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LGBT religious inclusion sparks questions for seminarians
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Derrick Clifton

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Queer studies and theology may seem like polar opposite subjects, but the two ideas are inseparable for community members at Chicago Theological Seminary ( CTS ), where a May 1 presentation and memorial gathering stirred questions about faith and identity.

A room of more than 100 gathered for the annual Gilberto Castaneda Lecture, an event organizers say intends to inspire reflection about LGBTQ inclusion and justice, especially within religion. This year, Vanderbilt University professor and former CTS lecturer Laurel Schneider delivered the keynote address, entitled "Insiders Out," a dialogue about identity politics and how marginalized groups often outcast people from within.

CTS President Rev. Alice Hunt said the lecture builds from the seminary's heritage of progressive education, and is a key moment each year to discuss ongoing trends for inclusion within theology.

"We've been a seminary about radical inclusion for a very long time," said Hunt, who noted that CTS has offered LGBT studies courses since the 1970s. "Our faculty remains committed to be on the edge of the kind of scholarship that needs to happen so that there's inclusion across the board."

The evening was named in memory of an undocumented, gay immigrant and prospective seminarian who was a fixture in the CTS community. Professor Ted Jennings and his spouse, the Rev. Ronna Case, first met Castaneda during the late 1980s, while they were coordinating faith initiatives for undocumented workers in the region. He died of complications due to AIDS in 1994, at the age of 29.

"For Gilberto, the kingdom of God was like the joy he felt while riding a rollercoaster," Jennings said, as the couple recalled Castaneda's love of Six Flags parks while looking on at one such photo in a collage on display that evening.

Case's formal remarks that evening noted that although Castaneda had a gift for building community, he spent plenty of time alone to make space for friendship, which was one of the ways she said Castaneda experienced Jesus.

"He wrote letters to friends, practiced his guitar for church choir, listened to music, watched TV and got his few, but nice clothes cleaned at night," she said, adding that he cherished memories through collecting photos. On the back of a photo with friends, Case said, he wrote "Guilty or wanting everything to be fantastic and full of color in this my new life. But, more than that, knowing that the connection between love, friendship and brotherhood will always exist in the world and in my life."

Castaneda returned to Chicago in August of 1994, having survived an abusive relationship after relocating to the Southeast for a short time. But he was already severely ill, and would have mere weeks to live.

"He was infectious in his enthusiasm for building relationships," Jennings said. "Gilberto just fell in love with Jesus."

After the community paused to remember Gilberto, through song, guitar selections, responsive reading and prayer, Schneider delivered the keynote lecture, which she hopes will raise questions about people who are outcast within an oppressed group such as the LGBT community.

"I'm always asking, 'Who's being excluded?' and 'Where is the outside now?' so that we work hard to bring marginalized voices in. The outside, in a sense, is always constructed whenever we create an inside," she said. "It's incredibly difficult to ask the most wounded people to be the most willing to open themselves up once they've found an identity."

Schneider, whose research interests span postcolonial theory, queer theory, race theory and feminist theory—focusing on the intersections of identity—said her questions during the lecture are intended to address faith scholarship more so than tackling wider advocacy issues.

"I want [theologians] to think, if they claim queerness and they claim a religious identity, that they could push the envelope of what that means and... holding that identity lightly," she said, adding that it's challenging to do when outside forces attempt to erase any notion of identity. "I want to be empowered and I don't want to exclude. It's a constant process..."

The Gilberto Castaneda Lecture event also included the annual awarding of a university scholarship named in his honor. The scholarship recognizes an individual who embodies the seminary's values of LGBTQ inclusion within faith communities.

Jennings said tearfully that CTS' commitment to keeping Castaneda's memory alive is especially meaningful, as it honors someone whose life and gay, undocumented background would otherwise be undervalued and unnoticed.

"The least of these," he said, quoting scripture.

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