Having spent last evening at DioCal’s Pride Mass celebrated at a local gay bar, I want to share some thoughts on what it means to bring Eucharist to these kinds of venues, and what the implications are for engagement with the LGBT* community on the ground of their own experience.
It was really a terrific crowd. More people, in fact, than I see in my parish on a Sunday morning. It takes a good deal courage for the Church (especially our beloved Episcopal Church) to step outside of its comfort zone to do what may be considered radical by both other members of ECUSA and also the LGBT* community at large. There are huge opportunities for engagement and mutual transformation. In my experience to date, however, the Eucharist as celebrated in a gay bar hasn’t provided those opportunities. Not yet…
In between intermittent bouts of self-consciousness and a little bit of condescension (OK…maybe slightly more than a little) — there were real moments of grace. There was something powerful and beautiful about the drag performers who stood among us during the Mass — truly in their own way a priesthood *de jure* in the LGBT* community. Watching the film “Milk” begin to play on the television monitors as we sang the closing hymn “We Shall Overcome” was particularly moving. But, I really wonder if we liturgically minded Episcopalians haven’t failed to consider that it is not only unreasonable, but in fact misses a huge opportunity, to merely transpose our liturgy into that type of venue with only minor accommodation for space and circumstance. Really an odd experience.
We religious folks still have to find the right language to speak about what it means to be ministers of the Gospel in the LGBT community. We do not minister to, but we minister among. And, I find myself asking “to what purpose?” Why the Eucharist? And to what ends? Evangelism? Engagement? Apologetic? Welcome? Hospitality?
The Pride Mass was an exercise in unclear motivations and odd accommodation. If it was to make us feel good about ourselves…then I suspect it was a success. If it was to bear witness to others of what our faith proclaims, then it was not a very clear statement. If it was to proclaim “welcome” to others and to engage the community via the patrons and staff of the bar, then I’m afraid it was a dismal failure.
Some observations about the event… From an outside perspective, it would appear that the Episcopal Church is composed entirely of clergy and religious. There were a few people not in clericals there, but overwhelmingly it appeared to be a rather close knit group of insiders, well familiar with one another already, and largely church professionals. I’m proud that my church and its clergy are so supportive and engaged, and are so earnestly trying to provide welcome and affirmation of the LGBT* community. It’s why I’ve made it my home. But, sadly, from the attendance last night you would have thought that no clergy actually informed the folks in the pews that attending would be a good thing.
The liturgy itself was — typically — a scaled down version of Sunday worship. Opening Hymn, Call to Worship, A Reading (Matthew’s Beatitudes), Prayers of the People, The Peace, Eucharist, and Postcommunion Prayer, Hymn and Blessing. The musicians were lovely (piano, violin, and vocalist), but the music choices were a little evangelical for my taste, but that’s just me.
What was apparent, however, is how little the Eucharistic liturgy lends itself to spaces like a bar. Of course, churches are constructed to accommodate the shape of the liturgy. Hence the reason we so often struggle in the church when trying to re-imagine it, confined as we are by a space that was constructed to do things a certain way. So, here is an observation. I have been to many successful Eucharists held on the street in Castro. Beautiful, open, inviting experiences. But bars are a different venue. Constructed for specific purposes. And they do not lend themselves to the liturgical movement or structure of the Eucharist, particularly as it’s done normally in Church. So why do we even try to do it the same way without some inventive re-imagining of what Eucharist could be in this very contextual place?
Were there saving graces? The Bishop’s Eucharistic canon, an almost poetic ex tempore reflection, was lovely. The homily on Trinity as community was excellent, and particularly noteworthy for me was his reflection on the fact that the Gospel reading chosen was most usually one heard at funerals! As for interested parties who were not Episcopalian? Zero. Tone deaf certainly applies for the rest.
We NEED to rethink what liturgical structure, movement, acts and words are appropriate in such a location and space. And we need to do so with a clear understanding of what we hope to accomplish in doing so. Otherwise, it merely looks as though we decided to take over someone else’s space for an hour to do a really poor imitation of what we do on Sundays, with no clear message and no hospitality offered even to our hosts other than an admonition to please tip the bartenders. We can do better.
I think having liturgical experiences in bars and other places *could* be marvelous. But we need to break out of our own comfort zones to re-imagine what might be possible. Firstly, the experience cannot really be about “us” except insofar as we are willing to acknowledge that we are open to being transformed by the community we minister among. To make it about us stepping outside of our own comfort zones, or being challenged comes perilously close to using others’ spaces and experiences as a means to our own ends, and that is most certainly not evangelism, nor is it expressly why we’ve chosen to do such things as works of mission and ministry among the LGBT community.
It should not be about converting members of the community via some liturgical “altar-call” like moment, but rather by engagement that can be mutually transformative. In cases like last night, the liturgical movement of Eucharist precisely prohibited engagement with the community surrounding us. And here, for me, is part of the problem. The Eucharist is not a tool, and so perhaps is not the right type of liturgical experience for this type of venue. Again…what is the purpose? If we, as we did last night, transpose our liturgical celebration as is into the venue of a gay bar, the natural result is that the community that gathers to celebrate becomes a powerful barrier to those who choose NOT to participate. An altar rail made of flesh and blood that bars the way if not the view of an insider celebration being performed outside, for outsiders.
We, for issues of sheer practicality due to the nature of *how* we celebrate Eucharist in church, shepherded ourselves into one side of the bar and “performed” a version of a Mass that was rather awkward and clumsy, and we engaged with no one outside of ourselves until the Mass was ended and the drag show began. So, the question for me becomes…If we are going to have liturgical celebrations in community spaces – particularly in bars that cater to the LGBT community – how do we do so in a way that leads us to engagement with one another?
We have to remember – and I mean really be clear on this – the Mass which is a symbol of comfort and community to us, can be perceived as an act of aggression on the part of a community wounded by the Church, particularly when conducted in their spaces without a suitable way to re-imagine how it becomes an act of hospitality and invitation to engagement with us as religious allies and also LGBT people.
The beginning, I think, of the solution is to look at what the Eucharist symbolizes for us as insiders in the Church. God’s love? Community? An equalizer of differences? A breaking of that which separates us? Unpack what Eucharist is. THEN, find out what symbolizes those things in the LGBT community and find a way to connect them. Liturgy is nothing if the symbolism has no resonance. And what symbols work for those of us who are engaged with the church may hold no meaning at all for those outside of the Church, except maybe that they are uncomfortable reminders of a religion that has wounded, expelled, or ignored them. Time for new symbols or accept the fact that Eucharist is perhaps not the right choice for these venues.
As I said, there were moments of real grace last night. But there has to be a better way for us to be authentically ourselves and yet create a liturgical moment that is inventive, sacred, hospitable, and reverent — and allows space for us to enter more deeply into engagement with the community on the ground of their experience, and not merely by transposing our liturgical narrative in situ — and a poor shadow at that — into a world created in part to escape the very narratives that marginalized the community in the first place.
I give tremendous props to those who coordinated the event last night, and to those who showed up. It takes courage and care to even begin a movement like this, and to find a model that is sustainable for future engagement. And, I think it can be done! But I encourage all of us to look at this with clear eyes, and to step outside of the familiar. I’m sure we can create a liturgical experience that has, at its core, a new language and new model for building community that leads inexorably towards Eucharist — Communion — without forcing the LGBT* community to engage with Eucharist as the entry point rather than a destination we can all arrive at together when the time is right and God wills it.