty much prayed me back in is one of the few people who "get" me. She knows that although my time is consumed with caring for my family financially (also by freelancing) and in every other way, I'm not just a workhorse and a dinner maker. I'm a woman who cares about the snowballing disasters, and I have a strong voice that pretty much has stayed in my head so far. And I ache for the opportunity to do something positive for someone outside the four walls of my house.

To be in a place where people know me and support me for who I am, and to have this and other friends at the church who urge me forward with my fledgling efforts as a writer--it makes all the difference. My puttering has yielded a monthly column on voting rights, my life is so much more balanced, and living out concern for others' needs in our day-to-day life together happens naturally because it's part of the ethic of the church.

And I no longer have to worry about my kids growing up with a disconnect between an all-white, monocultural church world and the multicultural world of nearly every other part of their lives.

I've wondered how I would have survived 2004 if I had not had this church to go to. I hope you can find something similar, Katharine. It will make all the difference in the world for you and your family.


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Thank you, Meg. Coming from you, those words are quite comforting.

I left a denomination once before—the Southern Baptists of my childhood. That group's beliefs are so soul-killing, so woman-hating, that it took me years to have the courage to have the courage to try any other denomination. And that was the Presbyterians.

Now I'm about to make another huge leap, and I so want to land in a place that feels like a community of the mind and spirit. I'll keep everyone posted on how it goes.

Meg said...

I'm glad my story gives you comfort, Katharine. I worried that I'd babbled too long.

There's power in stories. We should all keep telling them.

In so many churches I have felt like an ugly duckling among perfectly coiffed women whose homes never show the presence of their children. In such a setting I feel like a bungling absent-minded professor, an accident waiting to happen.

But last night a phrase popped into my mind that captures the quandary of my life as a hard-working, overbusy, socially conscious parent:

I'm an activist waiting to happen.


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