Queer People in the Post-Pandemic Church

written on 12 October 2021 by Mark Ehrenstein

Art by Nat Iwata

In this open and vulnerable talk, Mark walks us through three pandemics that he has lived through. He talks about the important lessons he learned during the AIDS pandemic, and gives us several pointers as to how the church can change to accept and love the queer community better.

TEXT (imported from subtitles so apologies for grammar mistakes):
Okay, well, thanks. It's an honor to be here at Our Church Too's very first conference. I'm Mark Ehrenstein ... I'm Erin's uncle and Indy's adopted uncle. Today I'm coming to you live from my home in Los Angeles, California in the United States. In today's speech I'm going to be using the term queer or queer people when referring to the LGBTQ plus community.

I am getting older and I seldom really need repeat the initials in the same order. So please bear with me. I know for some people, the word queer has negative connotations, but many in my community have reclaimed this word and are using it with a sense of pride. I also, the word queer represents a larger scope and I di diverse identities within the LGBTQ plus community.

In my speech today, I will be sharing honestly, with some difficult experiences I've had in my life. Some of these topics could be a trigger or be difficult for some people to hear topics I will mention include suicide, the AIDS pandemic, and it's devastation, acute illnesses, as well as other challenging events that have been a part of my life's journey.

One should be prepared for a frank talk about some difficult circumstances, but in the end, I hope to express God's ... profound love and protection that has seen me through the darker days, allowing me to emerge stronger. And with a percent and with a profound sense of gratitude. So with that warning, let's begin today.

I want to focus on what I hope post pandemic church will look like for myself as a Christian, who is also gay. To do that I would be remiss if I didn't first look back at how the church has responded to at least three distinctive pandemics that I personally experienced in my lifetime. We can't move forward if we don't look back. And I have the confidence that the church can move forward, but first we must acknowledge our mistakes and seek to do, and to be better.

The first pandemic I've observed my entire life, it's dangerous and spreading faster than ever. Unfortunately, the church is not immune to this pandemic, but at times an active participant. The first pandemic I want to look at is the pandemic of fear, judgment and exclusion. In the church, the negative virtues of fear, judgment and exclusion have targeted and or excluded people of other religions, people of color, women, queer people, immigrants, the elderly, the poor, people with various physical, emotional, or mental challenges, the sheltered insecure, and most recently trans people.

The church really loses when everyone is not included. For example, when churches separate themselves by race or income, the church, the church becomes fractured and divided. If the church doesn't recognize, promote or employ women, then the church has disregarded a wide tapestry of insight, compassion, and spiritual ... leadership that women bring to ministry. If one's age limits one's participation in the congregation, the church loses valuable perspective and wisdom. When the disenchanted ... when the disenfranchised, such as the poor, the foreigner or the physically challenged are not seen in the church, the church becomes unresponsive to the needs of society.

Queer believers are rejected in the church, so are their spiritual gifts and, unique talents. The church also closes the door to those family and friends who do love and accept their queer allies. When every believer is not included, but are neglected or pushed aside, the church becomes less significant and effective. Sadly, because of the pandemic of fear, judgment and exclusion, I'm seeing the church losing its ... influence and practicalness in today's world. And consequently, the church space is losing its moral standing in our societies as well. The church can and must do better.

A little history. I accepted Christ as my savior in 1977. I came out as a gay man in 1981. So I've been engaging with the church for over 45 years. And I can honestly say there are still far too many, truly inclusive churches, but things are changing. Entire denominations worldwide are starting to affirm inclusion for queer people. Google it, you'll really be surprised. Conflicting progress, in parts of the globe more women are being ordained and are shepherding churches than ever before, while in other places women's basic human rights and existence are being stripped away as we speak. Pray with me for this, for these dire situations. The church must speak out for the dignity recognition and inclusion of all people throughout the world.

In the late 1970s, a second unseen pandemic. And by 1980, the year I came out, I was hearing of this strange gay plague in San Francisco in New York. Just two years later in 1982, the year I met my husband, John, this plague had become a worldwide pandemic and it had the name AIDS. To this day. Sorry, just hearing the word AIDS sorry has a profound and showing effect on me. In today's terminology people refer to it as a trigger. I call it re-experiencing devastation.

In the 1980s, I was in my twenties. I can personally sum up what the AIDS pandemic felt like in three words, fear, loss, and anger. First, fear. In the eighties my constant thought was how easy is it to get aids? What if I get it? How do I help my friends who are getting sick? Will my family still love and support me if I become ill? Will I find an experienced true love? I also thought, what if my employer or landlord, even thinks I might have this disease? You know, the first AIDS test did not come to the market until late 1985. After testing, you nervously waited for your results for days to weeks. For many years, there was no cure or treatment for AIDS so what was the point of getting tested? Taking an AIDS test in the eighties could result in you losing your health insurance or even your job. Both were legal in the United States.

Lastly, the real fear that God had truly abandoned me. I also experienced loss. In my early twenties I was attending more funerals than most of you will hopefully attend in your entire lifetime. I was confronted with healthy, beautiful friends, barely in the prime of their own life, being diagnosed and often within months seeing these young friends' bodies, literally deteriorating and decaying before my very eyes. Stigmatizing purple skin lesions of Kaposi sarcoma, were often a forbearer to a horrible and agonizing death. For people with no health insurance, the progression and the devastation of the disease was always much worse. When visiting the afflicted, especially in county hospitals, you offer often, often encountered the stentch of death from disease perminating, the overcrowded waiting rooms. Visiting a friend in an AIDS ward meant masks, gloves that never fit, goggles that always fogged up oversized, sterile gowns, and worse always being told that your time in the room with your friend painfully limited. For people struggling with today's mask mandates, you have no clue what requirements were placed on us during the AIDS epidemic.

In the midst of this Christ, sorry. In the midst of this crisis, I was also experience that horrendous lost of friends to suicide. I felt like the community I just discovered was disappearing before my eyes. I was also dealing with my own fear and despair and quite frankly, survivor's guilt. Why was I still comfy? I also felt anger, justified anger at our government. In the early eighties, there was no funding, no real government plan for the pandemic. I felt disgust at our leaders in the United States, president Ronald Reagan took over six years into the pandemic, either the word AIDS which he did for the very first time in his second term, and not until 1986. I held profound disillusionment at churches. Where was the righteous compassion? I felt disbelief at families. I was lucky, but many ... ... ... in my community were abandoned when loved ones in the pandemic, I mean, I'm sorry, by loved ones in the pandemic. For some families, they discovered that their loved ones were queer when they became desperately sick and frankly many, many couldn't cope.

I also felt intense animosity towards society. I would literally hear people say, it's just the fags that are dying. But perhaps most exhausting, I felt profound impatience at God. Where are you, God, what are you waiting for? I entered this pandemic an immature 21 year old. These were difficult emotions to live with at any age and not for weeks or months, but for many years. I think a part of me is still processing the fear, the loss and the anger.

If you can show that picture from 1984, I appreciate it. But my saving grace came when I met my husband, John, on Memorial day, sorry, 1982. I truly believe every blessing in my life has John directly tied to it. I don't know if you could see the picture, I can't, but we were kids in the midst of a nightmare.

So what was the church's reaction and response to the AIDS pandemic? Sadly many churches close their hearts and doors to people with AIDS. A painful example: many churches couldn't even support families with children living with AIDS. I know because in 1987, John and I fostered a two year old child with full blown AIDS. The child's family couldn't find support or help even from their own church, and it was suggested by a social worker that, that they seek the assistance from a Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, where John and I attended. John and I volunteered with daily care and taking the little girl to her doctor appointments. Remember it was 1987, ignorance surrounding AIDS was rampant and quite honestly disabling. The little girl even stayed at our home for a week. My husband John was a high school teacher. Sadly in 1987, this was a controversial act John and I felt compelled to keep her overnight stay a secret from his school, most of our family, friends and neighbors, knowing that there could be major problems if the school or others knew the little girl was staying in our home. If we took the girl out in public, we often encountered stairs and even verbal assaults. I remember a woman at a park screamed at me that the little girl must have gotten aids from John or myself. ... John and I firsthand witnessed the plight and discrimination that people with AIDS experienced on a daily basis.

The 1980s, though blessed with the best dance music ever became a very frightening time for any person that other people might even perceive as possibly being infected with the virus. In other words, every queer person could be targeted for blatant discrimination ... Proudly the queer community became the first responders. In the AIDS pandemic, nearly ... ... all of the numerous AIDS organizations and diverse services were organized, operated and founded funded by my community. I'm very proud of that. Queer women who were not getting sick really became ... super heroes during the pandemic, and like many accomplishments ... by women, lesbians never got the acknowledgement, acknowledgement they deserved for all they did in the AIDS pandemic. God bless them.

Churches by and large turn their backs on people with AIDS even worse, some church leaders said that AIDS was God's judgment on my community. Sorry, my God doesn't work that way. Interesting that God was not punishing queer women with AIDS. Some clergy denied officiating at AIDS victims funerals. Westboro Baptist church famously picketed hundreds of aids funerals throughout the United States for many, many years. Remember the aids pandemic is not over men, women and children are still dying. Over 35 million people have died during this horrible pandemic. Nearly 700,000 have perished in 2020 alone. Sadly 37.6 million men, women and children are currently living with HIV around the world. Are they in your prayers?

The third pandemic I've experienced is our latest COVID. Like other pandemics COVID has divided the church, how to handle it, who to trust. Many churches are even deeply divided over mass mandates. Sadly COVID an infectious disease has become a political issue. Unfortunately, science and logic, both gifts from God have been rejected by some believers. Also much like AIDS testing, prevention, and successful treatment for COVID is very limited, limited in underdeveloped countries, as well as in poor and communities of color. It's very important to understand pandemics never advance or promote spiritual ... wellness. Pandemic, ... segregate people pandemics promote anger, fear and social unrest. The church must be back in combat and misinformation regarding all pandemics that it it's moral obligation. I need a sip of water.

When I was asked to speak today, I was given the question: what is the queer community hoping for from a post pandemic church? Well, here's my short list. First, please stop attacking my community with your interpreter interpretation of scriptures. Many biblical scholars agree that the seven verses often used to assault queer people are not even referencing homosexuality or gender, but rather a typical prostitution rape in hospitality and old Testament Levitical law. I don't want to spend a lot of time on this point. The bottom line is my other like-minded people's interpretation of scripture is just as valid as others.

Number two, see queer people as fully human. Please don't compare me to a pedophile or an alcoholic or not being a part of God's plan. Queers are a part of God's plan. We always have been.

Number three, embrace the H R I code honor, respect and include. In other words, love your neighbor as yourself.

Number four. This is perhaps my, my favorite prayer prayerfully examine queer Christians spiritual gifts. You will know them by their fruits.

Number five believers in my community want full membership and participant participants participation in the church. And we don't just want to be choir directors, queer bleep, queer believers have spiritual gifts that the church are missing. Let us have a seat at the table.

Number six, respect our unique culture. Learn a little queer history. Queers, like all diverse communities, have a rich and inspiring history. Listen, I've spent a lifetime learning a vastly revised exclusionary history. Take a moment to be inspired by my community's journey.

Number seven. All not some churches should honor queer commitments and relationships by providing marriage ceremonies in the church. 25 countries recognized marriage equality before the United States. Don't say we're living in sin when you won't sanction our relationships and commitments. Also provide affirmative marriage and family counseling to queer couples and their families.

Finally, all Christians should be on the front lines for global equality and justice. In 70 countries being queer is actually illegal. Queer people worldwide are dying. We're being jailed, stoned, thrown off of buildings, a favorite in parts of the middle east, tortured, deported, castrated, hung and being burned alive. Also, adolescent ... suicide rates are nearly five times higher in the queer community than in the straight community. Hate crimes are up, especially for my trans brothers and sisters. Legitimate marriages are not always being recognized in some immigration cases and believe it or not, courts are still taking away queer parent's chilren. These appalling actions are human rights violations. Remember queer rights are human rights. This is a moral issue, which demands the church's participant participation, leadership and voice.

So how can you help? Well, to start with stop supporting anti-queer organizations instead consider global organizations that support and promote and promote queer rights like the human rights campaign. You can learn more about this great organization at hrc.org. Also in your daily life think about becoming a real ally to my community. Speak out when you see people being mocked labeled or stereotyped, especially in the church. Say these negative comments are hurtful and offensive. If you love someone who is queer concerned, consider joining a chapter P flag. P flag is a global organization that can give you support and further facilitate you becoming a real ally to my community.

Finally and perhaps most importantly pray for your local church, as well as the worldwide church to be more ... affirming inclusive and Christ like. I still believe in the power of prayer. Are these objectives for a progressive post endemic church possible? I think so. Minds are expanding and opening, especially among young believers. Studies are revealing large number of believers under the age of 35 don't believe being queer is incompatible with being a Christian. Gay marriage once thought would derail society has gained ,approval even among many religious people. More queers are openly serving in the military around the world, including in Israel who opened the military to queer men and women in 1993. Queers are successfully adopting and fostering, bringing loving homes to children in need. We're having our own children and our families are finding respect and integrating into their communities with no negative consequences. Lastly, people like myself are not letting other people, or institutions define our spirituality.

In closing, I know that in my speech today, I've been very harsh and critical of the church. I want to express that I'm not talking about a particular denomination or a type of church. When I say the church, I'm really speaking about all of us. We, myself included. We are the church. We all have fallen short of where God would want us to be. I'm critical of the church because I love the church and its collective diverse followers and I believe we all can do better. We can all be led, directed and moved by the holy spirit. In the end, we must truly learn to love honor and respect one another. After all I plan on sepnding eternity with you. And do you have that other picture? The more recent picture. I don't know. I can't see it, but I just was going to end on a positive note that I was going to share a picture of myself and my husband, John, and our little dog, Papa bears, John and I are approaching 40 years together.

So thank you for giving me this opportunity to share.