A report on Oriented to Love from Kristyn Komarnicki
Love vs. Fear: Is Unity Possible?
“Oriented to Love gave me a tangible experience of hope for unity in the church in the face of profound disagreement. I had hoped for this in theory, but to see it and experience it was an invaluable gift…” ~ an OTL dialogue alumnus
When you look at the church today, do you feel hopeful? Do you see unity? Do you see, in yourself and others, the freedom to love those who are different from you? Or do you see fear and hurt fueling discontent, division, even despair?
Perhaps more than ever, faith communities are struggling to come to grips with the reality and complexity of human sexuality. With the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage in June and a growing number of our sisters and brothers in Christ feeling safe enough to divulge their minority sexual status, the option of ignoring sexual and gender diversity is no longer available (not that ignoring it was ever a good idea).
When people vehemently disagree, sparks can fly, resulting in scarred relationships and burned bridges. When Christians experience the friction of deep disagreement, the damage can be even more serious. We can deeply wound each other—and in the devastating way that only members of the same family can.
But I have seen it work the other way—powerfully so—and that is why I am rich in hope! I have seen Christians—on both ends of the theological divisions over sexual and gender diversity—agree not only to lay down their arms but also to leave their trenches and move towards each other. Once there, fully committed to listening to their ideological “enemies” and to sharing their own heart-deep stories, they simply begin to love each other. They challenge, offend, and offer grace to each other; they learn from, are surprised by, and grow to know each other. I can tell you: It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s made possible by the Holy Spirit, by the hard work of the participants, and by your generous donations to The Sider Center.
Hope, love, and unity amidst difference and disagreement—these are the lofty goals of Oriented to Love—goals that are realized at each and every dialogue we’ve done over the past several years.
Does hearing that inspire hope in your heart? If so, we invite you to give generously and partner with us in creating more opportunities for believers to experience this. Simply put, we want you to help us build more hope for the church.
Hurt and Hope: Becoming Mature in Christ
I wish I could show you photographs of all our beautiful alumni, but I can’t. Unless an individual chooses to talk about his or her own participation, the whole process is confidential,* as not all are ready for their family, church, or workplace to know that they are stepping into dialogue with “the other.” Some are conservative pastors who long to understand and reach out to sexual minorities. Some are gay, transgender, or intersex folks who fear being disowned by their family or church should their sexual identity become known. Others are parents fighting for the mental health of their teenage and young adult children. Still others are sexual minorities who have left the church (but not their faith) and are highly suspicious of church folks who symbolize for them the painful rejection they experienced in their childhood faith community.
Once a safe space is created and some initial trust is built, these diverse followers of Jesus are remarkably hungry to connect with, listen to, and be heard by one another. This is sacred, Holy Spirit-led work, and I feel so grateful that God has called me to it. Time and again I see the Spirit bring about courageous vulnerability and genuine connection among participants.
There was the time when, having reached the end of the first full day of dialogue and closing with a time of silence, I dismissed the group…but nobody budged! The 12 participants sat motionless for several minutes in total silence, even as I began gathering up my things and preparing to leave the room for the evening. Eventually they began talking with each other, and I learned the following morning that about half the group had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning asking each other hard questions and sharing their concerns with each other. The trust that had been built over the preceding weeks (through email communication) and throughout the first day of dialogue had generated so much goodwill and courage that these virtual strangers were now deeply connected to each other through Christ.
I have seen older participants open their arms in parental affection to a young gay person weeping over family rejection. I’ve seen a young woman who, for the first time in her life, walked into a room where everyone knew she was both gender-queer and a follower of Jesus and where, to her surprise, everyone welcomed and delighted in her, confirming God’s hand on her life. A self-proclaimed “culture warrior” who describes herself as “a proud, full-fledged member of the conservative pro-family movement,” while initially anxious, was disarmed by late-night conversations with the other women and cherished watching the walls fall down between them.
A father wept while sharing that he wonders if his son is gay, and he doesn’t know what to do about the anti-gay convictions expressed at his job with a Christian nonprofit. Brokenhearted, a mother recalled how a Christian principal expelled her son after an informal survey of his high school classmates confirmed his suspicions that the boy was gay, his very existence deemed unsuitable for the school. A man who had submitted to decades of unsuccessful reparative therapy, now, in his mid-50s, lamented the many years he has spent hating himself.
Each person possesses a unique, stereotype-defying story that moves us to connect as siblings in Christ. Here there are no enemies, only brothers and sisters. Here there are no faceless issues, only precious, distinct children of God. Barriers crumble, judgments dissipate, and a unity that is deeper than doctrinal stances emerges, a unity based on the merciful and outrageous love of Christ.
We take the risk of assembling a dozen disciples of Christ, highly diverse in both sexual/gender orientation and theological tradition, in one room over two days. Seeing what happens when we take this risk has provided me with the answer to a question I long struggled over: Why, if we are all informed by the same Holy Spirit, do Christians disagree on so many issues? Eugene Peterson expresses it beautifully in Practicing Resurrection:
I want to look at what we have, what the church is right now, and ask, Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church? Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing up in Christ, for becoming mature, for arriving at the measure of the stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church.
While working with only 12 people at a time might seem too limited to make a big difference in the church at large, we observe that the impact is much wider than the numbers might suggest—and perhaps not surprising given what Jesus did with his 12, right? Each of the dialoguers returns home to her or his faith community, family, job, and neighborhood equipped not only with deeper love and curiosity for the “other” but also with improved listening and question-creating skills, and—most importantly—the hope that comes with having personally experienced unity amidst disagreement. Your donations to The Sider Center can have this kind of ripple effect, as well. Here are some of the good fruits of your generosity:
One man, a scientist and an elder in a conservative evangelical church in the Northeast, found a number of opportunities to talk with people in his congregation about his experiences at the dialogue and about the importance of engaging constructively and compassionately with LGBTQ people. This included teaching an adult Sunday school class on the topic. Before teaching, however, he shared his outline with his new gay brothers and sisters, seeking their input to make sure that his lesson accurately and sensitively depicted the dilemmas that many of them face in their own churches.
The mother of a gay son tells me that she’d spent months collecting stories for a project she’s calling Mama Bear, but she had lost confidence in herself. “I was feeling very overwhelmed,” she says, “even though I know God had put this on my heart to do. But after sharing with the group and hearing everyone’s stories, I felt renewed energy to make this book a priority. I knew I had to get this book out there no matter how insecure I felt about my abilities to actually produce it.”
Reflecting on how Oriented to Love has affected his life, a psychotherapist says, “The time spent with fellow believers in retreat and dialogue was powerful enough in itself, but it is the ongoing relationships emerging from that time that have changed the route that leads me home. God’s message of love and hope rings out across the walls we build. I strive to write that message in a different way because of OTL, and I listen for that message with greater empathy and compassion because of shared stories and viewpoints. It remains a unique opportunity in my Christian walk, a treasured turning point that continues still.”
A graduate theology student echoes the common theme of hope. “I find I enter into conversations with a lot less defensiveness and anxiety now, because I know that even if the people in the room I’m in or the community of which I’m a part don’t know how to truly listen to and dignify one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, it is nonetheless possible and happens at every OTL dialogue. I experienced a profound glimpse of an eschatological reality here on earth through our coming together at OTL, and it has and does still serve as a steadying Ebenezer for me.”
We regularly hear about past participants meeting up in their local context, connecting with each other when work takes them to each other’s cities, or simply encouraging each other via Facebook and email. And we often learn about more ways in which participants are seeing the seeds of their OTL experience bear fruit in their own lives and in their communities.
New Partnerships and Opportunities
Now that you get a sense of what goes on at the dialogues, I’d like to share with you some exciting program updates. Thanks to various new partnerships and opportunities, 2015 has been an encouraging and high-growth year for Oriented to Love. We also have a new logo, a new staff member, and loads of new interest from folks in the church.
Late last year, the program welcomed Dr. Francesca Nuzzolese, a Palmer Seminary colleague, as its spiritual director, and her presence has been a significant gift to the dialogues, ensuring greater safety both for myself as facilitator and for the participants, who are invited to seek her out as needed at any time during the dialogue.
We’ve cultivated a dynamic partnership with Pasadena-based Level Ground, the world’s first film and arts festival to explore faith, gender, and sexuality! They’ve asked us to do a pre-festival dialogue in California in February and have invited our dialoguers to stay and help lead small-group discussions after the daily short-film screenings. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to continue the conversations that are sparked at the dialogue. (To understand how good a fit this partnership is, read why both Karen Swallow Prior, a professor/author from Liberty University, and I support Level Ground.)
Calvin College Sexuality Series Director Julia Smith attended a dialogue in July, along with a gender-fluid Calvin student. Based on their experience, the college has committed to sponsoring a Calvin student and/or faculty or staff member to Oriented to Love each year. Here’s how Smith reported the benefits of the dialogue:
Community, empathy, respect, and love were the goal, not resolving “issues.” When we got to addressing the questions for theological sides and sexual majority/minority groups, there was already a context of high trust and care for each other. We were indeed formed into a community in which we could hear, hold, and accept each other as Christ’s beloved, despite very real differences and objections. Significant stereotypes were broken for many people. We were able to see a little of the complexity of each other’s lives. The pain expressed was not limited to the LGBTQI folks. Some of the cis-gender, straight folks also had significant pain, tensions, and hurt from the church or Christian institutions over these matters.
At this time, we are also consulting with a major denomination about hosting a dialogue that would include pastors, administrators, and both undergraduate and seminary students and faculty. In addition, I have been asked by Rev. Carlos L. Malavé, the executive director of Christian Churches Together, to give a presentation on Oriented to Love at the group’s Annual Convocation in February in Washington, DC. CCT’s members include 36 major denominations (from US Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Reformed Church in America, from the Episcopal Church to the International Pentecostal Holiness Church) and five large parachurch organizations (e.g., World Vision, Bread for the World, Sojourners). Please pray for open hearts as I present to this highly diverse group our model of loving dialogue around an issue that continues to tear apart congregations and denominations around the world.
The Colossian Forum (TCF) is a nonprofit organization that “facilitates dialogue on divisive topics within the church and approaches differing perspectives as Christ-given opportunities to build community, expand knowledge, and deepen faith.” TCF does not advocate for specific positions but seeks to help Christian communities transform divisive cultural issues into catalysts for authentic spiritual growth. The folks at TCF see Oriented to Love as a natural collaborator in this important work and sent a staff member to one of our dialogues this year. We are currently looking for ways to further partner with TCF through training swaps or other undertakings.
In May, I had the opportunity to co-lead a workshop at the annual conference of Missio Alliance, “a fellowship of churches, denominations, schools, and networks partnering together to see the Church in North America equipped for fuller and more faithful participation in God’s mission.” The workshop was called “Toward a More Human(e) Discourse on Sexuality,” and I was honored to co-present with Christopher West, the renowned educator, author, and popular theologian who specializes in making Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body teachings accessible to a wide audience. Together we explored the following questions: “How can we love—let alone walk in unity with—those we can’t even see from our trenches? And if we can’t model love over the issue of sexuality within our churches, how can we ever enter into fruitful conversations with the secular world about the meaning and role of sexuality in human life?”
Hopes and Dreams: The Future and Your Role in It All
We are deeply humbled by the work Christ is doing in and through us to foster unity among our sisters and brothers in Christ. This Christmas season, we are boldly praying for the financial resources to expand the Oriented to Love ministry. Your generous donations will support, for the first time, a full-time staff position to adequately nurture this program. Additionally, your financial support will be used to host a much-demanded summer reunion of dialogue graduates who desire to continue and deepen the conversation for greater impact in their communities and the church. The reunion is the first effort of its kind to weave together the network of people whose lives have been impacted and paths connected by Oriented to Love.
The Sider Center also plans to host a facilitator training to increase the number of people nationwide equipped to bring OTL dialogues to their own churches and communities.
Your generous donations will continue to make this work possible. Our goal is to raise a $100,000 annual budget for Oriented to Love. We can achieve this through the support of a project champion who makes a restricted donation to The Sider Center to empower this work. We can also achieve this goal through the support of the many people donating $40 or more on a monthly committed basis. Or perhaps you feel led to sponsor a portion or the entirety of an OTL weekend retreat for 12 people ($7,500). Will you join us? Your donation will make the critical difference.
Thanks and Prayers!
Thank you for all your prayer and financial support and for the emails and phone inquiries I have the honor of receiving from some of you. Please know that your voice is important: I want to hear your questions and concerns about the Oriented to Love program. I want to hear your ideas for partnering with us.
* Every story and photo that appear here are used by express permission of the person featured.
P.S. As the impact grows and the requests for dialogues increase, we will need your prayers, support, and input more than ever. When you donate $40 or more today, through this link, we will send you a magnet with our new Oriented to Love logo. All we ask is that you put it in a prominent place so that you remember to pray for us. We hope the multi-colored, open-spiral design evokes the beauty, diversity, and messiness of coming together around difficult differences. Specific prayer requests include wisdom for the facilitators, diversity of applicants, and spiritual protection during the dialogues.
P.P.S. If you enjoyed the snippets of stories included here, I urge you to visit our Oriented to Love reflections page and read the many precious and diverse voices gathered there. You’ll find lots of fodder for prayer and food for thought!