Coming Into Power: Taking Theology to the Streets

Originally published in The Witness magazine, July 2001

In African-American urban communities the streets have always been the site for radical change and the stage for subversive public discourse. Weekly, in the protest era of the 1960s, African Americans from all the five boroughs in New York City would travel to Harlem to hear street ministers, street intellectuals, street politicians and African-American griots (oral historians) give their public addresses at the well-known street site of UCLA, the University on the Corner at Lennox Avenue. With no walls to lean on, no chairs to sit in and, oftentimes, with no podium for the speakers to speak from, UCLA served as our public institution of higher education. The street, UCLA, provided a rich public discourse of black intellectual thought.

In African-American religious life, the streets have also been the stage for Christian social protest and public theology. The black civil rights movement picked up its momentum and received worldwide attention when African-American preachers moved their members from their church pews to the picket lines. The world not only got to see an African-American Christian social ethic in practice, but it also got to hear a black public theology espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. On the first day of the Montgomery Bus Boycott on December 5, 1955, King espoused his views on the requisite conditions for black activism: “Freedom is never given to anybody! For the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there! And he never voluntarily gives it up. We’ve got to keep on keepin’ on in order to gain freedom. It is not done voluntarily. It is done through the pressure that comes about from people who are oppressed. Privileged classes never give up their privilege without strong resistance.”

To the general public, the streets are commonly thought of as the site for rioting. Demonized for much of the violence that does take place there, marginalized people’s street riots are organic revolutionary forms of social justice where they come into their own power. New York City’s Greenwich Village LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgendered) community learned that on the night of June 27, 1969. Little would the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a predominately African-American and Latino LGBT working-class bar, know that those two nights of rioting — June 27-29 — would spark the advent of our queer liberation movement. On the last day of the street riots, crowds gathered outside the Stonewall Inn to assess the damage and to read the graffiti sprawled on its bricks — “Legalize Gay Bars” and “Support Gay Power.” Such were the earliest expressions of Queer public theology.

Theologies of the dispossessed

Public theologies emerge from street people. Public theologies are also liberating theologies, because they emerge from those people at the bottom and at the fringes of life. Theologian Robert McAfee Brown in Liberation Theology (1993) points out that “the starting point for liberation theology is not at all the topics theologians write about, but [it is] the here-and-nowness of what is happening on street corners or at soup kitchens.” These theologies are about the dispossessed, the disinherited, the disrespected and the damned. They are expressions of the life of God’s people. And, while not all street people are people of faith and many live secular lives, theology is not restricted or privatized to only those in seminaries, churches or who acknowledge a living God. Theology is about the whole of life and the whole of life encompasses both its sacred and public spheres. As Massachusetts’ Episcopal bishop, M. Thomas Shaw, has pointed out, “our public life is very much a part of our [religious] journey.” (See “Walking the God-talk in politics today: resurrecting a public theology,” The Witness, Sept. 2000.) Street people may have been forced to the public margins of society — the streets — but their social location and lived experiences as individuals and as communities bump up against existing structures and systems of domination and call into question the dominant culture’s presumptions about the wholeness of life and the theological underpinnings upon which they rest.

A prophetic call

Clearly, public theologies often emerge from a place of inhospitality and parochialism. Having neither a home in the church nor a place in the academy, these theologies emerge from the activism of indigenous people of and on the streets. Public theologies have a prophetic call in that they call attention to the present-day social injustices and institutional ills that bring about a particular people’s forced eviction from the Kingdom of God. These public theologies are nagging reminders to the privileged that their churches and seminaries not only choke the spiritual lives of the oppressed, but also limit their theological view in seeing and knowing the various faces of God. These public theologies are, indeed, the authentic expressions of the life of God’s people. And, while these public theologies reflect the unending struggle to give voice and visibility to those relegated to the margins of society, these theologies also reflect the joy and celebration in the daily lives of its people of and on the streets.

When churches work, they ground the spiritual wanderer. They embrace the ecclesiastically shy. They bring in the unchurched and they uphold the Christian mission to welcome in all of God’s children.

However, when churches lose their prophetic call, they open themselves not only to the charge of inhospitality, but also to the charge of parochialism. Theology in these churches, unfortunately, becomes ecclesiastical articulations of the status quo, where the Bible functions as their legitimating talking-book. Religious intolerance masks spiritual abuse and patriarchal clericalism masks structural oppressions, so that these holy places of worship actually become sites of ritualized violence.

Seminaries lose their prophetic call when they address only the academy, or only the institutional interests of their denominational churches. These seminaries may occasionally glance at the world, but they never fully engage themselves in it. Their efforts to teach cultural and ethnic diversity — a diversity which is seldom reflected in their faculties or student bodies — mask, at best, their anemic attempt to be politically correct and, at worse, their academic arrogance to exclude from their folds the very people theological education ought to be about. Theologies emerging out of these seminaries, unfortunately, become inauthentic expressions of the life of God’s people.

While it is easy to see how the economic disadvantage based on structural racial bias leads peoples of color to the streets, it is less obvious how many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are forced to become street people. Abandoned by family and friends because of our sexual orientation, many of us have only the streets. And many religious lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are spiritually homeless in that we have been evicted from our faith communities. Oftentimes we find ourselves on the streets of gay enclaves searching for the spiritual community we lost since being excommunicated by our faith communities. And, while many of us have found spiritual refuge in queer alternative churches like Metropolitan Community Church, Dignity, and Unity Fellowship, many of us nonetheless miss our home churches.

Because the streets are the harsh reality of both homelessness and joblessness, many of us LGBT people who are in seminaries or in schools of theological study reside in the closet until after tenure or ordination. However, even once out of the closet, many of us do not necessarily preach, teach, write or advocate from the social location of being queer because the streets can still be a place where we end up if we do so.

Coming out as a public theologian

Because I am an open lesbian, I have not found a home church in my faith tradition of the black church from which to do AIDS ministry. Nor have I located an academic base where I can do queer theology because it is not yet, in the eyes of many academicians, a legitimate theology. So I have found a home and my ministry/life’s work on the streets, with Boston’s LGBT communities. The foundation for my life’s work is in what Jesus said in Matthew 25:45: “In truth I tell you, in so far as you failed to do it for the least of these, however insignificant, you failed to do it for me.” Therefore, in wanting to be a practitioner of applied Christianity and to do a “theology-in-praxis,” I realized my work would be primarily a public theology.

As I came out as a lesbian to myself and to my church, my theological voice shifted. Where as a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York I was just focused on black church women, as a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School my attention was drawn to the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. At Harvard, too, I combined journalism with my area of study, enabling me to develop a strong focus on religion in the news. As a result, in this era of the Christian Right, one of my outreach ministries is my two religion columns — “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, a LGBT newspaper that circulates widely throughout the New England states, and a monthly column online, “Queer Take,” for The Witness.

Because homophobia is both a hatred of LGBT people and a stance that is usually taken “in the name of religion,” my reporting has been about exposing how Christianity has shaped the theological and moral view of us LGBT people. Also, because Christianity impacts both our secular and religious lives, my columns try to inform my audience of the role religion plays in all forms of discrimination — in racism, sexism, anti-semitism and homophobia. My advocacy approach is to inform and to inspire my LGBT readers in a way that will bring them to the full understanding of the enormity religion plays in our lives, whether we are practicing atheists or recovering Christians, and how both religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatter the goal of American democracy, but also foster a climate of spiritual abuse that restrains the authentic expressions of the life of God’s people.

By reporting religion in the news, I aim to bring theological discourse outside the restricted confines of the classroom and the church and into the streets. In the process, I am making this theological discourse accountable to a population of people. Liberation theology can only have integrity if it is done in tandem with a struggling community.

Writing: public theology activism

Writing has always been associated with the work of academicians, theologians and journalists, not activists. But writing to right a wrong, and writing for social justice is also the work of a public theology.

Much that is written about LGBT people is by heterosexuals. And whether it is in newspapers, magazines, movies or on television, that writing cannot escape misinformation or stereotypes. Much of who we are is seen and written through a complicated prism of homophobia that projects and condones lies, fears and violence perpetrated upon us for the holy sake of moral virtue and family values.

For my African ancestors, writing became a subversive tool, particularly in a Western culture that did not value the veracity of their lives told in an oral tradition. Writing allowed my ancestors to tell and to compile the stories of their lives as a sacred text. Hence, writing also makes visible, at least in print, those lives that are too often, with intent, omitted — especially the lives of street people. Therefore, writing is a political necessity.

For LGBT people, writing from their social location is not only a radically queer act, but also a subversive tool to de-center the centrality of the traditional theological canon in this society that values and lauds the writings by and about heterosexuals as normative. By our writings we create a counter voice — a text and knowledge that becomes a tool that not only gives us a voice, but also gives us power.

LGBT writers, journalists, theologians and activists should write because our lives depend on it. We should write because not to write would cause us to participate in our own death. We should write because those behind us, our progeny, will need it. We should write because our opuses become a canon for survival, and our holy bible. And we should write because we know our lives are sacred texts. Writing in this sense becomes both an act of liberation and of social activism which is the work of a public theology.

Bringing the street into the fold

In order for our churches and seminaries to step into the new millennium with a prophetic call, they must include in their folds those of us who are out on the streets. Their theologies must become “theologies-in-praxis,” applied Christianity that reaches the academy, the church and the public. The church and the academy must have an on-going relationship with each other and with the public that looks at reality from an involved, committed stance in light of a faith that does justice. Only then will the charges of inhospitality and parochialism be dropped from many of our churches and seminaries, and only then can both accurately reflect the authentic expressions of the lives of all of God’s people.

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