Making new neighbors to love

The Rev. Bonnie Perry, co-founder of the Chicago Consultation, preached this sermon about the recently concluded consultation on justice and human sexuality to her congregation at All Saints Church in Chicago yesterday.

We were walking back
up to the house we had rented
at Hilltop Camp in the
Hluhluwe Umfolozi Nature reserve
in South Africa.

We’d finished with our gathering
of theologians, biblical scholars, church officials,
lay people, priests and bishops
affiliated with the Anglican Church in the continent of Africa.

We’d shared meals, studied scripture,
laughed, cried, listened to one another,
stopped 7 different times to have some tea,
and in the evenings we had enjoyed
more than one bottle of extremely good South African wine.
Anglicans the world-over seem to share
some very real commonalities.

We’d finished all of the hard work
and now parishioner, Ruth Frey, and I
were on our way back
to the former game warden’s house
that we had rented.
Walking in the fenced in camp
in the Nature Reserve;
a cloud had settled on the hill
so it was misty and damp,
visibility was limited.
As we walked one of our colleagues,
a little bit up the road waved to us
frantically to come quick and then he did—
what I am now calling the international sign
indicating the presence of an elephant.

There, not more than 20 yards
beyond the fence and electric wire
was a magnificent beast looking all the while
as if she had just stepped off the set
of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
She was doing what elephants do—
pretty much anything they want—
she was snacking.
Pulling down branches,
knocking over full-grown trees
and munching on bark and limbs—
eating what I can only describe
as the highest fiber diet I have ever seen.

There she was in front of us.

Later, one of our guides told us
that there is actually a national breakdown
a categorization
as to how people from various parts of the world
respond upon seeing
wild creatures in their natural habitat.
The Chinese, he said, always ask,
“How many? How many of them are there?”
The Europeans, they always ask, “Are they protected?
Who is taking care of them and keeping them safe?”
And the Americans, the Americans, apparently we always ask, “Is it real?”

I can tell you it was.
We watched for about ten minutes,
the only noise being the crunch
and thud of the trees.
Then Rebecca ran to the house
to get her son Jake
and our other colleague, Carly.
Then all of us watched in awe
for at least another 15 more minutes.

Our fiber-foraging friend
eventually wandered farther back
into the forest
and so we walked back to the house.
On our way there, we passed a baboon,
who in retrospect I now know was smiling
for a reason.
Jake, Rebecca’s son was ahead of the rest of us—
he went into the house first.
Ten seconds later he was back out
with a look of terror and astonishment
on his 12 year old face,
“The monkeys,” he said,
“The monkeys are in the house.”

Just then Ruth yelped,
“They are—O my God
there’s bunch of monkeys in the kitchen…”

What to do?
Seriously in 21 years of ministry—
that’s a phrase I’ve just never heard uttered.

We grabbed brooms,
Ruth grabbed her new umbrella,
we went charging in yelling and screaming—
the place was wrecked.
Remnants of the fresh papaya
were a slimy slick
from the kitchen to the living room,
discarded banana skins
were plopped on the couch,
and my chocolate
the really good, high end, anti-oxidant
dark chocolate gone—
all gone only tattered wrappers remained.

Jim, then watched them
all dance back
out the barely cracked windows
near the fireplace.

As we looked at each other
and contemplated our house—
it suddenly came to me—
clear as can be.
The elephant,
the elephant had set a pick,
the elephant was a diversion,
the monkeys and the elephant
were in on this together.

Would it be going too far to say,
vastly different creatures,
from unique places in the habitat,
overcoming barriers of difference
to defeat the dominant forces….
so that some day there may be—
dare I say it, “Papayas for all!”

Alright that might be—
a bit of preaching hyperbole—
but perhaps you get
what I mean and
where I am going
with this travelogue.
Jesus said,
“You should love the Lord your God,
with all your heart and your mind and your soul,
and you should love your neighbor as yourself.”

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Never, dear friends,
were there neighbors
from more different worlds,
different cultures,
different perspectives.
Abundant barriers abounded
for the 45 of us who gathered last week
at the Salt Rock Conference Center
on the edge of the Indian Ocean
in South Africa.

Different folks
from vastly different contexts—
Christians all—
but were we—
are we---
neighbors?

In 2006 after a national gathering of the Episcopal Church
where inclusion for gay and lesbian,
bisexual and transgendered folks
took a giant step backwards,
my friend Ruth Meyers
and I were having breakfast together.

We were ruminating
on the fact that our colleagues,
lay leaders, clergy, bishops all
had said “We can’t go forward
on including gay people in leadership—
because if we do—
we are ignoring the wishes
of our sisters and brothers
in the Anglican Communion in Africa.”

To Ruth and me this somehow
just didn’t seem right.
It seemed to be a false choice
to have to pick and choose
between mission and ministry
and relationships with people in Africa
and mission and ministry and full inclusion of LGBT folks.

So we decided to do something.
Rather than becoming bitter
we decided to organize.
What became the Chicago Consultation was born.
Concurrently, lay leaders in this congregation
began forming and organizing for full-inclusion.
For this congregation
never believed
that outreach and compassion
can be limited to one group at the expense of another.
As the controversies
about including Gay and Lesbian people raged
this welcoming and inclusive congregation
stepped up our care and support
of our sisters and brothers in Africa.
Saying with our money and our time—
we will not choose one group over another.

The story has many twists and turns—
but last week was—
in many ways a culmination
of this congregation’s belief
in mission and inclusion.
The Chicago Consultation,
working with the Ujaama Center
in Kwazulu-Natal University—
gathered 30 Anglican African Church leaders
and 15 North Americans
to discuss issues of justice and sexuality.
For the first time on the continent of Africa
in the Anglican Communion people
came together to talk
about both mission
and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people.

Every morning in small groups
we did Bible-study for an hour and half.
We poked and rolled around,
immersing ourselves
in our common scriptural heritage.
We listened to each other—
we talked about where we do ministry
and what our many challenges are.
Then we had tea.
Then people told their stories.
African and North American.
We listened deeply and intently.

Most of the Africans in attendance
were Biblical scholars—
far more educated than most of the Americans.
Surprise number one of many for me.
That said, this was for many of the Africans
the first time they’d met Americans.
Certainly the first time they’d ever related
to someone who happened
to be openly gay or lesbian.
We told our stories.
And our African sisters and brothers listened:
deeply—warmly.

We dispelled half-truths and myths.
One man was under the impression that Bishop Gene Robinson—
the first out, gay partnered bishop of New Hampshire
was elected by gay people.
It was their belief that New Hampshire,
all of New Hampshire is gay.
For how else could this have happened?

A priest from Nigeria asked,
“But don’t you have all gay churches?”
He asked this with profound curiosity
and confusion after listening to my presentation
on our ministry here at All Saints.
He watched one of our annual meeting slide shows—
and your pictures—
did not fit his previous beliefs.

We can laugh—
we can shake our heads in disbelief.
But let me ask you this—
how much do you seriously know about villages in Kenya?
How many of us can even find Tanzania, Rwanda or Unganda on a map?

When we answered their open, honest, candid questions—
they listened and they believed us.
After I finished presenting on All Saints
the General Secretary of the
Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa
asked Bishop Jeff Lee if he could speak to me—
and then when I came over he said,
“When can I come to your church?
I want to go to All Saints’
for that is how church should be.”

I will end with the story of Mote
a priest in Tanzania who pulled me aside—
off to a corner—
during one of our tea breaks—
and said, “I must confess my sin to you.”
Sitting down with tears in his eyes he said,
“I did not know about gay people.
I have been wrong in what I have thought about you.
Now I will go and tell people.
I have a platform. I am a teacher.
I will tell my people that we have been wrong about gay people.
I am so sorry.”

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When it happens dear friends—trust me
the Kingdom of God draws near.

Comments (5)

Oh wait, there's the mission. There's the ministry of reconciliation. There's the "empowering the baptized".

Too scary for most WASP nests to even contemplate. Well, yellow jackets, Christ is Risen.

And let the people say,

AMEN!

Susan Russell

As with Mote, so it happens over and over again. A man in a study group in a church in Delaware sees a video of loving couples and realizes it's all about with whom a person falls in love, and his life is changed. Another person hears a presentation at a conference where he was sent to investigate what heresy would be taught and comes away wondering what he will report because he is no longer the same person and no longer believes what the authority who sent him believes.

Soon, those single persons at a time will constitute a flood. Thanks be to God.

Amen, Amen....

Rex McKee
Episcopal Church in Minnesota

The sad thing about this wonderful story is that sometimes those far off are quicker to understand than those who are near. That some of our own household persist in portraying faithful gay and lesbian persons as if they were apostate monsters only adds to the misinformation being spread, and believed, far from home, where people can't check the facts against the portrayals. Still, someday, we know and trust, Truth will prevail over misunderstanding, and neighbors will be friends, and those far off brought near in Christ.

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