On Sunday, leaders from four faiths — Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity — met to talk about their relationships, but not with each other. The Human Rights Campaign and Brown Memorial’s Tiffany Series co-hosted a panel discussion on “Faith Matters: Religion and the LGBTQ Community in Fractious Times.”
Del. Mary Washington (D-District 43), who is one of eight openly gay members of the Maryland General Assembly, moderated the panel and began by stating that she, and many others, were “born in a time where our gender identity precluded us from being part of a faith community.”
Washington told the group of around 50 participants gathered under the historic, stained-glass Tiffany windows at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church that the LGBTQ community has made enormous strides toward ending discrimination against sexual orientation, but recently, she asserted: “The backlash has been strong, hard and unrelenting.”
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen provided an LGBTQ voice for Judaism at the event. In addition to sharing teaching, pastoral and liturgical responsibilities, Sachs-Kohen advises the congregation’s Social Action Task Force, which has concentrated in recent years on marriage equality and civil rights issues.
Sachs-Kohen said that as much fear as there is about backsliding, the LGBTQ community nevertheless has “accomplished a lot” recently. “Things are changing slowly on the conservative end, but there are still changes.” Sachs-Kohen asserted that although Judaism “begins with the Torah, the revelation doesn’t end there.”
“There has always been a robust process” of interpretation and scholarship in Judaism — although different Jewish traditions “land in different places” in these interpretations, according to Sachs-Kohen. And even if some traditions believe religious laws are unchanging, “broader society has changed and allows people to be visible. Even if we’re not as far ahead as we’d like, at least we can imagine what it’s like to be gay.”
She decided to come out as a rabbi because she wanted to ensure that anyone who was LGBTQ in her congregation “would be able to see someone living fully in their truth.” She noted that she was not the first rabbi to be ‘out’ at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
Sachs-Kohen said she is “grateful” for her accepting community, but other religious leaders on the panel faced challenges within their own congregations after coming out.
Baptist Bishop Allyson Abrams, pastor of Empowerment Liberation Cathedral in Silver Spring, Md., founded this church three years ago when, in her Detroit-based Baptist congregation, her marriage caused intense debate. She said she “refused to leave my [faith] because of some people’s ideas.”
Her move to Maryland and growth in her new church showed a real need for an inclusive Baptist congregation.
“There are so many people out there who would love to have the opportunity to worship and to serve their church.” Providing that opportunity, she said, is her mission. She was adamant in her statement that it is “not an oxymoron to be LGBTQ” in the Baptist church. “Why should I leave the God I love? Why should I be forced to leave that? God created me just as I am,” she said.
Andrew Foster Connors, senior pastor at Brown Memorial since 2004, identified as an ally to the LGBTQ community. He was part of the “busing experiment in Wayne County, N.C.” but, as a child, was not aware of the societal changes happening around him.
“I grew up with the idea of ‘normal,’” he said, but came to understand through his experiences working in different communities, that his ‘normal’ was “white world perspective. It wasn’t ‘normal’; it was just a perspective.”
By college, Connors, who had a gay roommate, said he was “done with religion” but “kept taking all these ‘searching for meaning’ classes” and made his way back to his religion. “There are ways of taking fresh looks at things,” he said, that can help people come together, and “digging deeper” into one’s own religious faith can actually help people better understand those whose beliefs and lives differ from their own.
Anushka Aqil, a Pakistani-American who identifies as a queer Muslim, is a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is heavily involved in working on the connections of religion and intimate partner violence in South Asian immigrant communities.
“[Islamic] faith is culture, so coming out as queer challenged my identity,” she said. She moved to the United States 14 years ago, found a supportive community in Boston, and came out five years ago. “I can never go back [to Pakistan] and hold my partner’s hand in the street,” she said, and she still questions whether it’s OK to identify as queer, “although, if you ask me, I’ll tell you it’s OK!” She conceded: “I’m still figuring it out.”
Jann Jackson, a Buddhist teacher, student and practitioner of Buddhism, believes her faith directs and empowers her to create an accepting world for the LGBTQ community, saying that she has found the “deep inner work” of her religion has “led to deep outer work.” Jackson says that for her, “political work is spiritual work.” Her faith helps her to foster “empathy … for people who are not like us. …We’re all looking for meaning. There’s more that we share in common than what divides us.”
Naomi (who asked to be identified by a different name), a congregant from Brown Memorial who identifies as queer, attended because she “grew up in a denomination that viewed what I was as diseased, as wrong.” She clarified: “It was never actually said in my house. My parents were open and loving. But it was something I knew, even as a child, when I grew up dressing as a boy.”
Naomi quit her church, viewing it as a “forum for hatred,” and turned to atheism for 10 years but now finds herself drawn back to religion. “I can be myself here. [Brown Memorial] welcomes me and my spouse.”
Sachs-Kohen recommended that Jewish community members who identify as LGBTQ “find a congregation that’s affirming.” She said she has hope for them, and for the future, sharing: “This morning I spoke with fifth- and sixth-graders and their parents about anti-Semitism.” She said both children and parents suggested responding to anti-Semitism by reaching out to groups that are hurting in our society: immigrants, Muslims, and people who need help. That attitude, she says, “is what I hope will get us to where we need to be.”
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.