In the 1990s, I was a kid, a preteen and (just barely) a teenager searching for my place in the world. In 1999, I experienced a call to ministry, which was a bit of an anomaly in my Southern Baptist tradition. I went through middle and high school serving as a chaplain for school Christian clubs, and I found myself at the edges of my tradition, understanding my own calling in a different way than my churches had taught me. For me, leadership in church was all male. Yes, women were doing the grunt work of planning and executing behind the scenes, but it was the male ministers and male deacons taking all the credit and nixing any ideas they deemed inappropriate. Women were not ordained, but if no one else was around, they could lead children or other women – certainly they would have no position of leadership over men. I was taught we women had different roles than men, and thus was never encouraged to explore my calling beyond perhaps doing some mission work.
Watching a very real split between exclusivism and inclusivism at my small Christian college in North Georgia during my years there from 2004-2007 further reminded me of how exclusive Christian communities can be when faced with deeply political institutional decisions. There again, the religion department largely looked down upon women feeling a call to ministry. Though I had some of the last moderate to progressive professors in that department before the school was re-formed into a fundamentalist institution, I chose not to major in religion, and only minored in it. I was quite aware that only a small portion of my school would affirm my call. Simultaneously, I myself began to grow in my acceptance of others, thanks to LGBTQ friends who loved me enough to stay in conversation with me.
In seminary, I found myself at a crossroads. I was in an institution that was moderate to progressive. Women in ministry was a settled issue there, but we continued to deal with other issues, from racism to homophobia to xenophobia. How we discussed these issues hinged a great deal on how well we included everyone in conversation, especially those vulnerable populations seeking to be heard.
I have grappled with this challenge ever since.
I find myself reflecting on my path toward inclusion now as we face ever-growing human issues as a faith community. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, our immigrant neighbors, our homeless, our poor, our friends of color – they need us to listen, to include them in conversation. And we need to learn from them in order to grow as people of the Kingdom.
I have been at the receiving end of exclusion just enough to know that in order to seek justice, the marginalized must be given space to live out their own lives or calling. Sometimes that means shedding old traditions or habits. Sometimes it means stepping away from our comfort zones and being involved in communities unlike our own. Sometimes it means changing our minds or how we interpret the scriptures. Sometimes it means not changing our minds, yet growing and learning as we listen with one another.
My prayer for all of us is that we continually seek to listen to one another, really listen. Not listen to respond with our own opinions, but listen to hear deeply and work toward the radical movement toward inclusion to which Jesus has appointed us, as he dined with people of all stations, sat at a well with a Samaritan woman, and gave forgiveness and healing to any who asked of him.