As I wrote last year, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists has planned a global summit on gender and sexuality for March 21-24 this year. The summit falls under the planning authority of Elder Pardon Mwansa, a GC vice-president and chair of the committee on “alternative sexuality practices” [sic] that will report to the church in session in 2015. He has been receiving a great deal of feedback on this summit far more graciously than most.
Despite recent criminalization initiatives in Nigeria and Uganda that were influenced in part by US-based Christian evangelicals and received limited on-continent pushback from local or international Adventists, the General Conference decided to host this meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. South Africa is one of 9 African nations that has embedded anti-discrimination principles in its law, but it also has a disturbing culture of sexual violence against women, especially women known or assumed to be non-heterosexual.
The summit schedule and presenter line-up has now been released and several observers have wondered how the global church can gain from excluding so many participants from a conversation that already affects them.
A Possible Approach to Conversation
I know several more people who have met with attendees or plan to do so ahead of the summit. If you’re among them, reflect on and/or pray about your approach before you do. I offer you a few items you might consider to help guide your thoughts:
- Concerns: What most concerns you about the summit given what you already know? What are you hearing from SDA Kinship, from the Seventh-Gay Adventists film community, and other sources? Believe Out Loud published an article on this today too; are your questions being answered? If not, what other questions do you have?
- Goals: What do you think the church wants to accomplish with the people it intends to gather? What might the church worker you reach out to be able to tell you about the denomination’s goals? What questions might you have about whatever they tell you?
- Your Own Story: What’s your personal stake in what happens at the summit? Does your contact already know about it? If not, how might you share your story with them in a brief, but relevant way? What about your biography and experience do you most want them to remember when they go to all the sessions at the summit and/or vote on any statements that result from it?
- This Friendship: How do you plan to keep in touch with this person after you talk? What if you might be able to share with them over the long term, no matter what their opinions are right now? Would that continued relationship be meaningful to you? If so, how can you let them know?
- Overall: Simply enjoy being one human sharing conversation with another: you and this person, regardless of their organizational status, are peers. Enjoy their company as much as you can and consider that they may be even less at ease with the conversation than you are! Whatever is said, however it’s said, offer them grace.
The climate for workers at the General Conference hasn’t been too open in the last few years. Some have shared with me that they feel hyper-monitored or even repressed because of informers and backlashes. They don’t want any drama; they want to keep working and serving, so they guard what they say to colleagues and church members, especially in sensitive cases like this. This is one of a few possible adaptations to a surveillance subculture.
In this climate, should you have the chance to speak to a church worker, please do whatever you can do to show that you want to keep their confidences and honor their willingness to discuss freely with you. Also, the denomination is quite comfortable framing the “issue” in terms of arguments and decontextualized text debates. If conversants refocus their discussions on real people, their lives, families, and consciences instead, that’s likely to produce more effective and more humane outcomes all round.
To be sure, as an individual, I have very strong opinions on the arguments and the last 40+ years of research and experiential evidence, and I continue to pursue my own inquiry about the subject. I could argue confidently about this with family and friends, but for the last several years, I’ve chosen not to. I don’t see these debates as a good use of my time or energy or as beneficial for the people involved in them. The Backfire Effect is real.
I also don’t accommodate these debates for the same reason that I wouldn’t debate a White supremacist about ethnic segregation. I don’t accept the core premise that the mainstream’s “approval” or “agreement” is required or appropriate in this case. If they don’t own the “standard” from which Others deviate, they also have no authority to police it.
We are each born into this life and come to know ourselves as one of billions. We’re not responsible for the demographic categories we occupy. We are responsible for the quality of relationship we nurture with people in and beyond those categories. That’s what guides me.
What about SDA Kinship?
As far as the SDA Kinship membership goes, I think there is an incredible, mostly latent power in its stories and in how widely members’ stories vary. I don’t think Kinship should respond to the denomination’s Single Story about LGBTI people (“Not a category of their own, just a broken, maladjusted subcategory of us!”) with a Single Story of its own (“Just like you, but with a twirl!”). At minimum, SDA Kinship is an LGBTI group and not just a “gay” one; not all members remain Adventist today—some have been chased out of membership and others have voluntarily moved on.
But beyond these basics, the organization shouldn’t agree to tell a Single Story because it’s not the Borg. It thrives because it isn’t. Members have different experiences, different beliefs, different approaches, and different strengths to bring to the organization’s table as well as to the commonly held table of their church. The under-acknowledged fact is that LGBTI people have co-built, co-funded, and co-staffed the Seventh-day Adventist church from its founding days and continue to do so. They don’t serve the church to claim any special stars in their crown; they serve because of their religious convictions and beliefs in improving the world and witnessing through healing work. For decades, LGBTI Adventists have worked alongside heterosexual members to advance the church’s mission regardless of those heterosexuals’ marital statuses—whether they are unmarried, married, or remarried, whether they are content, struggling, or suffering. And this will always be true.
The diversity of the people who have co-created the church as it stands today—that is what I think makes SDA Kinship such a powerful continuing witness to the mainstream, mainstreaming SDA church. Variance makes learning possible, but we have to be open to that variance in order to draw its best out of it. I do hope the church learns to listen to its own diversity: listening is a holy act, and not listening isn’t sustainable.
Fortunately, the church will have plenty of opportunities to choose new directions for this and similar conversations in the near future: Kinship’s community and its growing cloud of witnesses and advocates isn’t likely to fall silent, and the LGBTI Adventists around the world won’t disappear.
It’s time to start learning; it’s time, they say, to speak up.