And just like that, the salt loses its taste and the light goes under a basket. The issue of homosexuality erupted at the conference yesterday.
I had been having a quiet spiritual morning, skipping the large morning gathering to worship by myself in the “quiet room” – a small room FWCC has designated for quiet worship of all kinds. It was a beautiful day, and the sounds of the large Kenyan service in the big church mixed with children playing outside. I left the front door to the little room open as an invitation, and was joined, briefly, by Ashley Wilcox who had led the Convergent Friends Thread Group.
After lunch I arrived at my home group. There was only one facilitator and she seemed a bit grim to me. Slowly, others in my group trickled in. The the other facilitator, a British man, arrived and he looked terrible – red eyes and ragged all around. Robin Mohr, the director of the American office of FWCC is also in my group, and she arrived and had a whispered conference with the first (female) facilitator, a Friend from California. This Friend began our meeting by saying we had no choice but to worship share about “what happened” this morning. I was bewildered and asked someone to fill me in.
What happened was, a Friends Group for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Friends had posted an epistle on the wall outside the auditorium with all the other epistles. During the morning session, it had been torn down, re-posted and torn down again. The large morning gathering, which I missed, ended with an irate and tearful Liz Gates denouncing the “violent action” (this is an unreliable quote, it is second-hand, but later, another Friend remarked on Liz’s strong language) taken against this epistle and begged the gathering to hold each other in love.
As we began our home group session (my home group is described in Kenyapost 2), the female faciltator read aloud from the FWCC statement on diversity, handed out to all conference participants, which expressly addresses the issue of homosexuality. Several Kenyans in the room reached for their Bibles and began flipping through them. We settled in to worship.
The worship sharing lasted for about 90 minutes. The British Friend who co-facilitates began with an impassioned coming out. He is gay. He was distraught as he said he came to the conference not wanting to make his sexuality and issue but that now, he felt he had no choice. He said he no longer felt safe here. Several Kenyans and some others shared passionately about the book of Genesis, in which God creates a woman to be Adam’s companion, because His design is to further procreation. In some cases, this ministry was accompanied by an elaboration on the old testament definition of a family, in which “the woman submits to the man, who is the master”. Noah and I shared impassioned ministry about all the ways the Bible has been used to sew discord and even violence throughout human history, Noah pointing out that his Yearly Meeting (New England) was torn asunder in 1845 over the question of the primacy of the Bible. He referenced passages in Leviticus, which instructs us to kill people who wear cotton and linen woven together on the Sabbath, or who eat shellfish. He and I both pointed out the Bible was used as justification for slavery, when our forefathers came to this continent to enslave the distant relatives of the people here today. I said that homosexuality is not a “choice” (a position several Kenyans had taken), and that there were young gay and lesbian children in every community represented in this conference, and that Jesus call us to care for them with every fiber of our being. I said this issue, of human sexuality, is the defining human rights issue of our generation.
The Kenyans were unmoved, at least visibly, and two of them abruptly left while either Noah or I was speaking. Later, a Friend in our group charitably offered that they had done so because we had gone over time. I’m not so sure. On my way to the next event, a plenary session, I stopped and held my British Friend as he sobbed on my shoulder, and my Colorado Friend, a bisexual woman, rubbed his back and cried along softly.
In the vast auditorium, I sat by chance with a lesbian Friend from Philadelphia who has made the choice not to come out publicly at the conference, and was put off a bit by Liz’s strong language denouncing the events of the epistle earlier in the day, though she sympathized with the feelings. “I’m not sure that was helpful,” she said, “I have the feeling this is an issue we white westerners cannot help the Kenyans with. This is something they are going to have to work out for themselves, and our input, as well-meaning as it is, may be counter productive.” I was moved by her words.
The plenary was charged with a repressed restlessness. It was interrupted by the entrance of the Chancellor of the University, who had been the second President of Kenya. All the Kenyans rose to their feet when he entered, along with most Friends, but some Friends remained sitting. He gave a speech which would have made Pat Robertson proud, and I was afraid he was going to launch directly into the controversy but he did not. He only bemoaned the sorry state of the world’s “moral decay”.
As we resumed plenary deliberations on a set of queries woven together from the Thread Groups, there was some angry ministry about all of us rising to our feet for the Chancellor. I found this ministry petty. The remainder of the session would have reminded Friends of any larger Yearly Meeting gathering, with microphones being passed to Friends who wish to speak, although in this case some messages were delivered in Spanish or French and translated simultaneously. The issue of the day was not addressed directly, although it was glanced at in some messages, in my opinion. The epistle, by the way, is now up again.
Last night I attended an interest group about taking steps to avoid violence in Kenya’s upcoming elections. The last elections, in 2007, were marred by atrocities afterwards, and there are a variety of grass roots efforts underway, many of them led by Friends organizations and Friends churches, to keep things peaceful next time around. I never got a clear picture of what the issues in the elections were, but got a vague sense that the divisions are tribal.
Today, Monday, should be an interesting day. The plenary sessions continue, and I will meet with my home group again later this morning. I do not expect that any hearts have been moved. I sense that the best we can hope for around the issues of human sexuality is “agree to disagree”.