“I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Social Justice and the Emerging New Age (1963)
As we celebrated Martin Luther King Day this week, I thought of how what he did in transforming our country’s attitudes toward blacks could inspire a similar transformation in our treatment of gay men and lesbians. At a speech he gave at the West Michigan University in 1963, King observed, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution…. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” It occurred to me that in 2013 one could come to the same conclusion about gays. While gay men and lesbians have equal status in some churches, in many they do not.
I remember being inspired by King when I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement during the sixties. But I also remember how he was vilified, including by some of my fellow Mormons, even some leaders. Although devastated by King’s death, I continued to work for full rights for blacks, including their ordination to the priesthood. That was not a popular position to take during those years, but, as King said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
King was single-minded in his pursuit of justice and expanded his quest for it beyond his own race. As he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is not difficult to imagine that were he alive his voice would be among the most powerful and persuasive calling for full civil and human rights for gay men and lesbians.
The Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, unable to attend sacrament service at one of the wards near my son’s home in Los Angeles, I went instead to St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Mar Vista. It was the second Sunday after Epiphany, the day the Christian world celebrates the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi. As I worshiped with other Christians at St. Bede’s, I was particularly attuned to how the service might illuminate our treatment of gay men and lesbians in the Church. In the Episcopal service, the Second Sunday after Epiphany focuses on Jesus’s first miracle, performed at the wedding feast at Cana. As with everything he did, what Jesus does on this occasion is both symbolically significant and wonderfully dramatic—he changes something ordinary (water) into something extraordinary (a high-quality wine), and in doing so shows God’s abundant generosity; as the program for the service notes, “God is lavish, even profligate, in giving grace.”
Most of all Jesus wanted his followers to believe that in performing this miracle, he had the power to transform them and, through them, to transform the world. As Rumi says:
Where Jesus Is, the Great-Hearted Gather.
We are a door that’s never locked.
If you are suffering any kind of pain, stay near this door.
Based on recent events, I sense that an increasing number of my fellow Latter-day Saints are trying to be that kind of door into the Church for our gay brothers and sisters.
In his poem, “Wedding Toast,” composed for his daughter’s wedding, the American poet, Richard Wilbur, uses Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast in Cana to speak of the abundance love makes possible:
St. John tells how, at Cana’s wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.
It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.
Which is to say that what love sees is true . . .
This suggests to me that when as Latter-day Saint leaders and members we “elect [that is, choose] to bless” our gay and lesbian fellow saints with our love, acceptance and support, our love will “brim to a sweet excess” blessing us all with its abundance. What love we express in our daily lives in this way “is true,” and, as with Jesus’ miracle at Cana, “can without depletion overflow.” When this happens, to again quote Martin Luther King, “justice [will] roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”