Our Pride Sunday sermon was given by guest preacher Rachael Weasley, who is planting a queer-centered, activist Mennonite church in Bellingham, Washington, called Community of Hope. For a description of Community of Hope, please check out their Facebook page.
Hi there! I’m Rachael Weasley, and I’m so glad to be worshipping with you today. I felt moved to accept the invitation despite the short amount of time to prepare, so I appreciate your grace. I’m currently a church planter, pastoring a brand-new queer, activist Mennonite church: and we’re called Community of Hope. A little about me: I graduated from Oberlin with a BA in music history and theory in 2005, and got my master of divinity at Chicago Theological Seminary. I got involved with grassroots organizing in Chicago for racial and economic justice, which inspired me to write my first album of gender-inclusive Taize-style songs called Songs of Contemplation for Activists and Christians. I now have two albums of sheet music and my second album of recordings is set to be released later this year!
I actually lived in Alameda during middle school and high school, so when I met Sheri through our work with the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, I had to do a bit of reminiscing about the town and about the Bay Area. I haven’t lived in the area since I was 18 but it definitely still gives me that hometown feeling. So thank you for letting me join you there today, even if it’s over Zoom.
Back in Alameda, we went to a United Methodist church called Twin Towers. I remember standing next to my mom singing hymns, and when a male pronoun would come up for God, everyone would sing “he” but my mom would sing “she.” I remember my stepdad preaching a sermon, and this was back in the nineties, about why homosexuality was not at odds with the Bible. As soon as I found out what being queer was, I was being told that it was okay. But, not so okay that you didn’t have to work to convince people that it was okay. My aunt, a United Methodist pastor in Montana, wrote her doctorate of ministry project about the travails of being a woman in ministry, of fighting to be recognized at the table with men.
I grew up knowing that people were rebelling against the traditions of heteronormativity and sexism, but I still absorbed those traditions. And that moment still sticks with me, of hearing my mom singing “she” and hearing everyone else sing “he.”
Despite growing up in the liberal Bay Area and attending inclusive churches and seeing women in ministry, I read enough illustrated preschool Sunday School books as a child to unconsciously develop the idea of God as a man, as a white man, as a white man in charge. I developed idea of God, against my will really, just absorbing thousands of years of church tradition, an idea of God as a rule-maker, a perfectionist, a linear authority with a single plan, a black-and-white thinker, a patriarch, at the top of the hierarchy, with a white beard up there in the clouds.
Somehow through all my experiences of the Holy Spirit, which felt like stirrings of mischievous energy, creative joy, resolute solidarity and compassionate love, this image of God the stuck-in-a-rut Rule-Maker has persisted, even though that image is at odds with my sense of who the divine is in my actual prayer life. This inner dissonance has led to some serious self-doubt.
During seminary, I had an experience of sexism and was walking to the dean’s office to tell him about it. I was so nervous and scared, and I was noticing those feelings and wondering about them. I felt like I was breaking the rules, and God was the Rule-Maker. So, I felt like I was breaking God’s rules. Some part of me went, wait a minute, that doesn’t seem quite right. So I stopped walking and looked up through the window at some tree branches against a blue and windy sky. A swirl of the Holy Spirit washed over me. I’ve told this story before, but it’s still hard to describe. It was a powerful feeling of presence and accompaniment. What I felt in that moment is that God wasn’t angry at me for complaining about sexism. God was angry WITH me AT sexism. God was an intimate presence of strength, and love, and mother-bear anger. God was saying, “Go walk down that hall, daughter. Because this is bullshit.”
This is a God that feels true to me, intimately true, stake-my-life-on-it true; and my ever-loving, committed faithful companion. When I have felt alone and abandoned by God, I believe God was right there despairing alongside me, in pain beside me. This God who has never abandoned me is an unsanctioned God, an illicit God who breaks the rules and shows me a new way to go. A God who understands me.
Mary Daly wrote “If God is male, then the male is God.” I grew up in capitalism, in hetero-patriarchy, in a society of racism and binary thinking. I still have trouble hearing God’s voice in the midst of all these systems that masquerade as God. When I follow my prayer answers, from my mother-bear God who is feisty and gentle and relentless and full of possibilities and complexity and creativity, when I follow her I still feel like I’m going against that other, Rule-Making, One True God that sunk its claws into my subconscious growing up. I feel like a little voice singing different pronouns in a sea of people singing the status quo with all the authority of the heavy printed copies they hold in their hands. I grew up female in a society suspicious of women’s wisdom. Some part of me still doesn’t believe God could look like me, that God could speak through me, especially if what that inner voice tells me contradicts the heteropatriarchy all around us.
I still feel like I’m sinning against the Sanctioned God.
I fell in love at the age of 19, and we’re still together 18 years later. My partner was raised with he/him pronouns, and I didn’t date much before our relationship, so even though I identified myself somewhere in the fuzzy zone of the Kinsey scale (not quite straight, but was I really bisexual?)… it didn’t seem super relevant to come out. I wasn’t even sure I was allowed to count myself as queer, until 2016. Some friends were posing for a photo of queer Christians, and I was hanging back. One of them turned to me and held out an arm in potential embrace. “Rachael, do you identify as queer at all?” She asked casually, and I said, “well, … yeah,” and she beckoned her hand and brought me into the fold. That’s how I found out that my relationship could look straight, but I still could be queer.
My sense of my own queerness was mainly about sexual orientation, until I went through the experience of pregnancy, labor and breastfeeding. Now my queerness is also about an intentional claiming of my gender identity. A friend of mine and I were talking about how to imagine gender without using binary language, and they suggested it’s like a kaleidoscope. Before I had a baby, I was able to spin the kaleidoscope of womanhood into a constellation that felt mostly right for me. It was easy enough that I mostly didn’t think about it. Then I had a baby and my gender kaleidoscope got aaaallll shaken up. While I was pregnant, I couldn’t carry heavy things, drink whisky neat, or fit into my familiar clothes. And then I was wearing a baby strapped to my body like a giant femme accesory and wearing nursing shirts. (an awesome baby who’s the total best, but still) I didn’t realize that I had spent years avoiding women-only spaces until suddenly they were pressed upon me. I was lonely, so I went to a meetup for new moms who were breastfeeding, and my partner who still used he/him pronouns back then, was not allowed to cross the threshold. That was a bewildering moment for me. I actually started my own parenting group, so that I could have an all-gender conversational space to process my new identity as a parent, without being separated from my life partner and best friend.
Going through the experience together of raising our baby, of both being new parents, of considering that I could have things in common with my other male friends who had kids, worked for me. In a way that being segregated into mother and father gender binary groups made me feel disoriented and trapped. I think that was the year I learned the term “gender dysphoria,” and it’s definitely when I started reading “My Gender Workbook” by the awesome trans writer Kate Bornstein, who I hugely recommend. I still identify as a woman, a slightly genderqueer woman, but I am now empowered to shift my kaleidoscope, so that it feels expansive for me, liberating. So that I can be myself.
In Luke 22, Jesus tells the disciples to look for a place to celebrate Passover, to eat the famous meal that we remember with our ritual of communion. I’ll just read verses 8 through 13: 8 So Jesus[b] sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” 9 They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” 10 “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” 13 So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
I know that Jesus is about freedom, and loves me for who I am, which probably means that Jesus would want me to be free to do the gender performance that feels true to who I am, if I want that, right? An untrustworthy part of me worries about that. I haven’t been super hurt by the church, I was taught that women and queer people belonged fully and were beloved. But I still worry that my true self is only tolerated by God, by society. Surely I would belong even more fully if I wasn’t queer, right? And other days I worry that I’m not queer enough.
The thing about this Luke passage is that in this time and place, carrying water was women’s work. So the man they meet in the city carrying a jar of water, was sort of like a man wearing a dress. This scared voice in me expects Jesus to say, skirt around that man carrying water and don’t make eye contact but be polite. Be tolerant. But Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus doesn’t even say, treat that guy like normal, he’s just another person like any other. No, Jesus says, when you see that man carrying a jar of water, follow him.
This man isn’t just being included by the majority. He knows the way to the upper room.
My mama-bear God isn’t condescending to allow me space in the church despite me being queer. She is calling me to be queer. God is telling us to find the man carrying a jar of water and follow him. Because that guy knows things that can help us. He can lead us to the place where we eat at the table with Jesus.
Part of my call to plant this new queer activist church, Community of Hope, is to make the celebration of queerness into a spring board and take a leap. If we are queer, and we are made in the image of the divine, then what artistic expressions of the Holy might grace our worship? What poetry, visual art, rituals, what queer parenting support groups, family of choice holiday traditions, what tapestries that acknowledge our pain and lament, might grow out of the fruitful soil of queer inclusion when it is a starting point rather than a goal.
It’s not a queer-only church. God created us in glorious gender and sexual diversity, including straight and cisgendered siblings. People anywhere on the journey of gender and sexual orientation have a place. I am now a queer woman married to a transgender, non-binary person using they/them pronouns. And I am welcome at Community of Hope. I used to look like a cis straight woman married to a man. And that person is also welcome at Community of Hope. We are lovingly created by God to be abundantly ourselves in all our unfoldings over time, your most complicated and tenderly beloved self. I am not an expert on this stuff, I didn’t even take queer theology in seminary! I didn’t identify as queer back then. But I am building a space where these questions have a lot of breathing room.
Queer theology is at the center of our church’s life, but the call is also to create a nourishing haven for activists, to get involved in structural justice issues as part of our spiritual practice, and to integrate our work for racial, economic and climate justice as an expression of our identity as a church and a natural outflowing from our prayer and life together. We’ve worshipped once, done a queer theology book group, and we did a Hold the Line grassroots training. Next month we start worshipping regularly on the first Monday evening of each month. We have people involved from across the country, some of them are members of other Mennonite churches who want a place to do a deep-dive into this queer stuff and integrate it with their religious identity. Long-term we plan to continue some online gatherings to include these folks, and offer niche queer ministry to folks whose primary congregational affiliation is elsewhere. This is a place to be both Christian and queer, a warm, medium size church of people not just showing up at worship but forming real friendships and sharing our lives. When our families of origin don’t fully accept us, family of choice is so so important for thriving, but also just to survive.
I am so grateful that I don’t have a horrible story of being rejected from the church. But I’m still feeling called by God, my real-life, unsanctioned by society, non-linear, complicated Mama-Bear God, to build a church where full inclusion of LGBTQIA2+ folks is not an issue. It’s the starting place. What can happen if we start there? What images of God, what names for God and pronouns in prayer, what devotional art and new traditions and rituals and practices, might emerge in a space where we can explore that? I am filled with joy at the prospect of taking years and years to find out.