There’s credibility and power in proximity and relationship.
It is impossible to advance the message of reconciliation without being in proximity to and relationship with those who’ve been marginalized. Proximity to and relationship with the marginalized instills in us an ability to see beyond the misinformation which has too often led to the dehumanization and lessening of those known as ‘the Other.’
It’s easy to speak out of a position of ignorance and intolerance when we’re dealing with unknown faces and unheard stories.
It becomes much more difficult – impossible, in fact – when we’re speaking of our friends.
Proximity and relationship means everything.
Before landing in the gay neighborhood of Chicago, I’ve been a bit of a nomad. While I was growing up our family moved around – Ohio, Texas, California, Michigan, Florida, Illinois, Scotland and elsewhere. In each of these communities I have actively participated in worship as a regular attender, member and even served on staff at various denominations of evangelical Christianity – Baptists of all types, shades and sizes, FourSquare, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed, neo-Reformed, Nazarene and multiple non-denominational churches.
And I’m in love with a Lutheran.
One might say I’m a little bit of a Christian mutt. In the midst of my eclectic evangelical upbringing and until only quite recently, I have systematically found my home in the context of predominantly conservative evangelical faith communities.
They’re my people. And I love them.
Yet for all of the good things I learned from being a part of these conservative faith communities, I also inherited some negative sweeping generalizations and unfair stereotypes toward my LGBT neighbors (along with one or two other theological quirks). Without relationship with any openly gay people, for years I continued to perpetuate the ignorance and intolerance preserved by those insistent upon making declarations of ‘Truth’ (emphasized with a capital ‘t’) regarding a handful of bible verses and unhelpful bumper-sticker slogans like, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin, ’ or ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’
And then I met Eric.
I had been desperately searching for a job to coincide with my full-time load of seminary classes. My last ministry position hadn’t ended well, which made a positive reference from my former employer hard to come by. I finally bit the bullet and decided to once again don the green apron at Starbucks Coffee Company. I introduced myself to the Store Manager and divulged how much coffee I consumed on a daily basis.
He gave me the job.
Eric and I became fast friends – though we were an unlikely pair, to be sure. I was a former pastor at a conservative evangelical church and attending a prestigious evangelical seminary in pursuit of an MDiv. with an emphasis on Reformation Church History. Eric was an openly gay man who had been rejected by his church and had no patience for religious folk, nor any desire to engage in any sort of theological conversation. On the surface, we didn’t have much in common beyond our love for coffee and could have found endless areas of disagreement.
Instead, we simply got to know one another.
We spent countless hours together – at work, after work, during breaks and on weekends. My part time job turned into a full time one, and Eric became my mentor as I furthered my career with the company. For a season, it wasn’t uncommon for Eric and I to be working together for 12-16 hours a day. We would regularly go to the local pub after work to debrief our day and discuss upcoming company initiatives. We became inseparable, known in our district as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Boy Wonder.
While we often spoke about work, our conversation inevitably turned to the vulnerable unfolding of each of our own stories. The intricate details of what drove our life decisions became common conversation, and the transparent telling of the fears we held of each other became unveiled.
‘You’re the first gay guy I’ve ever really spent time with.’
‘You’re the first evangelical pastor I’ve ever spent time with.’
With a mutual respect for one another as co-workers and friends, we allowed ourselves room for questions and disagreement. We shared our stories and voluntarily re-opened old wounds in an effort to understand each other, feeling the freedom to challenge the other’s beliefs within the context of a safe and sacred friendship. Rather than causing a division, this practice of honest dialogue in the midst of the tension-filled conversations regarding faith and sexuality strengthened our friendship and respect for one another. Secondary theological and political issues became just that as the primary value of elevating the conversation and deepening the bonds of relationship became our priority.
And then my life fell apart.
My marriage dissolved under immense pressure from multiple angles. Counseling proved futile. A DUI ensued. Then a separation. Bible college buddies took sides, most often against me as I wasn’t ‘in ministry’ any longer. After experiencing the unparalleled heartache and frustration of watching my well-formed theologies crumble under the pressures of reality, I unwittingly and unfortunately continually encountered a less-than-Christian version of Christianity. I felt alone. Abandoned. Ostracized. Judged. Marginalized. Other-ed.
But not by Eric.
Throughout even the darkest of times, my friend stood by my side. He offered grace and forgiveness, providing unconditional support in ways that reflected the Divine welcoming of the lost son. Our friendship has continued, surviving transformations and career changes and theological evolutions, geographical relocations and more. Fidelity to the process of reconciliation has enabled our relationship to surpass the polarizing, win-lose, back-and-forth rhetoric which so often shapes the conservative and LGBT disconnect.
Our friendship was framed differently.
When we choose to sit down and hear the stories of those pushed to the margins, we encounter in them the very humanity we had previously either overlooked or ignored. As we commit to friendship and live out their experiences alongside them as fellow travelers in their journey – sitting with them in their pain and allowing it to grow into our own heartache – there is a very natural shift in our response :: from aggression or apathy to one of grace and hope.
This follows the example set before us in the incarnation.
The very doctrine of the incarnation contains at its heart the divine welcoming of the Other; embodying that same welcome is at the heart of our own obedience to God’s grace.
We must be committed to the ongoing pursuit of those who’ve been marginalized and treated as outcasts. This is the mission and art of reconciliation – the pursuit of that which is disconnected.
Connecting with others in proximity and relationship allows us to see injustice through God’s eyes – to recognize when people we love are being treated poorly, even by other people we love. It creates in us the courage to stand up for the oppressed; to lend a voice to the voiceless; to defend the defenseless.
I am convinced that relationship and proximity castrates our ability to continue to treat Others unjustly, and forces us into the reality of the process of reconciliation.
The question is – are we willing to live incarnationally? Are we willing to set aside our agendas and ideals, instead seeking reconciliation through the power and credibility of proximity and relationship? Could it be that the way forward as bridge builders is indeed following the example of Jesus, who consistently stood in solidarity with the Other?
What do you think?
Michael Kimpan is the author of the WayWard follower blog, a site designed to inspire thoughtful conversation and movement among followers of Jesus Christ. Michael works with The Marin Foundation in Chicago, a non-profit organization which works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Church.