Agape Church = Ally Church

Danish King Christian X

Danish King Christian X

In his review of Bo Lidegaard’s Countrymen, a recent history of how the Danish people helped the Danish Jews survive the Nazi occupation during World War II, Michael Ignatieff writes: “There was no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there was just us.”[1] The Danes said to the Nazi occupiers, essentially,“If you make the Jews wear yellow stars, we’ll all wear yellow stars too.” In other words, “you’ll have to take all of us.” I offer this story as a starting place for reflection on what it means to be an ally, specifically what it means to be an ally at church and as a church. The Danish people understood themselves not as frightened, defeated Nazi collaborators, but as courageous allies of their Jewish countrymen. We will help you; we will keep you safe; we will stand with you; we will risk our own lives on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. That’s what it means to be an ally.

Opportunities for allyship abound. Right now there are people in this room who need others in this room to be their allies. Right now, all around us in the wider community, there are people who need the partnership and solidarity of a congregation like ours in their struggle to overcome some injustice, some oppression, some poverty, some ongoing abuse or exploitation. I’m mindful that congregations and clergy can and do say a lot about love. We can be eloquent, inspiring and prophetic about love; and we can also very quickly become boring when all it is is words. We can very quickly become irrelevant when it is unclear how we make that love real in the world. My message is this: Loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship. In other words, agape church equals ally church.

We typically translate the ancient Greek word agape as “unconditional love.” Early Christians used it to refer to God’s love for humanity which they experienced as unconditional. When we use it to refer to human love we translate it in a variety of ways: selfless love, impartial love, all-encompassing love, wholehearted love. It is big, broad, vast, deep love—akin to the love God supposedly feels for humanity. It can refer to love between two people, but for the purposes of this sermon I’m using it to refer to love for people in general, love for all humanity.

I’m not a fan of the idea of selfless love, at least not the way we often encounter it: the giving up of oneself in order to serve others. sexism
There are certainly appropriate times for giving oneself up, for self-sacrifice—I think of soldiers sacrificing themselves to save their friends in battle, or parents dedicating their lives to the care of a child with special needs. But I’m also mindful that for too many centuries women were (and often still are) expected to give up their selves in the service of sexist conceptions of marriage, family, society and, it must be said, church. I don’t believe this giving up of the self is good for women; nor is it good for marriage, family, society or church. We each have unique, beautiful, holy selves that add value to the world and ought not to be given up except in extraordinary circumstances. Any system or institution that pressures us to give ourselves up with no choice and no reciprocity is oppressive.

Having said that, in the experience of genuine agape there is what feels like a losing of the self—a merging and mingling of selves in one another, a joining together, a recognition that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. In response to my February 2nd sermon on love, Nancy Thompson offered the words of Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in our “Dialogue From Your Home” forum. Salzberg says “actual love is the true seeing of our oneness, our non-separateness.”[2] Nancy said further: “I think that’s what’s at the center of existence, non-separateness … you can call it love or God or interdependence or emptiness…. It’s not about you as a distinct, finite being but you as part of being.” Agape isn’t a call to self-sacrifice, though sometimes we do sacrifice ourselves for love; and it isn’t about losing ourselves in our love for others, though it may feel like that. It’s actually an experience of finding ourselves in our love for others—not our discreet biological selves, but our larger, connected, non-separate selves.

Still, I don’t want to get caught up in language and definitions. Love lives beyond words and reason. No amount of mental gymnastics and wordsmithing will get us to a full understanding. What I want to know is not what love is, but what it looks like in practice at church. My message again: loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship.

Hand on ShoulderWe conduct ourselves as allies in two broad ways. First, we respond as allies to what I call natural human suffering—the suffering that is part and parcel of the human condition and which all of us experience through the course of our lives: the suffering that comes with physical and mental illness, with aging, with loss and grief, with despair, anxiety, loneliness and failure, with approaching death. Responding to these forms of suffering is the pastoral role of the church. But I want to suggest that when we respond we are engaging in the discipline of allyship. When you put a hand on the shoulder of someone who has just shared a painful story; when you visit someone in the hospital or in rehab after a surgery; when you cook a meal for a family that has experienced a death; when you provide hospitality at a memorial service; when you give someone a ride to their chemotherapy treatment; when you accompany someone to court; when you go grocery shopping for someone who is homebound; when you give a call just to check in; when you greet someone you’ve never met after a Sunday service; when you sit and talk with someone who is lonely: when you stay present to someone who is hurting for whatever reason—stay with them, focus on them, let them cry, let them rage, let them feel what they’re feeling, let them process their situation, let them be silent, be silent with them, walk with them, get a coffee with them, reassure them, stay with them until they know what they’re going to do next, let them know you won’t abandon them—when you do whatever it is they need done because they actually can’t do it for themselves in that particular moment, you are being an ally.

One of the reasons I love the institutional church is because it provides a space wherein people can manifest agape by being allies to each other in the midst of our suffering. It’s what church is for. Allyship is the central discipline—the primary behavior—in any beloved community.

In practicing allyship it’s always possible that we can feel like we’re giving up a part of ourselves—we’re giving up precious time, energy, emotion, attention, focus. It may feel like we’re sacrificing. It may feel burdensome. And perhaps it is. Perhaps manifesting agape doesn’t always feel good. Perhaps part of the discipline of allyship is learning to accept that there are moments when we must lay aside what we want for ourselves in order to care for and support someone facing more dire circumstances. But in doing so, I contend we also find our larger, connected selves. We find it is not ‘us’ and ‘them;’ it is just us.

In addition to responding to the natural suffering people experience, the church also responds—or ought to respond—to what unnatural suffering—the suffering groups of human beings so easily visit upon other groups of human beings through abuses of power, oppression, discrimination, exploitation, violence, etc. People experiencing such suffering often know exactly what it is they need. They often know exactly what needs to change. They often are willing to fight, struggle, work, strive to make that change happen. They often are willing to lead in the work of change. They they can rarely do it alone. If we’re talking about overcoming racism in the form of mass incarceration or disparities in health care outcomes; or reforming immigration laws so that undocumented people are treated with compassion and given a path to citizenship; or ending gun violence on our city streets; or next steps in overcoming homophobia and heterosexism—whether it’s working to end bullying in schools or working for the rights of LGBT elders; or if we’re talking about exploring our own, unintentional habits of institutional racism, heterosexism, ageism, and on and on, the group experiencing the suffering can rarely do it all alone. They need allies. They need people with privilege and power to agree that the suffering they experience is real. They need people with privilege and power to commit to working for change with them. They need people with privilege and power to take risks on their behalf; to say, We will help you! We will stand with you! We will even risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf! There is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. This is exactly what the Danish people did for their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation. This is allyship. This, I’m convinced, is how congregations manifest agape in their ministries within and beyond their walls.

I want to speak in very practical terms about what it means to me, a heterosexual man, to be an ally to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender—GLBT—people here at UUS:E. Some of you know our Welcoming Congregation Steering Group hoped to hang and dedicate a large rainbow flag out in the clerestory this morning. They decided not to do it because they weren’t sure they had the full support of the congregation. They held a forum and invited feedback in a variety of ways. A small minority expressed discomfort, which is important in a community that values the right of conscience—the minority needs to be able to express itself. So, let’s not hang the flag yet. But why do it at all? Why hang a large rainbow flag at UUS:E?

Rainbow Ally

This is how I think and feel about it. Ever since I’ve been UUS:E’s minister, the members and friends of this congregation—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, men, women, transgender, questioning, old, young, rich, middle class, working class, poor, Humanist, Theist, Agnostic, Pagan and Buddhist—have been working as a congregation for the civil rights of gay and lesbian people—primarily through marriage equality—and for the civil rights of transgender people—primarily through anti-discrimination legislation. This has meant attending rallies, marches, lobby days, knocking on doors and interviewing voters at polling stations to gage public opinion, testifying on bills, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, sending checks to Love Makes a Family, supporting True Colors and listening to more sermons on the subject than probably any of you cared to listen to. The major political and legislative battles are behind us now. We won, so the level of engagement is not nearly as intense as it was. But this activism was a central feature of our ministry for many years. As a congregation, we were following a discipline of allyship. We were saying to GLBT people here and across the state, not only with our words but with our deeds: We will help you; we will stand with you; we will not abandon you; we will not flinch in the face of opposition; you do not have to fight these battles alone; we will risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. When I see a rainbow flag, I don’t see their flag. I see our flag. Though I am clear I gain power and privilege in my life because I am a straight man and I will never fully comprehend what it means to be gay, female or transgender, I am also clear that I’ve made my power and privilege accountable to GLBT people because I strive to be an ally. The rainbow flag represents me too. But not just me, us. It’s our flag because we are an ally church.

But let’s imagine UUS:E had sat on the sidelines throughout these struggles and none of us had been involved. And let’s imagine we now want to be more welcoming to GLBT people and we have a Welcoming Congregation Steering Group to help us. And let’s imagine they want to hang a rainbow flag, because even though we have marriage equality, even though we have protections against discrimination for transgender people, even though ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ has ended, even though there has been amazing progress, church is still a dangerous place for GLBT people, even churches that say they’re welcoming. And GLBT young people still face bullying and still have a suicide rate way out of proportion to the population. A large rainbow flag would send a clear, unequivocal message that GLBT people are safe here, able to be out, able to bring their whole selves. There may be good reasons not to hang the flag. But in my view, this is an ally moment. This is a moment where a group of people who experience unnecessary suffering are saying, “We need this. It will alleviate suffering.” Agape church equals ally church.

“We don’t want to be the gay church.” I’ve never actually heard another human being say these words, but I understand people say it. Supposedly even gay people say it. As a consultant to congregations and clergy wondering how to respond to such statements, I’ve always said something like “assure them that you’re not becoming the gay church, but remind them it’s important to extend a clear welcome.” In preparing this sermon it dawned on me: I don’t feel comfortable saying that anymore—not if I mean what I say about being an ally, not if I know in my heart love means there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;” there is just us. Gay church? I would be honored to be a part of that church, because I know it’s not ultimately about being gay, it’s about manifesting our love and being good allies.

Allyship

We have a mental health ministry. We could become the metal illness church. I would be honored to be part of that church too, because I know it’s not ultimately about mental illness; it’s about love and allyship. We could become an immigrant church, a poor peoples’ church, a church for families of the incarcerated, a church for people living with HIV/AIDS, a church for homeless people, a church for children with autism and ADHD, a church for hungry people, a church for youth and young adults, a church for elders—do you see how we become the beloved community through a discipline of allyship? I would be honored to serve as minister of that church and I hope and trust all of you would be honored to be part of that church too. In the end, such a church is not about any of these identities. It’s about love and allyship. Agape church equals ally church. It’s not us and them; it’s just us. It’s our flag. It’s our yellow star. It’s just us.

I would be honored.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Ignatieff, Michael, “One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People? The Surprising Truth About Denmark in the Holocaust,” New Republic, Dec. 14, 2013. See: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115670/denmark-holocaust-bo-lidegaards-countrymen-reviewed.

 

[2] I can’t find the exact location of this quote, but it appears to come from Salzberg’s 1995 “Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.” See: http://www.amazon.com/Lovingkindness-Revolutionary-Happiness-Shambhala-Classics/dp/157062903X.