Thursday, July 30, 2009

Q&A with Rev. Mari Castellanos on the LGBT community and faith

By Lisa Kaiser
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I wasn’t able to attend last week’s Voices of Faith meeting, which featured a talk given by Rev. Mari Castellanos, Public Policy Advocate with the United Church of Christ’s national office, but I was able to speak with her beforehand about the bridges being built by the LGBT community and people of faith. That’s a topic made especially relevant by the formation of Voices of Faith, a project within Equality Wisconsin (formerly Center Advocates). Here’s what the Rev. Castellanos had to say to me—I think you’ll find her to be thought-provoking and really, really cool.


Shepherd: What are you going to speak about tonight?

Castellanos: I’m going to speak about justice, which is not “just us.” And I’m going to make some references to who the God of the Bible is, and God’s passion for love and justice, which is inseparable. You cannot separate those two terms in biblical theology. They are the same.

And I am going to talk about how the Bible is a migration story. If you look at some of the important narratives inside that book they are migration narratives. You have Abraham and Sarah being sent by God to move to their homeland, and they wind up going all the way to Egypt from present-day Iraq. And then you have Moses and the Israelites in that amazing exodus story. Then you have in the New Testament, the first thing that happens—I don’t think people stop to think about that, because we stop in the Christmas Gospel when the Magi left, and we never go to the verse that says “and then they left and went to Egypt.” They became refugees. That was the first thing that happened to Jesus in his life—he became an immigrant. The Bible is a migration text.

So it is almost impossible to not know or understand that from biblical theology migration is just a part of who the people of God are. I’m going to mention how interesting it is that some of the same people who hate gay people also hate immigrants. You have some of the radio “personalities,” for lack of a better word, that are just as vile to gay and lesbian people as they are to immigrants. I’m saying that people who are all about justice, it’s not just us. If we asked GLBT people to work on rights and justice, then we need to be about justice ourselves. We might become advocates for people who suffer injustice, like when you have an ICE raid and children are left behind when their parents are taken away. Those are issues of justice. If we want to claim to be people of justice, then it can’t just be just us ourselves.

Shepherd: That’s very relevant here in Milwaukee, where the LGBT community is making alliances with other groups, such as faith-based organizations and Hispanic groups.

Castellanos: That’s wonderful that people have been able to put those things together. Because the only people who don’t seem to have the same contempt for both gay people and immigrants are the conservative evangelical churches, because they are out there evangelizing and reaching out to the Hispanic community in force. I think that the GLBT community needs to realize how scary that is.

I’m speaking not only about what is right but what is politically smart. We need to understand that if your enemies are trying to befriend a community that is very dangerous for you. This is something that we need to be very aware of and to do it because it’s the right thing to do, to be there working for justice for immigration and for immigrant children, like in the DREAM Act, which I think is a no-brainer. These coalitions are very important for the future of a kinder and gentler world.

Shepherd: The United Church of Christ has been very welcoming to LGBT members for decades.

Castellanos: Yes. In fact, four years ago at our general synod in Atlanta we passed a same-sex marriage resolution. Everybody thought the church was going to collapse. But it hasn’t.

Shepherd: What impact has that had on your congregations?

Castellanos: Some congregations, we’ve lost, but we’ve also gained some congregations. Some large churches have joined because they want to be part of the progressive movement in the Christian church.

Shepherd: What do your members understand that many other Christians don’t?

Castellanos: It’s not as if there aren’t other people in the other denominations that are making a difference. If you watch the developments of the Episcopal Church a couple of weeks ago—that’s pretty good. It’s just a matter of time. Churches don’t change from one day to the next. It takes years, decades—sometimes centuries—for churches to reverse themselves. Yes, things can sometimes be dramatic. But eventually the church and some societies will have to catch up with the post-modern world we live in.

Shepherd: What can you say to people who are in the conservative evangelical movement who are not treating gays and lesbians or immigrants fairly?

Castellanos: If they’re not treating people well, then they really need to go back and read their book because that’s what this is all about—love and kindness and being decent human beings with each other. Once you start attacking people you really need to think about what you’re calling yourself. If you want to be a wicked individual, that’s one thing. But if you want to call yourself a religious person then you need to address what that means. That means you are supposed to be a person of kindness and charity and not somebody who is persecuting someone else. First of all because we don’t know the mind of God. I think it’s very risky to start trying to act as if we have all of the truth and the mind of God was ours to grasp. I always say the only God I know, and the only God I read about, is the God of justice and mercy. I need to take my cue from that. Judgment is not mine.

Shepherd: Wisconsin has a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which was approved by voters. There were people of faith on both sides of that debate. What’s the proper role of faith-based people in a political issue like this one?

Castlellanos: This is a very American problem. In many countries you have marriage as a civil contract. You go before a justice of the peace and you get married. If they are religious people they will have a religious ceremony. So I think that the role of the church is doing that religious ceremony and blessing the love of people and witnessing, which is really all that we do.

I’ve married many couples and I always say “I’m not marrying you, you are marrying each other. I’m only a witness.” The two people are making the promise to one another. The essence from a religious point of view is that people marry each other. As a person of faith I’m there to bless love and be encouraging so that love can blossom and bear fruit.

The civil law on marriage—I think now that the Episcopal Church came out so strong on it, it doesn’t feel so lonely in the UCC. It will be a very powerful movement, within all of the denominations. It’s just a matter of time. The church was not the force. The church had to catch up with abolition, even though as a member of the UCC I’m very proud to say as a member of the congregation whose ancestors were very much involved in the abolitionist movement. But it wasn’t the bishops pushing it—it was a popular movement of people of good faith. So the change is going to come from the people and the church is just going to have to catch up.

Shepherd: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Castellanos: I’d just like to say to people that we are all very much alike. Our DNAs are similar. It’s a lot more important to find the things we have in common and to know one another as people so that we develop the trust and we begin to accept each other in the all-encompassing aspects of who we are. Go with what we have in common, not what tears us apart. The people that insist on just speaking to the things that keep us apart—shame on them.

I’m always reminded of when 20 years ago when a madman went into St. Peter’s cathedral in the Vatican and took a sledgehammer to the Pieta and did some serious damage. It took the genius of Michelangelo and who knows how much effort and time to create that masterpiece, one of the most exquisite sculptures in the world. But it only took one madman to destroy it with a sledgehammer. Anyone can destroy. But it takes a lot of love and dedication and commitment to build up things that will stand out as beautiful semblances of who God is in our midst.

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