Unity is possible, even where there are deep theological divides. When the Religious Right ascended to power through the latter part of the twentieth century, it was impacting San Francisco politics, particularly around civil rights for LGBTQ people.
The Human Rights Commission of the city invited me to present a talk on the history of the Religious Right. I had already done some research on this topic for my Ph.D. dissertation.
As a target of the Religious Right, I was curious about their theological orientation and commitment to social issues. In my dissertation, it was important to me as a scholar to not bring my own biases to the topic. I was excited to bring my research to the San Francisco government.
When I arrived at the chamber room in City Hall, I noted that in the gallery with observers was a pastor of a large San Francisco Baptist Church. His conservative stances were well-known as he was a leader of the Religious Right within California.
The whole time I gave my speech, I was aware of his presence and the fact that, because he was sitting in the gallery and not in front of the committee members, he was unable to speak for himself and his colleagues, about what they believed and why. At the conclusion of the meeting, he came up to me and said, “You did a good job explaining the topic, but you really don’t know me.” He was correct.
I knew of the stances he had taken, the things he was for and against, but I didn’t know him personally. “You are right,” I said, “I don’t know you. But I’d like to. Can we have lunch sometime?”
Once a week, throughout Lent of that year, I and another gay clergy had lunch with him. The conversation was at first cautious and tender as we learned of each other’s call and the experiences we had had in ministry. Once we began to trust one another, the conversation grew bolder, as we asked one another hard questions about our respective controversial stances. We returned the boldness with honesty.
We learned that we were very different from each other.
Yet, at the same time, we realized that there were places where we shared a common orientation: our love of God and God’s people, our commitment to our call to ministry and a life of service, the claim Jesus had on our life, and our respect for Scripture.
The mystery of the “other” gave way to newfound collegiality. I confess, I looked forward to our lunches, and I suspect he did as well. He even told me that he was good friends with a nationally recognized conservative preacher: “I’d love for you to meet him,” he said. “You’d really like him.” Even though I had my deep reservations, I left the door open, saying, “That would be interesting.”
From this common ground, we realized that there were things we could and should partner on, as a way to respond to human hurts and needs and provide a Christian witness to San Francisco. Literacy, homelessness, hunger, and other issues became places of collaboration and shared ministry.
These lunches made a profound impact on me. I recognized that unity was and is possible, even when we don’t agree on all things. Requiring uniformity before we began our lunchtime meetings would have stunted our conversation and stifled the possibilities for shared ministry. This experience has helped me look for the common ground with those who, at first glance, seem to have little in common with me and in fact might even be unsupportive of who I am.
The great diversity of race, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and lifestyles found in San Francisco is also reflected in its religious community. Through my involvement with the San Francisco Interfaith Council, I worked and worshiped beside Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, and every variation on Christianity possible.
The organization had a major presence in the city and helped shape public opinion on several issues. Together, we also made a difference easing the suffering of our homeless brothers and sisters. In the winter months, churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues took turns hosting a winter homeless shelter.
Each week, a different religious community would be the host. Other communities would provide the food and other assistance. It didn’t just humanize and put a face on those who called our city streets their home. It also helped us learn from those whose religious practices were so unlike our own as we rubbed elbows preparing meals, serving our guests, and cleaning up.
Together, we were able to do far more than we could if we isolated ourselves and our ministries.
Excerpted from Together at the Table: Diversity without Division in The United Methodist Church, © 2018 Karen P. Oliveto. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.