An open letter to Eastern University and the Justice Conference
By: Sabrina L. Valente, MA
In February, the Justice Conference will be held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. Eastern University, my alma mater, is the local host for the conference. According to the Conference’s website “the vision of the conference is to reach tens of thousands of people over the next decade through an annual gathering that educates, inspires and connects a generation to a shared concern for the vulnerable and oppressed. This is motivated by the driving value of the conference, what Ken calls a theology of justice, that an understanding of God should compel love for others and engagement in justice.” The conference features speakers on a wide variety of topics from child trafficking to HIV/AIDS to poverty, always seeking to do right by those who are oppressed.
There’s just one problem. The Justice Conference completely ignores the very real need for justice with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
It astonishes and infuriates me that a conference whose sole goal is to talk about issues related to justice, and a school whose motto is “faith, reason, and justice,” once again refuses to even remotely discuss or acknowledge this issue. How can you have, or host, a Justice Conference when you leave out an entire group of people—people who arguably need justice the most?
We (and I include myself as a bisexual woman) are bullied and beaten. Our transgender sisters are killed at alarmingly high rates. Our young people (between the ages of 14-21) attempt suicide at a rate 4x higher than heterosexual youth. That rate jumps to 8x more likely if their family is highly rejecting. LGBT youth are grossly overrepresented among homeless youth; up to 40% of youth on the streets identify as LGBT. Clearly there is an issue of justice here, and any organization serious about facing the failures of justice in our time needs to tackle LGBT discrimination.
I worry that LGBT people have been left out because of the outdated belief that all religious people, and all Christians for that matter, must believe that homosexuality, bisexuality, same-sex/gender attraction, or gender identity issues are inherently wrong, sinful and must be condemned. The fact of the matter is that not all who follow Christ feel this way. There are Christians and those in the faith system who are welcoming and affirming, who have open arms and invite us come as we are, without pretense and without trying to fix or change us. There are many Christians who love, accept, and affirm LGBT people as exactly the person that God intended us to be.
But we don’t hear these voices. Instead we are met with a deafening silence, as if pretending we don’t exist will make us go away. Week after week we sit in church, hoping against hope that we will finally be recognized, and that the church will finally stop ignoring us. And make no mistake, we ARE in the pew, in the choir, teaching Sunday school and serving on boards. We quietly wait for the day that we will be acknowledged. But that day never seems to come. Conferences related to justice issues occur, but we are quietly passed over, once more invisible as if our struggles and our rights are not important or worthy enough to be brought to the table.
Rather than create a space for these voices of love, the voices that ring though this awful silence are too often the voices of hate. We are bombarded day after day, week after week with the Fred Phelps of the world. GOD HATES FAGS signs fill our vision and crowd our minds. We hear over and over that God hates us, that we are an abomination, that we don’t have the right to love. And when those voices take over, we are overcome with despair and desperation. Where are the voices in the wilderness calling out for us? Where are those who are heartbroken for our struggles, who see us as worthy of God’s love and acceptance? Where are the people being Christ for us?
Jesus preached a Gospel of love and inclusion. He did not place limits on that love. And if we are to truly be messengers of that love, then neither can we.
We applaud Eastern University and the Justice Conference for attempting to pursue justice, but by excluding discussion of the injustices done to LGBT people, Eastern University and the Justice Conference misses a valuable opportunity to meet their goals, and further add to the voices that seek to ignore and exclude. Our understanding of God compels many Christians to seek justice for our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ, and we deserve a seat at this table. Justice, by its very nature, must extend to everyone. Until the Justice Conference and Eastern University start including LGBT people in their call for justice and reconciliation, a part of their mission will always be wholly ineffective. Let this conference represent the diversity of the body of Christ, rather than let the voices of a few silence others.