Organized religion has always rubbed me the wrong way. I am not sure why.
But it always has.
Maybe it's all the people who felt obliged to share their religious beliefs with me when I sat next to them on airplanes as a young child traveling by myself. And it could possibly be my generally cynical nature that hasn't allowed me to make the leaps of faith necessary to truly make organized religion a part of my life.
Or perhaps, even at a young age, I had some kind of intrinsic understanding that mainstream organized religion was not a place that would welcome people like me. Who knows?
But I am sure that I have a problem with mainstream organized religion because it is not accepting of gay and lesbian people. Every time I hear about or meet a devoutly religious gay or lesbian person, I wonder why they want to be a part of a group that doesn't accept them fully. Then I remind myself that I don't have to like the fact that there are gays and lesbians who want to be a part of mainstream organized religion. I only have to respect their right to make that choice.
Lately, the Presbyterian Church has been making headlines as leaders and members of its congregations across the country continue to work to systematically break down barriers within their own denomination and, hopefully, lead the way toward change in other denominations.
The March 16 issue of The Advocate reports that a regional Presbyterian Church board representing about 95 churches and 11,000 church members in New York's Hudson Valley decided that ministers could bless same-sex unions as long as they did not call them marriages.
An openly gay member of a Stamford, Conn., Presbyterian church made headlines in the March 8 New York Times because the Permanent Judiciary Commission of Southern New England decided that he could sit on the governing board of his church despite his refusal to divulge whether he engages in sexual activities that would bar him from serving.
But the people working for change within the Presbyterian Church are not limited to New York or other far away states. One Presbyterian Church here in Cincinnati, Mount Auburn Presbyterian, has been a longtime leader in its denomination's push for gay and lesbian rights.
John Oxner, an ordained elder of the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, knows the struggle many gays and lesbians go through when looking for what he calls a "family of faith."
"As an openly gay man," Oxner says, "I had a very hard time finding a denomination that understood justice."
Happily though, Oxner says that now he is a member of a congregation that knows the true meaning of the phrase, "you are welcome."
"We openly ordain people who feel they are called to lead in the spirit of the congregation and all the things they bring with them are gifts," he says. "Isn't sexuality and sensuality a gift from God?"
Oxner shared a brief story behind a sermon he preached a few Sundays ago, which he called, "Worthy of the Light."
It turns out that Oxner has spent a lifetime in church listening to sermons that told him he was not worthy to even sit in the church that called him to service. Fortunately for him, and all the other people whose lives he has touched, he never believed what he heard. One of the hardest parts, Oxner says though, is knowing that there are so many young, gay people out there, sitting in churches listening to those same sermons, who do believe what they hear. And like a close teen-age friend of Oxner's, some of these young people take their own lives when they reach a point where they cannot listen to those condemning sermons anymore.
"My goal is to be sure that children aren't committed to death from pulpits," Oxner says.
What is the biggest challenge in getting gays and lesbians to join a church congregation?
"One of the most difficult things for a congregation to do is engender the trust of a gay or lesbian person," he says. "Many of us are raised in some organized religion. Many of us come ... look for a place in a family of faith. But many of us don't get past the pain. And the ones that do, find themselves back in a battle. It's no wonder gays and lesbians prefer bars to temples. The church should not be a place of abuse."
The most interesting part of this whole discussion for me was learning that by ordaining gay and lesbian elders in their church, the members of Mount Auburn are in direct defiance of their own church constitution. As a matter of fact, the church has been and could again be brought up on charges for many of its practices. But that does not stop them from working for justice within their own denomination.
Fortunately, there are churches and congregations in Cincinnati where members of our community who find comfort and support in mainstream organized religion can go. And fortunately, there are people like Oxner and the other leaders in the city's welcoming mainstream churches who aren't willing to settle for second-class citizenship. Because at the end of the day, we all need to be reminded from time to time that we are worthy of the light.