Jarrod Cochran & the Founding of a Southern Progressive Movement

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I had a recent dialogue with someone online about my blog. It went something like this:

“Progressive Redneck Preacher? You have got to be kidding.”

“I kind of am kidding, but why do you say that?”

“Well, you know, there aren’t any progressives down south.”

“Actually, there are several. I am one, after all. Let me tell you about some others.”

And then I began to share about some of the people I now am posting about in my Country Fried Chicken feature.

“Country Fried Chickens” are individuals who, like me, are children of the south. They were born to southern mamas, and grew up hearing the cry of the whip-poor-will. They grew up swimming and fishing in its rivers. Sweet tea runs through their veins and you can still see the shimmer of fried chicken grease sticking to their fingers. Yet like me they have seen the damage that approaches to the stranger, to the other, and to violence can produce and how ingrained they have become in our culture. These Country Fried Chickens are working to transform our culture to live out the best of our values, and truly be a place all are welcome at the family table as one.

One of the points I raised to this person that didn’t know there were southern progressives was that, not only do we have individual southerners raising their voice, but we also have movements for progressive values that have begun in the south and continue to spread like wildfire throughout our country. The Country Fried Chicken for today is the chair and co-founder of just such an organization, Rev. Jarrod Cochran. Cochran is a Georgia minister who helped co-found the Progressive Christian Alliance.

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The Progressive Christian Alliance began through conversations between Jarrod Cochran of Georgia, Roger and Melissa Mclellan of Alabama, and Terry McGuire of Florida. These southern ministers looked around and saw how the Christian faith in which they had encountered the living and liberating Jesus had become high-jacked by individuals using it to push extreme political agendas. They also so how many had begun to feel that the Christian faith was irrelevant in their day to day lives, joining the late Mahatma Gandhi in saying We love your Jesus, but not your Christianity.

Jarrod also wrote the book Finding Jesus Outside the Box, in which he writes a sort of manifesto for the progressive Christian, outlining key principles for progressive Christian ministry.  These principles become foundational in the work and vision of not just the Progressive Christian Alliance, but many progressive Christian movements.

Beginning in the southeast of the United States, the Progressive Christian Alliance burst forth, and now helps sponsor ministries the world over. Its website calls the Progressive Christian Alliance “post-denominational in that while we actively seek to build bridges between clergy and laity of existing churches and ministries regardless of denominational affiliation; we also seek to, as a community, affirm God’s calling on the lives of God’s children and establish new ministries.” As such it acts as both a network for progressive Christians in all denominational settings, and as an association that sponsors new church plants, new ministries, and new clergy that are committed to progressive expressions of the Christian faith.

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Pastor Heather Marie Janes, pastor of Loving Hands Fellowship, a Progressive Christian Alliance church-plant in Rochester, NY. Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the transgendered community.

Today you can see its work present in churches such as Loving Hands Fellowship of Rochester, New York, which has a thriving ministry and whose pastor Heather Marie Janes is an out-spoken advocate for the rights of transgendered persons in her community. You can see it in my congregation Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church for All People, which serve the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg area of NC, and is a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation that includes singles, straight couples, and same-gender couples. Diversity has been active in speaking out for the rights of GLBT people, those with disabilities, and the homeless in our community.

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Pastor Jowancka Mintz of Diversity in Faith joining her Progressive Christian Alliance church in reaching out at NC Gay Pride.

You can see it in Open Doors Community Church, pastored by Rev. Daniel Payne, the first English-speaking church in Seoul, Korea to be focused on affirming same-gender couples with the love of Christ. These three churches are examples of church-planting work of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and they consider the Progressive Christian Alliance their “home”.

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Rev. Daniel Payne, who planted Open Doors Community church in Korea.

Yet also the Progressive Christian Alliance acts as a network for leaders in existing denominations. In this role it has partnered with individuals such as Mark Sandlin of the God Article, a Presbyterian minister, and Roger Wolsey of Kissing Fish, a United Methodist minister.

In a previous interview with Patheos, Rev. Cochran summarizes the vision of the Progressive Christian Alliance well, saying “As I and my fellow brothers and sisters in the Progressive Christian Alliance have always advocated, the Church is not a four-walled institution, but but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything, everywhere we go. Church does not begin only when there is a pulpit or when the message of Jesus is conveyed through spoken word; it extends to all places and is conveyed by our actions.”

In this interview, Rev. Cochran shares his thoughts as he ends his term of service as Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and prepares for new leadership to be elected for the organization in its upcoming general conference in mid-July.

I think the story of Jarrod Cochran and the Progressive Christian Alliance is a powerful story of what we southern progressives can do when we move forward in faith, following the example and calling of Jesus.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Where do you live? Where does your ministry or progressive work happen?

I live in Atlanta, Georgia. My ministry is focused in “MetroAtlanta”, but I travel throughout the Southeast, occasionally, to guest preach.

Tell us a little about your ministry/work.

I wear several hats. I work at a food and clothing ministry for the needy in my community, I am starting a fledgling church/community in my neighborhood that feeds the homeless, I contribute to several religious publications, and I am currently the Chair of the Progressive Christian Alliance, an interdenominational organization I co-founded with Rev’s. Roger and Melissa McClellan, and Rev. Terry McGuire.

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What would you say is the focus of the ministry you do?

Attempting to live up to the lessons learned in the Sermon on the Mount.

How did you begin this ministry?

It started in talks over coffee, phone discussions, emails, and a desire in my heart to create something that would reach out to those in church who felt they were left in the margins.

How does your work promote progressive values?

We’re inclusive, so everyone has a seat at the table and no one is left behind. We stand up for justice, in private matters and in the public square.

What are some key lessons you’ve learned through this work?

When you attempt to truly live out the radical teachings and example of Jesus, you’re going to make people angry on both sides of the fence as well as receive the ire of fellow ministers and political leaders. But I’ve also found that to reach out and love radically, as Jesus did, is completely worth the price.

What are some key concerns progressives need to be aware of which your work has brought up?

We must be mindful and ever vigilant to never create a leftist version of the Religious Right. I’ve been a part of a few groups that eventually became just that, and as a result, they are either now defunct or irrelevant.

One of the things I focus on in Progressive Redneck Preacher is the relationship between Southern culture and progressive values.

Did you grow up in the South? If so, what are some of you most positive experiences of “the South”? What are parts of it that you struggle with or struggle against? Do you see in any particular connections with your work and southern culture?

The generosity of those in South has always been in the forefront anywhere I go. The struggles I have experienced in the South is the mindset of many people. Most appear to be extremely conservative in thinking and believe that the American flag and the Republican Party were baptized in the blood of Jesus. Linking God with any particular political faction disturbs me.

One thing I discuss a lot on the Progressive Redneck Preacher is the influence of what I call “slaveholder Christianity”, methods of interpreting Scripture bound up in prejudice which aim to exclude people. How have you experienced that legacy?

I was “run out” of my first Church for preaching a message of inclusion and active peacemaking.  This was my childhood church, too. My father was the minister and he had passed away. I felt  the call to be a minister and I imagine that the elders of that church thought they had a minister they could “mold”. Boy were they wrong. After preaching about social justice, poverty, and violence, I was told they didn’t want to hear me preach about those things ever again. I ignored this warning and continued until they eventually kicked me out.

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What are ways your ministry confronts this?

We attempt to focus on the message of Jesus, how his message and example echoes that of the prophets that came before him, and how we can display that radical love and grace to others today. We are also a public advocacy group for inclusion.

In addition to the influence of “slaveholder Christianity”, we discuss how positive movements that grew out of the South, such as the Civil Rights Movement, influence us today. Can you see ways this or another movement has shaped the work you do?

The Civil Rights Movement had a huge impact here in the MetroAtlanta Community. The King/Gandhian doctrine of nonviolence is one we attempt to embody when we are confronted with hostility.

Do you have any advice you’d give to young people sensing a call to do progressive work like yours?

Patience, compassion, and grace. We are not against people; we’re against mindsets. The only way we can truly change the world is through love.

Would you be willing to say a little about where you see your ministry going after the end of your work as chair? And what some of your hopes are personally, and for the Progressive Christian Alliance?

Sure thing! I see myself focusing on starting up “The Progressive Christian Worker”. A movement/church/communion where progressive Christians of all stripes can come and join in worship and advocacy in the style of Dorothy Day and Amon Hennacy’s Catholic Worker Movement. My personal hopes are to continue to grow in my faith, receive my phD in Theology by the end of the year, and maybe eventually be the pastor of a church. My hopes for the Progressive Christian Alliance are what they have always been: to continue to grow into a powerful force for change and goodness, to continue to listen to the Spirit, and to never forget the roots from which we came.

Overcoming Abuse, Addiction, and Bigotry — The Story of Bec Cranford

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One of our features on Progressive Redneck Preacher is Country Fried Chicken.

“Country Fried Chickens” are individuals who, like me, are children of the south. They wore born to southern mamas, and grew up hearing the cry of the whip-poor-will. They grew up swimming and fishing in its rivers. Sweet tea runs through their veins and you can still see the shimmer of fried chicken grease sticking to their fingers. Yet like me they have seen the damage that approaches to the stranger, to the other, and to violence can produce and how ingrained they have become in our culture. These Country Fried Chickens are working to transform our culture to live out the best of our values, and truly be a place all are welcome at the family table as one.

 

This week’s Country Fried Chicken is Bec Cranford.  I hope later to share an interview with her, about her life and ministry.  Here is her testimony, taken from http://thegaychristian.com/?p=1154, with her permission.  Her story is one that I think many of you will relate with, one that calls us to really consider how to offer true southern hospitality and live out Christ-like love.

 

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah

 

How I Became An Affirming Christian: The Story of Bec Cranford

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I have always struggled against legalism, often waving my middle finger in its face hoping to get a reaction. From the earliest recollection of olive oil scent, I can hear the message that I was not good enough for church people. Sweaty evangelists in cheap polyester suits, swaying in tempo with the organist, screaming of hell fire and telling the story of the teen who did not accept Christ at the hypothetical revival but died later in a car crash. The abusive tone of the tight-bunned brunette and her holy decree to cease laughing or running in the Sunday school hallway haunts my childhood memories of church. The legalism and ultra-conservative ignorance that spoke of personal piety in one breath and spoke of racism, sexism, and classism in the next. I grew disheartened and discontent with Christianity. I flirted with many other forms of spirituality in college. I could never escape the Jesus story. I loved it.

I deeply despised the southern-fried “Bapticostalism” that I had been forced to absorb as a child. My parents divorced. The worst hurt came when my father told the faithful and the family I was a lesbian. I found him later that week crawling on the floor speaking gibberish clutching an empty bottle of sleeping pills all because of his failed marriage. He often abused the usage of “thus sayeth the Lord.” My father operated in the gifts of the spirit as a talented minister, but he also operated in the some alcoholism to cover up his condemnation and pain from an abusive childhood. My father was a highly anointed man in Pentecostal circles. He would sing and people would be healed. He loved God. Yet, he had no revelation of God’s grace and coupled with his manic-depression he easily would swing into bouts of beer-binging. I recall him telling me I had brought witchcraft into our home, I had caused their divorce, and my lesbianism would send me to hell. I wasn’t sure if I was more pissed at him for being an addict or telling people I was witch. I turned my back on that type of Christianity and any God associated with it. I told my Dad, “Fuck You, Fuck Church, Fuck Georgia, and Fuck God.” I hated Georgia, I hated fundamentalism, and I hated my Dad. I spent the next years running away to AmeriCorps, the Army, the rave scene, and anything I could to get away. I left the church for 7 years, until I overdosed and died.

We partied hard that night. Screens pumping out porno, and blasting the best beats by Oakenfold and DJ Baby Anne. I snorted line after line of coke, ate two double-stacked Mitsubishis (Ecstasy) and snorted a line of Ketamine. Nothing seemed to get me off that night. So my friend brought over some crystal ice, and we smoked it from a light bulb. I started vomiting, and everyone laughed thinking I was being a pansy. Yet my heart palpitated faster than the drum and bass beats. I lost vision, and the ability to speak. I remember a friend dragging me to the bathtub, and putting me in a bed of icy water. My heart thumped out of control until finally it stopped. I had some sort of mystic encounter with a crucified Christ, while my mind or psyche or spirit, felt fear and isolation in a dark place. I remember hearing accusing voices coming for me, and feeling abandoned by everything- even God. I cried out to Christ, and offered my life in exchange for a second change. Maybe it was just the MDMA and cocaine, maybe it was real. Either way, I was hooked on Jesus and service after that encounter in 2002.

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After my near death experience and postmortem Jesus sighting, I decided to follow Christ. I wanted a rational and sensible religion, but I wanted everything he had for me. I did not want anything messy or a form that would make me be or feel crazy. I was worried about being carted off to one of the mental institutions. I recall telling God early after my 2002 experience that I would be Lutheran or Presbyterian or Catholic, but I told him I would never be Pentecostal and I would never minister in Georgia. Then I spoke in tongues several weeks later.

I was a serious skeptic of all churches. I was a heresy hunter, and very afraid of cult activity. After my first year at Southeastern University, I had a little bit of knowledge and I wanted everyone to not see my drug-addict past, instead to view me as the new minister of God.

I went about everything in the wrong way. I was very combative to what I assume were cults or factions of the true faith. I let bitterness pump through my heart and I went head strong against my father who was in the “Word of Faith” facet of Pentecostalism. After all he started to believe in Universalism around 2006 when other Bishops came out and said they believed that Christ would save the whole earth. I vehemently attacked my father, using my new 5000 dollar words and everything I could muster from my minimal theological education. I also attacked anyone I perceived as being legalistic and judgmental. Yes, I was the fundamentalist who wanted to argue. I did not want any weird or paranormal experiences with God. But soon my heart melted and I desired intimacy and union with God. In Bible College, I began to read books by Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, and Erwin McManus. It didn’t sound like the trailer-under-the-pines style rhetoric that spilled over the pulpits of my past. I was leery of the emergent movement. But I was very much interested in every perspective that Christianity had to offer. I begin to attend church services that were outside of my traditional Baptist or Pentecostal background and found a deep love for the liturgy. I would ask God to heal my past and my family. Slowly he restored my relationship with my father. Slowly he helped me work past my sexual addiction. Slowly he removed hurt from my heart. So I graduated to head home to start something for God.

I stepped across the finished concrete and new building. The mega church excited me! All my old friends waited for my return. Our favorite testimony had arrived; the punk girl who came off drugs and who left her atheist boyfriend to follow “GAWD!” Except this time, the punk girl, came back with a B.S. in theology and had every intention of using it at the mega church! I bounced across conversations, shaking hands, and giving hugs. I was so eager to see the “mothers and fathers” of the faith I had left and tell them the many things I had learned while getting my bachelor’s degree in theology.

I was eager to serve, yet my “Pentecostal call” haunted me with delusions of big stage ministry and flashy outfits and theatrical effects. I assumed that my years of scrubbing toilets, moving chairs, and setting up tables would benefit me, and I would now be teaching. Until the question came out “Do you believe everything the DENOMINATION teaches in its 16 fundamental truths?”

How to answer that question? I sat under the finest professors. I worked at great churches. I was always treated like an “outreach pastor” or “street minister” or “recovery pastor” at my college because of the tattoos, or the fact I was blunt, maybe because I cussed a little. But I had studied scripture and there were things I no longer knew or felt convicted about. Honestly, I was sure many great men of faith did not speak in tongues and I was even more assured that there was no “rapture.”

So, my next emotional wrestling lay in how to answer the committee’s question with integrity. I did. I assumed there would be no big hassle. Pastor Polished-boots click-clacked down the hallway and grabbed me, shaking in his buckle jeans, and ninety five dollar shirt. His blue eyes almost cried as he said, “How can you just throw scripture out like this!” I tried to make sense of the interaction, and told him what I had learned. He would have none of it. He said I was “divisive.” I shared my pain with no one, save my three favorite professors. I wrote an apology letter to the mega church, and asked that the application be removed. I applied and said “NO, I have no disagreements with our beliefs.”

I was told by friends and colleagues not to die on mole hills when it came to theological issues. I had a lot of pride in me, but I died to self and let Pastor Polished-boots and Pastor Distinguished know I was not going to tell everyone at Church the rapture wasn’t coming. The next 8 months were horrible. Depression lingered over me like fallout from a nuclear war. I thought I was doing little for God by teaching my Spanish bible study. After all, my plan had been rejected to start a Spanish Church at my home church. Some sentiment came down that we “should teach them English” while Sister Bitterbottom told me I would never be a leader because of my sin-issues. Yes, I had sin issues. I was honest about them. I asked every Christian I knew to pray with me over my addiction to sex. I had walked through some dark days, and came out rather victorious, but they always remembered my sin- and held it against me. Sister Bitterbottom always made it a point to put me down. Perhaps she was just jealous that my sin was so passionate and causing me to fight, while she was completely unaware of her sin. I prayed really hard that God would let me forgive her and love her. Sister Bitterbottom just needed love like the rest of us.

The depression continued. My outlets were unavailable to me. I stayed in the prophets. I read ever Rob Bell book I could. Greg Boyd, N.T.Wright, and anything that had a scholarly slash hip vibe to it. The depression clouded me. I doubted almost everything my tradition handed to me. I went away to seminary. I was excited to escape. The divine discontent let go of me when I settled into town.

I began to really deconstruct my faith and tradition in seminary. You learned who the safe professors were and who the fundamentalists who spoke in tongues were. I really unpacked a lot in my three years in Springfield. I wrote more and more about my views, my obsession with the prophets, and my mistrust of the American Church. A man found me online and invited me to be a part of the emerging conversation. After I had preached for the first time at my seminary, I had another peer stalk me in the library. I saw his eyeball between the books starring me down as if he was starving and I was a turkey-leg. He whispered my name. The event seemed like some secret meeting where he was going to take me down stairs into a room where a magic potion would start my journey to discover my identity as a hero in a fiction book. I had heard about the emergent movement, and was really refreshed by what so many were saying there. I found myself to the left of many political issues or either a-political, almost anarchist. I hated all the nationalism that sprouted up in my denomination- these services in which the worship was for America, not Christ. I hated all the anti-gay rhetoric, and how every earthquake was a “judgment from God.” I actually had an affinity for the LGBTQ community, and many friends who loved God but were afraid to come out because of all the “wrath of God” stuff. I hated the vast stupidity in the pulpit, that got away every Sunday preaching the same old crap- but yet I loved every one of those preachers. I hated topical preaching. I hated legalism. I really disliked how people in my denomination thought so many others were hell-bound. They feared Catholics and called them idolaters. I would tell stories about the awesome Catholics I knew. But I was of little effect; after all I was the sinning girl who made any church look credible.

“If you can love a girl in green combat boots, Jesus must be there!” Jesus was there. God is always there. God is even working in churches with great theology or no theology, where heretics teach or where reformed theologians speak! I did love the church, I was so mad with her, though! I loved feeding the hungry; I loved hanging out with the foreigner. I really was encouraged by those in shut-ins, disabled, elderly, homeless, queer, hookers, punks, those who were outside the box and spoke of God with such “intimate knowledge.” I questioned scripture. I visited a Buddhist temple and found the spirit of God resting there. No one could help me unpack that. I went into a Mosque and watched a woman fully in love with God worshipping. I made friends with a rabbi who has a mystical step and a knowing eye who talked about the Kingdom of God. I was told by my professors, that there was only one way to God, and these men and women must be possessed with demons. I felt completely unsafe. I was becoming a heretic. I called trusted friends and begged that they prayed for my sinning heart. I beat myself at the altar and examined my heart daily. I read Hebrew and Greek word studies and I begin to think God was a universalist, there was real sin in the world- but it was injustice and inequity, and monogamous same sex relationships would make God happy not angry. I did intensive word studies on “abomination” and “homosexual” and “hell” and “kingdom of God.” I spent hours in prayer. I cried daily and screamed at God. But the more Bible I studied the more God told me to love those who had been shut out of the religious system. Was I just a rebel? The emerging conversation allowed me to speak without being called a trouble-maker.

I found a place to listen and learn. I did not agree with every idea that came from those conversations, but my heart was warmed by a people who believed in God, love, community, and the way of Christ. In 2008, I furiously scribbled in my journal “God give me your heart for the Homosexual.” In 2009, after reading a book called “the Hole in Our Gospel” I became enraged that no one in West Georgia loved those who were LGBT. Little did I know that I would scoop up every book penned about the subject and the bible over the course of two years or that I would go back to Georgia to minister. I took a break in 2010 to go to the Outlaw Preacher’s Conference in Memphis. I had heard Tony Jones earlier that year and loved what he had to say. I sat down with Jules Kennedy, Adele Sakler, Rebekah Burnt, Pastor Nar, and Pat Green and so many others- listened to what they were speaking. I met Kathy Canyon Walker, Connie Waters, and Tim Kurek. I hugged Bud Wilson, Richard Twiss, and Brian McClaren. I heard their hearts for those who had been hurt by church in America. I started listening to Peter Rollins, Jay Bakker, and Doug Pagitt. I took a road trip with a gay Christian named Kody, and listened as he told his story. I was beginning to become an “affirming” ally, yet, I was still hoping to take on Andrew Marin’s stance so I could be in my conservative denomination.

Over the past five years, I have been extremely humbled as I have courted the emergent movement at night, while maintaining a semi-conservative relationship during the day. I do not see this as being unfaithful, but more along the lines of Nicodemus sneaking out to see Jesus. This movement of radical grace intrigued me. It sounded like the God who grabbed me from the clutches of death that I experienced when I was dying.

I could no longer tolerate this mentality of earning your godliness that I saw perpetuated in many churches. I would double over and cry through sermons that seemed to misinterpret scripture in exchange with twentieth century understandings of “churchianity.”

Unfortunately I had not allowed God to speak to some of the hurt places in my life. I was hurt. Hurt that the Christians in Douglas County Georgia had treated me poorly after hearing I was a lesbian from my father (and I was not gay, perhaps a cross dresser.) I was hurt that every Christian judged me from the time I was 14 until well, forever. I was hurt that I was molested in a church and no one gave a damn about me or the dozen other children who felt guilty as a result of one man’s actions. I was mad that many Christians in my tradition were so closed minded, waved American flags- spit on other people, were bigoted, nationalists, misogynists, ignorant, capitalists, and republicans. I was mad that Christians would bow down to the Bible as a god. I was mad that no one was caring for the homeless, the day laborer, the LGBT, the punk, the depressed, and the marginalized in my community. I was mad at every little holier-than-thou woman in my home church who would rub my confessions in my face every time I saw them. I was mad at pastors who preached that avalanches, hurricanes, and economic failures resulted from homosexual activity. I was just mad. I attacked out of that. There was no love, no praying for my enemies, and no hoping to see anyone else as a person made in God’s image. I felt like I was a prophet and I had to attack the religious system and tell it that it was wrong.

I dated this guy who was hurt three times more than me. He too was a heresy hunter. He wanted everyone to listen to his preaching because he had it right. I saw my disgusting selfish pride in him. He taught me more about me than I cared to learn. I broke up with him. I wanted to break up with this part of me. So I began to pray dangerous prayers like “rid me of myself”, “make me like Jesus”, “humble me”, “tear down my pride”, and “break me so you can use me.”

God worked in my heart to remove offense. One by one, I walked in forgiveness towards people. I also would encounter others from other backgrounds that helped me heal. I felt so hurt by one lady, every time I saw her I wanted to punch her in the face. God healed that. I forgave her. I got over offense. She even would speak accusation at me still to this day, and does every time she has the chance, but all I see is a hurting woman who loves God but can’t get beyond that hurt. Piety drapes her viciousness and hides daggers. Her daggers conceal hurt.

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It was less than two years ago when things clicked. Sitting near leaders at the Wild Goose conference I began to think about forgiveness and offense. I came home and heard a sermon by an amazing woman of God on the subject. Like someone bent down near the bricks and grass, turned the spicket: I was flushed by water that renewed my soul. Suddenly, I felt like I could perceive my intentions before speaking. I knew the motives of my own heart. God’s love had healed me, and I no longer wanted to hurt anyone- even those who I perceived had hurt me. It was over. I felt so free.

Within a month’s time, I was in trouble every other week for something I had said on Facebook about loving the LGBT community. I met up with my home pastor who was also a presbyter in my denomination. I spoke about my convictions through tears and in humility. He told me in love that my convictions would prevent me from serving in ministry. He told me I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in my denomination. I was ok with that. I just wanted him to know I loved him and loved people.

I didn’t mind the communal shame. I really did not even want to convince him of my beliefs. I was no longer worried. I really felt like God had given me an identity that could not be shaken, even by the loss of community or approval from those who I desperately wanted to see me as more than a rebel, a drug user, or a sinner. I loved my old church. I grieved for days. They were such godly people. But I didn’t have all the answers anymore. I wasn’t sure about Hell. I knew there is a trash pit somewhere outside the city. I knew Jesus referenced it a lot. During this hard time of exile from my old denomination and church, I sat in on “neighbor’s abbey” with Troy Bronsink and Melvin Bray. I connected with Jim and Debbie Swilley and Robert Rutherford. Although I was hurt that my conservative peers didn’t want me around, I was thankful for others to bind around me during my time of depression. Troy urged me to continue on. I told him, and Jim Swilley, about starting a ministry in West Georgia. They told me to do it. They believed in me.

When I was let go by my denomination, I just surrendered and said “I am affirming.” I had always been- and had been publishing and speaking about being affirming in the conservative circles. It felt so good to be free of religion- and backed by the Bible as well. I still felt hurt by those I had grown close to in my schooling, but at the end of the day, I would pray and pray and cry and cry, and I knew God was calling me to love postmoderns, LGBTs, and the spiritual but not religious.

I do not read scripture as speaking out against monogamous queer relationships. I do see it speaking out against lust, a lack of hospitality, injustice, rape, arrogance, gluttony and pride. I don’t believe that speaking in tongues is the first evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

I stopped believing in the “Rapture.” Why evacuate earth if you are making all things new? I am sure that you can drink and smoke, and it might make you smell like hell, but doesn’t have to be abstained from. I really don’t know a whole lot else but I do know that Jesus Christ bent time and space to come to purgatory, hell, the afterlife, the grave, whatever to rescue me from the death that covered me after I had an overdose.

I told him my life was his. I am following Jesus, and his teachings. I am going to love Queers, Atheists, Baha’i, Muslims, Jews, transgendered, Bikers, Goths, Lesbians, thespians, Seminarians, Pagans, Christians, and Christ-followers as much as I can.

In the Fall of 2008, I begin to pray that God would give me a heart for “Homosexuals” (LGBT) and the marginalized. By 2010, I was convinced of my calling to postmoderns and LGBT persons. I began a creative planning journal in 2010 while attending AGTS in Springfield, Missouri. I started conversations with atheists, spiritual but not religious, and persons who had been hurt by the Church over the Internet. In 2011, I moved to Atlanta Georgia and planned to launch Church of the Misfits in 2012. As prayer, conversations, and research propelled us onward, a small team began meeting in bars and local homes. We decided Church of the Misfits would contextualize Christ to postmodernity and LGBT persons. We wanted to be a safe place, where everyone is welcome, including atheists, Baha’i, Buddhists, homeless, international students, punks, Muslims, LBGT persons, agnostics, hookers, drug addicts, Goths, emos, bikers, single adults, and other misfits. In preparation, we attended church planting conferences, seminars, and met with elders of various denominations. We gathered demographic information, cultural analysis, and historical perspectives.

And we started. We are small and a small voice in the Bible belt. But we are “welcoming and affirming” because God has called us to be.

Christian formation … in fear and lies.

Another southern preacher in Atlanta, writes about her experience dealing with an outcome of what I call “slaveholder Christianity” — approaches to Scripture that are aimed at advancing one group ahead of another, as if one group can only be included if another is excluded from God’s family.  I think these words from Rev. Kimberly Knight about the effect of exlusivistic forms of Christianity on her child gives us all alot to pause and think about.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here,

Micah

 

Kimberly Knight
May 19, 2013 By

“Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the dispossessed, the disinherited…deception is perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong.” Howard Thurman.

 

“Archery, definitely archery – and ropes-course and kayaking and dance, can I sign up for dance too?” said our youngest as she hopped around the kitchen, chattering about which activities to choose for her very first summer sleep-away camp. “Not arts and crafts and no way baby-sitting 101!” As we browsed the selections she nearly burst with excitement for “outdoor living skills” – the nut sure doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“Praise team, what’s that one?” she asked. “Well honey, it seems to be a group that practices, mmm, worshipping…they are a small group that sings and plays music and helps lead worship. “Oh, so this is a Christian camp.” she said with undisguised surprise.

So there it is, we’re letting our baby girl (and by baby I mean rising middle-schooler) go to a Christian camp. Actually this is the second kid we’ve let go to this camp. To be clear it’s a Y-Camp for girls in the north Georgia mountains to which she has been invited to attend with a friend we love and trust – a friend whose family loves and trusts us right back.

When I told our oldest kid that Little Bit would be spending a week at the same camp she went to she was not as thrilled as I thought she would be. “Mom, make sure and tell her about the people there, ok? Tell her to be careful.” I sighed “Yes love, I know.” I remembered the ride back from camp when “Thing 1″ shared the tearful conversation she’d had with one counselor who assured her if we all just prayed enough her mommy could change.

And so it begins; teaching our youngest the first game she will play at camp – the pronoun game. In the weeks leading up to camp we will work to help “Thing 2″ find the right ways and words to navigate the cool mountain waters of Christian camp as a kid with two moms. Why the hell would we we send her here? Well, this camp has a fantastic reputation for safety and fun, a good friend she has known a long time will be there with her and to be frank, it is a camp we can afford.

See, we don’t want her to be bullied by other kids or made to feel ashamed of her family by adults. We really just want her to have a fantastic time horseback riding, swimming, running, playing and being free. Except she won’t be quite as free as some of her cabin-mates and really, a little of the bullying has begun before she ever sets foot on the creaky old porch of her cabin if trepidation is reaching all the way to downtown Atlanta a month prior to camp.

I suppose it comes as no shock that this is troubling me on many levels.

Can you picture it, the first evening in the cabin as the girls sit around in their jammies, hugging knees or stuffed animals to their chests with their cabin leaders getting to know one another? Can you see her eyes shifting and her legs squirming as her turn to accept the invitation to share about her family moves around the circle? Can you hear the wavering in her voice as she talks about her parents, careful not to say moms? Can you feel her little heart beat as she talks about what we do, where we live and stuff we do together as a family? Can you see the truth behind her eyes as she figures out how to tell the truth and lie at the same time? Can you see her little fingernails chewed up as she learns how to carefully preserve the identity of the two people who love her most in the world? This mamma can picture it.

And I am scared to death of what we her parents are teaching her. In Jesus and the Disinherited Howard Thurman reminds us, “The children of the disinherited live a restricted childhood. From their earliest moments they are conditioned so as to reduce their exposure to violence.” This is true and this is real but at what point do we help her tap into the deep well of courage we both know she has. Why is it so hard to confidently teach “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

And lastly I am devastated knowing that this is part of her Christian formation. Formation by Christians who will teach her one important and terrible message of what it means to be a Christian in America. For many, to be a Christian in American means to know fear and know how to lie.

The other day I asked some friends (that I lovingly called Jesus freaks) what they think of when they hear the phrase “Christian formation” and here is what some of them said:

A different Kimberly said: “Spiritual disciplines/practices”

Ben: “Being formed in the ways and teachings on Jesus”

Diane: “transformation walking in the Spirit!”

Yet another Kimberly: “all the ways that we are sharped and formed in our Christian spiritual life, including CE, workshops, Bible study, and worship (especially the hymns).”

Michael: “The infusion of the theological virtues in us by the Holy Spirit which leads to development of all moral and intellectual virtues.”

Priscilla: “I prefer “faith formation”…those experiences and learnings that inform and deepen my faith…I happen to be Christian so I suppose it is Christian formation.”

Seth: “Makes me think of striving toward a particular worldview, but it’s not a word I’ve heard often, even as I’ve spent time in fundamentalist groups.”

Nar: “Simple for me … continual formation into the image of Christ.”

But when I zoom out and look at the situation impacting our family I see systematic, Christian formation in fear and lies – born in the church and sanctioned by the state. In the churches that have not yet come to understand that love makes a family and that homosexuality is not intrinsically sinful there remains a pervasive pedagogy that teaches our children to be afraid to be themselves and wary of the families that shelter them from the storm. There is in these churches a cultural currciulum that creates scaffolds for building lies about yourself in order to be safe. There is direct instruction that clogs the arteries of our souls with the cholesterol of conformity and control so that heart of Christ that animates our own is suffocating on despair and deceit.

Through this formative education a person learns to suppress inner truth in order to survive. The gay child is taught to despise lovingly crafted elements of their created selves so they can be lovable by the community around them. The child of gay parents learns to tell half-truths and out-right lies to avoid the sharp pain of rejection and bullying. And perhaps the most tragic of all, the young child whose soul is born wide open to the goodness of the universe, learns to suppress the love and compassion that come from Christ in order to please the parents and community to which they are born.

This Christian formation in fear and lies teaches us to reject our inner Christ – the Christ who was, is and will always be the light of love and truth in our hearts. It teaches us to turn away from our God who is pure agape and choose a false god of transient affection.

This formation to fear and hate those God has lovingly created and who we’ve been created to love – your neighbor as yourself and yourself as your neighbor – is nothing less than sinful.

God is love. We are made in the image of love so we are created to be loving creatures. When society – family, friends, church and government tell us that to truly love our neighbors (or to love ourselves as God has created us) is an abomination we learn to display behavior, and even internalize the psychology of fear and hatred of our neighbor, or worse, ourselves. Some learn to fear and loathe themselves according to the same message. As my cousin Michael lifted up recently “If we cannot love our neighbors, our claims to love God are false.”  Loving our neighbor is inextricable from loving ourselves and if our neighbors are teaching us we are unloveable then the triquetra of the great commandment is shattered.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to quote Macklemore & Ryan Lewis here:

“When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned…”

When the spiritual practices and religious disciplines form us and our children to fear and lie they are not forming us in the ways of Jesus. To be disciples of Christ we must persist in creating communities of faith that truly listen to the still small voice of God that calls us forward, forms us, in the ways of radical love, infinite compassion and equal freedom.