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rainbow flag blowing in the wind

Speaking For Me

rainbow flag blowing in the wind“The issue.” That’s how we are often talked about by conservatives and progressives alike. To those who would like to purge The United Methodist Church of all of us queer folks, we are discussed not as real people in the church but as “the issue of homosexuality.” Then there are allies who are quick to point out that human sexuality is just the “presenting issue” as our denomination grapples with how we understand scripture, where the locus of power should rest, and the complex realities of a global church. While there is truth in that argument, that truth fails to dull the sting of dehumanization. Either way we are talked about as if we weren’t right here.

The United Methodist Church has been fighting about LGBTQIA+ inclusion/exclusion since 1972 when language was inserted into our book of polity that declared homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching and then in 1984 that barred “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being clergy. This antiquated language enacts not just exclusion but also erasure as those of us who identify as BTQIA+ but not as homosexual are left unclear whether we are even being talked about to begin with. I have heard allies defend themselves for only speaking out for gay and lesbian rights because our book of discipline only discriminates against homosexuality. And yet, United Methodist polity has reduced identity to action—sexual orientation to sex acts. Being bisexual will not protect me from charges filed if I decide to marry a woman nor will it protect me from the much more complete purge the so-called traditionalists would like to enact.

And now, as our denomination gathers for a special called General Conference (Feb 23-26) in St. Louis to vote on a way forward for our denomination, the “issue” will be fought over as though it were just the future of our denomination and not real lives that are at stake. Our lives. My life. In the fall of 2018, I made the complicated decision as a young United Methodist clergywoman to come out as bisexual. I began claiming my own queer voice just as my beloved denomination has disintegrated into a shouting match—speaking sometimes against, sometimes for, but always over me. Rarely with me.

When I was deciding how, when and if I would come out to my congregation, a queer friend and mentor asked me to consider if I wanted to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights “as an ally” or if I wanted to fight for our rights as a queer woman. I looked at her funny. I know who I am. I can’t do anything as anyone other than who I already am. “That’s your answer,” she told me matter-of-factly.  Read more

Lisa Lopez head shot - smiling

Why We Need More than a Framework of Rights in the Struggle for Justice

Lisa Lopez smiling, sitting at a table in a restaurant, with a menu in front of her

The author: The struggle for recovery after Hurricane Maria has eroded my confidence in using the framework of human rights for continued justice work.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated my home island of Puerto Rico. In less than 24 hours, over 3 million people lost access to running water, electricity and telecommunications. Hundreds of families became homeless; hundreds more lost the assets that provided for their employment. Healthcare services became severely limited, and the educational system was thrust into crisis. Unable to hear the voices of loved ones immediately following the hurricane, many Puertorricans living in the continental United States began to organize for recovery, knowing that the island would need all the help it could get. What I didn’t know then was how the experience of the struggle for recovery would erode my confidence in using the framework of human rights for continued justice work.

Most of us diaspora Puertorricans organized out of a sense of responsibility towards all residents of our beloved island, but we called others to labor with us out of the conviction that we were fighting for the human right of all Puertorricans to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being. We felt compelled to call others in the United States to action because Puertorricans have been United States citizens by birthright since 1917.

Yet it didn’t matter how eloquently we implored others to recognize the people’s fundamental human right to a standard of wellbeing; many agreed with the idea of the human right, but not with the call to responsibility for that right. It also didn’t matter how insistently we asked our government and neighbors to treat residents of the island with the same respect and care our country bestowed upon victims of Harvey and Irma just a few weeks earlier. The appeal to citizen’s rights also fell on deaf ears.

“We have spent enough,” I heard, while people began to die from lack of access to treatment that could have been provided with the power grid in better shape. “They can’t expect help forever,” I heard, when it had barely been a few weeks since the disaster hit and millions were still without running water. Most interesting was how often the plight of suffering Puertorricans was dismissed by appeals to fairness that sounded more like excuses for inaction.

I heard many argue that the financial response of government and citizens had to be balanced with the concerns of the rest of the nation, yet made no effort to explain what they understood those concerns to be. Others, naming victims of subsequent disasters as reasons why aid to Puerto Rico should be limited, seem uninterested in considering scenarios where full recovery for all those affected might be possible. Still others in communities like the one I serve, where people contend with different levels of poverty as a daily reality they can’t escape, found it difficult to join in the recovery efforts for Puertorricans when it meant fighting for access to services they do not always enjoy themselves.

It became exceedingly clear to me that though the call for the defense of human rights often takes center stage in contemporary struggles for social justice, it is dreadfully insufficient for the kind of enterprise we need to undertake if we are to protect the life and dignity of every human being. To speak of justice on the basis of human rights is to speak of justice on the grounds of what people deserve, and we have never been skilled at recognizing the good for another without thinking about our own good first. Read more

The Daughters of Zelophehad

Daughters of Zelophehad Image

The question often comes amid long car rides, or youth trips, or awkward social mixers: “If you could have a conversation with anyone in dead or alive, who would it be?” I always answer with “One of the daughters of Zelophehad” and the predictable follow up question is “Who?” I answer in that way because it allows me to tell this story from Numbers 27 and 36: A man named Zelophehad dies, and his five daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, are left with no right to inherit their father’s land because they are women. They go to Moses and plead their case saying, “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son?” Then the sisters make a demand: “Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” Moses hears their request and takes it to God. God sides with the daughters. Later their decision is appealed and amended to restrict whom they can marry, but it is ultimately upheld.

When I happened upon this story a few years ago, it felt like something that was uniquely mine. Not only did I find it on my own, divorced from the often ugly and arduous sermon writing process, but I found it at a time when I was unsure of my place in the male-dominated world of pastoring. This story is about women standing up, asking for something that rightfully belongs to them, and receiving it. For me, it didn’t take fancy hermeneutics, word studies, or a preaching angle to be inspired, just a straightforward story about brave women who took a stand.

I’m a female solo pastor, not yet 35, and much of my congregation has daughters my age. And so when I (young, female, never-done-this-before Traci) take risks and chart new paths,  it’s easy to feel self-conscious and alone. Who will understand what it’s like to be me? When I feel like I’m going against culture or standing up for something that should be mine already, Malah, Holgah, Noah, Milcah and Tirzah are there in the background, whispering in my ear “We understand. We did it, too.”  They remind me that the need for women to stand up and ask for what is rightfully theirs is not new.  Women have been fighting this fight for hundreds upon thousands of years.

Though the sisters are long gone, their story is very real to me. If we had the chance to have that conversation, I know just what I’d ask them, and maybe the mystery of resurrection will allow that one day.

In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for face to face conversations with other trailblazing women.

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters is so moving precisely because the daughters aren’t lumped together, but rather given names: Noah, Holgah, Milcah, Tirzah and Malah. In that spirit I’m moved to mention other women by name (or, for confidentiality, by initial) who are also there when I need a role model. These women, like my favorite biblical sisters, aren’t my peers. They blazed these trails long ago. I think of Ms. B,  a member of my congregation and a retired university professor. She told me the story of how she decided to go back to college after her children were in grade school and said, “I loved it so much I decided to go straight through for a PhD.” Then there’s octogenarian Ms. J who told me about how she started her internationally successful herb business with one tiny crop of herbs growing in a whisky barrel. I want to name Ms. H, who leaned in to my ear from her wheelchair and said “I liked you before I even met you. I figure any woman brave enough to take a man’s job is a friend of mine.” Ms. H’s neighbor in the retirement home had the opposite, but equally affirming reaction on the same day when she said “At first I wasn’t sure about you. A woman pastor? But then I listened to you and you can preach.”

These women cheer me on, and propel me forward. I listen to their voices when other voices say, in roundabout or sometimes overt ways “Why should I take direction from you? You’re young. You’re female. You know nothing.” Stories of others who have been there are first are critically important, not just for me, but for other women who aim to lead. These stories need to be heard. Notably, the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad is not in the Revised Common Lectionary. A faithful churchgoer could attend church every week for three years and, even if that church read each and every lectionary text assigned for the week, that church goer would never hear the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. This fact made me reconsider the merits of preaching the lectionary exclusively and I now use the lectionary sometimes and put it aside at others.

But the story of Zelophehad’s daughters didn’t just change the way I preach, it changed the way I think. When I read the many blog posts, articles, and books that talk about how women “nowadays” struggle to balance home and work life or how women are “beginning to” speak truth to power, I remember my sisters, Mahlah, Noah, Holgah, Milcah, and Tirzah. I remember that their story, passed by though it may be, is my story. I will forever be grateful to them for that gift.