This week, following in the footsteps of our bishop, I signed the Unity Pledge on behalf of our St. John’s parish community. As of last week’s Diocesan Convention, the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona is the largest faith-based entity to attach its name to the pledge. The Unity Pledge is the largest equality pledge in the nation. By signing this pledge on behalf of our community, I affirmed that we commit to include absolutely everyone into the worship life of our church at St. John’s. This is true for people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and more. I understand this pledge to be parallel to our baptismal covenant, through which we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP p. 305). To live into this commitment, it is important that we clearly articulate that all people are welcome at our parish. This is true even when we must confront differences in ways that might make some of us uncomfortable.
Why might it be uncomfortable to be inclusive? Well, because it is human nature to refrain from worrying about things that don’t really affect us. When we talk of topics like white privilege, for instance, white people may not be aware that they experience such privilege because it has never been an obstacle. Many white people have never been followed by security in a store based on looks alone. Many have never been denied a mortgage or auto financing simply for the same reason. Many have never experienced missing out on a job interview because the name on their resumé seemed “too ethnic.” If someone does not witness these types of things, then how can that person expect to know that there’s a problem unless they are confronted with it? Often the confrontation can be uncomfortable. Yet we must not let discomfort lead us down a path of unwillingness to listen.
During my theological training, I have been confronted time and time again with situations that got me outside of my comfort zone. For example, when I was in seminary in Berkeley, California, I was introduced for the first time to something called an “all-gender restroom.” I found myself wondering, what exactly does that mean? Well, I got my answer one day when I felt my tummy rumbling during a class session. I had to use the restroom, and apparently there was no “men’s room” like I had been used to for all my life. In order to accommodate students who do not belong to gender binaries, the restrooms were the same for everyone. While using the restroom, I noticed, into the stall next to mine, the familiar shoes of a female friend and classmate walked in. She used the toilet next to mine. I became immediately more uncomfortable, knowing I was now sharing the room with someone of a different gender. How was I supposed to navigate this? Now, some ten years later, this kind of occurrence doesn’t bother me. But it was certainly uncomfortable at first. Part of our commitment to the Unity Pledge says that our community welcomes all people. This means there is a possibility that someone who is gender nonbinary may use a restroom at St. John’s that doesn’t fit preconceived notions. This also means that it is really only that individual’s business to determine which restroom most closely aligns to their gender identity.
For years and years and years, we’ve been taught that men use the men’s room and women use the ladies’ room. But not everyone fits neatly into a box of gender expectations. And, at a certain point, we must ask ourselves, what really is the problem here? This is an important question to ask. I know there can be a tendency to think that the concept of a myriad of genders is something new. But the truth of the matter is that gender is and has always been a spectrum. The reason we’re hearing more and more about it is because it is finally becoming safe for people to explore gender non-binaries without having to worry about as many repercussions or consequences. Abiding by the Unity Pledge is an example of how we can promote safety for our gender nonbinary siblings. More and more people are showing more and more compassion to the trans community, and more and more people are lovingly welcoming members of the trans community to live and to be themselves in the world that previously would have rejected them.
Signing this pledge means that St. John’s has a true opportunity to live into our desire to be a loving, welcoming community. There are many ways marginalized people are harmed, but one of the most hurtful is deception. If a community says it is loving and welcoming, and someone puts their trust in that loving, welcoming statement, then that community must live into what it professes. If a person makes themself vulnerable and sets aside caution, only to realize they’ve been deceived, then the effects are tremendously damaging. Signing the Unity Pledge means we have a commitment to welcoming people regardless of where they are in life’s journey. It is important that we live into this vow.
Signing this pledge does not mean we are changing our behaviors. It means we are going to continue what we already do, by extending a warm, friendly, and sincere welcome to all God’s people. It also means we challenge ourselves to listen to ways we can continue to become more and more inclusive, even when we might have made mistakes. We welcome all people into the sacramental life of the Church, whether they are trans or cisgender (a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth). We welcome everyone whether that person is male, female, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum. We welcome everyone regardless of race, age, or sexual orientation.
The word “sanctuary” comes to us from Latin. It means a holy place of refuge. In the old days, a fugitive from the law was extended immunity upon entering a sanctuary. A sanctuary, therefore, is a safe space. Our sanctuary at St. John’s must continue to be a safe space for all God’s people. Our commitment is to extend radical welcome and inclusivity. God willing, we will continue to welcome people here from all walks of life. People in opposite-sex relationships and people in same-sex relationships. People of all races and cultures. People who have always felt welcome and people who have felt like they’ve been marginalized. Everyone is welcome in this place. Together, we will continue to extend sanctuary to everyone who needs it. For some of us, that means we’re going to have to get outside our comfort zones a little bit. For others, it means we’re going to have to get outside our comfort zones a lot. But we don’t grow in faith unless we get outside that comfort zone.
What do we do if we become uncomfortable, like I did, when someone enters a restroom and that person doesn’t appear to be using “the correct restroom”? Well, we realize that it really doesn’t matter who uses what restroom. The walls of a stall offer a degree of privacy. We also know that people are in the bathroom for a reason. That reason is a very normal, natural thing that everyone does. We all remember the children’s book entitled Everybody Poops. Well, everyone does do that. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t pleasant to talk about, but everyone does poop (we also pee, by the way). And while there are plenty of places to do those lovely activities, the most sanitary place is undoubtedly the restroom. Public restrooms might not be as comfortable as our home restrooms, but they are clean and well-stocked, and they have soap and water to wash our hands when we’re done.
The Unity Pledge means we will not “police” bathrooms based on whether someone looks like they ought to be there. It isn’t our responsibility to ensure someone “looks masculine enough” to use the men’s room or “feminine enough” to use the ladies’ room. If we find ourselves in a place of discomfort, we can prayerfully reflect on why. This is how we learn and grow in faith.
Sometimes practicing our faith is messy. It isn’t neat and tidy like we would like it to be. We don’t all fit into categorical boxes, and we don’t get to define others or put them in one of their own. We each get to define ourselves. Each of us is made in the image of a loving God, a loving God who has no race, no sexual orientation, and no gender. A loving God who wants us to be ourselves and who wants us to protect the rights of others to be themselves. A God who is pleased when we step outside of our normal routines and allow ourselves to make friends with discomfort. A God who calls us to love others and to be loved. My hope is that you agree with the verbiage of the Unity Pledge and that everyone at St. John’s will continue to learn and grow. If there are concerns you’d like to discuss, I welcome a conversation. I believe the Unity Pledge is a terrific step we can make toward building a more welcoming, more inclusive Church. A Church where all God’s people will know they are loved. Thank you for joining me, as we join the rest of the diocese, in affirming our love for all God’s people.