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Bringing The Margins To The Center In Our Churches

I have a friend named Felipe who frequently attends worship celebrations at our church.

Felipe was raised in the Valley—Brownsville, Texas—in a firmly Christian home.

His father was Pastor of a Latino congregation with a vibrant outreach ministry to local youth whose poverty, a circumstantial product of their race and of living in a border town in the poorest region of Texas, hindered their access to education and healthy community.

Felipe’s dad’s church fostered a sense of importance and belonging in the minds of young people who were living in the shadows; forced to the margins because of their identity.

That upbringing, where the lives of young Latinos and Latinas (Latin@s) were celebrated in the church, has a lot to do with what drew Felipe to our congregation, where we have a vision of “offering God’s extravagant welcome to all.”

This vision is expressed most significantly through an Open and Affirming (ONA) Statement.

"Open and Affirming" is a United Church of Christ term that means all people are welcomed and fully included in the church regardless of who we are or where we come from.

While an ONA Statement pronounces a purposeful welcome of all, its emphasis is toward the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer persons who have historically been treated with hostility by the Christian church because of their sexuality and gender expression—forced to the margins because of their identity.

One Sunday a few months ago, Felipe’s parents were in town. He was excited to bring them to church, but he wondered what they might think. The church of his upbringing talked about the experience of the marginalized young Latin@s in the Valley, but that context did not really talk about the experience of marginalized LGBTQ persons.

What would his church-loving parents think about this place?

That morning, perhaps by work of the Holy Spirit, a lesbian couple was in the pulpit at the start of worship. As Beth and Rachel welcomed everyone to church, Felipe’s mother turned to him and whispered, “¿Son gay?” (Are they gay?)

Felipe said ‘yes,’ and waited for what would happen next. His mother leaned back in her chair, nodded, and said, “Bueno” (Good).

Perhaps what resonated with Felipe’s mother on that Sunday morning in church was how the celebration of Christian community—the body of Christ—is broken and incomplete without an intentional acknowledgement of the experience of those who are dismissed and silenced because of their identity no matter what the context.

Wherever we are, the margins are still the margins.

Wherever we are, people’s lives and the various identities of our intersectional humanity need to be recognized and respected. Anything else represents an oppressive dynamic that chafes against the message of Jesus, who encourages the marginalized people of his context to “let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:16).

To celebrate one another in beautiful particularity empowers the entire body of Christ to be a diverse beacon of God’s hope for all people, no matter who we are or where we come from.

Lately, there are tensions brewing over the hash tag statement #BlackLivesMatter. On August 25th, Trans Liberation Tuesday encouraged trans allies to use the hash tag #BlackTransLivesMatter in social media. At the United Church of Christ’s General Synod this past June in Cleveland, a march for equality utilized banners with the hash tags #BlackLivesMatter and #BrownLivesMatter.

"Why can’t all lives matter?” we ask in frustration.

“Why is there a need to lift up only certain people and their particular identities?” Because no matter where we are or what our context, the margins are still the margins, and the exemplified message of Jesus insists that the margins be brought to the center in order to deliver the healing power of salvation to all.

Until the identities of those who are pushed to the outskirts of our commerce, our industry, our democracy, our schools, our hospitals, our public narrative, and our houses of worship are treated with the same dignity and respect that we extend to the ones in our daily inner circles, our God-given humanity will remain broken and incomplete.

We must come to terms sooner or later with the truth that many of us live in a privileged context. My city and race and gender and sexual orientation and religion are some of the most privileged on the planet. In such a context, boasting that “all lives matter” still fails to recognize the ones who live their lives with one hand tied behind their back.

Identity has to be spoken. It has to be acknowledged and celebrated. It must be allowed to celebrate itself.

As Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee when he pointed out the nameless person in Simon’s home, who Simon chastised as a sinner, “Do you see this woman?”

Good and gracious God, open our eyes to the beautiful particularities of identity. Do not let our comfort carry our hearts and minds away from the realities of the margins that exist in our everyday lives. Bless me with discomfort in my context, I pray, that I might be empowered to love others more and more, and thereby love myself more and more, until we are mutually lifted to your realm of peace. Amen.

Photo via flickr user Paul Chiorean

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