Joyful Worship in the Midst of Danger
by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
Dr. Mollenkott is professor of English at William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey, and the author of eight books, including Speech, Silence, Action! (Abingdon) and Biblical Imagery of God as Female (forthcoming from Crossroad.) This article appeared in the Christian Century September 26, 1979, p.910. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
It was the first time I had ever been frisked on the way into a Sunday morning worship service. “Why?” I asked the guard, who told me that the pastor regularly receives telephone threats against his life. It was also the first time I had ever witnessed so much gratitude for grace, so much sheer delight in being Christian. As soon as the piano and organ started, the vast congregation began to clap reverently, rhythmically, joyfully.
The day was August 19, 1979. The place: a ballroom seating 3,000 people in a Los Angeles hotel. The occasion: the ninth general conference of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. The preacher whose life is always under threat is Troy Perry, founder of UFMCC and author of The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay.
The songs were the old gospel ones familiar to most Christians, especially to evangelicals: “He Lives,” “Blessed Assurance,” “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” -- all sung with tremendous exuberance. I noticed a large section of deaf people, who were able to sing in their hearts because the words were being signed to them by a corps of enthusiastic men and women. (There must be deaf people who’d like to attend many other congregations. Why is it that in all my travels, the only two times I’ve seen sign-language translation have been in gay Christian congregations? Do people have to be oppressed themselves before they make provision for other deprived persons?)
Throughout the entire service, any statement of solidarity with Hispanics or the elderly or the poor or any other oppressed group was greeted with strong applause. These people know in their own pulses, I realized, that an attack on the freedom and dignity of anyone is an attack on everyone!
The sermon was the good old-fashioned gospel kind, urging the acceptance of redemption, and faith in Gods unconditional love. The only difference was that in this church, gay people were free to attend openly, without one plea except that Christ had died for them. And they came -- several thousand strong -- to take communion and to affirm their oneness in Christ Jesus.
Together we sang the Lord’s Prayer -- and how fervently it was sung, with ten or 15 people translating into sign language, their hands and bodies full of the same yearning after God that I could hear in the voices all around me. No sooner had we finished lifting ourselves toward the Lord than Troy Perry quietly asked us to check under our chairs for any strange packages. The hotel had received a bomb threat. “But we will continue worship as usual,” he announced; and again the audience broke into happy applause.
It was enough to make any Christian think some long and sober thoughts. This was the most grateful celebration of Christ I had ever attended, yet it was threatened by hatred on every hand. During the sermon, Perry mentioned that in 1973 four MCC church buildings had been destroyed by arson -- in Los Angeles first, then in Nashville, San Francisco and finally in New Orleans. So cunningly was the New Orleans fire set that 30 people, including the pastor, lost their lives. A city official joked at the time that there would be no problem about what to do with the bodies: “We can just put them in fruit jars.”
On the very heels of recounting this calamitous history, Troy Perry cried out, “But we praise the Lord that through all this we have been drawn closer to Christ and to each other” -- and again, that celebrative applause! (“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed. . . . persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .” )
When the new elders were installed to make up a ruling body of four men and four women the entire congregation was invited to reach toward the altar to share in the blessing. I did so, and was surprised to feel the palms of my hands growing warm, even hot, with the spiritual energy in that place. (Why was I surprised? Don’t we Christians really believe in the presence of God in our midst? Could that be why so many of us are powerless?)
Years ago I was told that if I wanted to see what the Holy Spirit is doing among gay Christians, I ought to visit the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles. For one reason or another (homophobia, perhaps?) I never bothered to do it. Now at last I have experienced what it is like to worship the Lord among a persecuted people, and I have seen the Spirit in action there. Ever since, I have known that I must make this statement to my Christian sisters and brothers everywhere:
God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved, even as they [Acts 15:8-11].
What grace will break forth among us all when we stop building walls of hostility between ourselves and other people who are loved by the Holy Spirit!