Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“The Things That Shaped Me: A Queer, Christian, Feminist Faith Activist!”

An hourlong teleconference with

Reverend Elder Dr. Nancy Wilson

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Dr. Reverend Elder Nancy Wilson for June 2015’s WATERtalk. Reverend Wilson, moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), and an appointee by President Barack Obama to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, shared what has influenced her work in ministry, theology, activism, and issues of gender, sexuality, and race over her many years in the field of religion. You can find some of her most recent working on the Huffington Post’s religion blog. WATER thanks Reverend Wilson for an inspirational hour and for the notes she so graciously provided on her presentation. A Q&A session followed.

These notes are not meant to be verbatim, but to be used along with the posted audio of the call.

Presentation notes provided by Nancy Wilson

The first woman, and the first lesbian, I saw in a clergy collar, face to face, was myself in a mirror, in 1972. . . Join me for a time of reflection on 43 years of faith and queer activism and “disrupting the Grand Narrative” of Christianity! Who were the people, themes and events that shaped me, such as the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, civil rights, early feminist theologians, health issues and HIV/AIDS, and how do I understand their continuing impact on our current global movement, as we grapple with faith in an intersectional, post-colonial context?

I was born into a culture seeped in sexism, classism, racism of 1950’s that began to break out in the 60’s. My parents were loving and reasonably competent as parents, and we had a fairly typical, suburban life. I coached my younger brother in Little League, helping him to be a great pitcher, never openly questioning why girls could not play – except on the streets in less organized games. And there were the girls next door who would not let me jump rope with them, at age 6, because I “jumped like a boy.”

I was a depressed, lonely, queer, gender non-conforming girl of 11 or 12 when I had a spiritual experience, of God as Friend that was profound. While my circumstances did not change in the moment, I experienced an intimacy with the heart of the Universe. This Voice told me “Someday you will have other friends, but for now, I am Enough.”

I came to associate this experience with a call to ministry, in the Methodist Church in which I grew up. But I was also growing up into a time of enormous social foment and change, in a religiously plural world, where Jews and Catholics became my friends and influencers as well. Methodism was not enough for me, it was too confining, for reasons I did not understand then.

As a child who was sick with asthma, I loved the woods of New Hampshire, where my grandparents lived, and where I felt close to that Voice in a different way, in the earth and the woods. In the State motto, “Live Free or Die.”   I remember staring at that motto on the license plates in my grandfathers’ garage, knowing it was also a Divine message.

When I expressed my sense of calling to my family, I got enormous push-back, that was all about gender. Girls do not become ministers. The depressing limits of being female defined a lot of my adolescence. Only my brush with that Friend, that Voice, saved me.

As I fought what felt like a private gender battle – I also became captivated by the civil rights movement. It was what attracted me to politics, to the idea of social change. I witnessed a mass movement against systemic oppression, and my own heart opened, and was broken many times, as the suffering and resistance became more visible, more public.

I went to college in 1968, the year that changed so many things, a year of assassinations, riots, and of a growing anti-Vietnam war movement, especially in universities. It was also the year MCC started.

The War in Vietnam dominated my experience in college, as I became an activist, involved in protests and campaigns in my college and community, in marches on Washington. It was my first awareness of the global nature of structural violence. And it was my initiation into first hand organizing that could change public opinion against great odds. The war machine and US policy impacted my generation, and a people in a place very far away. Our contemporaries died, and others sacrificed, took risks to end a war. There were chaplains, and faith leaders that stood up for peace, and I identified with them.

At the same time, I joined the Clergyman’s (sic.) Consultation on Abortion, and as an undergraduate conspired with a chaplain, a sociology professor’s wife and other women students to counsel and transport women across state lines, from Pennsylvania to New York, for abortions. This is prior to Roe v. Wade, and we were committing a crime in doing this. Change was in the air, everywhere.

In the midst of that anti-war movement, I witnessed the sexism and racism in the anti-war movement itself. People may remember Kent State (80 miles from where I went to college), but not Jackson State. Four white students were killed in an anti-war protest in early May 1970, and the same week 8 students at Jackson State in Mississippi were killed in a similar protest. But, they were black, and no one remembers them. Women were seldom in the positions of leadership or spokespersons, though they also risked and died, and gave themselves to this movement.

I met feminism late in my college years, on my way to seminary. It became a lens that connected my bodyself for the first time, to the struggle for overcoming structural violence. It became an illuminator of everything, including, finally, my sexuality.

Women of my age had been socialized to believe that our sexuality was a function of the male gaze, of male desire, not of our own desire. It took me until my early 20’s to even really live and breathe and discover sexual desire that was mine.

An insidious patriarchy that oppresses women and divides humanity through racism and classism, was unveiled, finally, in my own bodyself.

I would spend my life at the intersection of all of this. Religion could be a profound defender and perpetrator of patriarchy, or in its prophetic, post-colonial, feminist incarnations, it could be a powerful force for justice, freedom and hope. One could abandon faith, or critique it and ride its prophetic arc. I chose the latter.

In 1971 I heard Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, two queer pioneers, speak at my conservative, Republican, Methodist college. It took me a whole year after that to come out completely, but they made the possibility visible for me, I am always in their debt. Courage was more attractive to me than any characteristic, and they modeled that for me.

Shortly after I came out and identified as lesbian, in 1972, I encountered Metropolitan Community Churches, in its infancy, and helped start the one in Boston, while attending Boston University School of Theology. I was the first out queer student there, which shook them up a great deal, and left the Methodist church immediately and case my lot with MCC. My image of it is like jumping on a ship bound for lands unknown.

I took courses from Mary Daly at Boston College, and learned what I already knew in my bones, that if God is male, male is God. Mary Daly and I argued about my choice to work for MCC – Just as she was leading women out of the church, I was discovering a church at the margins that offered freedom and a place to live my calling for justice in a deeply alienated and oppressed community. I was so inspired by the vision of MCC to work at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and justice, while building a Beloved Community – this totally aligned with my religious imagination and passions. She was walking out one door and I was walking in another. All of us were creating alternative spaces for those resisting patriarchy in a religious context.

In seminary, coming out, starting an MCC, I also continued my anti-war activism, and met the Catholic socialist/anarchist, Dorothy Day, a shero.

Then I met Troy Perry, the founder of MCC – a white, Southern, Pentecostal gay man. He filled the room with passion and conviction, mixing evangelical preaching with social gospel. Our early gay rights movement, with MCC right there in the middle of it, were very edgy, open about sexuality, unapologetic, authentic. There was an outlaw quality to it. The emotional accessibility of that Pentecostal/evangelical style of worship was new for me, and since it was more embodied than my lukewarm Methodism, I embraced it as well.

Lesbians had their own separate movements, intersecting with feminism, and with gay men sometimes, but rarely with religion.

I learned early in MCC to move between many marginal communities, to be an interfaith, movement collaborator who also claimed Jesus, in a liberationist, feminist context. I took my freedom to do so seriously.

The first MCC service in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1974 was raided by the police, because it was illegal for homosexuals to assemble in Indiana in 1974.In those early days, homosexuality was a sickness, a moral failing and against the law. There was a triple stigma. Religions’ role in that was, and still is, in so many places, enormous, even determinative.

Connecting spirituality, feminism, queer transgressive, breaking rules to include, human rights, global consciousness, and love for the earth. . . this became a lifetime of work.

I eventually finished my M.Div at a small, Roman Catholic seminary in Michigan, that trained Polish priests to work in Detroit. . . they were incredibly hospitable, and still in the glow of Vatican II.   I learned a deep appreciation for liberation theology, and progressive Catholic thought.

Most of my adult life has been spent in building local beloved communities of faith and freedom, of love and justice, among marginalized people. And finding the ways to build a global movement of these communities, and nurture trustworthy leadership for them.

Along the way I learned from people in prison who taught me so much. MCC had to sue for the right to visit our people in jails and prisons. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost. I hold in my heart and consciousness many who were forgotten and stigmatized by our criminal justice system.

At one point AIDS was the greatest challenge of our young LGBT rights movement. We had to fight the personal, medical, pastoral and political fights on all fronts at once. Fearless women and men together changed public policy and helped heal a community. As a pastor of MCC Los Angeles, in the most years of the epidemic in this country, I did hundreds of funerals, and lost hundreds of colleagues and friends. I feel as though I am a survivor, and that that story has not been completely told. Including of the women who gave so much of themselves in the struggle.

Sometimes, today, queer politics reduced to marriage equality. As a young, feminist MCC pastor I helped women embrace MCC’s holy union as an alternative to marriage, which, 30 years ago, was not something we aspired to!   I confess to some rocky transitions. Alice Walker said we should wear our contradictions like a shawl. . . . It is possible to support marriage equality while also critiquing traditional marriage. . . and not making marriage compulsory. . . Although my wife Paula and I are delighted to be legally married in Florida, this year, after 38 years together.

Queer justice is also about economic and racial justice, and about human rights in Jamaica, Uganda, Mississippi and Michigan. We need a post-colonial approach to our movements, to understand the intersections of oppressions.

We cannot just be gay rights missionaries. We need to respect and support indigenous movements for equality around the world, and their leadership.

Today, I find myself agreeing with and instructed by voices like that of Naomi Klein, who in her book, This Changes Everything brings together so many strands – capitalism, structural oppression of woman, the poor, minorities are all causes and effects of climate change.

I have a trans-activist friend in Fiji who tells me the greatest challenge they face is tens of thousands of climate refugees as the neighboring islands are swallowed up in the rising South Pacific.

Young adults today know this, like I knew that the war in Vietnam was a moral, political and human disaster.

I have learned so many things, but to summarize:

  • God is the Friend of all who seek to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly on their path.
  • Jesus is most at home on the margins, and in being the truth and compassion that makes us free. Jesus is a model of transgressive inclusion for me, which is what creates liberating community.
  • What changes the world, is when people, especially young people, resist oppression, tell the truth, and risk themselves to organize mass movements for social change
  • Structural violence – wars, the war on the climate, war on women, on black lives, on sexual minorities – structural violence is the greatest cause of suffering – and as a person of faith, I am called to create alternative ways of being and resisting
  • Women organize in more collaborative ways and can organize to stop violence with great effectiveness; poverty will be solved when women are educated and empowered to shape their own lives and the lives of their families
  • Great social change often takes more than one lifetime (Reinhold Niebuhr)
  • Intersectional approaches are more illuminating and reality-based: race, gender, class, climate. Even though we might lean into one primary analytic lens, multiple lenses are more accurate and creative.

I am grateful for the grace that entered my life as a young person, who only named Herself as “Friend,” to me. For so many amazing people who are engaging in the work of justice and peacemaking, as people of faith.

Questions followed:

  1. One caller said she is anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality and asked Nancy Wilson to speak to the contradictions surrounding the issue.

The quest for marriage equality is a quest for privilege inside of a system of marriage that privileges certain relationships over others and assumes that violence against our communities are a thing of the past. There’s a tension between the assimilationist and queer visions in the MCC community, which is on the one hand, you want to have the same rights as anyone would be accorded but also critique the systems that create inequality. Marriage is a patriarchal institution historically. The remnants and power issues are still things to struggle with.

  1. A church leader was conscious of growth of MCC at a time when the United Church of Christ was also becoming more open to LGBTQ folks in the 1970s and beyond. It’s a journey that in many ways the churches traveled together, and supported each other in multiple ways, just like they have now been partnering with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. Did Nancy Wilson have any reflections on that?

We did what we did so that many people could have many options and many homes. The worst thing for MCC or any group is to be isolated and feel like you don’t have colleagues or friends. People made different choices in those days, all of which have borne fruit. No one group or movement can be everything for everybody. All of us have our particular communities that we’re really trying to help transform. I celebrate the ways in which UCC has been a leader of inclusion, and our partnership with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. It’s amazing to think of where we were 40 years ago and the changes we’ve seen, as well as the changes yet to come.

  1. A founding director of another justice-seeking organization shared that many 1950s babies are in this work, and that Nancy Wilson’s description of that historical past, rang true. Could Nancy project 20, 30 or 40 years into the future about MCC as an institution and a denomination? The integration of major league baseball was a huge step forward, but one of the consequences was the loss of the Negro leagues as an institution. What is the future of MCC as a denomination, as more of our denominations become open and affirming?

This is a question of identity. MCC went through at least three phases: the gay church (when we were primarily the only LG spot in the 1970s), then the church with AIDs, then the discovery of being named in some places a human rights church with an expanding sense of inclusion – on sexuality and gender, which are so complex. We have to keep reinventing the sense of “who needs us now” and who needs a sense of that transgressive inclusion or “breaking the rules to include.” Some of our churches have grasped that with passion around homeless queer youth or really being a place where transgender activists can do church, to say this is a church where I do not feel judged. We need something that is more on the edge and provides a sense of freedom and growing diversity. There are many people from no church background or more seriously evangelical/conservative churches who still continue to need a place of healing that also has elements of the religious culture where they can from while having a progressive message. It is a question of identity. In places where we have emerging churches, place is not as important. They can live in a digital world and find community. What is the spirit leading you to now that is new?

  1. Another participant asked Nancy Wilson to speak more about the spirit of love she was touched by as a young person.

I was 11 or 12 and had been attending church most of my life. I was having a crisis around friendship and feeling very alone and friendless. I had a sense of something in me was different – I didn’t know the word queer yet. I was sitting on the edge of my bed and there was a light outside my window; it felt like the light glowed and I heard a voice, such a distinct voice from my own. It said: I am your friend and right now you don’t have other friends but some day you will. For now, I am enough. I sat there and at that moment a platform was built that I could stand on. I trusted the reality of that, and don’t know why I did. I understand it in a very primal way as a voice of encouragement to me that someday I would have community. Nine years later, I found that community.

  1. One caller wished to touch on Nancy Wilson’s work on ecology and climate change.

I’ve been invited to be in a group called MomentUs made up of 150 leaders from all over the country. There are people from business, higher education, environmental and health communities. We gather once a year and have a website called Blessed Tomorrow. We help congregation and religious leaders to make visible concerns about climate care. We have a climate care group ministry in MCC that is global, and we are getting ready to be able to really support what the Pope is going to say about climate change and its connection with economics. We’re trying to organize support to shift public opinion, which is now just starting to turn back to positive recognition. It’s all well to recycle, but major policy change in the world is the only thing that’s going to change climate. I’ve been a bird watcher for many years. I used to think that somebody smart was fixing the problem and I didn’t have to worry about it because I was worried about other things. But it will take a mass movement to get the right policies in place.

  1. What is the gift that queer theology and community have brought to the church at large? For so long people have been focused on inclusion, but how have queer folks in general changed the church?

When the Pope says, “Who am I to judge?” that is the effect of many Catholics and people of faith in the world saying, enough of inauthentic, hierarchical leadership bent on judging everything and everyone and keeping the status quo. There is clearly a hunger for a different kind of approach. There are still mainstream Protestant churches in the U.S. who say their sexual ethic is celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. Most young heterosexuals are not celibate before marriage. The church is silent and embarrassed and cannot even help heterosexuals think about sexuality. A Presbysterian report years ago, which was rejected by the church, talked about “justice love,” that what should determine our sexual ethics are relationships that have justice love, responsibility, and concern about health and wellbeing. There’s enormous discomfort and disability in the church to talk about sexuality in open and adult ways. It disrupts the power structures. To come into the churches and show up in our diversity will challenge the church to not be invisible and have difference be invisible.

  1. A lesbian woman priest wanted to problematize the notions of some of her identifiers. When she identifies herself, she often gives it some blowback – isn’t it enough to simply say you’re a priest? Even though RCWP (Roman Catholic Womenpriests) is incredibly inclusive, to define oneself as a lesbian priest seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable. She learned from her experience the idea to decenter the priest, to raise up issues of sexuality, love and intimacy, as a lesbian prior to joining this movement. She brings that marginalization to wanting to decenter the notion of priest itself.

I do think that as you come into that space, you unveil whether it’s a homophobic shame or a deeper issue of gender or shame in any group and movement. When someone comes in bringing their wholeness and lack of shame around sexuality, there are people who don’t want to deal with it. We talk about integration of spirituality and sexuality as one of the core values in MCC. There’s still so much shame, but without you, there are never going to be the priests in the priest movements that we want to create.

  1. A religious advisor for a queer student organization was curious what Rev. Wilson wants to see and hear from the next generation.

Younger people intuit truth and justice, and unmask those things, in ways that the older many people get, there are things we simply cannot see with as much clarity as someone who is taking a new and fresh look. Whether that’s around intersectional issues or whether it’s where more transgressive work needs to happen, where is it that energies really need to be put? What battles no longer need to be fought? Sometimes we may be fighting battles that are not the real thing anymore. Boldness and fearlessness [are important]. When I was coming out as a very young person, there was a sense of freedom that I felt with my peers. Don’t let anyone take away from you the freedom you are experiencing.

  1. The moderator mentioned a recent delegation of MCC people who went to Cuba. Could Nancy Wilson give a brief sense of any plans that emerged?

The most exciting thing was interacting with young adults in Cuba who are coming out and talking about the intersection of faith and politics and social change. We formed a great connection with Baptists and a seminary in Cuba. We met queer, Christian activists who we will form partnerships with in the future. The MCC people were astonished at the level of hospitality and openness and hearing what the hopes and dreams of Cubans are at a time in history fraught with great challenge.

  1. Rev. Wilson finishes up as moderator of MCC in 2016. What’s next?

We will be electing our first moderator who isn’t a first generation MCCer, which is very exciting. I want to respect good boundaries and allow the new leaders to come together, and set some new paths and directions. I love writing, teaching and preaching and getting into some trouble around the world and I hope to be able to do that in ways that continue my own activism and ministry.

WATER thanks Nancy Wilson and wishes her every blessing in her year ahead. The next WATERtalk will be “Electric Santeria: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion” with Aisha Beliso-De Jesus from 1 to 2 p.m. ET. For more information, visit our website. All are welcome.

Kate Stoltzfus, Silver Spring, Maryland       June 10, 2015