by Rev. Heidi Parunak
A recent article in Huffington Post about a public school district cutting its ties, ending its partnership with a Christian institution because of a request for the legali ability to discriminate against the LGBTQ community leaves me with the ever-growing and unsettling question of how we as Christ followers would even think to discriminate against anyone.
According this to article, this Christian institution sent student volunteers to mentor and tutor students to the city’s school. The public school district ended this partnership when the president of this Christian institution sent a letter to the Obama administration for an exemption from the executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ employees.
There are a few issues that could be tackled within the context of this situation. However, the one that stands out in my mind is the prevailing attitude, especially among those that call themselves Christian, to even take into consideration a person’s sexual orientation when applying for a job. As if their sexual orientation would have any bearing on one’s job performance or their ability to become a team player and make sound business decisions.
I remember as a child growing up in the 1960’s during the height of the civil rights movement, I had these same questions as to how a society, which even then was essentially saturated with more Christians than it is today, would even think of discriminating against someone of color. As with most children until they are taught differently, I never saw color or gender as something to discriminate against.
It wasn’t until I was taught that people of color, people of other ethnicities or of other sexual orientations were "bad," "diseased" or "defective," that I saw others as anything but whom I wanted to get to know and love. I remember the struggle in my own mind and heart with these conflicting teacheings that came from home and pulpit. I never bought into those thoughts because inside I knew that they inherently perverse.
When I was a child, my mother hired a maid who was of African American decent. This woman had been a maid for my grandparents for many years until they deceased. Her name was Elizabeth and we became fast friends even though I had also been taught to “distance myself." The conflict in my little girl’s mind was all that I had been taught from hearth and pulpit. I knew this woman to be one who loved me with a passion as I did her. I never understood why she had to eat in the kitchen while we ate in the dining room. I wanted to eat with her and wanted her to sit next to me with the linens and china.
I had a similar conflict of thought regarding an African American girl I met in Vacation Bible School whose brief friendship I cherished. We played and laughed together and I couldn’t figure out what the real difference was between, us except that her skin was darker than mine and my hair was straighter than hers. I also was waiting for my skin to change color when she rubbed against me as children do in play, because I was told that this would indicate that I had been with “one of those people” and I would be punished for my association with "them." That never seemed to stop me.
My parents left the Methodist Denomination in which I was baptized in the 1960’s and my mother joined a local conservative Baptist church. She said, "those Methodists had become way to liberal and progressive." As a teenager of the 1970’s, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with what I was being taught about loving people in the name of Jesus and how I saw people being treated.
There was an impoverished family who lived in what would be known today as the projects which was located in the back of this church on a main street. The church for many years had tried to help this mother whose children were regular attenders in Sunday school. I was unsettled with the fact that no one wanted to “do life” on a consistent basis with this family to find a way to understand what was keeping them from thriving. It was easier to throw soap and food her way and think that was going to show the love of Jesus. It was a temporary fix at best.
I never will forget the day this woman dared to enter the church house which was accessed from the main street. I was so excited to see her but within seconds was devastated by her treatment. I knew when I saw her she would not be permitted inside the sanctuary as she was wearing pants. As she approached the sanctuary door with great anticipation, a deacon stepped in front of the doors and denied permission to enter. This 16 year girl who had been called rebellious on numerous occasions was challenged with the split second decision to let this go or get into trouble with the pastor and her mother and step to the defense of this woman with the deacon on his actions toward her.
From deep within the words came with great conviction and respect, I challenged him with rhetorical questions of, “What is the real issue? Is it because she is wearing pants? Is it because she smells bad or is it because you know she will not help the church coffers? You should welcome her in like all the others and if she were naked, throw your jacket around her shoulders and escort her proudly to the front of the sanctuary.” The moment passed and I knew that I would be called on the carpet for this.
And I was, the next day when I was called into the pastor’s office. I then took the opportunity to challenge the pastor with his sermons, “to love the less fortunate and those in sin” (as if one has to do with the other and the latter any of our business) and yet when the opportunity came for the church to put their money where their mouth is, they had failed. Of course, being rebellious and a female, I was chastised and ordered to keep my mouth shut until the day I left the church. I did leave the church but I never stopped believing in or loving in a gentle, loving Creator who I knew somehow was not really very happy with the church house and certain leaders calling themselves Christian.
Fast forward to the 1980’s with a new healthcare crisis on the horizon of the HIV/AIDS pandemic when it was known as the “gay dis-ease” or GRID. I had to advocate time and again for quality care, (especially with some health care facilities and some health care professionals who should have known to give quality care without question just by the basic nature of their job and training) because I didn’t see them treating hemophiliacs or children born to HIV+ mothers with the same distain as gay people. Time and time again, I would ask when I thought there might be a teachable moment, “What is the real issue? Is it because you are afraid of the dis-ease? Is it because they are gay men and your perception of how they may or may not have contracted this disease? What is the issue at hand? Maybe I can help you think this through.”
Growing up with the unrest and violence within the civil rights movement fanned an ember inside of me that ALL have an inherent right that above all else to be treated with dignity and respect and LOVE. Being taught in a predominantly white public school system, we crossed our hands over our hearts and said the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America every morning ye I also knew in my heart that those words did not ring true. With the unrest of that day with the civil rights movement and today in 2014, those words continue to ring hollow within the context of the rights and freedom for those who are LGBTQ.
I see a polarization happening in America. I see the effects of it in my ministry working with a hospital chaplain’s office when I visit some patients, who at the moment they realize what office I come from immediately don’t want anything to do with me. I have to be aware of the fact that sometime in their life, someone who has called themselves Christian has come with hate and judgment. They assume I too will do the same. Most of the time, it doesn’t take long to let them know that I am there in peace and love to serve them right where they are, in the context of who they are, what they might or might not believe as they have need. It is amazing the reaction when they realize I am there to listen and to love them and the conversations that then take place. They have the freedom to talk about their thoughts and fears without judgment or condemnation. That’s it. That is all it takes. Love someone with God’s love and God will take care of the rest if indeed something needs to take place. It is so simple, yet so profound.
Today, I am still eager to help, especially those that call themselves Christian. When there is a teachable moment and a dialogue is put on the table, I ask, “What is the real issue?” We have more in common with each other than we realize. And the end of the day, at the end of a life, nothing really matters but that we serve and love each other as if we are serving and loving Jesus himself. We can spend our whole lifetime arguing about what is right and what is wrong, who is in sin and who is not, and in the midst of this theological conundrum fail to give a cup of water to someone in the name of Jesus to those in need and then turn around and realize we were partly responsible for them dying of thirst.
Reverend Parunak is a Ordained Licensed Minister who currently serves as a team member of a Pastoral Care Department in a prominent hospital in Knoxville, TN. She is also a spiritual caregiver as a Hospice Companion in Knoxville. Heidi is a Certified Raiki Master and Practitioner. Her experience with AIDS Response Knoxville as a Caregiver and Administrative Assistant led her to her current calling. Reverend Parunak’s vast experience includes education and training in Stephen Ministry; HIV positive Advocacy; thirty years in Christian Community Service; and study in : Sociology, and World Religions Curriculum.