For the past year or so I’ve facebook-followed Mike Kinman, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral (an Episcopal outfit) in St. Louis. As he’s worked to engage the Cathedral with the pain and sorrow of the city it serves, Kinman has been an example for me of compassionate Christian leadership. When Kinman invites us to pay attention to something, I respond. That’s why I started looking at intersectionality.
The term ‘intersectionality’ grows out of black feminist social analysis. Black women found the women’s movement was not responsive to their experience as people of color and the black liberation movement didn’t respond to their experience as women. They were at an intersection. Intersectionality is now part of the formal language of sociology; you will find, on wikipedia, not only a very solid description of how the term is used but also another page discussing how the description should be improved or expanded. Which is to say: there’s a high degree of ownership in intersectionality as an analytial lens for social scientists.
This September Kinman brought the Rev. Jeff Hood to speak to the Cathedral about intersectionality. Hood offered a sermon, Beyond Identity: The Image of a Queer God, and a longer presentation, The Church at the Intersection. Here are my notes on Hood’s longer presentation; these are not verbatim.
“A church at the intersection is a space where people get to talk about where they came from. And where they come from is used as a means of energizing – not just the individual, but the entire community.”
Hood says that the church at the intersection gets its energy from knowing one another’s stories, so he begins his talk by telling the story of his faith journey from Southern Baptist to UCC. Around minute 26 he begins discussing the Cathedral of Hope, a UCC congregation in Dallas that’s about 85% GLBTQ. From the outside, Cathedral of Hope might appear as a single category. You might think that such relatively homogenous congregation would be free from intersections, free from people’s sense that their overlapping categories are not adequately represented or understood. But that hasn’t proved to be true. There are multiple subcategories with respect to age, gender experience, ethnicity, household and family configuration. People feel dissed. People feel marginalized.
Hood doesn’t offer programmatic solutions in this presentation – indeed, in the discussion section, I sensed some frustration with that. Instead, he moves to the importance of modeling, teaching, and expressing that God is intersectional – beyond categorization – and that each of us is a state of intersectionality with God. The resolution he proposes to our condition of intersectionality is to move more deeply into loving relationships.
Hood uses the language of ‘queerness’ to express his ideas, perhaps to emphasize the strangeness of what he is saying; in his words, he is ‘pushing against the normative.’ It’s not a term of discourse that feels helpful to me in the Liturgy Remix project because it relativizes all categories that are not gender-related. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.
Returning to the terms of sociological discourse, how might these ideas relate to the churches we love and serve? Could intersectionality be a useful lens? Let’s begin with the idea of an Imaginary Normal Person. We each carry our own Imaginary Normal Person around in our heads; the expectation set against which we unconsciously or unconsciously compare ourselves. So, how do I compare myself to my Imaginary Normal Person? He/she is cisgender. [ Me too.] Married. [Me too]. Educated, able to read, able to read music. [Yes, yes, yes. So far so good!] He/she has no physical disabilities. [I have several.] He/she has no cognitive disabilities. [I have those, too.] He/she is middle-aged and fit. [I’m old & tubby.]
If I organize my self-categorization – consciously or unconsciously – around the Imaginary Normal Person, I really don’t fit in the congregation where I worship. And I have many more unexamined, unarticulated categories – the whole Giant Puppets trope, for instance. But if I organize my selftalk around intersectionality, suddenly I have lots of company. In every category of my personal intersectionality, there are other people. There’s just – no one with my exact configuration. No perfect match.
Is the worshiping community only open to people who closely match up to the congregation’s Imaginary Normal Persons? Because, if that’s true, the vision of a multicultural, multiethnic church is delusional. If we value ourselves, or value others, by our degree of distance/difference from the Imaginary Normal Person, then our tolerance for authentic differences is – consciously or unconsciously – deeply impaired. If our vision is of a multicultural, multiethnic congregation, negotiating intersectionality is a skill we all – lay, clergy, staff – have to learn, enjoy, and experience as a source of energy.
How do we move from tolerating difference – to affirming difference – to celebrating difference? To dancing with difference? It could be a useful thought experiment to articulate and reality-test our congregation’s Imaginary Normal Person. If that person is our unconscious expectation set, what does that imply for liturgy? For program design? For new-member incorporation?
The obvious categories by which it’s convenient to organize a congregation’s events and opportunities can actually exacerbate people’s sense of difference. Age-graded Christian formation for children has always seemed to me to miss other, more interesting ways to group kids. Ministry to Boomers? Oh, please. Spare me. Family night? Hmm. Ministry to the elderly? Not yet! Not yet! My millennial friends are getting cranky about Ministry Strategies for Millennials. If everything is intersectional, aren’t there more interesting categories than these?
Storying the local church
I invite you to reflect on Hood’s proposition that the church at the intersection draws its energy from difference, and that we find and affirm difference by hearing one another’s stories. How can we nourish that network of knowing-and-being-known? I don’t think it’s as simple as sitting people down to Talk Stuff Over. A resilient network of respect, intimacy, and trust does not happen automatically in a faith community. It requires many kindnesses, many patient moments, years of hot dish.
How might we build storying into the lived experience of the local church?
How do we invite people to inscribe their individual experience on liturgy?
Is there space for spoken prayer in the Prayers of the People?
A shared altar for All Souls?
Are there places in the narthex for people to sit and talk?
Do people cook for each other?
Do people celebrate one another’s cultures?
One another’s music?
One another’s language?
Another take on the general idea – Bishop Wayne Miller of the ELCA Synod of Metropolitan Chicago talks about his sorrow and frustration at ELCA’s failure to broaden its cultural and ethnic reach:
“… if we only talk to each other inside the ELCA about race and privilege we are never going to make progress, because we will never be able to get past the cultural blinders of seeing our own values and patterns as universally normative. … our feeling, our speech and our action related to race and privilege are never going to appreciably change until we force the conversation and the work outside of the Church Council or synod councils or seminary faculties or ELCA assemblies; in fact outside the ELCA altogether into active interfaith and ecumenical engagement on a local, relational level … it is in that local interfaith arena that “the other” is re-humanized into personhood, that the “I-It” relationship is transformed into an “I-Thou” relationship, and the struggle against systemic racism and social privilege becomes an expression of solidarity with someone I love from a different culture, rather than an ideological debate or a seminar topic.”
Much to think about, but this post is long enough. Your comments are welcome.
If you’d like to read more by Rev. Jeff Hood, his blog is here: http://revjeffhood.com He also writes extensively and thoughtfully for Huffington Post.