Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Day 7 (part 2) - Dialogue on sexuality

After spending the morning thinking about Christian unity, many of us decided to attend a workshop on what some would say is one of the most divisive issues in the church today: human sexuality.

The first thing to say about this workshop is that the room was packed. People standing at the back, people sitting on the floor. Even that was affirming - churches want to talk about this issue. We recognize that we have different opinions, and we want to be in dialogue.

I didn't really know what to expect. I had read the workshop description, but was a bit anxious about how the hour and a half would unfold. This is not an easy topic for churches. The tone was set from the very beginning, though, when we read this passage from 1 John 4: "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them."

We heard about a dialogue on this topic between 10 people from Europe and 10 people from the rest of the world, all of whom approached this issue from different places. We heard of their Bible study, of conversations of pain, emotion and beauty... all of which led to the creation of safe space, and participants could then look to find common ground. This can be a model for other churches looking to create an environment in which human sexuality can be discussed.

We then heard from four people about their experiences in different parts of the world.
  • A young, extremely courageous transgender Korean woman told her story - a story of rejection from a church, of loneliness and exclusion, of coming back to God's love, and of finding acceptance.
  • A theologian from Nigeria, a country where the church agrees with the state's criminalization of homosexuality, talked about how asking, "What does the Bible say?" is not as important as asking "What is the Christian calling?" and "What are the justice issues?"
  • A gay Romanian man spoke of the attack on basic human rights in Eastern Europe, and how the creation of safe space for dialogue with churches in this region is next to impossible. He pointed out the value of the WCC - for some people, this is the only forum in which this conversation can take place.
  • An HIV-positive South African woman talked about the opportunity that has been presented to the churches with the AIDS pandemic - there is now an opening to talk about sex. She said that dignity and identity are inherent rights from God, and that all people are created in the image of God. I wrote down some wonderful quotes from her: "These are our children. They didn't come from trees. We gave birth to them after having sex." "Sexuality is to the body what spirituality is to the soul." (She actually credited this to someone else but I can't remember who... sorry...) "No one deserves rejection, no one deserves to be discriminated against." "Unity is impossible without acknowledging our diversity."
My words cannot do justice to the love and support I felt in the room for these four individuals, regardless of what church we were coming from.

We met in small groups afterward to discuss our reactions, our frustrations, our hopes. My feelings at the time were profound gratitude to the four people for sharing their stories, but also guilt - the church, of which I am a part, has caused such hurt, and continues to do so. These four people had put faces to that hurt. We are supposed to be loving, inclusive communities, and we have failed.

This workshop gave me hope too, though. We know that this is a challenge for us, and so many people were there to start the conversation. It needs to continue (someone said, "90 minutes is not going to do it."), and I think that the WCC can offer a safe space in which this work can take place. The facilitator said that safe space is created when you take a risk to enter it, when you share truthfully, and when you listen actively. And as mentioned in this morning's session, it will take passion, patience and hard work to find common ground between the churches on human sexuality.

But we have now taken the first step...

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