Surprised By Kindness
By Pastor Kali Freels
The past two weeks have been a blur of travel, community events, and national gatherings for me and many in our little church. The last Sunday of June, our church hosted a booth at the St Pete Pride Festival. We were one of hundreds of exhibits, exposed for the tens of thousands of people gathered. It was an event unlike any I’d ever seen.
For the first hour or so, most people gave us the side-eye of uncertainty. We’re a new church; therefore, we don’t have a reputation yet. While Haley and I were both in the booth, we didn’t have anything on it that explicitly said that we’re a LGBTQ+ affirming congregation. Once we tacked a few rainbow flags to the outside and hung my “Gay Female Pastor” sign (under which Haley and I rotated shifts), countless people stopped by to ask questions and get information about our faith community.
One particular interaction stands out to me. A group of four people hurried over to our table, and one woman looked at Haley, asking, “Are you the gay female pastor?” I piped up and said, “It actually applies to both of us, and we’re engaged.” She and her friends started to excitedly talk about how refreshing it is to see so many LGBTQ+ friendly churches here. She explained that she and her friends are part of an affirming Pentecostal congregation north of Largo, at which point I had to interrupt out of shock, “You all are Pentecostals?! That’s awesome! When most people find out we’re Baptist--” She nearly fell over, “Shut the f*** up, you all are BAPTISTS?!?!?!” We laughed about the interaction, exchanged business cards, and they went off to explore the rest of the festival.
While initially funny, there’s much to examine in this interaction. We were both surprised--shocked, even--that one another’s congregations affiliated with denominations that have historically been non-affirming. We were surprised that churches affiliated with each denomination chose to embrace a more open, welcoming, joyful mindset. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again: when kindness from Christians surprises people, it means there’s a problem.
As I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly last week, I was reminded of how the truth of those words stung. In them, there is hope because individuals choose to go against the status quo and offer love instead of indifference or disdain, but it also means the larger bodies those individuals represent are not reflecting those same virtues of love and respect.
I was surprised by how many church representatives came to the unofficial and offsite LGBTQ+ inclusion meetings and by how passionately they spoke about making our churches safe spaces for all marginalized groups. When kindness from Christians surprises people, there’s a problem.
I was surprised by the number of older Christians who approached me throughout the conference to express gratitude for the work our congregation is doing around LGBTQ+ inclusion and how hopefully we make them for the future. When kindness from Christians surprises people, there’s a problem.
I was also surprised by how people from non-affirming congregations--clergy and laity alike--talked about love. “I love you, but I can’t understand how you got to that conclusion (LGBT affirmation) from the scriptures.” “I love you, but I can’t agree with the life you’re living.” I’ve heard those phrases before from friends and family who aren’t to a place where they can affirm me as a gay woman, but it wasn’t until this week that I was able to place a finger on why exactly those phrases stung. Every time you end the phrase, “I love you,” with, “but…,” you’ve made your love conditional. Anytime a congregation ends the phrase, “I love you,” with, “but…,” it’s made their love conditional. Anytime pastors end the phrase, “God loves you,” with, “but...,” they’ve made God’s love conditional. The moment we start preaching that--out of Christ’s compulsion--our love is conditional is the moment that we need to step out of the pulpit, because we’ve bastardized the gospel – trading Jesus’ unconditional love for a hermeneutic of cultural anxiety.
When kindness from Christians surprises people, we’ve got a problem. When kindness from Christians surprises other Christians, however, it’s much worse: if we don’t even expect other Christians to show kindness to one another, how can we expect ourselves to show kindness to those outside the church?
We’ve got to start living such radically loving lives that people both inside and outside of the Church are not surprised when a Christian is kind to them. Kindness from Christians should be the expectation, not the exception. In Jesus’ command to “love our neighbor as ourself,” he gives no conditions concerning when we get to opt not to love others, nor on how we get to limit the ways in which we love them. To quote the composer Lin Manuel-Miranda (who may well have given us the most accurate paraphrase of the gospel to date), “Love is love is love is love.”
God of Love, may we have the courage to lay our own prejudices and discriminatory notions aside so that we can show love in its purest form. Amen.