Why ‘Black Lives Matter’ is central to the ONA mission: restoring our souls

Why ‘Black Lives Matter’ is central to the ONA mission: restoring our souls

Rebecca Voelkel

Rebecca Voelkel

by the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel
June 5, 2015

As a lesbian minister, a daughter, a partner and a mother, I have loved and been involved in the Open and Affirming movement since the early 1980’s. As a youth delegate to General Synod in Ames, Iowa, I proudly voted for the ONA resolution and later, when I sought ordination as an out lesbian, I was so grateful for the work of Ann B. Day, Donna Enberg, Margarita Sanchez, Pat Conover, Jan Griesinger, Sam Lolliger, Bill Johnson, Loey Powell … the list is practically endless. For me, ONA was about making space—for me and many gifted and talented lesbian, gay, bisexual and, later, transgender folks.

In many ways, ONA remains for me a way of making room. But its meaning has deepened and expanded, too. ONA offers individuals, a community and the denomination the opportunity for metamorphosis, to transform into who and what lies within us (like a caterpillar into a butterfly). And ONA offers the opportunity to root ourselves in our deepest gospel values as Christians: love, justice, grace, compassion. ONA offers the Body of Christ an opportunity to be both a better body and more Christ-like.

It is from this context of being deeply rooted in ONA that I have come to work in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in Minneapolis. I was one of the clergypeople praying for the peaceful protestors at the Mall of America in December of 2014. I have attended rallies in solidarity with the Baltimore protestors calling for justice for Freddie Gray. I have paused and prayed and lit candles—in one worship service, eleven candles for the eleven times that Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe.”

But there are some folks who don’t believe that ONA should lead us to participate in Black Lives Matter. They question why Black Lives Matter ought to be part of Pride. Or why ONA congregations should march, during General Synod, to the park where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by police.

For me, the answer is deeply spiritual and deeply embodied.

My body’s longings and desires for connection are one way God communicates with me. They have led me to come out as lesbian, they led me to seminary and ordination, and to partnership and parenthood. My body is the site of many blessings.

But my body also is the place where the sins of oppression and colonization have taken their toll. My lesbian self and my woman self have been physically and spiritually abused. And my white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied self has knowingly and unknowingly participated in systems and processes that abuse the bodies of others.

This complicated embodiment that is mine impacts my soul. And it makes me think of a story I recently re-read which broke my heart open about what’s at stake for me in this Black Lives Matter moment.

Mary Boykin Chesnut was the wife of a top-ranking Confederate man and she was, herself, a passionate supporter of the Confederate cause. In her diaries, however, she articulates the psychological and spiritual impact of slavery on her. Her testimony dramatically illustrates that oppressive systems have soul-crushing implications for all—including those who, on the surface, seem to benefit from them. Upon witnessing a slave auction, she reports the “tragedy” she observed.

A mad woman taken from her husband and children. Of course she was mad, or she would not have given her grief words in that public place. Her keepers were along. What she said was rational enough, pathetic at times, at times heart-rending. It excited me so I quietly took opium. It enabled me to retain every particle of mind or sense or brains I have, so quiets my nerves that I can calmly reason and take rational views of things otherwise maddening. [Mary Boykin Chesnut in “Born to Belonging” by Mab Segrest, published in 2002 by Rutgers University Press.]

In the midst of the brutality that chattel slavery in the United States was, Chesnut chooses not to respond with empathy for the woman who was being torn from her husband and children. Chesnut clearly understood and felt the horror of bearing witness to such agony, calling it “heart-rending.” But she chooses the oppressor’s route of passive non-resistance and pays the price: she uses opium to crush her empathy and her passion for connection. She gains a kind of calm and reason, but the cost is staggeringly high.

This story is in a chapter called “The Souls of White Folks.” It illustrates that there is a cost when we deny our connection to others of God’s children. The cost is our souls.

ONA offers both LGBTQ and straight folks the opportunity to choose our souls—through liberation for queer folks and the conscious choice of connection, solidarity and active resistance against oppression for straight folks. Black Lives Matter as an extension of the Open and Affirming invitation to practice our shared participation in the Body of Christ offers similar opportunities and choices. For people of color it is one way to choose liberation, for white folks it can be one way to claim our soulfulness through solidarity and active resistance against racism.

I give thanks for such an opportunity.

The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel is an ordained minister in the UCC and a national leader in the movement for LGBTQ justice. From 2005 to 2013, she was director for the Institute for Welcoming Resources and for Faith Work in the National LGBTQ Force. She was interim National Coordinator for the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns (now the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition), pastor of Spirit of the Lakes UCC in Minneapolis, and program staff for the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence. She is a faith‐based community organizing trainer as well as workshop presenter on a wide variety of faith and justice issues. Rebecca and her partner, Maggie, are parents of Shannon MacKenzie. Rebecca is the Coalition’s Secretary.