By Danny Ballon MTS II
Expanding the Boundaries of Christian Inclusivity
On the weekend of September 27, 2015, the Memorial Church at Harvard was blessed to host the illustrious Rev. Dr. Yvette A. Flunder, Founder and Senior Pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland, California, and Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. Bishop Flunder is a dynamic preacher and captivating storyteller — as anyone who listened to her Sunday morning sermon can attest to. But I would like to spend some time reflecting on the significance of her presence at Harvard — the presence of a queer, black, female, Pentecostal preacher — and on the work of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. In order to do so effectively, it might be helpful for me to take a step back and explain how I came upon this topic to begin with, and how it relates to my personal journey and my work at the Memorial Church.
Like Bishop Flunder, I was raised in a devoutly Pentecostal home. My father has been a pastor all of my life, and I became involved in my own ministry at a very young age: At seventeen I was a choir director and a worship leader; at nineteen I dropped out of college, left my hometown of San Diego, and moved to Los Angeles to plant a church. At nineteen I was also ordained in my denomination. My trajectory clearly had me on track for a lifelong career in ministry — until I came out as gay shortly after graduating college. Like too many other LGBTQ individuals who grew up in similar contexts, I was pushed out of my church and my ministry, and ostracized by most of my family and friends. Seeking a new direction for my life, I decided to pursue a career in law, vowing to equip myself with the skills and means to spend my life standing up against injustice and speaking out for those without a voice.
Fast forward several years: After a time of personal crisis led me to reconnect with my faith and to want to explore a call to ministry again, I came to Harvard Divinity School (HDS) seeking answers, for a way to reconcile my faith and my sexual identity. It was here that I first encountered Bishop Flunder and The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries while conducting research for a class I was taking with Professor Jonathan L. Walton on the rise of global Pentecostalism. I was fascinated by the growing number of self-identified LGBTQ Pentecostals and Evangelicals, and spent much of my first year at HDS researching and writing about this religious phenomenon. It was during the course of this research that I came to realize that, like me, thousands of LGBTQ Christians all over the United States (and the world) are finding creative ways to reinterpret their religious traditions and to carve out a place for themselves even within the most conservative expressions of Christianity. In the process, these individuals are redefining what it means to be queer, and what it means to be Christian.
Bishop Flunder is a pioneer and a leading voice in the Open and Affirming Movement — the movement of LGBTQ Christians and allies fighting to redefine Christianity to be more inclusive of LGBTQ individuals. For more than 25 years, Bishop Flunder and City of Refuge have been engaged in the work of providing a spiritual haven for LGBTQ individuals and for those who have historically been marginalized by religion. She has been especially dedicated to serving the spiritual needs of the transgender community — including founding the award-winning Transcendence Gospel Choir — and at serving the needs of those living in the Bay Area with HIV/AIDS.
Meanwhile, the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries has allowed Bishop Flunder to collaborate with faith leaders all over the world to take this transformative spiritual work and expand it to a global scale. With over 60 member churches and approximately 40 affiliates, The Fellowship is one of the largest coalitions of LGBT-affirming churches in the world (and the largest in the African American community), with deep roots in the Baptist, Pentecostal, and Methodist traditions—something relatively unheard of in decades past. Just as impressive, The Fellowship’s global justice ministry, The Fellowship Global has, in recent years, begun supporting the work of LGBTQ-affirming Pentecostal churches and clergy in member churches in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Cote d’Ivoire —“in the belly of the beast,” as Bishop Flunder would say—where LGBTQ individuals face alarming levels of persecution and increasing criminalization.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Bishop Flunder during her weekend stay at Harvard. She and I spoke on a panel about religion and LGBTQ equality at a conference hosted by the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus on September 26, 2015, at Harvard’s Northwest Building.
I was struck by the number of people who approached Bishop Flunder after our panel — and also after her sermon at Memorial Church the following day — that not only thanked her for her presence, but also felt compelled to embrace her and to share their stories of how they had once been hurt by religion too, and how they had overcome to find a place of peace again.
As I observed these interactions, I realized that my story isn’t just my story anymore—it’s our story, the story of a community that has historically been marginalized, vilified, and politicized by organized religion, by the very people we entrusted for spiritual guidance and compassion in our moments of confusion and despair — and for some of us, there were many. The specific details might vary from person to person, but countless people around the globe — and within our own communities — have experienced something similar, and often with far worse consequences than I have experienced. (In retrospect, I was one of the “lucky” ones.)
It made me think about how I can make the religious space I inhabit, the Memorial Church, more welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ individuals—radically inclusive. At the Faith & Life Forum, Bishop Flunder noted how often when churches commit to “outreach” efforts, they mainly reach out to those who are already at the center. But, she explained, when we do what Jesus did, when we intentionally go all the way out to the edge of the margin, we end up pulling in all those at the center and everyone in between.
I began to wonder where the edge of the margin in our community is, and I have a few suggestions: the first is the transgender community and the second is the growing population of LGBTQ homeless youth. Transgender women — particularly women of color — experience a deplorable rate of violence and hate crimes; many are forced into sex work because of rampant employment discrimination; and countless others face discrimination in many other areas of life, including medical care, housing, social services, and the criminal justice system, to name a few. This contributes to the shockingly high rate of suicide attempts among the trans community — 41 percent, compared to 4.6 percent in the general population. Meanwhile, according to the Williams Institute, 40% of homeless youth serviced by social service agencies identify as LGBTQ, a phenomenon largely driven by youth who are forced to run away or who are thrown out of their homes because of their family’s prejudice against LGBT individuals — a view largely driven by religious prejudice.
These statistics are simply unacceptable, and those of us who claim to be the physical representation of Christ’s love and presence here on Earth should be alarmed. We must act swiftly, and we must act powerfully to counteract the suffering unleashed on LGBTQ individuals by others in our tradition over the last several hundred years. We must speak out against these injustices, just as Jesus spoke out against the Pharisees and the religious hegemony two thousand years ago. We must take responsibility for the pain and suffering some in The Church have caused, and act on behalf of those who The Church has marginalized and oppressed. Anything else would be unlike Christ.
Danny Ballon is a second-year MTS candidate at Harvard Divinity School.
About Seminarian Voices
Seminarian Voices is a platform for our seminarians and interns to express their experiences, views, and perspectives on their journey through Divinity school and beyond. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by the Memorial Church.