“CBF & My own quest for illumination, 1998-2018” by Rev. Amelia Fulbright

Read this sermon from the Rev. Amelia Fulbright, Labyrinth Campus Minister, preached at Labyrinth on February 11, 2018.

My Baptist pedigree is strong. I am the daughter of former Southern Baptist missionaries, who were commissioned by the old Foreign Mission Board. After we came home to the States, my father served two Baptist associations in NC as a Director of Missions before he retired. My mother is a former Executive Director of NC Woman’s Missionary Union and continues to speak and consult with Baptist churches and organizations across the US and around the globe. I grew in Baptist congregations. I cut my teeth on Baptist bible drill, which in large part accounts for my knowledge of scripture. I attended Wake Forest University (a formerly Baptist school) on a Baptist scholarship. I was the Wake Forest Baptist Student Union president from 1998-1999. And I was also a member of the clandestine Baptist group, PUB (Phat Unique Baptists), whose motto was “beer, shit, gay”—a challenge to what we perceived as the puritanical prohibitions of our faith.

In the fall of 1998, my junior year at Wake Forest, a union ceremony for a lesbian couple was conducted by the pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church in Wait Chapel, on the campus. In the upheaval that followed, Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist congregation (of “God hates f@%s” fame), planned to stage a demonstration on the edge of campus. The BSU, which happened to be one of the most progressive Christian groups on campus, joined with other student groups to organize a Vigil for Peace, which would hopefully signal to queer students on campus that they Belonged to our community, and no off-campus hate group could make it any other way.

Now here is where it’s of the utmost importance that I confess I have not always affirmed that it’s okay to be gay, or bisexual, or transgender. I claim no moral superiority or personal sense of accomplishment in this. It is only because I had the good fortune of meeting and learning from gay Christians and allies that I am free to take the affirming stance I do today. But as they say, “Once you know better, you can do better.”

In 2000, the year I graduated from college, CBF adopted its first hiring policy which prohibited the employment of “practicing homosexuals” in the national office and as field personnel. Although I was unaware of this exact policy, my friends and I had an awareness that CBF was not a safe environment for LGBTQ+ people. At best it was, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Knowing this, and being one who learns best by trial and error, I set out to explore other denominational frontiers.

But twice I have made a valiant effort to re-join the Fellowship family. Sometime in 2006, after spending time in both Methodist and Presbyterian churches, I joined FBC Austin. Being a member there made me feel like I could be a Baptist again. And under the leadership of Roger Paynter, my call was affirmed, and I was ordained in 2007 upon my graduation from Austin Presbyterian Seminary. I even worked briefly as an intern for Suzii Paynter at the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t the greatest intern, but I was grateful for the experience.

In 2008, I was hired at University Baptist Church, Austin. UBC and I had at least two things in common: 1) Fred Phelps had threatened to picket them, too. 2) And they, too, had left the CBF because it was not a hospitable environment for LGBTQ+-affirming congregations. UBC had become a fully-inclusive church in the early nineties—long before the broader culture had changed or it was en vogue.

In 2014, after I left the staff of UBC to help found Labyrinth Progressive Student Ministry, I re-joined FBC, which by that time had become an open and affirming congregation. This is when I found out about the discriminatory hiring policy at the national level of CBF. It distressed me deeply to learn of it, but I thought, “Maybe I can recommit myself to CBF and be a voice for change.”

In the summer of 2016, I wrote an open letter to CBF that I posted on Facebook, urging the Fellowship to reconsider its hiring policy and recognize the decades of damage it had done to the LGBTQ+ community. I joined a chorus of other voices in this plea, and this was around the same time that the Illumination Project began its work to reevaluate the Fellowship’s hiring practices.

A few months later, my disillusionment doubled after I participated in a conference call with a member of the CBF national staff and several other LGBTQ+ advocates. On the call, the damaging effects of the hiring policy were minimized and we were admonished to say more positive things about the Fellowship, because people were being too “negative.” These comments may have been well-intentioned, but they felt like silencing.

So it was with this experience in mind, combined with several other factors, that I began to consider moving my ordination to the United Church of Christ. In May of 2017, I became a member of the Congregational Church of Austin, an unapologetically inclusive and justice-focused body of believers. They are not my faith family of origin, but they are my tribe.

So here we are in 2018.

I keep hearing apologists for the new hiring policy, and its corresponding discriminatory implementation plan, say that these documents represent the best of what the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship stands for—the autonomy of local churches combined with the willingness to do ministry with those whose beliefs differ from your own. They say that it reflects their “big tent” policy, which makes room for individuals and churches with a wide range of theological commitments. They say that these new procedures will preserve the unity of the Fellowship by striking a compromise between two extremes. But the best I can tell, the unity has long been fractured; it is an illusion that the Fellowship is still intact.

Part of what grieves me is that the Fellowship either hasn’t noticed the loss of many in my generation, Gen X and people on the cusp between X and the Snake People, or it really doesn’t care. But to be sure, the Fellowship’s choice to embrace large, wealthy, homophobic congregations over against the full affirmation of LGBTQ+ Baptists may have preserved some relationships, but it has severed so many others. Many of the Baptists I knew well in college are no longer Baptists; they have either given up on church completely or have moved on to other denominations, at least in part because of discriminatory policies like these. A lot of us have left without saying a proper goodbye, I admit, but there is a particular kind of sadness that remains when one must leave their spiritual family of origin for their own health and salvation, and no one in the family seems to notice.

Over and over I have tried to articulate to my fellow Baptists what is at stake with these policies that exclude. In the spring of 2015, a young man attended a few services at Labyrinth, the student church I lead. He and I were trying to set up a time to meet, but before we had a chance to sit and talk, he took his own life. I can’t say for sure, but I am almost positive he wanted to tell me that he was gay. I have had so many conversations like this before, with students who come to college weighed down by shame and trapped inside fear. So many of them come from churches that told them, in one way or another, that they are an abomination.

When I remember the sadness in Ben’s eyes, a young man I only knew for a few weeks before he ended his life, the sense of urgency stands in stark relief to the Fellowship’s stubborn commitment to gradual institutional change as the guiding Christian ethic. It always startles me when I share a story like Ben’s with a CBF leader or sister or brother, and the look of recognition never becomes illuminated in their eyes. To know that inclusion is frequently a matter of life and death, and yet respond with appeals to patience and Christian unity, this to me is the abomination. Gradualism is the kind of progress that leaves bodies in its wake.

The truth is I barely have one leg in the Fellowship these days, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my words carry less weight than those of CBF folk who have been fully invested in the denomination. I agree that one has to earn her right to criticize. But here’s the thing: Whether you like it or not, I belong to you. I am your daughter. We might be estranged, but I belong to you.

That’s the revelation I’ve come to this week. The recommendation from my personal Illumination Project is this: I Belong. No manner of years or distance can make you any less my family. Even if I chart my next course with a new denomination, you will always be my spiritual family of origin. Whether you and I like it or not.

In her latest book, Brene Brown makes the compelling argument that belonging is not what’s possible between people, when they do this or that and establish all the right conditions. Belonging is what’s true between us. Most of life, then, is about removing whatever barriers and plans and policies that prevent us from realizing and experiencing this capital “T” Truth.

I had hoped that the CBF’s Illumination Project would remove more barriers. It always seems absurd to me when religious bodies start drawing lines of exclusion, while proclaiming the all-inclusive love of Christ. It would be positively laughable, if the consequences weren’t so grave.

But here’s the thing CBF Fam, I won’t let you leave me out. I may have gone from golden child to black sheep. In fact, I’m almost positive that some of you find me too angry or immoderate for your lineage. But I am one of you. I AM you.

I am the CBF that is way more worried about exporting homophobic American Christianity around the globe than I am about offending the sensibilities of anti-LGBTQ global partners.

I am the CBF that believes justice is a higher calling than autonomy.

I am the CBF that finds Jesus in the margins, not the mainstream.

I am the CBF that believes Jesus is the Way, but not the only way. Isn’t that true soul freedom?

I am the CBF that has been learning to be a straight ally for about 2 decades now, and though I practice it imperfectly, my faith has never been more queer.

As a Third Culture Kid, belonging has always been elusive to me. TCK’s get used to never being on the inside, at least not fully. We feel at home on the edges of cultures and communities because that’s where our identities are shaped. Living in that liminal space offers unique perspectives and experiences. But let me tell you, friends, it also gets lonely.

I wonder if that’s how LGBTQ+ Baptists feel this weekend, partly in and partly out? Partially-loved and partially-abandoned. One foot at home and one in exile.

CBF, there is nothing you can throw at us that will change the nature of our belonging, but your discriminatory plans will reverberate far beyond the confines of your denomination. They exist in the larger context of global LGBTQ+ discrimination, and despite your best efforts, they will isolate and dehumanize people you may never meet. We do belong to each other in this way, too.

“11 So we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord. We are well known by God, and I hope that in your heart we are well known by you as well. 12 We aren’t trying to commend ourselves to you again. Instead, we are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us so that you could answer those who take pride in superficial appearance, and not in what is in the heart.” (2 Corinthians 5:11-12, CEB)

CBF, we aren’t trying to commend ourselves to you AGAIN; we are giving you an opportunity to be PROUD of us…because we are well known by God.


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