Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A New Underground Railroad

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

One of my speaking venues in Pennsylvania mid-December was a church that served as a “stop” on the Underground Railroad. To show me, the pastor opened a door in the floor of the foyer so that I might descend a rough wooden staircase that led to the sanctuary’s original foundation, under which I could peer into a low and narrow tunnel. Through this, slaves escaping north crawled to hide in side tunnels carved out of the soil beneath the church. Any who looked into this crawl space would see neither persons nor side tunnels, so carefully disguised was this hiding place. 

I had just met with the Butler LBGTQ Interfaith Network, the Butler Chapter of PFLAG, and Community Safe Zone organizers in the fellowship hall of this church, Covenant United Presbyterian Church in Butler, Pennsylvania. As organizer Ted Hoover from Pittsburgh’s Persad Center had warned, “This sounds like a huge crowd, but this is a very conservative area!” What struck me was that this congregation was still serving as an “underground railroad,” but this time, for those who want to create safe spaces for LGBT folk and their allies in the outlying and rural regions of southwest Pennsylvania.  

The small gathering included a young man and his partner whose Presbyterian pastor had thrown him out of his church on Facebook (!), though he is beloved by the congregation, served as a church elder, and plans to attend seminary! Also present were a transgender woman and her wife, the latter of whom lost her pastorate because they wanted to remain together after the first’s transition. For decades, this couple had been favorites of evangelical Presbyterians for their missionary efforts in Africa. All four of these individuals had since been welcomed by Covenant Church, yet another example of this new underground railroad providing sanctuary to those escaping the bondage of unwelcoming churches. 

That day I had originally been scheduled to give a presentation on “Reconciliation” in Pittsburgh Presbytery, in light of Presbyterians there resisting the new open door policy of the denomination that allows but does not require congregations and presbyteries to ordain LGBT people as elders, deacons, and pastors. Some are seeking ways to separate or segregate themselves from the denomination. But the Presbytery disinvited me, and I ended up giving my talk on reconciliation to a crowd at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh the night before.  

Among other things, I spoke of how the denomination’s Confession of 1967, that emphasized a ministry of reconciliation among races and nations, had drawn me into the Presbyterian Church in 1970, long before the church helped me reconcile my sexuality and spirituality.  I also explained that my first guest sermon in the church I joined as a college student was entitled, “Conflict and Unity Within the Church,” and I lauded the church as one of the few places where very different people could reflect on the meaning of their faith together—liberal and conservative, blue collar and white collar, more or less educated, of varying colors and ethnicities, and so on. This was in the days before the political and religious right claimed theirs the only legitimate form of Christianity, sending many progressives on our own underground railroad to find welcoming churches.  

Covenant’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Jim Swanson, not only recommended but sent me a copy of a book by Brad Hirschfield, an orthodox rabbi, entitled, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. I have since been reading it during my morning prayers and have found it as challenging as it is inspiring. On Monday of this week, I read of his opportunity to pray alongside Muslims, in Hebrew and in his own tradition, during a visit to the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the U.S., at its headquarters in Indiana. He writes: 

"To be a true monotheist is to understand that no one human understating of an infinite power can ever fully capture what that power is, or how, exactly, to relate to or honor it. To appreciate this is to become modest about claiming to know 'what God wants.' The more traditionally religious you are, the more deeply modest and radically inclusive you should be. … Too often we think that by making room for each other we are somehow surrendering our integrity… When we fight for the integrity of our beliefs, relationships, and communities, we are actually fighting to integrate that which seems alien or threatening. We will have the most integrity when we are integrating the widest range of people and ideas." [Emphasis mine.] 

The Gospel of the Lord. 

Thanks be to God!


Visit my homepage under "Recent Events" at to find my two Pittsburgh sermons on the LGBTQ Interfaith Network’s Facebook page. My gratitude to the sponsoring Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Task Force on Ministry with Sexual Minorities!

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