Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Poverty Issues at G-20 Summit

The Rt. Rev. Benson K. Bagonza is an STM graduate of Wartburg Theological Seminary . Bishop Bagonza had had some training in law during his undergraduate studies in Tanzania.

WASHINGTON (ELCA) - The Rt. Rev. Benson K. Bagonza, bishop of the
Karagwe Diocese, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT), shared
stories of impoverished people in Africa with more than 25 Christian,
Jewish and Muslim leaders in a meeting prior to the G-20 Summit in
"Tanzanians were among the poorest even before the present economic
crisis," Bagonza said. "Therefore this economic crisis was yet another
blow that has sent millions into a critical and vulnerable situation."
Organized by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA),
Bread for the World, the Alliance to End Hunger and other organizations,
the religious leaders urged world leaders to fulfill their promises to
help people who have suffered from the global economic recession. The
Group of 20 (G-20) met Sept. 24-25 to discuss global economic issues.
"The recovery programs that they are undertaking need to mean
something to the people who live on the fringes, who live on the bottom
level of the economic ladder," Bagonza said. He explained that for
recovery programs to have meaning "the hungry people in Africa must get
food to eat and that the poor people get their basic needs met."
"The welfare of our people in our different [religious] traditions
is affected by what decisions are made (at the G-20)," he said. "At the
global level, I was very impressed to see our religious differences were
diminishing and we were forced to focus on the issues that threaten the
existence of humanity. (Those are) poverty, climate change, hopelessness
and powerlessness of human beings before a magnitude of forces that human
beings have created."
During his trip to the United States, Bagonza met with the staff of
U.S. Senators Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as well
as U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J. Bagonza asked that the United
States "be more inclusive in its participatory process of reforming the
foreign aid policy of this country." U.S. foreign aid policies
should "reflect the wishes and aspirations of the people affected by the
bill," according to Bagonza.
The ELCA Washington Office and ELCA Global Mission brought Bagonza
to the United States to visit his diocese's companion synod, the ELCA
Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod, as well as speak to religious leaders
and members of Congress.
"We believe foreign policy issues can be advocated very effectively
through Bishop Bagonza's personal stories," said the Rev. Andrew
Genszler, director for advocacy in the ELCA Washington Office.
In the ELCT, Bagonza chairs a special office commissioned to do
advocacy. "The churches in Tanzania offer more than 40 percent of the
social services in the country. Therefore we feel that we should be
involved in advocacy," he said.
He cited three challenges facing the ELCT -- dependence on
international support, concern for the ministry among people in poverty
and the secularization of society. "We Africans, by our very nature, are
notoriously religious, but globalization is bringing things that we've
never seen that are shattering and frustrating our structure of families,
our harmony and our communities," he said.
Despite the challenges "my commitment to lead the church is
increasing every day, being ready to face whatever comes," Bagonza said.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Communal Blessing

Martha Lang, Episcopal deacon and M.Div. candidate, shared this with me after attending the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)in Minneapolis last month. With her permission I share it with you:

I will admit that I did not wish to go to worship. I had listened to the debates all morning. Those of us hoping for change in the rostering policies of the ELCA were heartened by the outcome of the voting of the first two questions before the delegates. However, when the first request for the ending of debate on the third item, that most relevant in the life of our family was voted down, my heart descended toward my stomach. The assembly debated right up to the time of worship. As we wandered down the hallway of the assembly suddenly my soul was awash in the sadness, frustration, pain that had gathered there over the last six years. The voices of those who had participated in my partner’s research, “The Missing Project,” echoed in my heart and soul. “Thank you for asking to hear my story”; “Thank you for what you are doing – I had felt like I had disappeared to the ELCA”; “Thank you for finding me and caring” – on and on the voices floated in and through me. All of a sudden anger welled up in me as I thought – but this vote will do nothing for those already led to the door, or silently slipped off of the rosters – or dismissed through curt letter. “This won’t take away all of the years of severing, rejection, self-isolation, self-silencing and self-spiritual mutilation and make everything suddenly be ok” I thought. “I don’t want to go and worship – I just feel like I want to grieve in some corner somewhere – and hold those before God who have been so hurt.” But, I also realized that my partner/spouse Vicki really wanted to go to the worship, and, as I was here to accompany her in this journey, that I needed to be with her in the worship service.
Vicki proceeded toward some people who were already, somehow not noticing their good-sized white buttons announcing their affiliation with CORE (Coalition for Reform), those against ELCA changes in policy to include gay and lesbian people in committed relationships on the ministerial rosters. I groaned inwardly and followed her into the pew and went further into myself. She began a conversation with the gentleman seated next to her by saying that being present in the worship services had been a blessing because she served as a chaplain in a care center. There are time constraints due to needing to physically move much of the population into the chapel, and then back to their rooms (with needed assistance) before it is time to help them move to into the dining hall. So, Vicki shared that she was relishing the richness and depth of the worship experience.
Her neighbor asked her how her residents would receive any possible changes within the ELCA. Vicki shared with him that the care center was hoping for change, for it meant that the Board of Directors could offer her a call. She explained to him that they had voted unanimously early last fall to call her as chaplain, but due to the current policy could call her only as an interim, as her rostering status was “on-leave-from-call; not-available-for-call” due to our relationship. She told him that she had gone to her bishop three years ago when we made the decision to join our lives together through a covenant ceremony in the Episcopal Church which I served as deacon, and was placed in that status. She shared that she had been serving the same nursing home at the time, and had stepped down from the position so as not to cause any waves there, and to pursue a research interest for a year. So, when the same position had come available last winter, she applied for it and was hired on a temporary basis.
Vicki’s CORE neighbor received this quietly, nodding as she spoke. Worship started and no more was said until it came time for communion. As we were preparing to go forward to receive communion, her neighbor held his worship folder before her and pointed to something in it – it was the notice that healing stations were available throughout the worship space, and that pastors were there who would pray and anoint for healing if any had desire for such. He quietly asked Vicki if she would go with him for that. She quickly said, “Yes.” He leaned over and said “would your partner go too?” Vicki turned to me and repeated his question. I was stunned, and at many levels wanted to say “NO WAY” – but found myself saying “Yes, of course.”
We each went forward to receive communion and I led the way back toward one of the healing stations. Vicki and her neighbor followed. I started to go forward when he quietly said “Can we all three go together to receive?” Tears came to my mind. All of the years of hearing of myself and my reality spoken about in terms of “sin” and “sinner”, “abomination”, and my faith, understanding of self, and very salvation called into question repeatedly by those who were of the same understanding of those who were a part of CORE and every other group similar to them in my own denomination and others, arose from my heart to be presented for healing. Tears flooded my eyes as the three of us – Vicki and I on the outside and her/our neighbor in the middle, locked with arms around one-another went forward to receive the prayer and anointing.
The pastor looked at the three of us standing there as one – and yet three – all bending our heads for the prayer; Vicki with her prayer shawl which denoted one praying for change, our new-found brother-in-Christ with his CORE button on, and me – tears running down my face. The pastor sucked in his breath, centered himself and began to say the prayer printed on the sheet before him. He anointed each of us individually, but I know there was but one anointing that day – each of our hearts bound into one brought together through the love of God and collectively kneeling at the foot of the cross of Christ through the guiding of the Holy Spirit.
I was the last to be anointed – and as I looked up at the pastor I thought I saw tears in his eyes. Maybe it was just those of my own that I saw – but I believe his were there, too.. The three of us walked back toward our seats with our arms around one another. What had happened was mysterious, painful, healing, freeing… a myriad of things were experienced in that one holy moment. None of the three of us was left untouched, nor the same as we were before that service. Truly the Holy Spirit helped to strip each of us in different ways from hurt, and fear, and understandings that had previously been held within each.
Vicki and our new-found brother have talked twice since that service. We hold him in prayer – and he us. What happened that day was powerful and a testament to the power of the love of God who heals, reconciles, and binds us together in spite of our differences. We truly were at the foot of the cross, kneeling, and being knit together in a new way that only our God, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit can do. Thanks be to God.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Welcoming Home for Service Gay and Lesbian People Living in Committeed Same-gender Relationships

Much has been written already on the decision by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in churchwide assembly in Minneapolis in August to open the rostered ministries of the church to gay and lesbian people living in committed same-gender relationships. I rejoice with the acceptance of and decisions relating to the new ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality.

My comments here are on the challenge to the church to welcome home those many, many gay and lesbian people--pastors and those on other rosters--who have had to leave their service in the church because they were forced to chose between such service and living in faithful, loving relationships. Others left before ordination or consecration. Some never entered seminary. This "welcome home" may not be as simple as some might think. There was pain and attempts to heal, to find a place, in other church bodies that did welcome their service. There were/are many who served, fearing for years that their relationships might be discovered. There are those who serve in places in the ELCA that had courage to accept their service even though they were open about their same-gender relationships. And, surely I am not mentioning all of the situations. All of the stories. We must listen to the stories.

I cannot say, "I know how you feel," because I don't, for I am heterosexual. I don't know the pain of that rejection and I don't know the mixture of feelings now that the vote has been passed. I do know that I cannot presume to know or presume that all will return quickly or easily.

I can relate here some of my own history which at least makes the point that words of welcome in resolutions are not all that is needed.

Years ago with my own deaconess community, women who married and had children were told they were no longer a deaconess. "You have now gone on to motherhood..."

Then, through much work, through the opening of eyes, through women gaining some control over their own destiny, the board changed the rules. Now such women were once again a deaconess. A simple resolution. Simple words.

At that time I was attending a class with Dr. Letty Russell at Yale Divinity School. I chose to do research on the women who received these words. What would they say? What would they think? How would they feel. And WHERE were they?

Finding the women was a challenging and incomplete task. But those to whom I wrote responded. Many were thankful. Many had been serving anyway. But I also received some haunting responses: "I don't know what the words mean." Now, of course, they knew what the words meant. They were simply words, "You are a deaconess." But many, including myself, had gotten on with their lives. They had built new identities, new relationships, and were serving in a variety of places, some beyond the Lutheran church.

We were invited back. And we invited more back. And more, and more. Each year at annual conference, a woman or two would come who had not been there for a few...or many...years. That is over thirty-five years ago now. Still, to this day, there will be a woman at annual conference who says, "I haven't been here for a long time, but now I'm back." We have women who are still being rediscovered, sought out, and loved back into community. Others we have not seen, and no doubt never will.
"Welcome home!" Those are good words. Important words. Challenging words...for us all. Resolutions passed. The work of loving acceptance begins.