This piece is dedicated to queer folks, especially queer people of color, and survivors of sexual and spiritual abuse – may we have spaces to thrive and honor all of our identities. On the one year anniversary of the mass murder at Pulse Nightclub, Into Account Co-Director Jay Yoder reflects on their decision to leave the Mennonite Church.
One year ago today, I woke up and rolled over to post my annual Facebook “Happy Pittsburgh Pride!” When I pulled up my phone, instead I was faced with the headline, “At Least 20 Dead at LGBTQ Nightclub.” As the day went on, that number would only grow. I started sending text messages to my queer friends in the Orlando area. “Are you OK?” “What about your friends?” “What can I do?” “What do you need?” As I said in a piece that I wrote at the time, everyone was accounted for. No one was OK.
My next reaction was that we needed more flyers for Pittsburgh Peace Church, so that we could come together to grieve. I rushed to my office and immersed myself in the task of printing and cutting quarter-page flyers. I returned home and put on my Pride rainbow romper, and the same rainbow scarf I’d used a year before to stand up for queers at the national Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City. I set out to march with Pittsburgh queer communities.
I live-streamed my Pride march that day, alternately joyfully relieved to be with my people, and crying in grief as we watched the death toll rise in real time. I startled at every loud noise and siren, worried one attack would inspire others.
Throughout the day, I was deep in conversation with my queer Mennonite community. When I got home, I sat down and wrote a piece about the links between the denomination’s theology and culture and all of the forms of violence that queer folks experience, from the subtle to the deadly.
I ended that piece with, “We are dying, and you are killing us. We are dying, and you are killing us. We are dying, and you are killing us. God forgive you. I’m not ready to.”
That piece was published in The Mennonite magazine, and in Christian Peacemaker Teams’ summer newsletter, and a couple other publications. It didn’t take long for the backlash to begin. Voicemails telling me I should be ashamed of myself, angry letters and emails, accusations that my words were violent, declarations that the work of CPT was now tainted and unsupportable. A member of an editorial board quit, and a special editor’s note had to be added to my piece in The Mennonite, justifying its publication, and ensuring that readers knew that MC USA’s staff and board did not agree with me.
As historic peace church MC USA prepares for its next convention, in Orlando, the site of the U.S.’s largest mass murder in modern history, I’m faced with the simple truth that I can’t participate anymore. At the last denominational gathering, in Kansas City, it was made clear that the majority of the delegate body does not consider queer people worthy of belonging in the church family. At the same convention, out of the other side of their mouths, they apologized to sexualized violence survivors, even acknowledging that treating my queer communities as “less than” makes us more vulnerable to sexual violence. For many of us in the queer community who are also survivors, we were slapped in the face with one hand, and patted on the shoulder with the other.
For those queer survivors who chose to go to the “service of lament,” they left more heartbroken than they entered.
I can’t, and won’t, be part of similarly twisted efforts in Orlando.
To the leaders and planners of MC USA–don’t be mistaken, this doesn’t mean you can rest easy. I’m not the only queer in town. I am, though, a tired one, and one that’s ready to value myself more than I value reforming a church that would rather hold on to its old image of itself as an endless victim of persecution, instead of a denomination assimilated into systems of violence and oppression.
I wish you the kind of brokenness that leads to transformation, the kind of death that leads to resurrection, the kind of deep and direct conflict that leads to trust and accountability.
Jay, you helped me so much with your live-streaming from Pittsburgh Pride that day. It was my Sanctuary. I watched it again and again and shared it with friends. Your whole message that day was so uplifting as you filmed and called out to the beautiful people and powerful community that surrounded you. I will never forget it. Thank you. Good luck as you venture forth.
Grateful, very grateful again for your honest words, Jay. And very sad we won’t have among us your presence pushing the “direct conflict that [could, if we found courage to engage it with some real vulnerability, usher us into genuine] trust and accountability.” Big love to you.
IN-MI conference is meeting later this week to (among other things) agree to disagree on the controversial topic of whether I and other queer people are good enough to be part of the body of Christ. The letter I wrote this morning and am not brave enough to send said “I don’t have the energy for one more unsafe space.” When the church tells me it wants me, ALL of me, then maybe I’ll come back.
Jay, you inspire me. Your honesty and compassion and willingness to value yourself the way the world should models a strength and grace that I recognize in all of the figures who deserve to be called the leaders of the church. Thank you for everything you have offered to the Mennonite church and for knowing when it is time for you to step away. I’m grateful and wish you the very, very best.
I believe you’d be tired. It saddens me that part of my church is a part of this way of thinking and yet I understand it because I too have thought that way and only recently am convinced that I have misunderstood. Now all I can do is try to learn and try to share new insights. I wish we could all arrive at mutual understanding simultaneously to relieve this mental, emotional, spiritual and physical burden but as life doesn’t play out that way I can only try to live an authentic life that kindly invites others to explore further the attitudes of God. Too often we don’t truly understand what love can be and I think God grieves and longs for us to be willing to experience it. I know I see only dimly the possibilities of living God’s way. Prayers for your journey, as well as mine.
The Episcopal Church Welcomes you- even if only for a while, if you need a place to stop and rest, and be restored. You are not less than. God loves everyone he has given such beautiful diverse and divine experiences of our shared life to. In Love – Celeste
I just wanted to thank you, Jay, for putting into words the feelings that I’ve been struggling to express over the last two years. I appreciate your willingness to share your feelings so honestly. Your words mean so much and I’m sorry for the pain that the church has caused explicitly and implicitly on the queer community. Thank you.
I love you Jay. I’m so glad I met you in KC.
For me, the realization that this was goodbye came at the end of the delegate session and became more and more real as I walked down the hallway from the delegate session to turn around and stand with you. It was confirmed the next day when the delegates’ final chance to speak was removed from the morning’s agenda without a word and replaced with the Board inanely patting each other on the back. Even though the published agenda left room for an afternoon session, the final morning session was manipulated so that nobody could be allowed to ask for one. There was no space to squeeze through with an objection.
I had words to say, as I was representing two congregations that day. I had prepared a 15-second soundbite in hopes I would make it to the microphone. I felt betrayed and manipulated by a small handful of people who set an agenda of exclusion and orchestrated the procedures so they would win.
My new congregation could not join MCUSA because of the outcome. My old one became even more alienated from its denomination.
I realized the church I had put my hope in was corrupt.
Today, I see it more clearly, in light of the way the country I live in has been shown to be corrupt. As pilgrims and strangers, we seek a better country. And as former Mennonites, we seek a better church.
I am sad but respect your integrity, Jay.