Twenty-five years ago, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, under the leadership of the Right Rev. John Shelby Spong, made church history when it created the first official diocesan ministry for gay and lesbian people. That milestone was remembered Sunday at Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral in Newark, where current and former leaders of The OASIS gathered with family and friends for a joyous Eucharist and reception, to look back and also to think about what God might be calling us to do next.
The Right Rev. Mark Beckwith, our present bishop, celebrated a Eucharist seasoned with jazz hymns and readings and prayers focused on love and justice. He was joined on the altar by the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton and the Rev. Rose Hassan, both former OASIS missioners, as well as the Rev. Daniel D. Lennox, Rector of All Saints: Hoboken, which hosted the first OASIS office and events back in 1989. The Rev. Deacon Eric Solwedel assisted Bishop Beckwith with the Eucharist.
The Rev. Harry Knox, President and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, offered the sermon. Knox served previously as interim Executive Director of Integrity, the Episcopal Church’s principal organization for LGBT people and their allies, as well as with Georgia Equality, a secular LGBT organizing body. In 2009 he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Council on Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships.
In his sermon, Knox revealed that -- when The OASIS was formed -- he was facing a profoundly discouraging time, as neither his native United Methodist Church nor the United Church of Christ would not recognize his vocation for ministry. Hearing that there was a place where church leadership was beginning to include gay and lesbian people in its mission was a source of comfort to him. At that time, providing a safe space for gay and lesbian people to worship and be themselves was a key pastoral need they could not count on in their parishes. In fact, Knox went on to be ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination created specifically to minister to gay and lesbian people.
Describing those difficult days, Knox said, “LGBT folks sought to love their God completely, with their whole heart, mind and strength. Our opponents sought to discredit the heart, and make our identities all about sex; discount our minds, and act as if we had no souls. They didn’t count on our strength.” He quoted author Janisse Ray, who said in her recent book The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, “Why doesn't anybody ever talk about love as motivation to act? I may not have a lot of hope but I have plenty of love, which gives me fight.” Knox added, “Where there is love, hope sometimes follows.”
Touching on his present work, Knox posited that much of the resistance toward LGBT people has misogyny, intentional or inherited, at its roots. When one starts with the premise that it’s “just a little better to be male,” he stated that it stands to reason that men and women who don’t conform to the behavior and roles one was taught to expect from them will present a challenge. He invited all supporters of The OASIS to open their hearts a little wider to make room for whomever else might be getting relegated to the sidelines.
Back to today, as we are flush with victory: our state recently granted access to civil marriage to its citizens, and a new state seems to follow every week. Our bishop has interpreted the 2009 General Convention resolution calling for a “generous pastoral response” to same-gender couples by authorizing the provisional rite created by the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music for blessing their relationships, and by permitting clergy who feel called to act as agents of the state in civil marriages when they were legalized in late 2013.
Quoting Yale religious historian Roland Bainton, Knox cautioned us that “Nothing helps the Church like a little persecution, and nothing kills a movement like a little success.” Indeed, several states have attempted to create new roadblocks to equality using “religious convictions” as an acceptable rationale for unfair treatment of LGBT people.
In his remarks, current OASIS Chair John Simonelli cited a general sense of “mission accomplished” from our constituency as presenting the organization with a challenge in recent years. He offered a number of the issues upon which the missioners will be focusing on in the days ahead:
- Congregational Welcome - Encouraging parishes to be more visibly and intentionally inclusive, taking the time to view themselves as an outsider might (through continued adoption of the Believe Out Loud Episcopal Congregations program)
- Transgender Education - Overcoming a lack of understanding of the experience of trans and gender variant people, even among gay and lesbian leaders
- Youth and Young Adults - Combating homelessness and insecurity (A reported 40% of the 500,000 homeless people under 21 identify as LGBT), supporting expanded campus outreach, and better understanding the next generation’s perceptions about sexual orientation and gender identity
- Immigration and Asylum Issues - Particularly for bi-national same-gender couples and refugees
- International Concerns - Educating the church, offering prayer and advocacy for LGBT persons abroad who face discrimination and violence
Louie Crew Scholarship & Grant AwardsIn 2012, The OASIS launched the Louie Crew Scholarship and OASIS Grant. Named for Dr. Louie Crew (now Clay), founder of Integrity, who is a longtime resident and leader in the Diocese, this program annually helps people with scholarly and missional work “at the intersection of sexuality and faith”.
This year’s recipients were:
The Louie Crew Scholarship was awarded to the Rev. Elizabeth Edman, to assist her with the writing of her book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and Why Christians Should Care. Edman gave an animated and engaging description of the unique gift our community can offer the church.
The OASIS Grant was awarded to the Montclair Protestant Chaplaincy, supporting the work of the Rev. Diana Wilcox at Montclair State University. In addition to an LGBT-inclusive faith community called the Web of Life (which became the first official on-campus Believe Out Loud congregation), Wilcox -- who was recently requested as faculty advisor to a fraternity! -- shepherds students through all the challenges of college life and has helped them cope with everything from homesickness to coming out and the suicide of friends.
Fortified with a nice meal and inspiring words, the day’s participants left with a sense of accomplishment but an appetite for the work ahead.