Sitting at the table in front of me were faces that I recognized and yet had never met. Sitting at the table in front of me were young faces that carried the history of their families, their faith. Sitting in front of me were calm and reserve faces ready to tell their stories. Sitting in front of me were faces . . . and one face on Skype!
These faces were here to talk about “Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love. These young Muslims would go on to speak about their relationship with their faith and families. It is a perspective that many simply assume does not exist when talking about Queerness, when talking about the LGBTQ community. And yet the reality is that sexualities are represented in every spectrum of human alliance—religion, race, creed, color, you name it.
And these voices spoke from a wellspring of faithful understanding of a foundational knowing, “Allah makes Muslims . . .” And so the equation resolves, “Allah makes queers.”– Terna Tilley-Gyado.
The simplicity of this statement coming out of the computer screen and scripted so beautifully on a business card, belies the profound nature of statement. Listening, I found my head nodding in concert and my heart beating with unexpected surprise thinking, “I remember making the same claim as a young Christian as a pre-teen about Creator God!” This basic claim of belonging to faith because God belongs to all was comforting to hear in this room on this day because I felt in solidarity as a child of God. A God that does not begrudgingly claim me simply because there are people and institutions that do so.
As the evening progressed, something else struck me. I listened to a woman recount her unconscious notions that come to light when contemplating coming out a person of faith within the community but most importantly family. As she spoke I recognized the similarities between Muslim families attitudes about their child’s sexual life and that of my African American family and church attitudes about the same. Everybody knows its going. If nothing else, everyone knows that everyone is thinking about it in some way, shape or form. But knowing and thinking about it is much different then acknowledging the sexual beings that we all journey to understand. (And let it be stated firmly that asexuality is a journey as well.) She reminded me of a time when I was a teenager, when my family talked about me having children devoid of a sexual union with anyone. Nobody wants their baby to grow up. But can you imagine? If you can’t talk to your family or community about sex period, how do you talk about your sexual identity? It’s a weird kind of thought—we are sexual beings granted, but we are sexual beings that don’t want to address our sexualities.
Before I go on and with this musing, let me just say that Coming Out Muslim is a project that not only tells of what it means to be a practicing Muslim but it tells of how powerful it is to be queer and a faithful child of the Creator.
radical love: queer muslims live and love
Recently, John Bell of the Iona Community of Scotland visited Union Theological Seminary. In an uplifting and provocative workshop on issues of worship, song and liturgy he raised a very, very powerful notion. The general premise he presented was how our personal theologies, based in the worship music imprinted upon us early in our worship life, influence our experience of God, worship, theology and sense of self in relationship to God. He then spoke of his own memories of the songs and types of songs that ‘stuck with him’ from childhood and how, upon truly assessing their influence, they shaped who he is today.
It got me thinking about my personal relationship with church, my relationship with God and my religious ideas in relation to myself. I grew up singing the same songs as most children. Songs meant to assure us that God and Jesus loves us—“Yes, Jesus Loves Me”, that we belong to God and are wanted—“I’ll Be Sunbeam”, and because of this I can sing, “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy”. But as a full worship participant in an African American Baptist Church from at least the time I was four, the songs that are primarily imprinted in my theological psyche are quite different. I was shaped by the plaintive cries of songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, gospel songs like “Oh, Happy Day” (when Jesus washed my sins away), and hymns like “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”.
Standard fare for many African American worship communities of the time, often they were to assure us that God was with us in our hardest of times, that happiness was there for us when and if Jesus washed our sins away and that by accepting the brutal and grisly images of “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood” we were to be ‘plunged beneath the flood that flowed from Immanuel’s veins’. As graphic as those images were, it struck me completely differently as a young man becoming aware of his same gender loving sensuality. Songs like “Oh, Happy Day” and “Fountain” would only give you the joy of Christ after your sins were forgiven. For me, I grew up with preaching points directed toward me that my “sins” would never be forgiven. And yet that tied into the motif of the suffering Black Christian, waiting for a reward on the other side. How confusing, right? There was forgiveness for sin with an joy sublime to come…but apparently I was the embodiment of sin that could never be forgiven.
Strangely enough, though Tommy Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” spoke about a personal relationship with God that wasn’t contingent on me fitting a mold of righteousness as defined by very real humans in their imperfections. James Cleveland’s gospel rendition of the Gladys Knight hit, “Jesus Is The Best Thing” shifted my view of how I could be in relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It showed me that I wanted an intimate relationship with God. One so intimate that I could sing a love ballad to God and the Spirit would make my heart glad.
So how does all of this speak of my theology? I was speaking to a group a few years ago, speaking my narrative. And I realized the reason why, after all the church tried to do to me to convince me that gay was bad, that blacks must suffer, that the other side is the realm of God to strive for, that I didn’t buy it. I came away from my early church experiences with a personal theology of being in intimate relationship with God. It wasn’t that I ever felt unloved by God, I was being judged by the church. And that didn’t matter because I see God’s and my love as the primary goal for which I strive.
I believe that John Bell has hit upon something very powerful. Classical music and hymns are losing favor in the newer generation of worship (as opposed to the “younger generation”). This question of how our musical imprint influences our theologies and worship practices can help all of us evaluate the worship needs of those to whom we are responsible. I am not judging new generation worship patterns or music as bad. But as providers of a worship experience for others, I would be interested in exploring new ways of understanding the needs of worshipers and how to vary worship options by considering others personal theological needs for worship. To often worship does not reflect the diverse, cultural or spiritual needs of others outside of those ideas of what is best for people as put forth by worship planners. I think John Bell’s question can break open the relational connected experience of worship leader and worship for an optimal existential way of being in worship.
On August 7, 2012, the New York Times printed a review of David M. Halperin’s “How to Be Gay”. The reviewer Dwight Garner entitled his review “How ‘Mildred Pierce’ Explains the World. I must admit, that as a Mildred Pierce fan my fascination was piqued enough to read the review. After reading the review however, my fascination was not piqued enough to wan to read the book. It’s not that Mr. Garner’s review was a bad one and it wasn’t that it wasn’t well written. By the time I finished the review I felt that this book had completely dismissed an entire population of readers: gay men of color.
David Halperin is is a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches a class with the same title of his book. His work was groundbreaking especially because the state legislature proposed a bill that would allow the Legislature to veto course offerings at all of Michigan’s public universities. The proposed legislation failed.
The class, who many thought was a proselytizing effort to recruit straight young men into homosexuality, was in fact a course designed for men who are already gay build, “a conscious identity, a common culture, a particular outlook on the world, a shared sense of self.” A touchstone example of this common culture is Joan Crawford and her classic character of Mildred Pierce. Without repeating the review in this piece, let’s just say that Joan Crawford’s strength, fierceness, grit, determination and glamour are lifted up as resonant characteristics found in the building sense of self as a gay man.
Mind you, I suggest that you read the book and the review for yourself. It’s not that the work isn’t an informative statement of the arc of gay identity formation. I think, however, that the work could be complemented perhaps in the next edition with a look at other cultures. Specifically, by taking a look at how gay identity and common culture is formed in gay communities of color. Asking questions about the impact of Eartha Kitt, Carmen Miranda, Bessie Smith or the Geisha tradition and others has helped build a particular outlook on the world.
My first inkling in regards to writing this piece was to blast Halperin as being an isolationist only concerned with the gay Caucasian community. After all, the LGBTQ community is commonly defined by the white gay male experience. And this reality is hurtful, demeaning and seemingly invalidates the experiences of persons of color. But after serious consideration, I decided to thank Mr. Halperin for his work and the foundation he has laid for further work to be done on the issues his work raises. In his role as academic, however, I do hold Professor Halperin accountable for accepting criticism and hopefully learning how to expand his important work for communities rendered invisible.
I preached this sermon on Pride Sunday June 24, 2012 at theSt. James Presbyterian Church, Harlem NYC
Scriptures used: Job 38:1-11, 1 Samuel 17:57-18:6, 18:14-16, Mark 4:35-41
“It’s A Question Of Soul Love”
On this day, dearest Lord, open our hearts when they
might be closed. Be with us as we explore your word
together, discern what it means for us today—in our lives,
in our interactions, in our ministries. Let your word
to us be heard on this day our trusted strength, and the one
who redeems. Amen
“You sho’ is ugly!” Who can forget that iconic line blurted out by the character of Shug to describe Celie in “The Color Purple”? Celie, who up until this point in both the book and the movie, has no idea that there is a life that she can call her own. Celie, teenage mother abused by her father. Her children have been taken away from her as well as her beloved sister, Nettie. Celie, whose life is no more than tending house, working in the garden, taking care of someone else’s children, and being used by a man when the urge suits him. And then Shug comes along. The women form a bond that becomes a saving grace for each of them. For the first time in their lives they have found a love that doesn’t expect anything back from them, it just is. Celie learns how to smile. Shug learns how important it is to have someone who will, ‘scratch out your head when it’s ailing’.
“The Color Purple” is one of those movies and books that we as a Black community, claim as our own. There have been plenty of backyard barbecues, that when that last rib is stripped clean and folks are just sitting around full as a tick, from out of nowhere someone will shout out a quote from the movie, “till you do right by me”, “I looked up and saw you Miss Celie and I knowd there is a God”, “see Daddy, sinners got soul too”. The next thing you know everybody at the barbecue is practically acting out the entire film, songs and all. I love times like those.
But for as much as we claim the culture of that movie, there is one thing we rarely talk about. We rarely talk about the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery as Alice Walker wrote about it in her book. It’s hinted at in the movie with a kiss, a song dedication “Celie’s Blues”, and the quiet way everybody ends up on Celie’s porch at the end of the movie. But Walker is quite plain; these two women are partners in the romantic sense. If they were here today, they might be marching down 5th Avenue in the Pride Parade or perhaps Shug would have headlined at Harlem Pride yesterday.
I’m not up here in this pulpit to preach to you about sexuality. No, Saint James is a Presbyterian Welcome church.*
Ostensibly we need not constantly revisit the topic, right? No, I don’t want to talk about the privacy of folks’ intimate relationships. Steven Spielberg sidestepped around Celie and Shug’s relationship because he knew that the American public of 198 wasn’t ready for that aspect of Walker’s characterization. But you see it’s not a matter of sex. It’s a question of soul love.
Celie and Shug’s love is kind of love that heals a wounded soul and allows it to flourish. That’s the basis of their love. Spielberg does bring that aspect of their love to the screen and quite beautifully.
Some may think I’m up here talking about this simply because it’s Pride Sunday. Others may think it’s because we are a Presbyterian Welcome church, dedicated to full inclusion of LGBT or SGL persons in the life of the church. Some of you may be sitting in your seats assuming that I must be gay if I’m bringing this up. I’m up here talking about this soul love because our lectionary text brought this to my heart. If you remember in our text from 1st Samuel verse 18:3 says, “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul”. Since the Middle Ages there has been a debate over the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan. Some will say it’s just an old time version of what today we call a bromance. This definition from Urban Dictionary.com seems to fit David and Jonathan to a tee, “Bromance: The intense love shared between heterosexual males. A form of male bonding and usually invisible to the naked eye. This bond is normally only shared between two males that have a deeper understanding of each other, in a way no woman could ever realize.”
Without going into the philosophical history of these platonic relationships, it seems there needs to be some phenomenon to describe how and why two people of the same gender can have genuine affection for one another without it being “weird”.
But David and Jonathan’s love is something genuine from which we can all learn. Just before our passage today, David has killed Goliath and is being heralded for his victory. Let it be known that his victory over Goliath is not just a military victory it is a spiritual victory as well. David the shepherd has reminded the armies of Israel that they are agents of the Lord, that their fear of this giant is no more than a lack of faith. It is this honesty, this loyalty to God and to Israel, this valor in forthrightness to which Jonathan is attracted. He and David immediately become great friends, establishing a covenant with one another. As time goes on in 1st Samuel their relationship deepens and grows, and upon Jonathan’s death David laments, “I am greatly distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” But I step out of the fray of the debate as to what these passages means in describing the relationship for our political purposes. I want to know just what is it God would have hear today.
And then I read a Jewish commentary on these passages, a Midrash; it hit me like a thunderbolt. This example of love between Jonathan and David, whether on the down low or just an extreme case of bromance, teaches us how to love purely and of God. The Midrash is from Avot 5:15 and reads “Whenever love depends on some selfish end, when the end passes away, the love passes away; but if it does not depend on some selfish end, it will never pass away. Which love depended on a selfish end? This was the love of Amnon and Tamar. And which did not depend on a selfish end? This was the love of David and Jonathan.”
And so this is the question of soul love I ask today, does your love depend on a selfish end? Can you love without wondering, “what’s in it for me?” That is a question that David and Jonathan teach us to ask ourselves everyday of our lives. I am here to confess that in the writing of this sermon, many times have come to mind where I have love for selfish ends, sometimes not really knowing it consciously. And I must say, yes that love has passed away, painfully so.
Our Presbyterian Church is still divided over issues of full inclusion in the church. Does our church’s love depend on selfish ends? Is the fight because we want the church to be made in our image instead of God’s? Is that why the men of the church fought so hard over thirty years ago to keep women out of the pulpit, keep women from being ordained? Well, as we are reminded in Job today no one knows the mind of God. I would like to pose God’s question to Job to the church during any hurtful time of argument when everybody thinks they are right, maybe even at General Assembly later this summer. I’d like to ask on God’s behalf, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.”
Or maybe we are more like the disciples on that storm tossed ship in Mark. We get to hang with Jesus on the regular. He may even choose us over the crowd. Is this tightness we have with Christ our selfish end for loving him? Do you sing Jesus loves me because you have come to know him? Or do you sing Jesus loves me knowing that he does so in spite of you? Learning how to be tight with Christ is a lifelong learning project. Because every time we think we got this Jesus thing down we might find ourselves in doubt, sadness, or fear. And Jesus will say to us as he did on that ship, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And you will be filled with great awe and say to each other. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
It’s a question of soul love, my brothers and sisters. Can you love without depending on selfish ends? This question is not meant to denigrate us. It is a question that is meant to help us be closer to Christ, purer in our love for Christ, more faithful servants for the building of God’s kingdom.
Before you start to answer that question, “Can you love without depending on selfish ends?” let me help you out. The answer is…not completely. We cannot, are not able to, will not be able to. But here’s the best part. We aren’t expected to. We can only strive towards the prize of the high calling. And when we falter, when we examine ourselves and see our own selfish ends, when we are honest and realize that we have pointedly asked the question what’s in it for me, that’s when we are covered by God’s Amazing Grace.
For you see Jonathan and David’s love may have pointed us to a better way of loving, one where we love without depending on selfish ends, there is another…There is another lover, today…There is a lover named Jesus. That lover named Jesus, Jesus loves us as his own soul. Jesus loves us so much that he died on the cross for our sins. Just as Jonathan stripped of his robe for David, so Jesus was stripped of his robe for us. Jonathan gave his armor to David making his flesh vulnerable. Jesus took 39 lashes, a crown of thorns, nails in his feet, in his hands and a piercing in his side…Jesus took that just for us. Jonathan gave David his sword, his bow and his belt. Jesus took off his crown of glory and has made sure that there are enough crowns minted for us, for when we get to glory. Jesus did all this with no thought of gain. Jesus had it all and gave it up for us. Jesus paid it all, church. Jesus loves us as his own soul, without selfish ends. And that is why the love of Jesus will never, I say it will never pass away.
Let us strive to love that kind of soul love we’ve been talking about today. Let us love without expecting anything in return, without selfish ends. If you have ever held a newborn child you know that kind of love I’m talking about. You look down at that sweet babe in your arms and your soul loves and all you want to do is whatever it takes to make that child safe and happy. If you have ever sang a song of praise then you know the kind of love I’m talking about. As your voice comes up and out your soul loves. All you want to do is sing till the power of the Lord comes down. If you cook then you know the kind of love I’m talking about. As you watch the people around the table enjoying your food your soul loves. That’s why they call it soul food, folks. Your soul sends your love through your offerings of food and people are nourished in all kinds of ways.
And if you can just close your eyes and remember the first time, the very first time your realized that Jesus loves you just because of who you are…If you can remember that feeling in your stomach, remember how your heart raced, remember how you could help but smile, remember how those tears fell onto your cheeks, remember how safe you felt, remember how you didn’t care who saw you crying or smiling, if you can remember those things…that’s soul love. That’s when you know your not just loved for your body, or for who you are as mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, son, daughter, teacher, lawyer, doctor, lover, partner, husband, wife. But you know that your soul, your very soul is loved and that love will never pass away.
Hold onto that. Hold on tight. For holding on to that feeling, knowing that Jesus loves you so completely that you can feel it in your soul there is nothing in this world that can ever really harm you…even death has no sting and grave will have no victory. That’s the mystery of God that was spoken to Job, that’s the mysterious power of Jesus that even the wind and sea obey him.
This is your legacy as a child of God. Love without selfish ends and the love you find will never pass away. You see it’s not just a question of which kind of love you need to have—brotherly or sisterly love, agape love, platonic love or whatever kind of love you can imagine. To love a holy and righteous kind of love…it’s a question of Soul Love.
*Presbyterian Welcome is NYC Presbytery based organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ/SGL persons in the life of the Presbyterian Church USA.
There is so much going on that it is actually very difficult for me to find a subject on which to comment.
I’ll take a bit of personal privilege just to say a bit about my own personal struggle/growth/decisions as of late. As an African American male, I have been working through my own self-identification within the plethora of initials that are LGBTQI-SGL. Many members of my community of color self-identify as Same Gender Loving. I think this choice of letters as a point of reference for my gender expression and sexuality has sparked some serious thought for me.
Most importantly, it has forced me to think about all of the work that I have done in this movement in a new way. Unsurprising to many, I have viscerally felt the issues and concerns of “Queer” persons of color as being subsumed into the the larger movement that is mostly addressing the issues of persons of European descent. I have discerned that I must find a way to actually deal with this so that, at least for myself, the voice of persons of color stands on its own equally but not placed under the umbrella of what is supposed to be the LGBTQI movement.
I will think on this more as I process…
But this voice and self-identification issue is a solid shift in my world view and my place within.