Many of you will recall that I served for eight years as president of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Foundation in Atlanta from 2002 to 2010. Some smaller number of you will know that I left that perfectly well-paid position to go start a farm where we grow food to give away. What you won’t know is the seminal event which began that long, strange trip.
I was once shouted down in an internal CBF staff meeting for suggesting that CBF would someday apologize for its posture toward homosexuals and that it would probably be better off to go on ahead and have that conversation sooner rather than later. Southern Baptists had just apologized for their stance on slavery (roughly 100 years too late) not long before that conversation. It seemed like the thing to do would have been to learn something from them about how to pick up the pace a bit on repenting of being arbitrarily dismissive of the humanity of whole swaths of the population in favor of a more welcoming and affirming posture.
Let me be clear, mine was not the only voice expressing some version of that sentiment the day I was shouted down. However, I was the only one with something of a reputation for agitating on that particular issue, so mine was the only voice that sparked the fury of the powers that be. Most of my colleagues just sat with their eyes wide open and jaws agape at the stark disparity between the energy and tone of my comment and that of the response it received.
That was the day I knew I had to leave. As Will Campbell said (loosely quoted), “If you can get the institution to give you a paycheck, take the money — but never let them have your soul. Never trust them.” So, I took the paycheck a good while longer. It took me nearly two years to construct an exit strategy, but I knew that very day that I could no longer give my fully enthusiastic effort to the institutional embodiment of CBF as long as its posture would so vigorously squelch a voice it didn’t want to hear. I was, and am, a Baptist after all.
As long as I was taking their money, I played ball. I did my dead level best to accentuate the positive and promote those parts of the Fellowship that I loved and valued. I’ve been more or less cooperatively silent in my self-imposed exile ever since. However, “It’s Time.” It’s time to talk about more than just what is easy for us all to love and value.
It’s time to have substantive and open conversations about the genuinely difficult disagreements we have over how to organize the institutional expressions of how we will relate to sisters and brothers who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or who understand themselves as queer.
I’m not naïve. I know we will never have uniform responses to the many questions such conversations will hold — and we don’t have to. However, let’s not be institutionally naïve either. The number of voices calling for a conversation has grown too loud. There are now too many for whom our institutional expressions around LGBTQ topics are no longer tenable for us to pretend any longer that we can distract one another from that topic by focusing on all of the other things on which we agree.
There are all sorts of fears about what will happen if we have this conversation. Fears that folks will leave the movement if we change anything. Fears that more, like me, will keep on drifting away if we keep on not having the conversation. My friend Brian Foreman has offered wise words to forego the temptation of that falsely dichotomized thinking. There are plenty of helpful voices offering good council on how to have this conversation while avoiding self-destruction. Suzii Paynter and the Coordinating Council are paving the way for deliberative dialogue — and I’m even willing to go against the grain of my own inherent institutional mistrust to give that process a fair chance for this important conversation.
How to have the conversation is important, but it’s the second question. The first question is if we will have a conversation at all. We will regret waiting if we do. The longer we wait, the worse we will regret it. It’s time to have a conversation.
CBF was born in an abusively conflicted context. Early on, we learned fear and mistrust as reflexive coping mechanisms and survival strategies to avoid further pain from abusive accusations and actions toward our movement. That kind of fear often breeds mistrust. Mistrust leads to exclusion.
I came to CBF over a decade ago with the unfortunate perspective that CBF was the most exclusive inclusive group I’d ever tried to be a part of. I’ve held on more or less faithfully for 25 years in hopes my tribe would prove me wrong.
It’s time ….
We are Baptist after all.