Conversation with Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson
The Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson is President of Auburn Theological Seminary, an organization whose leadership has been focused for many years on equality for lesbian gay bisexual and transgender people in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and beyond. One of Auburn’s hallmarks is to bring people together who wouldn’t otherwise meet for conversations they wouldn’t otherwise have—in other words to keep people on opposing sides of a position at the table together for deeper understanding and respect, even if or especially when they don’t agree. Right now, through Groundswell, Auburn’s multifaith action initiative, they have launched a campaign, “Each One Move One,” where we help partners and allies to make the case for equality with conflicted friends and family. At the heart of this campaign is the Sundance-award winning film, Love Free or Die, produced and directed by Macky Alston, Director of Auburn Media. The film tells the story of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay person to be elected Episcopal bishop but more importantly, it tells the story of the Church as it wrestles with this issue. As someone said at a film viewing: “The hero of the film is the Church.”
How has your personal journey to speaking up for LGBT inclusion strengthened or challenged your faith?
When I was 13 years old, my mother became the first woman elder in our Presbyterian Church in Louisville, KY. It was a day of tears and anger, of proof-texting with Bible passages, and some people, even those who loved and respected my mother, left the church. During my early childhood in the 60s, I was aware of the great struggle for civil rights within the walls of the church and in the society at large. Struggles for inclusion across many differences have been part of my faith journey my whole life: to work for inclusion is to follow Jesus.
Is there a prayer or meditation that helps you make it through trying times?
I often “sing” my faith, which is to say that hymns come to mind in the most trying times. The one that I think of most often is “Blessed Assurance Jesus Is Mine.” It comes right out of the hymn sings of my childhood. Another one that frequently comes to mind is “Let All Things Now Living.”
Let All things now living, a song of thanksgiving, to God our Creator, triumphantly raise. Who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us, guiding us on to the end of our days. God’s banner is o’r us. Pure light goes before us, a pillar of fire shining forth in the night. ‘Til shadows have vanished, all fearfulness banished, while forward we travel from light into light.
It is sung to a lilting, buoyant hymn tune and speaks of the wonder of God’s good creation—that there’s a place in it for all God’s creatures and that, in the end, God’s way will prevail beyond sadness and fear.
What is one of the defining moments of your life as a Christian?
The defining moment of my Christian journey was during my sophomore year at the College of Wooster on a study-travel seminary to Germany. From late high school through this early college period, I had really “lost my faith” and had been an enthusiastic atheist. I entered a vesper service at a monastery in Hamburg Germany and asked the priest at the door if I could take communion since I was not Catholic. He said simply that if I wanted to, I would not be turned aside. I wanted him to put up a barrier to justify my assumptions about the church, clergy, Catholic doctrine and practice, etc. His non-judgmental welcome opened me to experiencing in that service a re-connection to God. It was I who had been pushing God away; God has been there all along. From somewhere deep in my memory bank came the text: “No one who calls on the name of the Lord will be shamed; all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” This was an awakening for me—an inclusion—brought to me in the form of the “other,” a Catholic priest. Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that this Presbyterian minister and now seminary president—this woman—returned to the faith of her birth because of him!
Do you have a story of a person who embodies Christ’s teachings?
When I was in seminary at Union in NYC over thirty years ago, I did field work at West-Park Presbyterian Church that had ordained LGBT folks as elders and deacons for some time. This was new for me as a Presbyterian child of the South. There was one Deacon named Andy—a beautiful soul both inside and out—who set about his duties of service and care for others in the congregation with such commitment and passion—feeding the hungry, loving the elderly and the lonely and the sick and afraid. It was quite clear to me at that time in the late 70s that Andy was called to ordination as a Deacon, that the Church needed his ministry and that he was the apple of God’s eye!
What are the Biblical foundations of LGBT inclusion in the church?
The Christian belief that we are all children of God as found in Galatians 3:28: “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are brothers and sisters in Christ and share the humanity that Christ offers us as God’s beloved children. We are all included.
That God is love and that Jesus’ greatest commandment was to love one another as God has first loved us. God has chosen to be inclusive, and Jesus, in embodying God’s love, especially reached out and evidently preferred the company of those whom society and the “righteous” often rejected. One of the most important Bible stories for me is Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. The depth of his conversation with her—the care for her as a person, the willingness to listen and his utter acceptance of her—this is the model and quality of relationship we need to seek with one another.
The biblically based notion that judgment is in God’s hands—which actually frees us to love others fully. Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”
What would you say to those Christians who have a different view on inclusion?
I would begin by listening to their perspective and then share my own—some of my personal journey and biblical understanding and some of the stories about the ministries of LGBT persons in my own life, like Andy, or Macky, or Gene or my own sister-in-law. I would tell stories, both positive ones and also tragic ones, for example, about the incidence of teen suicides among LGBT youth who may have been shunned, bullied and rejected by family, friends and even “good” Christians.
What can we do to foster dialogue and build bridges with people with different views on inclusion?
Commit to staying in the struggle for the long haul—the arc of history bends towards justice. Try to have conversations of substance wherever possible by being authentic and present—more committed to the journey and less about one’s rightness or the goal of changing someone’s mind. Try to have these dialogues not just one-on-one but also in groups—the church needs to be having these conversations. Go to www.groundswell-movement.org and use the film Love Free or Die as a discussion starter and commit to the Love Free or Die Friends and Family Plan, “Each One Move One.”