Monday, September 19, 2011

A Pilgrimage Story

My story in Chapel Hill News yesterday:

As I pondered coming out of my lamentable self-constructed gay closet in the 1990s, I was drawn to gay-friendly Chapel Hill and Carrboro, oases in a desert of homophobic shrillness.

My closet - built by me but well fortified by the Church, the place of higher education where I worked, and the American South - was slowly coming apart as I began to live more honestly and openly. I was heartened by the simple fact that out-gay men such as Mike Nelson was Carrboro's mayor and Joe Herzenberg was on the Chapel Hill Town Council, and by advocates at Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, United Church of Chapel Hill, and Church of Reconciliation.

For many of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ), such a public witness provides us a general sense of what the cultural "temperature" is in terms of knowing whether we can live honest and open lives, or if we need to be on our guard for our very survival.

In 2011, I am rid of the closet. I speak and write about the current hot button political, religious, and cultural issue of LGBTQ equality as an out-gay dad and Presbyterian pastor. As a board member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA I raised a ruckus about the Y sponsoring the Boy Scout troop, pointing out the anti-LGBTQ policies of the Scouts. I'm heartened by the presence of more out LGBTQ people and straight allies in public office and pulpits in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Municipalities have passed laws that provide LGBTQ couples civil unions. More private industries offer benefit packages that cover health care and retirement for same-sex couples.

Yet there are businesses and nonprofit groups, such as the YMCA of the Triangle, who do not offer LGBTQ employees the same benefit plans as they do straight employees. And the Republican-led legislature of North Carolina succeeded this week in putting a referendum on the May ballot to amend the state's constitution banning equal rights to marriage for LGBTQ couples.

Spreading misinformation around the state, some political and religious leaders stir up fear of the "Other," inspired by hate and institutionalizing injustice. While metropolitan parts may be LGBTQ-friendly, much work must be done in educating and advocating for LGBTQ people in the state's small towns and rural hamlets.

Like the prophet Amos, who declared that justice will roll on like a river over oppression, and Jesus' message of all-encompassing, inclusive love, especially for those oppressed, I write these strong words knowing that I'm not the first Presbyterian pastor - nor last - who has stood up against intolerance and bigotry.

On Sunday, Aug. 28, I watched as the Peace and Justice Plaza marker placed in front of Chapel Hill's Post Office revealed four new names. The one that stood out was Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Charles M. Jones. In the footsteps of Amos and Jesus, Jones exemplified the virtues of justice, courage, and hospitality by welcoming African Americans to University Presbyterian Church.

For his actions, he was removed from that prestigious pulpit by our regional body of authority, the Presbytery, in hindsight an act of injustice and cowardliness. Nevertheless, the Rev. Jones with the support of others began the Community Church where all were welcome, regardless of one's ethnicity or national heritage.

Personally and vocationally I draw succor from the Rev. Jones' story. As he faced the hostility of racism in his day, naming the hideous nature of racist bigotry, it is his story that is honored to this very day and not those who opposed him trying to delay the inevitable day of justice.

Like my forbears, I too name and call out those who purposefully spread misinformation, fear, and maliciousness toward LGBTQ people, denying us equal rights in the arena of public, religious, and private life.

Working toward being and becoming a more just society is a constant, for immorality is insidious, forever changing in its mutant form. Working for justice is, for me, a sacred duty done with love. I draw hope for a brighter day from those who were successful in showing us a better way of living at peace with one another.

Brett Webb-Mitchell lives in Chapel Hill. Contact him at

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