It has been a few years since I last participated in the Ottawa Pride parade. I have been on vacation in August most summers, so I simply missed it.
This year I got the chance to go again. I marched with the United Church contingent, which included members from a variety of congregations, as well as a few other clergy. We had flags, posters and banners to wave, all with the intention of showing that the United Church supports the LGBTQ community.
As in past years, it was a lot of fun. In the march we were surrounded by lots of colour and activity, with people singing, dancing, shouting, and generally celebrating. We found ourselves a couple of spots behind the LGBTQ wing of the Conservative party, and a couple of spots ahead of the Leather club. I’m really not sure what that symbolizes.
I always make a point of showing up in my clergy collar. Admittedly, with all the other things I was wearing, it wasn’t the first thing people spotted. I had my Mission and Service rainbow top hat on my head, my most colourful stole, and a rainbow flag which I alternately wore as a cape or waved.
The point of the clergy collar is to publicly state that there are Christian churches that are supportive of LGBTQ people, not only in a “tolerant” way, but as welcome participants in church life.
You might think that this point has been made already, but I was reminded during the parade that it needs to be made over and over. As we marched past the happy crowds on the streets, we passed several groups of protesters. I only noticed one that wasn’t an explicitly Christian group. That one was someone protesting that the Pride event was too commercial.
The explicitly Christian protesters looked unhappy and disapproving. A few looked angry when they saw me. Many carried signs referencing various passages of scripture. Some carried signs associating themselves with the Roman Catholic church or the Evangelical movement. One fellow stood alone with a scripture reference. He was dressed in dark clothes, and was so stiff and straight that he reminded me of a young version of the ghostly preacher from Poltergeist. Brr.
I found the protesters to be intimidating. I was glad of the (not big enough) crowd of United Church people around me. I was glad of the other groups and individuals in the parade. In my first parade years ago, some of the protesters stepped alongside of me to debate with me for a block or two. None did this year, which actually felt worse. There was no engagement, just judgement.
It occurred to me that if I can be intimidated in this way, how must it feel for others? I am the poster boy for privilege in our society: white, male, tall, blond, baby-boomer, straight, middle-class, etc, etc, etc. More to the point, I have a theological education, and I can explain why Christianity should support the LGBTQ community to someone who challenges me. How must it feel for someone without my advantages?
No wonder so many people feel driven from our churches! In the midst of that joyful event, those pockets of obviously Christian disapproval and rejection hurt.
It is such a huge risk for someone who has regularly faced that disapproval to even consider entering a church. How can they be sure of a safe place for themselves and their families? How do they know they will be welcome?
They will only know if we remind everyone, over and over again, that when we say “All Are Welcome” we mean it. The whole church gets tarred with the brush that the protesters were waving: a brush of harsh judgement and intolerance. How much is it going to take to wipe off that tar?
I’m glad I made it back this year. It reminded me of how important our participation is. I plan to be there again, wearing my collar, in 2016.