For a few years, I’ve been pondering and dreaming about some way to demonstrate the love and care I feel for gay people in connection to Pride events. I’ve winced, as I know many Christians have, at the images of religious people holding placards in protest along the side of parade routes. The most ridiculous photo I saw was of the back of a man’s t-shirt that read, “Real Christians Don’t Sin”….. What????? Every real Christian I know sins – all the time. That’s why we need a Saviour. And what about I John 1:8, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”? Anyway….needless to say, I have long desired in some small way to try to undo what some, who name the name of Jesus, have done in the past.
This year, things finally seemed to come together in a small, under the radar, anonymous sort of service initiative. In partnership with the Meeting House, one of the churches we connect with, we gathered a small group of people willing to serve as volunteers – and offered ourselves to the Pride Toronto committee. The initial idea was that we would go down and pick up garbage after the parade. Simply show up, be the presence of Jesus, and serve our city. But God seemed to have a different idea. When I initially spoke months ago to the fabulously organized Lisa Duke, Volunteer Coordinator, she thought it would be great if we could help them ‘de-register’ the vendors. Basically, last year a lot of vendors all took off at the same time and left a lot of garbage behind – which cost Pride a lot of money because they had to pay the city more to clean it up. So Lisa thought it would be great if we could go around to the vendors on the last day of events, introduce ourselves, offer our service in helping them de-register and make sure their site was squeaky clean. It seemed, we were being given the opportunity to make connections and be in conversation, as well as helping to clean up. Cool.
So the big day finally arrived. The parade was finishing up and we got our volunteer t-shirts, our photo i.d., our meal and snack tickets, got pointed to the tent where there was a constant supply of pizza and water, and told to have fun. Robert, the food vendor coordinator, was so great and so glad to have us. Allan,one of TMH’s pastors and key coordinator for our involvement, kept saying how as pacifist BIC pastors they would have to “radically love” the vendors into cleaning up their sites – the big love-enforcers :).
We had a fair bit of time to wander around before we had to really get down to the business we were there for ….. and though I’d seen many photos of Pride and watched it on T.V in the past, I had never been ‘in the flesh’ at Pride before. To be honest, I’m a suburb soccer mom and don’t get downtown too much. So I did feel like a fish out of water. Not because I was shocked or offended …. but it was just a very different context than I normally find myself in. That’s good. It was colourful, diverse, loud, and lively.
When Robert began to give us our assignments, a few of us chose to work to help out the vendors who were not selling food. To be honest, I was still a bit fatigued and jetlagged from my recent trip out west, and it seemed this volunteer role included a bit more sitting. As I began to make my way to the various booths to introduce myself and begin giving reminders about ‘tear-down’ and cleanliness, I found myself engaging some very interesting people. There were the service group booths: AIDS education, anti-discrimination groups, anti-poverty groups, District School Board representatives, Youth Helpline, and even a Barack Obama booth. And then there were the vendors selling stuff: sunglasses, t-shirts, hats, leather goods, and sex toys including glass penises. Hmm. That was a little awkward I must say.
I had shared in my church that morning that I was heading down to Pride events to volunteer, serve and simply be the presence of Jesus by being there. The elder who prayed for me said, “That is going to be really hard. I could never do that.” I hadn’t really had a lot of time to think about it – or contemplate that it would be hard. I engage gay people all the time so I expected it to be a pretty normal, every-day experience. So I said to the elder, “That’s why God is sending me – because He’s called me and I want to do it.” But I want to do it so that I can share with other Christ-followers how they, too, can be present through love and service – to begin to undo the enmity and divide. As I shared with the other volunteers, our being there was more about us being changed than trying to change anyone else. Our hearts need to continue to be open to what God is saying to us as we show up and be present.
Having said that, however, I was a bit surprised by the ways it was hard to be present at Pride. I found it hard to listen to God – I think just because of my own sense of distraction by so many different sights and images to take in. I began to feel in my body a heaviness, fatigue and quite quickly developed a tremendous headache. I’ve experienced these sorts of things before – and not to get all oogedy-boogedy on anyone, but I know a sense of spiritual heaviness when I feel it. So while I did find it hard to hear what God might be saying, or to really pray much at all, I do feel that in my physical body I was both carrying the presence of God and encountering the presence of darkness. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to suggest that every person there was filled with spiritual darkness. I saw people who seemed to be at peace and at rest. I saw couples strolling hand-in-hand who seemed very happy and content. I saw people deeply concerned about injustices – not just injustices toward the glbtq community – but global injustices. It was a very diverse kaleidoscope. But I also began to be moved in my physical gut with the kind of compassion that the scriptures describe Jesus feeling when he looked at the crowds and saw that they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.
As I saw 50-something year old men walking naked, except for a dog-collar, down the street, something in my heart grieved….. What is their legacy in life? Who is their family? Where do they find a sense of purpose? What is their hope? A man, I’m guessing in his 40’s, was riding a tricycle, sucking a pacifier, dressed in a baby bonnet with a sign “big baby on board” …. and it just made me very sad in my spirit. Two transvestites were rather aggressively trying to pick up a very drunk lesbian (who thankfully blew them off after about 10 minutes) – and something in me just ached. Again, please don’t misunderstand me. It was not judgment I felt, nor offense particularly. I tried to be careful to not presuppose too much about these individuals’ lives outside of the few moments I witnessed. But in a deep place I felt a groaning and sadness ~ a sense of emptiness washing over me. I hadn’t expected all of that to be honest. Though looking back I’m not surprised that God stretched my heart in unexpected ways. True compassion isn’t patronizing. It isn’t about judgment. The dictionary definition of compassion describes it as, “The deep feeling of sharing the suffering of another, together with the inclination to give aid or support or to show mercy.”
The Hebrew people saw compassion as a deep, visceral experience – of being moved to the depths of one’s being – but they also saw it as the place where life is created. Compassion, by its nature, is the recreation of life, the bestowing of grace. They saw compassion as the trembling womb. In fact, the Hebrew verb rakham meaning “have compassion” is closely associated with the noun rekhem which means womb. In Isaiah 49:15 God says, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”
I believe the compassion that I felt in my body at Pride has everything to do with the longing of God to be known in the lives of those who are disconnected, lonely and empty – and needing to know the love of the Father.
I’m grateful to have been at Pride this year. Already, I’m looking forward to extending the invitation to more Christ-followers to volunteer with me next year. The Pride folks were fantastic. They were so grateful to have us there. Allan reports that some of the Pride Committee people were so intrigued that members of a church would want to come and volunteer (apparently it is the first time they’ve had volunteers “like us” :)), that some of them said they wanted to check out the Meeting House. Robert already said, “You guys have to come next year to help us get the vendors set up – this year it was a disaster.”
I was really grateful to simply be able to engage with my gay neighbours. I really enjoyed hanging with some of the other volunteers and having the opportunity to hear from some of the service group representatives. Some of the things I saw were hard to see, some things broke my heart, and some brought a smile to my face. I don’t have any grandiose notion that my presence at Pride is going to bridge the gap between the Christian community and the gay community ~ but I do think it is a step in the right direction. It puts me in a place where God can, even in spite of me, continue to work in my heart and to open my eyes to see what He sees.