the welcoming tradition.

Men hate each other because they fear each other,
and they fear each other because they don’t know each other,
and they don’t know each other
because they are often separated from each other.

Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In times of grief, I often pray with my hands cupped together, as if I’m holding all the pain in my tired fingers and asking for God to see it, hold it, and carry it with (or for) me.

I began praying like that on a trip that culminated with time at a progressive Methodist church in Birmingham, Alabama (Highlands United Methodist Church). I was with a group of Hendrix students, learning about the Civil Rights movement while also taking part in service work. This experiential learning program was designed to explore on-going, systemic issues of poverty, race, and historical segregation – especially in the South. On one of the final evenings, I stayed alone in a small, chapel-like room and lifted my hands like in the cup-like stance, praying that God would teach me how to have an open heart. My soul was tired from the stories we had heard. I was at a loss for words – in disbelief of how our country had so violently and rigorously held onto exclusionary policies and attitudes because of a person’s race.

What disturbed me then, as it continues to do so now, (today, in 2017 when we legislate the rejection of people not quite like “us”) is that exclusion was not the kind of tradition I was taught. I, in the tapestry of experiences across state lines, groups, ethnicities, countries, genders, and families have been shown and empowered with a welcoming tradition. I refuse, resolutely, to disembark from this way of loving and honoring the humanity around us.

I took time this week to jot down specific moments or circumstances by which was modeled for me as a way of inclusion.

Inclusion, inherently, comes with risks.

If we embrace “otherness” in our communities (whether that includes a different religion, ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic background, gender, etc.) we can’t guarantee consensus. If we celebrate diversity, we might have to live in the tension of misalignment. Most profoundly, if we welcome people that are not like the community we live within then we might lose the power we have systemically maintained.

Imagine!

What if the opportunity for inclusion presented a pathway to disassemble privilege so that we could access a more equitable, shared, opportunity-rooted society?

I’ve suggested something like this with close family members before and have been called a “socialist.” In a better light, I’ve been characterized as simply “too idealistic.”

But in fact, welcoming others is a tradition found within the framework of the beginning Christian community, not merely something I only formulated myself.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God…May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15: 5-7; 13

My push, desire, and passion for inclusion stems first from my faith, and then from my upbringing and experiences. Truthfully, it also comes from a deep-seeded belief that each and every human has value. All of us. We’re messy, incomplete, wrong, misguided, mean, selfish, corrupt, and imperfect people. But, that doesn’t change the fact that we are alive and to be image-bearers of Christ. We are not Christ. Rather, we are made in His image, carrying some piece of that reflection with us.

I’m blessed because I’ve seen enough inclusion in my life to know that it is the worthy way. I will commit my life to it. And for that, I have the people in my life to thank for showcasing what it means to see, love, and accept people and to courageously choose the path of integration, not separation. It’s harder, but the right thing usually is.

Inclusion: noun

the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.

Divorce

Appropriately, my first molding to what relational inclusion can be, came from my parents. I’m forever grateful for that.

My parents divorced in the fall of 2003. I was 14. It was the dismantling of my family as I knew it, though frankly, I had expected it to occur many years prior. I was sad, of course, but I was also hopeful that both of my parents could heal and find the happiness they so deeply longed for, needed, and deserved.

Initially, to cope, I threw myself (literally) into sports. Field hockey became the outlet by which I could channel my spectrum of emotions (despair, gratitude, doubt, expectation, concern, and uncertainty) and still process what was happening. My parents were available to ask questions, and most conspicuously, did their damndest to uphold consistency to our life. I still took the bus to school, I maintained delicious dinners of macaroni and cheese, and for a while, we stayed in the same house, with our parents rotating each week.

Eventually, as the dust began to settle, even over the course of months, years, and other marriages, I witnessed something quite miraculous. My mother and father kept an amiable relationship, and because of that, kept an inclusionary approach to each other in our lives. It would have been easy for my mom or my dad to silo their experiences with us – away from one another. Instead, together, they attended sports’ games and activities and together, built the role of both “mother” and “father” equally, without marginalization or omission. This can be unique in the status-quo for divorced families.

What I learned – from both mom and dad– is that even in time of division, a cohesive community still can be cultivated. Our family could remain intact, just different than before.  Yet, even in our pain, our growth as a family that included myself, my brother, my mom, and my dad remained.

Menifee

I graduated from a public-school system with resources. Lots of them. Cherry Creek Schools are well-known (locally and nationally) for excellent teachers, technologies, and innovative classroom methods. To be honest, I didn’t know how lucky I was until I left.

I’ve always loved volunteerism and as a student just outside of Little Rock, I made it a priority to find the perfect club, activity, or organization where I could get involved. When I joined the team of Menifee, a tutoring and education program for rural Arkansasan youth, I fully, and finally realized how advantaged I had been to receive the kind of education I did.

Menifee, a small, rural town near my school (we’re talking population 311), is a community that has over 10% of people living below the poverty line. It also has a sizeable population that attend school districts lacking in quality teachers, experiential learning, and enough resources (say, textbooks) to provide high-level classroom engagement.

Once a week, a well-known (and well-liked) Hendrix professor would bring a handful of tutors to practice spelling, mapping, or time tables with Menifee youth. Her compassion for this community was compelling and deep; she worked for years to elevate the educational opportunities for these children, and truthfully, it was inspiring to even just be around. Unrelentingly, she believed that these children had every right to access a fair, equitable education.

Tutoring was just one facet of her efforts; she also advocated for parental engagement, believing that strong families can encourage student proficiency. I learned from her that inclusion of all students is essential to our future. If we neglect students from rural, minority, or poor communities, we inherently advocate for a society that doesn’t push forth opportunities for knowledge – for all.

GLOW & BE

While in the Peace Corps, I wrote extensively about the experience of educating young women, particularly in the realm of personal growth, leadership, relationship-building, and women’s issues. After school, once a week, I would meet with our “GLOW” (Girls Leading Our World) Club (usually with around 20 students) to discuss issues relevant to their lives (sex education, menstruation, studying habits, and boys). It was a powerful experience, one that still informs the work and passions I have for encouraging safe spaces for women.

Over time, the club became, truly, theirs. I sat on the side, allowing their own leadership to thrive and for them to establish the kind of conversation they desired.

After about a year of meeting regularly, the president of the group approached me with an idea: let’s include the boys. I was confused at first. Boys? We want to empower boys? Wasn’t our club designed to empower our female populations?

Her idea took root. By including males in the conversation of empowerment, we empower both genders – together. If women are to rise in confidence, efficacy, and choice, inherently, men would need to join us. They would need to advocate for us, and us for them. We started a “BE” (Boys Empowered) club the following term – designed to educate boys on how they can be a part of the process to empower themselves – and women.

Even years later, I’m still amazed at this kind of foresight and progressive thinking. Inclusion, is necessary for all genders, across all spaces.

Denver Community Church

Most recently, my church, Denver Community Church (DCC), has publicly announced its decision to be a fully inclusive church – largely in reference to inclusion of the LGBT community.

The 2-year discernment process involved elders of the church praying, analyzing scripture, discussing, and meeting with members of the LGBT community. They have most recently launched a 5-week learning group to explore these issues publicly, and declare, without reservation that LGBT members are welcome to attend, serve, and have as meaningful of a place in the church as anyone else.

I’m gay, and I’ve known that a long time but have not lived outwardly and authentically until more recently.

I never thought I would be brave enough to share this.

I never thought I would live the life I dreamed of.

I never thought I would find a church that would celebrate this.

I never. I began so many sentences with that word. I was ashamed, scared, sad, and resigned to the fact that I would have to hide this for the rest of my life.

Yet, something happened within the last year. I entered a time of deep prayer. I was provided the opportunity to do counseling. I began realizing (and fully accepting) how much God loved me. I began saying my truth aloud (again and again again) – without fear, without shame, and certainly, without going back. I had told family members before about this deep-knowing of who I was, but previously, had been too scared to live out the life I knew I was supposed to lead.

This year, I moved forward more boldly, sharing with my best friend that I knew I was meant to be with a woman. On a crazy (and wonderfully surprising) set of circumstances, I met a woman. We started dating. She became my girlfriend.

fullsizerender-2And then, this church came along, also.

You see, it all happened so fast, like a beautiful unfolding of a story that is meant to be. Even for myself, I can barely keep up.

Freedom does that – it happens fast and you can’t help but just succumb to the reality of real, gritty, kick-your-ass kind of faith.

Freedom for myself, and for others, to love God is the most beautiful kind of inclusion. We can have a place with Jesus. We can bring our most true versions of ourselves and continue to Love God, and Love others. We can live out the gospel actively and fully.

DCC isn’t asking everyone to agree with their stance on LGBT issues. What they are suggesting, instead, is a move towards love. A move towards, “unity not uniformity.” I would hope for the same thing. Because, as I witness this inclusion occur from afar, now in Rwanda for the next few weeks, I am learning how transformative inclusion can be – for anyone. I’m honored to be in a church that models this and lives this out.

Inclusion. Love. Community.

The pursuit of these ideal may be arduous, but I want in. I’m all in. No matter what.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s