Fifteen years ago, when I took the role of Executive Director, people took it upon themselves to warn me about Brent Hawkes. It was 2002 and the Canadian debate about marriage equality was heating up. At that time, the ministry held a traditional theological position on marriage. And Rev. Hawkes was a gay clergy person, with a partner, who in addition to pastoring the LGBTQ+ affirming Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto, was also the premier social activist fighting for marriage equality.
A couple years later I was invited to do a Christian radio show that would have pitted me against Brent. I declined. I was scared of Brent back then. He knew his stuff, spoke with passion and influence, and I felt intimidated and unsure. I also instinctively knew that such a debate wouldn’t bear good fruit – likely only further alienating LGBTQ+ people from the church.
Fast forward more than a decade and an unbelievable amount had changed in our ministry. We left Exodus. We publicly apologized for the profound harm caused by the former reparative focus of the ministry. We acknowledged that faithful Christians can come to different interpretive conclusions on the matter of same-sex marriage. And we hired our first married LGBTQ+ staff members. As part of the process of seeking to be a living apology, to embody repentance, and to make amends where and how we could, with some fear and trembling I made an appointment to go and visit Brent Hawkes.
While Brent was understandably guarded in that initial meeting, and our time was fairly limited, I encountered in Brent an unmistakable pastor’s heart, love for Jesus, and deep concern for how the church could make the world a better place. He was kind to me – when it would have been understandable if he wasn’t.
Since then, Brent and I kept in touch. Generous Space continued to evolve and grow, and some of our core community members call MCC Toronto their church home. I found myself praying for Brent when I’d heard he was going through a difficult time and MCC was going through the succession process. I emailed to tell him I was praying for him. And recently, he and I had a dinner conversation in which he shared his future plans to work internationally to address the religious-based homophobia that fuels some of the most horrific treatment of LGBTQ+ people worldwide.
Then I had the opportunity to attend a gala event celebrating the Rev. Dr. Brent Hawke’s retirement. And I want to tell you how inspired I was.
For the last 20 years in ministry I have rubbed shoulders with Christian leaders who deeply desired to have an impact on their neighborhoods, cities, and nations. We prayed fervently, studied demographics and church growth models, made changes that were more seeker sensitive, threw block parties and neighborhood BBQ’s, partnered with local social service agencies, built stronger relationships with other area churches, hosted Christian concerts, held rallies and crusades, invested in Christian media, and looked for every possible opportunity to embody a Christian witness in our contexts. We longed to have an impact, to build the Kingdom, to see Jesus lifted high.
As I sat in the large ballroom with hundreds of others gathered to honour Brent, I heard story after story of how Brent’s persistent and faithful witness had enacted change. The Prime Minister of Canada sent a video, speaking personally about his friend Brent who had had such a lasting spiritual impact on his own life. Our provincial premier attended with her wife and they both shared how MCC, under Brent’s pastoring, had become their spiritual home. The former chief of police talked about the ways Brent had helped the police force become a safer place for LGBTQ+ officers and then spoke about the gift of having Brent officiate the weddings of two of his children. People of influence from every sphere of society testified to the ways that Brent was not only an activist for human rights, but was consistently and compassionately a pastor to them in the very complex contexts in which they sought to serve and make the world better.
Now Canadians don’t really do celebrity culture the way we tend to see it south of the border. And my point is not that really important people gave glowing tributes to Brent Hawkes. What inspired me and brought tears to my eyes was to hear how Brent had embodied the presence of Jesus, with humility and gratitude, into so many different places of impact in his neighborhood, city, and nation. One of the board members for MCC got up and came out as a straight, black man, lest anyone think that MCC is a monolithic LGBTQ+ church. He began going to MCC because it was a church that he associated with the fight for human rights. But his testimony that night was of encountering Jesus and a community of faith that taught him of God’s love.
As I have reflected on that evening, I have found myself navigating the tension of lament and celebration. I lament the ways that theological difference on secondary matters has divided the church – to such a degree that rather than seeing the good fruit emerging from the faithful work of a sibling in Christ, we have often viewed one another with suspicion, judgment, and hardness of heart. I lament that the consistent work to dismantle oppression and injustice was viewed as counterfeit or in opposition to the gospel. My words do not adequately convey the sorrow I feel for my own past failings and for the willful blindness that divides the church. Oh God have mercy!
And I celebrate that despite so much opposition, accusation, suspicion, and resistance, Brent was used of God to bring a message of love and dignity to so many people. I celebrate that God enabled Brent to steward significant influence with pastoral compassion and commitment to Christ. I celebrate that the goodness of God was experienced and seen by so many through the ministry of Brent Hawkes.
A humbling and inspiring evening that left me feeling the same way Brent said he did: grateful.
See coverage of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=17&v=5nU6y9UjRxw