Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Larry Yang and Imam Dayiee Abdullah. Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and the Shower of Stoles. From the choral event. Photos by Andrew Davis and Suzanne Kraus
By Andrew Davis
Open-mindedness was just one of the many issues delved into at the 'Faith and Fairness' town meeting, which took place at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Randolph, on July 16.
The panel that examined LGBT issues as they relate to religion was a diverse and formidable one. Among the participants were the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who is president of Chicago Theological Seminary; Imam Dayiee Abdullah, the moderator for the Muslim Gay Men Discussion Group; Larry Yang, an ordained monk who leads Buddhist meditation retreats for LGBTQ communities, among others; and Rabbi Joshua Lesser, the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Haverim. The event was moderated by Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign, which sponsored the event.
Thistlethwaite focused on the Bible. 'Is it a book of rules that says 'no, no, no'—or is it the ultimate 'yes' to God and humanity? ... It is God's 'yes' to us, and we profane that sacred 'yes' by saying 'no.'' She added that 'this LGBT [ -centered ] movement is a spiritual one that moves through our society. ... Finding the strength within yourself is the work of the spirit. In addition, she contended that 'the rulebook is a misreading of the Bible.'
Among other things, Abdullah agreed with the media's presentation that many Muslims do not truly understand their faith, but added that few actually discuss the issue of faith. Moreover, he stated the goal of the Muslim faith should be peace, not 'hating other people.'
Yang mentioned that a newspaper asked him what seemed like a simple question: 'Why is it important for communities of faith to embrace lesbians and gays?' After answering, he found the issue to be troubling at first but then realize that faith-based communities do include the LGBT community. 'However, if you have to ask [ that question ] , my answer would be for the same reason it's important [ for ] communities of faith to embrace anyone who lives a life of narrow-minded, judgmental hatred,' he added. 'Spiritual practice and spiritual faith fill a deep human need to reach for and experience something greater than one's limited experience. All spiritual traditions ... speak toward aspirations of kindness, compassion, non-harm and love for all beings—including beings who give us difficulty and even those who hate us.'
Lesser embraced the fact that, as a child, he was allowed to question and doubt—'and that didn't mean that faith couldn't exist,' he said. He also talked about how he was a perpetually angry individual—but he realized that 'the whole range of human emotion can be tools in using [ his ] faith,' which allowed him to enter rabbinical school 'with a chip on his shoulder larger than [ him ] self,' which he said probably led to his foray into bodybuilding. However, he also added that arguing and even hating the text could lead to finding 'peace and calm within the text.' Additionally, he declared that 'folks who have been engaged in [ their ] faith for too long get caught on [ critics' ] playing field—and our tools don't always work on their playing field.'
A question-and-answer session followed the presentations. Then, attendees adjourned to an adjacent room where a rousing concert took place. Bishop Yvette Flounder spoke, and among the performers were singer Shirley Miller, IllumiNation Chorale, The Drum Divas and The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.
Also on display was the Shower of Stoles, a collection of more than 1,000 liturgical stoles and other holy items from LGBT individuals from 26 denominations in six countries. Each stole contains the story of a GLBT person who is active in the faith community.