LGBT, religious leaders discuss shared tensions
As an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and dean of Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University, Thomas Wolfe finds himself negotiating two often contradictory worlds.
His church has an official stance of exclusivity regarding members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, but he is the dean of a chapel that is open to all students.
‘Those worlds don’t always align themselves easily,’ Wolfe said at a panel discussion titled ‘Religious Concerns/LGBT Concerns in Higher Education: Different Dialogues’ on Monday.
The panel included Cris Mayo, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign; Wolfe; The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville Burrows, Episcopal/Anglican chaplain at Hendricks Chapel; Adrea Jaehnig, director of the LGBT Resource Center and Rabbi Steven Greenberg from the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Wolfe said he is actively working to change perceptions of the LGBT community within the Methodist church.
‘I am in a constant state of lover’s quarrel with my tradition,’ he said. ‘I don’t leave my tradition because I believe, at its heart, it has the language to be inclusive.’
On a campus which was recently voted as one of the top 100 LGBT-friendly campuses in the country, many students have to negotiate the complexities of a lifestyle that is seen by many to be in conflict with their religion.
Religion can be used to find meaning and identity in one’s life, but it can also be oppressive, said Jaehnig.
‘For many LGBT people, religion and spirituality have often been experienced as pain and shame,’ Jaehnig said.
Jaehnig cited an example from her academic work with gay and lesbian students. She spoke about a girl, whom Jaehnig called ‘Alyssa,’ who grew up on a military base in an Irish, Catholic family.
When Alyssa confessed to her priest that she was gay, he didn’t seem concerned. Unlike her other sins she confessed, the priest did not tell her to say Hail Marries in order to repent. Alyssa believed that the priest saw her as a lost cause, Jaehnig said.
‘I figured officially, according to Catholic doctrine, I’m going to Hell,’ the student told Jaehnig.
Jaehnig said fundamental conservatives in the United States have ostracized the LGBT community. With little resources, the LGBT people cannot combat their explosive rhetoric. She said the most powerful conservative advocacy groups have more money than the 10 largest LGBT advocacy groups combined.
‘Powerful conservative forces under the guise of religion have succeeded in creating a division between LGBT people and people of faith,’ Jaehnig said.
According to the 2005 LGBT campus climate survey conducted at SU, 71 percent of the LGBT community did not feel included or only felt slightly included in religious events and organizations on campus. Only 6.7 percent felt substantially or extremely included.
Wolfe maintains, despite these statistics, that Hendricks Chapel is open to all students.
‘For me the open door is the symbol of our chapel and that’s not by accident,’ he said. ‘The door is open for everybody. It just is.’
Shortly after Wolfe became dean of Hendricks Chapel, he proposed an addition to chapel policy allowing for same-sex commitment ceremonies.
In 1999 it was unanimously adopted by the Chaplain’s Council.
‘I just found that it was time to put in writing that we have a safe space for LGBT communities,’ he said. ‘We’re talking about whether a relationship has integrity here.’
Amit Taneja, assistant director of the LGBT Resource Center, said it is very difficult to make generalizations about LGBT people’s relationships with religion.
‘It comes up in different ways for different people,’ he said. ‘Different people are at different places in their lives.’
Some struggle because they have been told by members of their religion that being gay is wrong; still others are looking for a space to have a same-sex union. Others deal with religion when finding ways to cope with the loss of a loved one, Taneja said.
‘Some students, faculty and staff say they may feel disconnected with religion, but that in no way represents the majority,’ he said. ‘A lot of our students express deep spiritual connections, but they are often expressed in different ways.’
Hendricks Chapel and the LGBT Resource Center work together throughout the year to provide opportunities for students to affirm their religious identities, Taneja said.
In the past year, Taneja said, they have organized a Shabbat Service in conjunction with Hillel at the LGBT Resource Center, there was a discussion group at Hendricks Chapel for LGBT students struggling with their religious identity and chaplains have been invited to the center to affirm students for who they are.
The Rev. Kelly Sprinkle, Protestant chaplain at SU, said he works with a number of LGBT students.
‘My job is to be a pastor to all people and I don’t discriminate,’ he said. ‘Human sexuality is not a barrier to worship here.’
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Sprinkle said he has performed several gay marriages. His church, he said, is very progressive. The first gay person was ordained in 1979.
Chaplain Baskerville Burrows is ordained in the Episcopalian Church. For the past 40 years, she said, human sexuality has been a topic of conversation at the church’s conventions.
After the Episcopalian Church declared that sexuality would no longer be a barrier to become ordained, Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, became bishop in New Hampshire.
Baskerville Burrows said her friend of more than 10 years, an ordained bishop in another church, told her they could no longer remain friends because of what her religion represented in light of the church’s decision.
‘If it’s suspected that I’m on a road that will cause my demise, I mean to her I’m basically going to Hell, we can no longer talk,’ she said.
When Greenberg came out of the closet in 1999, he was met with opposition from fellow Orthodox Jews.
‘To be orthodox and gay is the same as eating a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur,’ he was told.
People told him to give up orthodoxy, but Greenberg said he intensely identified with the church.
‘I couldn’t give it up anymore than I could deny that I’m gay,’ he said.
While Greenberg does not expect other members of his temple to understand his sexuality, he said he knows that God does.
‘Homophobia is one small room in the hotel of misogyny,’ he said. ‘God has not reviled you. There is room for you and they might not get it yet, but they will.’
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