Sanctuaries and Tables


I woke up around 2am Sunday morning to see something on Facebook about a shooting at a bar in Orlando.  When I work up that morning to get ready for church, I knew the whole story: someone came into Pulse nightclub, a gay bar in Orlando and began shooting.  When it was all over 49 people were dead and 53 were injured.

When I got to church last Sunday morning, I had heard that 20 had died.  It was maybe 15 minutes before Sunday worship started that I heard that the number had risen dramatically to 50 (including the gunman).  I could feel a sense of heaviness in my heart.  So many lives, cut down in the blink of an eye.

One of the things that’s been bandied about over the last few days is how gay bars can be sanctuaries, safe spaces where LGBT people can be themselves.  I can understand that.  When I was coming out in the late 90s, it was the old Club Metro nightclub in St. Paul where I was able to be myself and hang out with my first boyfriend and meet other people.

Bars have been important gathering places for the LGBT community, especially when it wasn’t so safe to be out in other areas of life.  Things have changed, society has become more tolerant of LGBT people, same-sex marriage is legal everywhere.  The gay bar wasn’t as needed as it was 20 years ago, but it was still an important part of the coming of age story for many people in the LGBT community.

Which is why so many people are taking this shooting so hard.  The bar was a place where it seemed the less accepting outside world couldn’t touch you.  It was safe to hold hands and not be beaten up.  It was this pocket universe in the middle of a world that wasn’t always so tolerant.

That got me thinking about sanctuaries, because I know of another place that uses that word: church.  Churches are still not always places where one can be who they are.  Some churches are not safe sanctuaries.

As we continue our worship theme for the summer, “A House of Grace,” I would say to the members of First Christian-St. Paul that we need to make sure that our church is one that shows grace to all who enter.  We need to be sure that our sanctuary is just that: a sanctuary for people, especially LGBT communities, a place where they are protected.

A year ago, we officially became an Open and Affirming congregation.  How do we live that out? How to do we tell LGBT persons that they are welcome in the doors of this church?

It’s been interesting to see how the wider society has offered grace to people.  How a nation actually started talking about LGBT Americans, and did what they could to help.  I’ve been amazed at the outpouring of compassion coming from people, especially in quarters I would have never expect.  Landmarks in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Oklahoma City were lit up in the colors of LGBT pride. Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, hardly a bastion of LGBT inclusion, wrote the a number of compassionate Twitter posts in the wake of the news including one that said: “Christian, your gay or lesbian neighbor is probably really scared right now. Whatever our genuine disagreements, let’s love and pray.”  Jen Hatmaker, an evangelical writer, wrote acaring post about reaching out to LGBT neighbors at this time on Instagram. Indiana governor Mike Pence,who made news a while back for his support for a religious liberty law, offered prayers for the LGBT community. A Seventh-Day-Adventist Church in Orlando offered to do free funerals for the victims. A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Orlando opened on a Sunday to serve free food to the people waiting in line to give blood to the injured. (The chain is known for being closed on Sundays.) I know some will say that this is just show.  But I think it is a turning point in that 20 years ago if something like this happened, we would not see this kind of response.  In fact, something similar to what happened in Orlando took place in New Orleans in 1973 and was largely ignored by the larger society.

A killer tried to scare LGBT people into believing there was no sanctuary.  But I believe that God was at work, working through all of these people to make space for these wounded ones and the relatives of the dead.  But maybe new sanctuaries are popping up.

The other image that has come to mind is that of a table.  A table is a place where people gather, it’s a place where people who might not get along are placed together to share a meal.

In the past when such tragedies occur, politics were put aside for a while to mourn.  Sadly, this time around many people went to their respective ideological corners.

Some started talking about the availability of guns. Others wondered what is the best way to define the killer.  People started to pick sides about who was to blame for this event.

On my side of the LGBT debate, there are number of writers and even friends that refuse to accept the help from conservative Christians- unless they repent of their support for past policies.  Many gays and others blame conservative Christians for their longstanding support of policies that were not favorable to LGBT Americans.

I haven’t seen the interview where CNN report Anderson Cooper (who is gay) tear into a conservative Floridian politician.  It is probably a bit unseemly to let emotions get in the way of reporting, but as a gay man, I get it.  This attack the LGBT community in a way that no other event has.  As my husband Daniel said, it feels personal.

So, I get the anger.  But as Christians we must also be willing to stay at the table with our more conservative sisters and brothers.  That’s hard and some would say almost sinister, having to be around those that have hurt us because of our views.

Churches need to be sanctuaries, but they also need to be tables.  They need to be places of safety and places that welcome everyone, even our enemies.

A few years ago, I wrote a post regarding a video by the General Minister and President of the Disciples, Sharon Watkins.  It was in the run up to the 2013 General Assembly (in Orlando, of all places) and it regarded the differences in opinion within the denomination on sexuality.  What I wrote then I will say again:

We live in a world that is increasingly polarized and factionalized.   More and more, we sort ourselves into like-minded ghettoes where we never encounter folks with a differing view point.  More and more we are certain that our view is the correct one and the other side is going surely lead us down the road to ruin.  As our political and social lives have become more polarized, so has the church. In the name of justice or faithfulness or what have you, we have erected barriers to protect ourselves from other views and launch verbal attacks on others, cloaking our incivility in some form of being prophetic or speaking God’s truth…

…I think it matters in this age, when the outside culture is so toxic and where people are mean to each other to find the church, God’s people showing a “more excellent way.”  We have to find ways to discuss, discern and decide issues without being mean towards one another.

Churches have to be places that are inclusive of LGBT people.  But they also have to be places that welcome even those who faithfully disagree at Christ’s table.  It’s a balancing act, and it isn’t easy.  But if we are called to love our enemies, we are called to love and witness to those we disagree with.  Our faith is a weird one; it asks us to hold both the outsider and the enemy close (within reason).

I am glad First Christian is a place of sanctuary for LGBT people who may have thought Christians were against them, but I also hope we can be a place where those that have a different view and are willing to journey with us, will have a place at the table too.

The days ahead will be challenging for people around the country.  Please pray for safety, especially as many folk go to nightclubs in defiance and because there is still a need for a sanctuary.  Please pray as Pride festivals take place around the country.  And let us also pray for those who might disagree, let us pray for reconciliation and a place where love, for everyone rules.

-Dennis Sanders, Pastor


Sanctuaries and Tables