Loving Those We See

Peter GathjeBy Peter Gathje, Professor of Christian Ethics and Associate Dean for Curriculum and Instruction at Memphis Theological Seminary; a founder of Manna House, a place of hospitality in Memphis. This article first appeared on his Radical Hospitality blog in October 2014 and was reposted this summer in the Atlanta Open Door Community Hospitality newsletter

One of our guests is in the hospital. She was brutally beaten and stabbed and left for dead just a block from Manna House. This guest is an African American transvestite. We lifted her up in prayer this morning when we opened at Manna House. We invite others to do the same.

Our guests who are gay or transgendered are especially vulnerable. When Manna House first opened we quickly learned that they are harassed and harmed by other persons on the street, by their families, by random attackers, by police officers, and are sometimes even excluded, due to their sexuality, from places that are sup- posed to serve people on the streets.

We’ve been clear: all are welcome at Manna House. Denigrating language about someone’s sexuality or dress is not allowed at Manna House. We have had some guests insist that they would not go into the shower room at the same time as someone who is gay or transvestite.

Our response? You either shower now while that person is in the shower room or you don’t shower here. I know that within the broader society and in religious communities there has been and continues to be quite a struggle over acceptance of LGBTQ people. As a Christian ethics professor for twenty years, I’m quite familiar with all of the arguments about homosexuality. The more I have studied, the more I have become convinced that on the basis of the Bible, Christian experience and psychology, the traditional condemnations are wrong.

But until I became involved with Manna House, I didn’t have much ongoing experience with persons who were homosexual or transgendered. A lot of the arguments I’d cover in class were mostly in my head. In offering hospitality to persons on the streets, I’ve gotten an education in my heart as well.

The most painful part of that education is my experience with the suffering of people who are gay, lesbian, or transgendered. One story stands out. Several years ago I had a long conversation with a guest who was an African American, transvestite, drug- addicted prostitute. In tears, she told me of being kicked out of her family home by her preacher father before she was even 18.

She ended up on the streets, took drugs to numb her pain, and ended up surviving through prostitution. She showed me the marks on her wrists from multiple suicide attempts. She told me she wanted out from the pain of addiction, prostitution, of rejec- tion, of being on the streets. She just wanted to be accepted for who she is. Then she took my hands and said through tears, “I need you to pray for me.”

I was taken aback. I had never heard such a desperate plea for prayer. And at this point in my own life I wasn’t all that comfort- able with either someone who was transves- tite or with that kind of spontaneous prayer. But I prayed; how could I not?

I prayed that she would experience the truth that she i s a child of God, that she would find a home, a place where she would be accepted and loved, and that she could be freed from addiction and find good work that was not harmful to her. By the time I was done I was feeling tears on my own

I never saw this person again. I don’t know what has happened to her. I do know that her request for prayer deepened my own conviction that, as Dorothy Day has said, “The only solution is love.” I’m tired of arguing about homosexuality with hateful bigots, whether in churches or out. I know how destructive churches and the broader society have been in the lives of those who are LGBTQ, even with the semi- polite arguments about “hating the sin and loving the sinner.” Those argu- ments still legitimate hatred and I can’t abide them.

Our Manna House guest lies in a hospital bed now, stabbed, beaten and struggling to live because of such hatred. And she is, tragically, just another one among many. “Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

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