By Ann Marie Szpakowska
LGBTQIA People of Faith gathered in St. Louis (October 31 thru November 2, 2017) for the “Rolling the Stone Away – Generations of Love and Justice” Conference. Among the invited speakers were numerous movers and shakers, activists and writers, theologians and clergy. It was not lost on any of us that we met on days we Christians celebrate All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls Day on our liturgical calendar. We gathered to honor our ancestors, living and dead, remember the history of our movement from Pre-Stonewall to now, and envisioned the future, for we are convinced that there was more work for us to do, and God is not through with us yet. In the sentiments of an old spiritual, we had placed our hand on the plow, we’ll never turn back, and we’re going to see what the end is going to be.
Dignity’s presence, some 24 out of 200+, was evident. Speakers on panels and in workshops included Nickie Valdez, Marianne Duddy-Burke, and Mary E. Hunt, Diann Neu, Brian McNaught, Sr. Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, and Casey Lopota of Fortunate Families. Diann Neu crafted the Feminist Liturgy and I had a part in crafting the Eucharistic Liturgy along with Marianne, with resources from Patricia Russells’ excellent “Come to the Table” programs. Sam Sinnett and I co-presided. There was also a Taize style service whose music (Kyrie and Within Our Darkest Nignt) sometimes drifted into our Eucharist. But beyond that, all of us were reminded of the impact Dignity has had across the spectrum of those present when person after person came up to us to say: ” I was part of a Dignity chapter” or “I still worship occasionally with Dignity”. It was a great reminder for us as we prepare for Dignity’s 50th Anniversary and Biennial Conference entitled “True to ourselves, True to the Spirit” which will take place in Chicago on July 5-7, 2019. In preparation, our chapters are beginning to implement the Jubilee Project. The Rolling the Stone Away conference has given me some ideas and tools to start our chapter’s conversations.
As I entered the Exhibit Hall I was immediately drawn our movement’s timeline displayed along the length the wall. Tables draped in blue cloth with rocks and historical markers made up the display. I scoured for Dignity’s presence and was not disappointed. I returned to the display and was surprised when Barbara mentioned there was a gap of nearly ten years in the timeline. We speculated on what had occurred. At the end of the displayed were postcards with names of those who had been unable to attend. There I penned a note to Rev. Irene Monroe, a dear friend and one of our presenters at the Biennial Dignity Conference in July. Her topic had been intersectionality of our work for justice. Throughout this conference I heard echoes of her words and work. O how I would have loved to have gotten her impressions of this conference. Perhaps she and others will view the conference, which was livestreamed and available on YouTube. I live in hope.
The conference included sacramental moments. We blessed each other or drank the water poured into our opened hands. We shared our own journeys and were blessed by one who listened to deeply to us. I received my blessing (and marching orders) from Bishop Zachary Jones of Unity Fellowship Church. We lifted our voices led by 2 song leaders and lyrics projected for us. Some of these songs were Ella’s Song, All are Welcome, Anything Less Then Beautiful, When the Saints Go Marching In, We are standing on Holy Ground, Jesus Loves me, Dona Nobis Pacem, This Little Light of Mine, Lullaby and Total Praise. We heard strains of Wade in the Water. David Lohman wrote a hymn for this conference entitled “God’s Limitless Imagination“. The refrain reads:
“God’s limitless imagination ever on display.
In all creation, big and small, diversity at play.
We’re all a blessed expression of God’s all-inclusive love.
Our lives are the embodiment, the handiwork of God.”
In Diann’s Ritual, “Queer Feminist Ritual: Saints of Love and Justice” we sang a civil rights anthem based on a spiritual: ” Woke up this mornin’ with my mind stayed on freedom (3x) Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah”. We expanded the song by inserting and “Justice and “Love” for “Freedom“. We concluded with our Sending Forth: “Let us go forth to act as Saints. May the currents of love and justice flow through us. May we not rest until all stones of injustice have been rolled away. As we go forth, let us proclaim boldly, We are Saints of Justice and Love”.
As liturgists we often find ourselves looking for readings that speak to us out of our lived experience when that Pauline reading just will not do. Among the liturgies Patricia had provided to us, Marianne and I agreed on “God Only Ask That I Respond” written by Edwina Gately had something to say which we need to remind ourselves.
“As long as I respond, God can continue to shape my own individual path in me. God is forever introducing me to new and exciting challenges. God only asks that I respond. I need to be flexible and open to the new creation and the new call that is forming within me. God can form a huge pitcher out of me and fill it with water to pour on the dry stones. I must wait to be renewed and reshaped. The more clay is worked, the more pliable it becomes in the experienced hands of the potter. I must remember that I, too, am called to be a potter, creator of love. I feel a deep peace and sense of something being created, or being brought to birth. Perhaps the Mother God will show me her face and show me how the clay becomes the potter.”
The conference was beautifully summarized by one of the chosen responders when she eloquently shared that she had come to this gathering empty but then she heard some say ….. and she was filled up bit by bit to overflowing. Our final day we seated our Elders in an inner circle, surrounded them with those of us who stand on their shoulders. That group was least 3 persons deep. And finally, everyone was encircled by the young ones of our movement. I stood in this circle because I felt challenged in these 3 days to “live until I die” to quote Sister Thea Bowman of blessed memory. Each circle sang Ella’s Song: “We who believe in freedom shall not rest… until it comes”. Lacking the harmonies, it still was a powerful reminder that we’re not finished as long as discrimination of any stripe continues to mar the Beloved Community.
I returned home excided for the possibilities that I now could envision. I sensed the Spirit Movin’. Each day since I’ve run across some reminder of my experience in St Louis. Since the conference my companion song has been “And the Rock will Wear Away” by Holly Near/Meg Christian inspired by a Vietnamese proverb as I recall the liner notes with the LP. Let me share the lyrics of the refrain:
“Can we be as drops of water falling on the stone
Splashing, breaking, dispersing in air
Weaker than the stone by far, but be aware
That as time goes by the rock will wear away.
And the water comes again.”