Letting our voices be heard

Lecture held by Rev. Hilde Raastad at the “Faith and Homosexuality” conference during Europride 2011 in Rome

The first time I kissed a woman, I felt it deep inside and all the way down into my toes.
The first time I danced with a woman I felt the rhythm in my body and wanted to sing, to keep dancing, to just hold this woman close to me and never letting go.
The first time I fell in love with a woman I discovered what all the love songs was really about.

When I let myself love another woman I discover not only the wholeness inside myself but how love spreads its intensity, its tenderness, its passion and its healing through me. My fear is sometimes still there and my loneliness. My pain doesn’t always go away, nor do my self hatred. But I know I am on the road towards wholeness and healing. I discover how God’s love comes in so many different ways, with so many different faces. To discover that I am able to love, deeply and wholeheartedly, makes it possible for me to also trust more in God’s love and I can let myself be submerged in the empowering, passionate and gentle love that God have for all of God’s children.

We are many LGBTs that have experienced how being able to love, and to accept this love, but even more than that, embrace this love, makes us whole. To get to the place where we confidently are able to say: “Yes, I am a lesbian”, “Yes, I am gay”, “Yes, I am transgender or gender queer”. Yes, I am this person, and I am not afraid of this, I am not running away from myself, I don’t hate myself. I love myself, I am loved, I am able to love and I dare to love. We reclaim ourselves. And when we travel this journey towards self acceptance, when we question ourselves, our gender identity, our sexual identity, we are beginning our journey towards becoming who we have always been, and towards who we want to become. This is, I believe, is the journey God calls us to travel. And located in this experience, as well as in all our other experiences as human beings, we can talk, and we will talk, about faith.

I am a lesbian and I am also a Christian. And I believe that my ability to love, my ability to find passion in the arms of another woman, is God’s gift to me. I also believe that when we experience this magic of falling in love, when we touch the naked skin of our partner, when we see passion in the eyes of someone we like a lot, when we lose ourselves in embracing the other, this is the gift of God. There has never been much of a doubt that love is the gift of God. What is different now is that lesbians and gays, bisexuals and transgender people also claim this love for themselves. God’s love cannot be limited, God’s love cannot be given only to the few, God’s love reaches to the ends of the earth, beyond the limits of human understanding, God’s love crosses every border, it is radically is present where the churches refuse to believe that God’s love can be found, like it is found in our lives, in our hearts, our bodies and our sexualities, as LGBT children of God.

The churches have a long history of condemning and oppressing those who are different and of using the Bible to destroy lives. The churches have a long history of limiting God’s love, carefully wrapping it up in pretty paper and giving it to the few select ones, the pious ones, who live within the formal rules, who are able and willing to live within the traditional limits of what the churches accept. Breaking out of this traditional framework can be both scary and painful. A lot of us know that because we have done it, we are in the process of doing it or we dream of doing it. Very few of us will say that it was easy, pure fun and “I would really really love to do this again”! But we will do it, we are doing it and we have done it. In a book Let Our Voices be Heard, a book which is a collection of stories, lesbians from all over Europe tell of their self-acceptance, of coming out, of finding love, of breaking up, of figuring out this mystery of how to live as lesbian women of faith. They tell of happiness and passion and of pain and fear and loneliness. They tell about being thrown out of churches and families, but they also about the joy of being a mother, of getting married, of for the first time making love with another woman. And they tell their stories of faith, of believing and not believing, of feeling God is close or very far away, and of finding God’s love in the pages of the Bible or of reading only about judgment and hate. Let Our Voices be Heard is a collection of stories of lesbian Christians in Europe. But it is also a prayer, a challenge and a gift from all LGBTs to the Christian churches of the world: Let our voices be heard! Listen to our stories! And it is a challenge to each of us: Let us keep telling our stories! Because no matter how many theological discussions we have, no matter how clever we are at interpreting biblical texts, my experience is that the one thing that moves people and churches, and makes people’s attitudes change, it is the stories we share about our lives, our love and our faith.

A lesbian woman told me: “I am afraid of opening the Bible, I am afraid of reading those things in the Bible that condemns me, I am afraid that God hates me!” And so she left the church. She is not alone. Many of us have left the church. Even more of have wanted to leave the church. Some of us wish we HAD left the church. Some of us stay and live as best we can with our pain. Some of us stay in the church and feel that it is good to be there. But I sometimes wonder if Jesus would enjoy being in the church. The Jesus of the Bible might not have fitted in very well. He might not have felt accepted. Sometimes I even wonder if Jesus would have been included at all. Or might he too have heard the infamous words: “You can be here, but you have to change, you can’t be here and live like you do..we can find nothing in the Bible to support the way you live!” Would the churches have silenced the voice of Jesus if he had been active in the churches of today? Like the churches have silenced so many voices through history? The silent voices in the church sometimes can be heard even through the silence, being heard as voices of pain and isolation, as voices of protest and anger, as voices of a different love and a new justice. Our voices as LGBTs are among those voices.

There have certainly not been many women speaking in the church through history. There have been even fewer lesbian voices. The churches effectively silenced the voices that spoke of a different experience, voices that reflected new and radical ways of reading the Bible and new and daring ways of speaking of faith. Our voices were among those silenced. Our voices were not being heard. Our experience was not listened to. Our words about love were seen as dirty and sinful, our words about faith as perverse and blasphemy. Now things are changing and we are letting our voices be heard, inside the churches and outside, In the midst of communities of faith, in the streets, in Parliaments, in the media, in bars and cafes and among families and friends. Lesbians are slowly finding their voices. Transgender people dare to speak. Gays speak. Bisexuals speak. God’s children on the margins, God’s children the outcasts, are speaking. And when we speak, God herself is speaking.

This weekend during Europride in Rome it is also Pentecost in the Christian churches. Sunday is the day when the churches celebrate that God poured out Her Spirit over all people, so that all people could hear about God’s love in their own language and in their own tongue. The disciples on that first Pentecost spoke, according to the Bible, about faith and love in a way that each person could understand and relate to their own experiences. Their voices became the voice of God, spoken so that all could hear and all were being heard. This week in Rome different voices are spoken, new voices speak of what has long been silenced. We speak about love and faith from the experience of being queer, of being lesbian, transgender, bisexual and gay and all the other varieties of how to be human.

So on this weekend of Pentecost, in Rome, during Europride, I speak from the experience of being a lesbian, and my voice is one of many marginalized voices of the world, when I dare to speak about who God is and what faith is.

God comes to us first of all and shows us what love is. Love is selflessly giving one’s life for others as Jesus did and in that God’s love is unconditional and without limits. But it is also passionate and gentle, vulnerable and empowering, playful and stronger than life itself. This love is given to us, and God challenges us and calls us to embody this love in our own lives and live it as best as we can. This love is our ability to love ourselves as we are, it is the tender love parents has for their children, the friendships we share, the compassion we give, the passionate embrace of two lovers, it is the deep relationship between a person or a community and their God. As Christian LGBTs we have had to fight for be right to be part of God’s love against church rules and religious ethics. And I think God has fought and is fighting with us, so that we can embrace God’s gift, our sexuality, our passion, our compassion and our ability to relate to the people around us. A lesbian theologian calls this presence of God the erotic power of love, which is the core of our being which makes us able to live out God’s radical love in our lives. Erotic power might be a strange expression to use in the context of faith. But I think of our erotic power as that love deep inside that makes us love someone or something so bad we almost want to cry, that makes us feel such passion that we almost melt inside and such anger against injustice that we want to fight almost until death to change the world. And at the same time this erotic power is gentle. It makes me stroke the cheek of an old man, kiss away the tears of a child, hold my lover’s hand, make a meal for friends and hug myself in joy that God loves me. This erotic, radical, passionate and gentle love is how God’s love is for me.

And from this radical love comes a thirst as well. From this love comes the protest against injustice and the thirst for justice and healing for what is broken and has been hurt. In a world filled with suffering, violence and oppression I believe that God cries and hurts and fights and tries to heal in order to make the world whole. Queer people, LGBTs, know a lot about this violence and oppression. Across the world LGBTs are beaten and killed, condemned and isolated and discriminated against. The churches and other religious institutions have contributed to, and are still contributing to, this violence against LGBTs. Whenever a lesbian is raped, whenever a transsexual is beaten, whenever a young gay man commits suicide because of abuse, God herself is raped and beaten and abused. Jesus says in the Bible that “whatever you do against any of these, you do against me”. So whenever LGBTs are violated, God is violated. Whenever the churches condemn someone lesbian or gay, God is condemned. Whenever the church silences an LGBT voice, God’s voice is silenced. Wherever and whenever LGBTs are denied the right to love, God’s love is violated. Whenever LGBTs are denied to live safely, God’s safety is violated. God is justice, and calls us to be part of God’s struggle for justice. Wherever and whenever people are abused and violated, beaten and hated, we are called to be radically present and be God’s voice of justice and love. Many of us try to be that voice, in Parliaments and churches, in the streets and at work, among friends and in the midst of strangers. Even more of us hold back, scared maybe, or just trying to live safely and comfortable and close our eyes and ears against injustice that doesn’t touch our own lives. God calls us out of this safe haven, challenging us to be God’s voice and God’s love in the world. Tomorrow it will be Europride march through Rome and we will fill the streets with our thirst for justice, for equality, for the right to be who we are, to love and live and be safe, for ourselves and for all those who are not at Pride, who are isolated, scared and in despair. We will walk past the Coliseum and remember those who were killed there for being different and because they were considered unacceptable. For those in the past, for our brothers and sisters of today, and for the many LGBTs of tomorrow we will be walking in Pride.

But Pride is not only a fight for justice; it is also a celebration of LGBT life in all its diversity. I don’t think I have participated in anything more colorful and creative, more life giving and intense, more passionate and playful and daring than Pride parades. I have seldom felt more joy, more “in-your-face” or more outrageousness. But I have also experienced the deep pain, anger and fear of Pride and the cost many pay to participate in Pride across the world might pay. A lesbian friend who grew up as a young dyke in Texas in the 80s gave me my first image of a Pride parade. She told about the rainbow flags, the banners, the butches and the dykes and the queens and fags, the dress-up and the carnival, the celebration, the passion and the daring. And she said: “It was even more powerful because the week before, in the exact same streets as Pride, there was another parade. The week before Pride the Klan walked our route. A week before we danced and filled the streets with color, the Ku Klux Clan marched in white masks, filling the streets with fear and hate”! God calls us to celebrate life, embrace the beauty of who we are. God calls us to sing and dance and make love and do justice, as God herself does. God calls us to hurt with those who hurt, fight with those who fights, stand together with those who are afraid and to walk with God in Pride.

Many of us dream of being welcomed into the church. We hope that one day the churches will not discriminate, but be wide open. It might happen, it might not. And we have to live with that uncertainty for a while yet. It might hurt us. It IS hurting and it will continue to hurt. But it will also hurt the churches, for three reasons. First because by excluding and abusing LGBTs of faith they are hurting and violating some of God’s most vulnerable and most valuable children. And that is a sin. Secondly, because they silence so many creative, passionate and daring voices of faith, and that makes the churches poorer and less spirit filled communities. And finally, because whenever a religious person or a church exclude or abuse or condemn LGBT people they exclude abuse and violate God herself. And that might mean they might lose God! Christian churches with no God…how would that be? WE might know, we have sometimes felt just that; that some churches have lost God and God’s love along the way!

Soul, move forward!That is theme for this conference. We might say that to each other, but God is also saying that to us: Move forward into the light, move forward into life, move forward into passion and daring, move forward in faith, move forward with justice. And let your voices be heard: Queer voices, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and gay voices (even your straight voices), all speaking about love and passion, pride and solidarity, celebration and justice, all in our own languages and tongues. Walking in Pride tomorrow I will think; this is a new Pentecost, we are recreating the story of that first time when God’s spirit was present. And in that we are also reinterpreting the biblical story of Pentecost, not only as biblical reinterpretation but in lived experience.

So, tomorrow and moving forward into the future: Let’s dream and dance and sing and pray and love. Because in the churches and in the streets, across oceans and mountains, whispered in the dark and shouted in the day time…We ARE letting our daring and passionate voices be heard and in that, God’s love is being seen and heard and experienced and we are part of making the world become new!!

And daring as it is, I think that through my words, as through so many other voices, you can hear the voice of God. For me there are three important aspects of my experience as a lesbian Christian that are essential. It is the ability to love and be in relationship, it is the struggle for justice and finally, it is the celebration of life. You might wonder if these have anything to do with faith. Everything! At least for me. They have everything to do with faith, they have everything do to with God. Because they all reflect for me who and how God is.

That first kiss showed me what passion means. And I keep discovering the deep and inner source of passion inside myself, this erotic power that makes me reach out, that keeps my heart open to the need of others, to the healing power of holding around another person and to the joy of making love. The erotic power makes me passionate,

I discovered the erotic power deep inside me, the erotic power that makes me feel passion and tenderness, that makes me reach out and relate to people in open and new ways, the erotic power that challenge me to see the injustice, the pain and the inhumanness in so many faces.