Today is the last day of June; a month full of rainbows and pride parades. Pride is an annual time of celebration for LGBTQ people (& allies) as LGBTQ people claim and joyfully proclaim their presence, value, and inherent worth in public spaces around the world. Pride events are held throughout the month of June because it was on June 28, 1969 (50 years ago this weekend) that a small, mafia owned bar in Greenwich Village, New York was raided by the police setting off a three day long series of riots and clashes between the LGBTQ community and police.
The bar in question was called the Stonewall Inn and it was the unlikely birthplace of Pride. You may be more aware of Stonewall now given the celebrations of the Stonewall Uprising’s 50th Anniversary that happened over the weekend. Or perhaps you have heard of it because, in 2016, President Barack Obama designated a national historic site called the Stonewall National Monument in the area of Christopher Park, the surrounding streets, and the Stonewall Inn itself. Don’t fret if you haven’t heard of Stonewall before – I myself was out of the closet and married to a woman for several years before I even attended my first Pride parade and it was only there that I learned about the events at Stonewall.
I learned because one of my friends in the group we were heading to pride with decided I needed to be decked out in something more celebratory and queer than my standard black shirt (yes, I have been wearing black shirts for a very long time!). She plopped a pink hat on my head with the word Stonewall scribbled across it in cursive font. I was so caught up with the adjustment to wearing a pink hat in public that I didn’t even think to ask her what Stonewall meant right away. As we made our way through the gathering of people awaiting the arrival of the Minneapolis Pride Parade, I found myself being nodded to and even a few folks said ‘yeah, Stonewall!’ to me as we merrily wandered around. Finally I realized that, it wasn’t my awesomeness they were reacting to – it was my hat.
So I said to my friend: “What is Stonewall??”
“What is Stonewall?!” She said in disbelief. “You’ve never heard about Stonewall?”
“No, I don’t know what it is.” I replied feeling sheepish and also a little wary about what message I was unknowingly advertising on my head.
She went on to tell me that Stonewall was a bar in New York where gay rights had its first breakthrough into the public civil rights arena through a series of riots where gay people finally took a stand and said: enough.
You see, in 1969 it was illegal for a bar to serve alcohol to a known homosexual [honestly, there were a lot of things illegal about being homosexual in the 60s]. And yet there were, as there always have been, LGBTQ people in existence in 1969 and some of those people liked to be social and spend time with their friends and possibly even beloveds in public. They liked to go out on the town and have a good time together. Many establishments would not open their doors to the LGBT community [I will intentionally drop the letter Q here for a moment from the acronym that I usually use because at that time queer was still used primarily as a derogatory label even though it has been reclaimed by many in today’s context). To open doors to the LGBT community – came with legal complications – every so often the police would raid locations that were known or suspected hangouts for LGBT people. And those raids often ended in the arrest of LGBT patrons and the seizure of the establishment’s liquor. Yet there were some businesses that saw the profit possible from being a gay bar and so they opened their doors to the LGBT community and worked the system to get forewarnings of possible raids so as to be able to hide their liquor and warn clients before the police showed up.
Something went wrong with the warning system in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 and before anyone had a chance to hide the liquor, turn on the lights, or clear the dance floor the police were in the building coraling the employees and sending the clientele outside. There had been several raids in the local area in the days leading up to this one and the LGBT community was getting restless. On this night, instead of simply heading home relieved that they hadn’t been arrested and without worry that their picture might appear in the morning paper, the community stayed out in the street. A crowd gathered and grew in number, standing their ground and refusing to be cowed into hiding. The standoff wasn’t violent at first. One eye-witness account tells the story of a group of drag queens who formed a chorus line and started dancing in the street. For several days the LGBT community came out together to speak out and stand up to the police line. In the hours and days after the chorus line there came some more aggressive encounters: chanting crowds, the taunting of police, stone throwing at police cars, and attempts to overturn a police vehicle. Yet not all of the interactions were violent. As the confrontations came to a close gay men were seen publicly holding hands and even kissing in the street.
The uprising was a spark of life in the civil rights movement for LGBTQ people. It wasn’t the beginning of the LGBTQ rights movement – but it was certainly a unifying rallying point. Frank Kameny, an LGBT right pioneer affirms this reality: “By the time of Stonewall, we had fifty or sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there at least 1500. By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was twenty-five hundred. And that was the impact of Stonewall.”
By now you might be curious what this micro history of Stonewall has to do with the Galatians text we heard read this morning. So let’s take a look at that for a bit.
The faith community that Paul was writing to in Galatia (part of what is now modern day Turkey) was a community of followers of the Jesus Way. Some were lifelong Jews who followed Torah Law and lived in the assurance and hope of the everlasting promise of God to Abraham. The community also included those who this scripture refers to as: Greeks – or non-Jewish people – who were now sharing life and worship with the Jewish community in a new way. Many of the Greek folks were trying to find their footing on the path and were attempting to take up the practice of Torah Law – including circumcising themselves and finding other ways they could live into the assurance of God’s promise to Abraham the way their Jewish siblings in community did.
Paul writes this part of the letter to the Galatians to affirm and assure both groups that their focus shouldn’t be on having the non-Jewish members fall in line with the traditions and practices of the Jewish community, but should instead the focus of their shared life together should be on living out and celebrating their shared connections in Christ. It is a reminder that it is in Christ that they are brought into the presence of God.
In Christ, you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.
There is no earning entry into the promise and presence of God – the gift of faith and the open door of connection exposed by Christ means that all are part of God’s beloved community. Where cultural differences, socio-economic status, and gender roles remained a guiding framework for life beyond the church community; within the community of faith, all are called and empowered to take part to receive and be received by God and each other.
Paul isn’t actually focused on social justice or legal reform in his framework, he is focused on people living in the community of Christ, in the presence of God here and now. Yet, in our time and place, the two go hand in hand. Living in the presence of God means seeking the welfare of all people. It means living towards just and right relationships in all moments as individuals and as a community. And as people who live within the web of a complex and often socially corrupt society, it also means working for justice and transformation within the framework of our culture.
In our current culture we are pushed toward separation, towards otherness. False, fear-based narratives are used as fuel to empower and excuse the mistreatment of people who may not fall into certain categories that have been deemed appropriate. We mistreat those we believe are out of line to make them an example with the hopes that it will induce change in others. We see this in the events leading up to the Stonewall Uprising, where those declared unfit and unnatural, according to the rules of cultural norms, were dehumanized, declared illegal and forced into a life of secrecy and hiding.
We see this in action now with the immigration debate in our country, which is not just a politicized debate and play for power – it is live action manipulation and mistreatment of people that is perpetrating and reinforcing trauma within the bodies and souls of migrant people. Threats of raids and actual raids, separation of families, and the mistreatment of those held in the care and custody of our nation are traumatizing people of all ages. People are suffering, they are literally dying.
As people of faith who seek to live in the presence of God and work for the welfare of all people, we are called to active response. We are pushed to the edge of our understanding of how this model of behavior and practice in our mainstream culture can be acceptable. In our seeking we turn to the scriptures, a constant source of counter-cultural and revolutionary ideas and tales. And we find this passage that reminds us that Christ’s connection among us is within and beyond all that we are. It strips away the cultural categories that would bind us apart from justice as individuals or have us ostracized from each other in community. It declares us equal and valuable in the presence of God.
There is a deep hope and promise in that and yet somehow, to be stripped of categorical boxes of identification feels confusing too. Categories help identify us, they are a handle on the ineffable nature of identity, they give us a place to belong, a name we claim, a sense of pride – something to celebrate. To strip away our categorical understandings of who we are and how we live in the world can translate as chaos in our minds – it can feel like a void in our spirits.
If we dig deep and look back to the very beginning, scripture also reminds us what happens in the presence of chaos: God is present, hovering over and speaking into all voids, calling forth something new, calling forth life.
God does not strip us from our identities. We do not lose our sense of self or the categories that offer us insight and understanding in how we live and move and have our being in the world. What God offers, in Christ, is a living connection that transcends the boundaries that our culture would have those categories create. It is a thriving of life beyond the human fear and politics that would try to divide and control us.
Poet Joy Harjo was recently named the upcoming Poet Laureate of the United States. She is the first Native American to serve in the position. In an interview with NPR about the appointment, Harjo said that “humanizing and healing will be her aims as Poet Laureate. ‘A healing of people speaking to each other, with each other…I really believe if people sit together and hear their deepest feelings and thoughts beyond political divisiveness, it makes connections. There’s connections made that can’t be made with politicized language.’”
This is the kind of connection that Paul is declaring to the community of faith in Galatia and to us now. Connection that offers a path of life that celebrates the wholeness of our beings without being impeded by the differences between us. It is a connection that draws us together beyond any differences we may have; empowering us to live in the presence of God, working for the welfare of all of God’s people.
Michael Levine, was one of the patrons at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the raid in 1969. He shared his memories of the event in a StoryCorps recording. During the conversation he was asked:
“How did you feel about yourself between the beginning of Stonewall and after Stonewall? Did you feel that you were a different person?”
“No, I didn’t feel that I was a different person, I was the same me. I was a homosexual person coming from an old fashioned Jewish neighborhood, living in Greenwich Village on my own. I felt the same. I felt comfortable. But I felt the world now was more comfortable with me. And Stonewall did that for me”.
Stonewall was just one step on the path of the civil rights road for LGBTQ people. There have been many barriers broken down for LGBTQ people as a result of the life and movement that was called forth from the chaos of that moment. And yet there are still connections to be made, transformation and healing that is yet to happen. A recent survey of LGBTQ people during Pride month reports that most LGBTQ Americans fear they will experience discrimination or face violence if they hold hands in public. There is still work to be done in our culture and in the church. When the denomination gathers next week in Kansas City for MCUSA’s biennial convention, Pink Menno will celebrate it’s tenth anniversary as an organization calling forth a spirit of connection, justice, and well being for LGBTQ and all people in the church. There is still work to be done.
Chaos abounds and Christ is present creating connections among us, calling forth life for all.