Community and Conscience

Members have asked my reaction to Tuesday’s act of civil disobedience by Bojangles Blanchard and his partner, Dominique James, especially in light of reports that connected Bojangles with Highland.  Did we know? When did we know? What were we told? What action did we take? (These sound like questions asked of Secretary of State Clinton about the attack on the Libyan embassy!).

First the facts: This was an action taken personally by Bojangles and Dominique as an act of conscience and witness against the denial of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples. They neither conferred with, nor sought the endorsement of any group or individuals within the church. Nina and I were apprised by Bojangles of the plan the weekend before by email. Nina heard it as a personal protest action not connected with Highland. I glanced at the note but did not take in the consequences. There was no mention of the likelihood of arrests.

In the protest, sit-in, and subsequent arrest, Bojangles at no point said or implied that his actions were endorsed or taken on behalf of Highland. Reporters were the ones to make the connection of Bojangles to Highland because of prior stories about him. They drew their own conclusions and wrote their own stories.  Only the Courier-Journal called to confirm the connection, and clearly stated there was no endorsement by the church for this action.

This is not to imply that I, or the church in general, want to distance ourselves from Bojangles and Dominique. They are beloved and faithful members of our church. Bojangles’ ministry was blessed and ordained by our congregation.

Here’s where things are complicated. Typically when a church ordains someone, he or she stays well within the bounds of the ordinary; however, this was not our expectation with Bojangles. We knew he was called to a controversial ministry to the LGBT community.

We also knew at his ordination that Highland wasn’t hiring him, so that it might have some measure of control over his actions. Neither was he going far away after ordination to serve in a locale where his actions would not reflect on us. We knew he would remain among us, connected to Highland as the unpaid leader of True Colors Ministry, and as someone ordained by Highland.

Some find this relationship uncomfortable. They’d prefer to have a voice in actions such as Tuesday’s that reflect on Highland. As someone who prefers to have control, I find this reaction understandable. But part of what it means to be Baptists is that we live within the polarity of being a unified community, but one that is founded upon principles of liberty of conscience and the priesthood of all believers.  Sometimes, perhaps often, ideals of community collide with individual conscience.

When they do, I hope we’ll love and trust each other enough to dialogue about our views, be open to hearing from others, and seek the Spirit’s creation of a way forward together.

As for my reaction to Bojangles and Dominique’s action: I’m proud to pastor a church where members are willing to put their reputations on the line in order to challenge unjust laws in a manner that is respectful and non-violent.

And I do believe that the laws against same-sex marriage are unjust. We experienced the consequence of this just last week, when the five-year partner of a man in critical condition in the ER had to wait several hours until a “legitimate” next-of-kin arrived before being told that he had died on the scene.

There can be debate about whether the arrest is good or bad for the cause of civil rights for LGBT persons, but that they acted with integrity and the convictions of their hearts cannot be debated.  ~ Joe Phelps