by Ann Fontaine
Friday, October 19, was Spirit Day, when people were asked to wear purple to stand up against bullying lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. It got me to thinking about bullying in general and our call as Christians to stand with those who are being victimized. Can people of faith stand up to bullies, can we admit our own bully nature and learn from times when we have bullied another? Following are a couple of real life experiences that someone shared with me about using the power we have to stop the bullying in our midst.
As a very young priest I learned the power we have as clergy. A single woman in my parish chose to have a child. Once her pregnancy became obvious, the ladies started talking. I don't know that anyone ever said anything to her, but she clearly overhead it because she brought it to me. One of the issues what that they didn't think the child should be baptized because it was conceived "in sin."
So after church I called a meeting of the core elders -- about six women of the congregation. I said I had heard this was being said and I needed their help. I explained that we were a Christian congregation and the most loving thing we could do was to support this mother and welcome the child -- who most assuredly would be baptized. And we would all be called to help raise up that child in the faith. So as future godmothers of the child, I needed them to help me stop this conversation because it was unChristian and unacceptable. I was sure that we were better than that, that all of our members would be ready and willing to "love our neighbors" no matter what. This was, I said, a spiritual disciple for us...and we, as the congregation's leaders, needed to help others see that we could and would model the same love Jesus showed people. Would they help me in that?
Absolutely, they all said....and that was not only the end of the talk, but they did it. They stepped up and when the child was born with a serious health issue and flown to a major medical center, they rang up the Prayer Chain, brought casseroles when the child came home and organized a baby shower. And ever thereafter, they did their best to support that mother.
What I learned is that if I stood up, as the priest, and flatly named what was not acceptable and what I expected....people would do it. I chuckle and I think about it now -- I was 28 or 29 and looked about 15 years old....and they were mostly in their 60's. But those women heard me and they followed my lead. Many years later as I was about to leave, the matriarch reminded me of that conversation. "That's when I knew you were our priest -- you made us become the Christians we we called to be."
Another story from the same person:
My sister married an African man and, fearing the family's reaction, never told us (although I soon figured it out). She was on a junior year abroad and he was there for the first couple of years. Then came to the US to do a Master's degree. My parents didn't like and they both but my dad, in particular, would make really snide remarks about them shacking up, and him just using my sister to get into America, etc. After several phone calls like that I finally had it. I told them that they had raised me to be a Christian and love all people, that mom taught Sunday School where I learned that "red, brown, yellow, black and white; they are precious in His sight" and I didn't think these comments were loving or Christian. And I didn't ever want to hear him say anything negative about my brother-in-law again. Period. There was a long silence and we ended the call.
A few weeks later my brother called. "Do you know what happened?" he asked. "Dad stopped crapping about him." I told him what happened....and neither of us heard it again. Many years later, mom told me that after the call dad went outside and was quiet for most of the day. Then at dinnertime he sat down and told mom, "She's right. It isn't the Christian thing to do, so we will stop doing it." And that was that.
Those two experiences taught me that I have more power to stop bullying than I imagined. I can often (not always...but often) stop it simply by saying, "stop." In my context, I frame that in Christian language, but that works without the religious piece. It is scary--but if you do it and it works, that's really empowering!
What keeps us from speaking out? Fear for our safety? Fear of losing social standing? When have you been a bully? What stopped you?
The Rev. Ann Fontaine keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.