Soulforce Leads Symposium on Community and Individual Transformation in Columbus

Soulforce held its first Symposium of 2014, “Trans*figuration and Trans*formation: People and Communities Living Out Loud with Love” during the weekend of February 7-9 at First Congregational Church in downtown Columbus. Soulforce Symposia provide opportunities for training and discussion for community activists around intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. The program represented the culmination of months of organizing work carried out by Soulforce activists in Ohio, particularly around trans*, faith, and immigration issues.

The program was led by Soulforce’s new Acting Executive Director, Haven Herrin, and featured presenters Rev. Dr. William Kondrath of the Episcopal Divinity School, Rev. Roland Stringfellow of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, Shawn Copeland of Equality Ohio, Kathleen Campisano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Esmé Rodríguez, Soulforce Program Director.

The events of the weekend were capped off Sunday morning at First Congregational Church, where Soulforce Co-Founder Rev. Dr. Mel White led an adult educational program at the church and preached the sermon during the morning worship service.

Haven Herrin opened the program on Friday night with a reading from trans* Rabbi Reuben Zellman, suggesting that LGBTQ people are “twilight people,” comfortable living in the in-between spaces of life and identity. Herrin encouraged participants to spend the weekend reflecting on the program’s theme of transformation of self and community.

Saturday morning, William Kondrath took workshop participants through his groundbreaking work on the role of emotion in transforming organizations and communities. Kondrath stressed that understanding emotion was key to activist work, saying, “How would we more truly understand our differences if we truly shared our feelings?”

Kondrath suggested establishing basic rules for emotionally-aware interaction might be a way forward for groups with profound differences, like LGBTQ people and non-LGBTQ affirming religious groups. Learning about emotion, Kondrath stressed, “is educational, not just therapy—it’s not just about healing but learning how to read and respect our emotions.”

Roland Stringfellow demonstrated how to put this work of having difficult discussions into action by explaining the Umoja Project, a program of outreach on LGBTQ issues in African American communities. Stringfellow summed up his message to churches and families that do not accept their LGBTQ members as, “This is not just about personal choices; this is about life and death. Rejection kills.”

Stringfellow’s approach takes a culturally sensitive perspective, stressing kinship in families, and unity in churches, rather than attempting to “talk anyone out of” their scriptural or theological positions. “Many times in churches we’re not dealing with a scriptural bias but a cultural bias being justified by scripture,” Stringfellow said.

Shawn Copeland, Lead Organizer of Equality Ohio, and Kathleen Campisano, Faith Organizing Manager of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, helped bring practical and political concerns to the forefront. Copeland stressed the need for people of faith to be involved in legislative action campaigns like the Ohio trans* and bi–inclusive nondiscrimination law, and in pushing state government to keep track of hate crimes against LGBTQ communities. Campisano said she and the Task Force are developing a project for training and supporting faith communities to have conversations about trans* justice.

Soulforce staffer Esmé Rodríguez helped stretch workshop participants with presentations on the multiple ways of understanding of gender. “There are different ways to perform masculinites and femininities, and to put them together in new combinations,” Rodríguez said. “If numerical systems are open and infinite, why are social systems [like gender] closed?”

On Sunday, Mel White told an adult education class about his work founding Soulforce as a nonviolent direct action group to take on the Religious Right. He said since publishing his autobiography/manifesto Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America in 1994, he has received 80,000 letters. “They all say the same thing,” White said, “How can you be sure that God loves you as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender person?”

White confessed that receiving these letters, “pisses me off; I tend to not feel nonviolent. Soulforce represents thousands and thousands of children that don’t believe that God loves them. The church did that. Without the church there’d be no homophobia.”

White said, however, that when people ask him, “Why do you stay in the church?” he answers, “Because they introduced me to Jesus. And without Jesus I would not have survived.”

Herrin said they were pleased with the weekend program and hoped to continue working in Ohio. Herrin ended the program by encouraging participants to practice intersectional justice that is more personal than “solidarity.” Herrin said, “I really dream about people feeling deeply implicated in this justice work around race and class and gender and sexuality. Rather than feeling like, ‘Let’s link arms and be in solidarity,’ but that you can feel it in your bones.”