I need to process all I have heard today at the Why Christian? conference held at 4th PresbyterianChurch in Chicago.
The day didn't start out smoothly. I tried three doors before I found the obvious one into the church. There seemed to be no record of my registration and my search on my iphone didn't bring it up. The rather androgynous person helping me asked if he (she) could look on my phone and it was found--under EventBrite--the internet presence. So I was registered. I thought the conference started at 9 but it was 9:30 so I had a rather long wait. But the church was already full and people were saving seats for others.
I had read Nadia Bolz-Weber's book Pastrix in preparation for coming. The book jacket shows a very fierce looking tatooed woman glaring at the camera. Nadia was chatting with folks in the row ahead of me so I got a good look at her and noted that, yes, she is heavily tatooed, but she is very pretty--strikingly so. While waiting, I continued to read Rachel Held Evan's book on A Year of Biblical Womanhood on my iphone. Rachel was the other convener of the conference.
I had heard of this book but had never wanted to read it, thinking of it as a stunt book. When our pastor Chris Rea said that she had laughed out loud reading it and as a result her husband read it and invited Rachel to Notre Dame, I decided I should shake my prejudice and give it a try. Rachel was very transparent about getting a publisher who wanted to support her crazy idea--and so far, the book is very funny and yet informative. I too laughed out loud several times!
Nadia was the first speaker. She introduced the conference by saying that we need the faith of others to support us. She talked a lot about us as smelly and disobedient sheep. She distinguished between our ideal selves and our actual selves and God loving us with our jagged edges--our actual selves. When we share our failures, we allow God to be God. She was once a stand-up comedienne and this was obvious in her expressions and timing. She threw in a few obscenities but I was prepared for more. Her book had far more! I appreciated what she said but didn't find it particularly related to me. My "actual self" is not what I would like it to be but I don't struggle to be perfect and I have no sense of God rejecting me for that.
Next Rachel Held Evans spoke. She said only in Christ could people like she and Nadia come together beause Nadia was the kind of person she was afraid of in high school! She talked about being a Christian because of her parents and her youth pastor--all who were very conservative evangelicals. She seemed to have made peace with her background in a way that so many I know cannot seem to do. She said it was because of this background, not in spite of it, that she was a Christian. Granted, she now loves the liturgy of the Episcopal church and has rejected the patriarhal structure of the church of her youth as well as its rejection of LGBT people. Why did she stay a Christian? She admitted to habit, security, maybe fear, but also said that the story of Jesus is worth the risk to be wrong about.
Neichelle Guidry compared her own story of a suffocating marriage and Jesus' speaking to her through her separation and divorce to Jesus' treatment of the woman taken in adultery. Neichelle was a powerful black preacher but I kept wondering about her husband's side of the story.
Onleilove Alston was also a powerful black preacher who said she knows God loves the poor and homeless because that's what she was. The Holy Spirit was working in her as she read her grandmother's Psalms--well before she was converted at age 14 in an AME church. Her beliefs are centered in the Jewish tradition and she celebrates the Jewish holidays and uses the terms Yah and Jeshua but she insists that she is a Christian. She researches her African people--the Ibo and the Hausas as the lost tribes of Israel. She thought Augustine and his mother were black as was the disciple Mark. Not all would agree.
Rachel Held Evans moderated an afternoon session with Julie Rodgers and Deborah Jian Lee, both of whom had been hurt by conservative traditions in the church because of being gay. When asked if they had found good churches to belong to now, one of them said that the churches that accepted her lacked the passion of seriously following Jesus that she was looked for and needed. The comment was made that what was the church for if not to accept those on the margins.
Julie had been hired by Wheaton College to counsel their LBGT students with the understanding that she would abide by their covenant about sex only in marriage. This did not go well. She ended up resigning and said she understood the pressure donors put on a college. She talked about life being messy and that was one of those chapters. She was thankful for those who stepped out to suppport her. There was no rancor expresssed. Now she is free to say that she can be happy as a gay woman. She said Jesus took on flesh because he believes our bodies are beautiful. And that the Bible is full of sex!
I am thinking about our own church and its latest synodical decision. I am sad to think that a same sex couple might not be officially welcomed even in our local church. The issue has not presented itself yet, but it will at some point.
Anna Keating is a Catholic mother of two little ones. She was a less forceful speaker and in some ways, more genuine that some of the others today. She said that her church oppressed women, but also canonized them. Why am I a Christian? She asked what was the alternative? She found community there with a diverse group of people. It was a place to ask for mercy and express gratitude for her life.
The last speaker of the day, Jenny McBride, spoke about her relationship with Kelly Gissendanner, a woman who was executed in Georgia after a torturous series of appeals and requests for clemency. She had been Jenny's theology student in prison and had received the attention of Jurgen Moltmann, the German theologian whose books she had studied. Our session ended with us all singing Amazing Grace which Kelly sang on her gurney before her lethal injection. It's pretty moving to hear 800 voices singing without accompaniment.
I have more to think about and hope to read more of what the speakers have written. It is a support to one's belief to know that others treasure their faith even in the midst of their doubts and in the midst of an imperfect church. And there's more to come tomorrow.