Why Liberation Can't Wait
These days, many people feel as if they are fighting for the soul of the United Methodist Church. As a church planter, a person called to build new spiritual communities within the UMC, cultivating new expressions of the church while shedding old wineskins is what I live and breathe every day.
The community I serve is called Zao MKE Church, named for the Greek word (Zao) meaning “to be among the living.” We believe that at the heart of our Christian mission is the fullness of life for all creation. But this is a challenging call at this moment for the denomination, especially for me as a Queer, Black, Trans man.
How can we possibly be faithful in our commitment to be fully alive if we are not able to be fully our authentic selves? We cannot. And any institutional plan that requires some or all of us to deny our God-given selves is doomed to further entrench systems of oppression and stifle the future of the church of liberation for all.
I was thrilled, then, to engage in an altogether different premise through the Our Movement Forward Summit: what if we began with the liberation we seek? What if we were as queer and trans as possible? What if we were led by People of Color? What if power was collective and creative and boundary-breaking? The Our Movement Forward Summit was like looking forward to a future everyone had told me was impossible.
I believe in a church that will someday be as intersectional and alive as the #OMFSummit. I saw people like me not only on the stage, but leading. I saw people standing up, taking on responsibility for continued movement toward liberation. I felt the energy that I imagine has fueled the most powerful liberation movements of our collective history, an energy that says “we will not settled for anything less than freedom.” What a feeling that was! I felt the spirit breaking out, breaking down walls, breaking down fear, breaking down empire, literally proclaiming freedom for all in the name of Christ our Liberator. I left the #OMFSummit hopeful that I was a part of a new and historic liberation movement.
In that hope, I traveled to Kansas City to the UMNext meeting. This is where my hope was confronted once again with the realities of empire and the pressures of our worldly systems of oppression. As a Black, Trans, and Queer person, I spend a lot of my life making concessions to others for the sake of their own fears. I had been hopeful that the OMF Summit, which was attended by some of the folks crafting, shaping, and controlling UMNext, would have emboldened them around freedom for all. Surely, they could not leave that place unchanged! We had a glimpse of something profound and beautiful!
And yet, the moment I was funneled into a sort of modern Christian colosseum, the voices I heard sounded frustratingly more like the empire that dominates my life than like the good news I hear in the movement for liberation. No one introduced themselves with pronouns until there was pushback. There were jokes made about how the announcement about bathrooms is “so exciting” (as a trans person who has had to go long times without using a bathroom for fear, the bathroom announcement is the MOST important announcement I wait for when I am at a new place). We were given a lengthy explanation of a massive stained glass window, featuring a very white looking Jesus, and other gems such as Martin Luther King, Jr. holding a bible with Billy Graham. It clearly did not occur to the straight, cisgender, white leadership how someone like me might experience this setting. As a Queer person, hearing Billy Graham’s name at all is a trigger, since his ministry has been fundamental to seeking to destroy queer persons. But also as a Black person, to have him standing next to Martin Luther King Jr, whom Billy Graham called the “N Word” on the Nixon tapes, was infuriating!
This set the stage for a long three days of being told that our aspirations for liberation were simply unrealistic, or that we were asking too much, too soon. During the next few days I had Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted at me by white moderates multiple times. Allow me to offer a quote that is less often at the forefront of the white moderate movement of “justice”. In Letter from Birmingham City Jail 1963 he wrote:
Empire and “order” reared its ugly head throughout the UMNext gathering. When a cisgender, straight, white person with the largest UMC church gets to call all the shots, that’s empire. When things take an unexpected turn and a person of color is literally pushed out of the way on the stage so that white people take over, that’s empire. When queer people are denied even the right to be recognized as a caucus at a gathering that is explicitly about our place in the church, that’s empire.
I watched as the 600 hand-picked leaders voted about whether to 1) dissolve the UMC or 2) stay and resist. The majority said dissolve. The next day, Adam Hamilton came in and, after reminding the gathering how difficult and painful dissolution and rebuilding would be, announced his and Church of the Resurrection’s intention to stay. He said they would resist for as long as they could. When that became untenable, they would finally leave to be a part (presumably a very powerful, very resourced part) of what the rest of us had already built in the meantime. Some of us will have to build this new church out of necessity, because “stay and resist” is not an option when you’re being hunted down and thrown out for being queer.
This vision cast, of riding the wave of privilege while those at the margins labor to build you a new exit strategy, only to come in later with power and expectation to be recognized as a leader, this is the definition of colonization, empire at its finest.
We ended our time at UMNext singing “I Surrender All.” I felt the weight of this song in a familiar yet newly painful way. The weight of knowing that as people stood there, so many were not willing to surrender much at all. They were not willing to surrender their money, colosseum, and privileges. And yet, they are asking those of us at the margins to surrender our very selves for the sake of their comfort.
LGBTQIA+ people are dying. During the week of the conference alone, there were reports of yet another Black Trans Woman, Muhlaysia Booker, shot to death after being brutalized months prior. More news articles about how trans people in the USA are losing our rights to basics like healthcare and safe housing. More hospitalizations for self-harm and suicidality among LGBTQIA+ people, because the church has become just another in a long line of institutions dehumanizing God’s beloved children.
This conversation is not just about whether or not the younger generation will be United Methodists. This conversation is life and death.
WE CAN NOT WAIT UMC.
So as I sat and sang “I Surrender All,” I knew what those words meant for me.
As we continue the work at Zao MKE Church and the work of the Our Movement Forward, it means we will keep surrendering actual lives. Was that the same song for everyone in there?
At the very end of UMNext, we were asked to claim a truth.
The truth I left with is this: We can no longer wait for liberation.
Because I believe in radical solidarity, I know that I need you to fight for my liberation. But when you do that, you are fighting for your own liberation as well. That’s what solidarity is: it’s the understanding that no one is free until all are free.
Sometimes that means doing things that seem impossible: give up our colosseums, our power, our money, our stained glass, our comfort. Step to the margins, where Jesus always resides. Let the margins lead us to freedom.
To quote MLK one last time, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”