Post Author: Shannon E. Sullivan
Young Clergywomen International created t-shirts for Pride month to reclaim a message of radical love. Board co-chair Sarah Hooker had no idea what kind of response YCWI would receive. She said, “The fact that we’ve sold around 850 versions of the shirt and continue to sell them, and are getting requests constantly for different word choices to print up next year, speaks so much for the need of the Christian community to have clothing that expresses a loving and inclusive message to the LGBTQIA+ community, but also for our clergy siblings who identify within that community to easily express their existence and calling to religious work.” The simple message of clergy loving all people has had a big impact among clergy and at Pride events this month.
I wore mine at my community’s Pride Festival in Frederick, Maryland. An interfaith pride worship service was held before the festival started, and I found myself rushing down the still-quiet street to get there in time. A car slowed down at a light as I crossed the street. I cringed, waiting for a catcall because of my feminine gender performance or vitriol in reference to the rainbow words on my shirt. Instead, someone called, “Thank you! We love your shirt!” After the service when I was walking with some of the youth from my church down to the festival, people stopped and took pictures with me. A clergyperson who shows up in love and affirmation is still too much of a novelty. Later at the festival, I sat at the table for the local United Methodist Reconciling Community and listened to story after story of experiences of discrimination in church and hopes for the future. They thanked us for being there, for disrupting the narrative of hate that has co-opted the church and showing “a more excellent way.”
Mine is not the only story. My social media newsfeeds are filled with clergy colleagues of all ages and gender expressions wearing shirts from YCWI’s Pride Collection. Here are a few of stories from other young clergywomen when they wore their shirts:
- Leigh Hall was in New York City for World Pride, which turned out to be the largest LGBTQIA+ Pride celebration in history. She explained that she experienced many different positive reactions to her shirt: “One was delayed delighted. As I walked down the street, in the float holding areas, many folks from different groups were sitting high up on their floats waiting to step off into the parade. Most of the floats had DJs or music playing. One person in the group would be looking down, see me, see the collar, read the shirt, and their face would just light up. This happened more than once! But in once case, a young person said, ‘That’s what’s up!’ And motioned to everyone on the float to look at the shirt too….Another reaction was covert amazement. As I was sitting on the Diocese of New York’s float waiting to step off into the parade. I watched as one woman walked by, looked at the float, looked at me, read the shirt, and then elbowed her friend walking with her and whispered, ‘THAT’S the Episcopal Church!’ Her face read ‘wow!’ Finally, there was tearful joy. Once we got into the parade, there were so many people along the side of the road. When they saw the shirt, they would just yell out, ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ And we hugged. Many of them were in tears. I got so many blessings, thank yous, hugs, and ‘you better werks.’ It was an incredible experience. I love the shirt. Right now, the world needs to see us wearing it.”
- Kate Morrison shared that in Salisbury, North Carolina: there were “some vicious trolls who were walking up and down the public streets next to our town’s Pride Festival condemning people to hell and all. I wore my shirt with my collar underneath, yelling out things along the lines of ‘God Loves you! You are a beloved child of God! Happy Pride!’ I was stopped by a number of people asking to have their pictures taken with me and a few people came up to me crying and saying that I was the first pastor who had ever been nice to them, let alone wish them a happy Pride. It was such a beautiful and holy day.”
- Pepa Paniagua was in Dallas, and said, “My favorite moment was a young man who came up to me and asked if he could hug me. He had tears in his eyes and said ‘I didn’t know people like me, people like you, could be pastors, or be fully loved by God. Thank you for being here, you’ve restored my faith.’ And then he asked if he could take a photo to show his friends. I got so many hugs and thank yous that day, and so many people who felt supported just by the words on the shirt.”
And there are even more stories of wearing Pride shirts in everyday life and the holy encounters the shirts facilitated.
- Bonnie McCubbin was still wearing her shirt when she returned home from her church after they decided to become reconciling, or welcoming and affirming of LGBTQIA+ folx. She said, “While walking around my neighborhood after dinner, a woman saw us walking by, jumped in her car, followed us down the hill, all to shout out her window how much the shirt meant to her because she has been hurt by the Church. The shirt gave her hope. We chatted, and then she sent me a message and wants to check us out now. My heart is overflowing. This is the best ministry day in a long, long time.”
- Karen Ware Jackson said, “I wore my pride shirt at summer camp. I heard one of the 6 year old campers calling me ‘this pastor loves you.’ As in, ‘Is ‘this pastor loves you’ going to be at the campfire?’”
- Carrie Combs also wore hers to a local ecumenical youth mission camp. She explained, “I was new to this context and didn’t have a chance to talk to every camper individually, but that day I had three conversations with LGBTQ youth, one of whom had never come out to anyone before but felt safe to do so. This person was surprised clergy of any Christian denomination supported them and hopefully these conversations give them a foundation to build on, as clearly God is important to their life but they hadn’t been hearing any message (either for or against) their sexuality.”
- Sarah McWhirt-Toler wore hers to work and then to the grocery store. She said, “The grocery store is in a well-to-do, conservative suburb of Nashville, Tennessee. An older teenage girl was bagging groceries next to me, and she stopped me as I was leaving, gave me a hug, wiped her eyes and told me she loved my shirt.”
The presence of faith leaders who proclaim God’s belovedness for all people makes a difference. As leaders stand up with rainbow shirts and spend time with people at Pride, we are chipping away at a church tradition that wrongfully denied that we are all of us children of God. Leigh Hall said that right now, the world needs to see us wearing this shirt. And she is right.
But Stonewall, remember, was a riot. My experience is that churches can be good at celebrations and welcome but seem to be less interested in living a radical message of love that includes actually taking care of one another and seeking to repent from the harm the Church has caused. For those of us who wear our Pride shirts, especially those of us who are allies or have significant privilege due to our race, marital status, or gender performance, are we repenting and encouraging our congregations to repent? I am a United Methodist, and many of my colleagues heard critiques from LGBTQIA+ folx about our presence at Pride events. Our denomination caused irreperable harm this year at our Special General Conference in St. Louis when delegates voted to solidify stamping out queer folx and allies from the ranks of clergy and also within the pews. The very words United Methodist can be re-traumatizing for clergy who have already been forced out or for people who grew up in the church applying the hateful language of the Book of Discipline to their own self worth. Churches at Pride must commit to true liberation and justice, not just, like the corporate world, about jumping on the rainbow bandwagon.
As we move out of Pride month and continue through the liturgical season of Ordinary Time, our Pride work continues. Trans women of color continue to be murdered at alarming rates. Are we as a church speaking out against that violence and offering bystander trainings? Are we educating our congregations about pronouns and celebrating transitions? Nondiscrimination laws are absent from much of our nation and many of our denominations. Are we advocating for LGBTQIA+ folx in housing and employment? Pride isn’t all rainbows: Pride is about access to human rights and dignity, it is about justice and love.
May these queer, lesbian, bisexual, trans, gay and ally pastors, priests, and deacons continue to share the message of love to all God’s people daily.
Rev. Shannon E. Sullivan is a life-long feminist and United Methodist currently serving the community of Frederick, Maryland, as the associate pastor of Calvary. She is a proud graduate of Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey.
She married Aaron Harrington, her high school sweetheart, who is a pilot, aerospace engineer, and general aviation geek. They hope to have children soon after a long, heartbreaking journey, but in the meantime they have filled their home with cats, a boxer puppy, and chickens in addition to mountains of books and airplane parts. When they are able, they travel and enjoy the beauty of God's creation – from National Parks to ancient cathedrals and bustling marketplaces.
Image by: Various YCWs
Used with permission