Continuing a tradition of inclusion

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By Kevin Jackson, Major – 

The Salvation Army has a long and storied tradition of inclusion. From our earliest days we not only welcomed anyone through our doors, but many of our earliest converts went on to become the lifelong soldiers and officers who spread the word and work of The Salvation Army throughout the world. Most of these early Salvationists came from the margins of Victorian society, individuals ostracized by established societal norms of the era. The precedent of welcoming all and assimilating anyone who desired into the organization was simply part and parcel to the early Salvation Army.

When considering the inclusion issue and religion today, one of the ways it is primarily contextualized is in reference to the relationship between the LGBT community and the Christian Church. Within most major denominations in the United States, organized Christianity is grappling with the issue of human sexuality. What is the relationship between an individual who self-identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) and the Christian faith?

Pew Research Center research indicates that 92 percent of LGBT adults generally express that society has become more accepting of them in the last decade. Although 73 percent of these LGBT adults also feel as if Evangelical Christianity is unwelcoming toward them, with similar published attitudes reflected in Catholicism and other forms of the Christian faith. The research is comprehensive and provides a wide spectrum of conclusions, including that tension remains between organized religion and the LGBT community in the U.S.

The Salvation Army is no different from any other religious organization in terms of grappling with the inclusion issue, as seen in Commissioner James Knaggs’ recent open letter to all USA Western Territory Salvationists and service providers. And many in The Salvation Army seek inroads to make the work of The Salvation Army more effective and productive in this area.

Major Steve Yoder, divisional secretary for the Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Division of The Salvation Army, was challenged by and inspired to respond to the sentiments expressed by the LGBT community. Several years ago, with other Salvationists serving at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade, Yoder spoke to individuals in attendance while passing out candy and bottled water. One individual said, “I thought you hated us?” Yoder said he personally concluded that “I’ll never be defined by hate.” Inclusion for the LGBT in God’s Kingdom became “the most important thing in my ministry,” he said.

Yoder sought involvement at the local level in his community and actively participates at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center. He participates in all of the community center events. His approach to his vocation is one that has been long used in The Salvation Army—a grassroots involvement on the local community level. He places himself at the heart of the community where need is most apparent.

In his ministry, Yoder is guided by biblical verses which call for doing justice and embracing faithful love. While he posits a strong biblical basis for his work, he insists his efforts are “not theoretical; it’s about people.” He sees The Salvation Army today as it was in its earliest days. “There is no time for games when so many people are suffering from alienation,” he said. “We need to be making connections on a human level.”

In Yoder’s estimation we need to move beyond the fear over this issue and step beyond the labels we apply to people and “be who we are called by God to be… loving and accepting people.”

Major Philip Davisson, associate dean at The Salvation Army’s Booth University College in Winnipeg, Canada, refers to Jesus’ example when considering the inclusion issue.

“When we see how Jesus interacted with excluded people, we observe something rather remarkable,” he said. “He touched them. He ate with them. He included them, without reservation. It wasn’t as if he healed them all and declared them acceptable. It was as if he was redrawing the lines of acceptability and drawing all people in with him.”

For Davisson, the language we use in connecting with the LGBT community is a key concern. Even with good motives in reaching out to the LGBT community, he said, our language can undermine our efforts. He takes issue with the commonly used phrase, “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” He suspects it is “fraught with all sorts of misunderstanding” as the term “love” is a universally including word while “hate” is a universally excluding type of word.

“We welcome those whom we love and try to love those whom we welcome,” Davisson said. “What we hate, we seek to eliminate or exclude, reject or otherwise usher out the door.”

While we discuss the unanswered questions, we must consider how morality has been taught and practiced within the Christian faith for generations and continue the practical, grassroots ministry that The Salvation Army is called to.

“We can’t or shouldn’t minimize real concerns; they need to be heard and understood,” Davisson said. “But we can and should come to a point where we are prepared to learn a new language and a new way of listening: with respect and the determination to find a shared reality and a way forward together.”

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