Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Learning to Apologize, or, How the Body Welcomed Me Home

Have you ever walked around a city with a shirt saying, "I'm sorry"?

Let me tell you, it's a strange experience.

A few weeks ago, I got an invitation in my e-mail to participate in an "I'm Sorry" event at the West Michigan Pride festival in Grand Rapids. I get all kinds of strange invitations to things, so I took this one rather skeptically and did some digging.

I eventually came across this picture:

Photo Credit: Michelle at Maladjusted Media

I had a feeling that this event might actually be on to something.

I dug around a bit more and decided that this was the sort of thing I wanted to be a part of. To be honest, I didn't even know Grand Rapids had a Pride event at all (much to my chagrin). I e-mailed the organizer of the local "I'm Sorry" campaign and put out a sign-up sheet at my parish.

When I woke up this morning, I had no idea what to expect. The Rev. John Edwin Infante Pinzon, a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Colombia is here staying with me and I asked if he wanted to join me. He was very enthusiastic. So we donned our clericals and headed to downtown Grand Rapids.

We met up with the handful of others who were there—including a Facebook friend who occasionally shows up at my parish with his husband—and were given our "I'm Sorry" t-shirts. I put it on over my clericals and settled in for the next few hours.

Let me tell you a bit of what grace looks like.

There is a couple of young women walking toward me. They see a group outside the gates of the Pride event holding signs and look at us rather sideways. They are as skeptical as I was. Then they read the first sign, "God is love." They read the second, "I'm sorry the church has hurt you." They see the one I am holding, in my clerical collar, t-shirt over top, "I'm sorry. Please forgive me."

The pace slows and the two women look at me. One of them has tears well up in her eyes as she mouths, "Thank you."

I smile and say, "I really am sorry. Thank you for who you are. I love you."

And then they move on.

This, beloved, is what grace looks like. Over and over again, people stopping, asking if they can take pictures. A few asked if we were serious. We said we were. That we really were sorry.

Then we often hugged.

And let me tell you, hugging someone after apologizing for the church having told them a false narrative of damnation their whole lives, hugging a person after that apology... that is one serious hug.

One of my friends on Facebook noted that I was not the sort of Christian who needed to apologize, that I had been affirming before he had even learned to affirm himself as a bisexual. I was reminded of one of my favorite lectures David Fleer would give in the Old Testament Survey class at Rochester College, a class for which I was the tutor for several years.

He would talk about what slavery actually looked like in America in the south. He would tell a story of a young woman who worked hard all day until her fingers bled, who had been sold and traded over and over again. And then he would talk about her master climbing into her bed and demanding the last scrap of humanity she had left.

Then he would say, "Tell me, don't you think someone needs to say, 'I'm sorry,' when it comes to horror like that? Don't you think we bear a responsibility to do something today in response to such monstrosity?"

And we, young evangelicals who had been told that reparations were a liberal fantasy, would gulp and say, "Yes. Absolutely."

He told this story to illustrate the story of Nehemiah, the prophet who helped the people rebuild Jerusalem but who led them first to confess the sins of their ancestors. He did this to make it clear why it might be a good idea to stand up and apologize for the wrongs of those who went before you.

At one point, someone sent me to go get something, and so I went on a short walk around Grand Rapids in my clerical collar with a white t-shirt over top saying, "I'm sorry." It felt like a scarlet letter. People looked and often seemed confused. One young woman asked what I was doing and I explained, "I'm part of a group who wants to say I'm sorry because the church has done tremendous harm to the GLBTQ community." She said, "Oh, wow. That's really cool."

I wore that shirt because I do believe the church needs to say I'm sorry. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of good things going on today. There were probably four or five booths inside the festival that were set up by churches who were there to proclaim welcome and acceptance.

But a lot of people have been really hurt by the church. And so, before they go into that festival, before they hear the words of welcome, I think they did need to hear some Christians say, "I'm sorry. I really am sorry."

And I wore that shirt for the times I have failed. I wore that shirt for the gay slurs I used when I was a foolish middle-school student, slurs I used against someone who wound up, a few years later, becoming one of my closest friends. I wore that shirt for an ex-girlfriend from my teenage years who I later met, for when she told me she was a lesbian and I questioned how she could say that and be a Christian. I wore that shirt because, despite my position today, I have screwed this thing up royally in the past.

I was sorry. I am sorry. I am so deeply and profoundly sorry.

Anytime someone said hello or thank you to our group, my friend Todd would respond, "I'm sorry." I tried to do it to, but it was hard. Our culture is horrible at apologizing, but eventually I got the hang of it. Three older people would walk by and one would say, "Thank you for this." I learned to respond, "You're welcome. I really am sorry. I truly am."

Over and over again, people would hear this, would read our signs, and would start tearing up.

Tears, beloved. Today was a day of tears.

I think I was almost in a dream today. I was in a place, like an orphanage, that was filled with children who had been rejected by God's family, children who had been rejected over and over and over again. And we stood up and acknowledged that. We acknowledged that there needed to be some repentance here, some actual declaration that the body of Christ had truly failed on this thing.

Because this community, this strange and diverse GLBTQ community had continued the Body of Christ after the larger Body had sought to cut it off. They created their own community, their own sense of pride and wonder in all of God's wonderfully fantastic and glorious creations. Some Christians thought this community was different, but we were wrong. It was a part of Christ's body that had been lopped off due to ignorance and prejudice.

Today we said I'm sorry.

Today we asked that other part of the Body if they would welcome us home.

Because they are the ones who now hold our salvation.

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