Only Love Can Do That

FullSizeRenderSaturday night, I had an experience that I can only describe as something between a conversion and an affirmation, while sitting (briefly) on the floor of the Church & Society 2 legislative committee. Grace at General Conference? I know.

I came in as a substitute for my friend and a member of our delegation, LaTrelle, who had given her all as the chair of the most challenging sub-committee at General Conference (no exaggeration). After presenting all of her committee’s legislation with all she had, she tagged out, and as a reserve who has spent months and months studying the legislation of this committee, I was able to step in for the last 40 minutes of the session.

I knew there was a chance that the committee would address a proposed resolution that utilized very bad theology to enforce extreme gender binaries and diminish the identity and humanity of transgender persons who transgress those binaries. I had done some research to help prepare others to speak to it, and really hoped it wouldn’t come up. But sure enough, it came to the committee floor with the recommendation of the subcommittee, and with not a lot of hope that it would be turned down. My hand shot up immediately, and I carried my notes to the mic. My speech was not recorded, but this is my best re-creation:

My name is Becca Girrell, and I am a clergy reserve delegate from the New England Annual Conference. I paused, a long, deep sigh of a breath. Something shifted inside me. 

I urge you to vote against this appalling resolution. Petition 60845 is harmful, unloving, and unchristian.

I have come prepared. I could tell you all about how this resolution stands in direct contrast to what we say about gender in the Social Principles; there we say that no gender is superior to or inferior to another. I could tell you about how this resolution stands in direct contrast to the message of Jesus, how by inserting hurtful language specifically directed at an already oppressed and marginalized group of people, we are standing in exactly the opposite place as where Jesus stands, which is always for, and more importantly with, the marginalized. I have come prepared with statistics about suicide rates and violence and the murder of transgender people, statistics meant to shock you and sway you, and I can tell you all about the brutality inflicted on transgender persons.

But I’m not going to tell you about any of that. I sighed again, breath. I put my notes down and held the mic even closer. I smiled, and the smile lingered on my lips. 

Instead, I want to tell you about my family.

I want to tell you about all the fun and all the love my family shares. I want to tell you about my two children from my previous marriage. And I want to tell you about my husband, my best friend, the love of my life, my friend of more than a decade. He’s an adult convert to Christianity and to Methodism. He is gifted and called. And I know I am biased, but he is the most gentle, loving, unassuming, grace-filled, spirit-led, passionately-Methodist, magnificent person I have ever known.

He is also transgender. Silence. 

I am not confused about that. My children are not confused about that. And I assure you, my husband is not confused about that. He knows who he is. He knows, through and through, that he is created in God’s own image, as we all are. He knows and has claimed– and here I do need my notes, because this is a direct quote from paragraph 161 E of the Social Principles– the right every person must have, to the opportunities and freedom for ethical self-determination. I looked up as I put down my notes again. I could see the observation section, the silent, rainbow-clad people on their feet, and Sean seated in the front row, his hand lifted in the simple sign for ‘I love you.’ 

Language like this resolution denies the humanity of people like my husband. It inflicts harm on people like him, and on families like mine, by suggesting confusion and inferiority where there is none. I urge you to vote no on this dangerous, divisive, and harmful petition.

I returned to my seat in the silent room, my eyes dry, my breath calm. No one spoke. The chair called for the vote. Petition defeated, by seven votes.

There are many, many times– maybe even most times– at General Conference, when I am tempted to lead with the righteous anger or the indignant confusion, or the cold, brutal statistics that I think should sway people. There is a tightness in the chest then, and tears of anguish or rage or all of the above. But this time, I led with something else. I breathed into a fathomless Breath that Pentecost-Eve. And I breathed out love.

Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing less than the endless, unconditional, mutual love that my partner and I share. Nothing less than the raw, open vulnerability of my own humanness, my own belovedness. Nothing less than a call to the heart, my heart, their hearts. Nothing less than the plea to see one single beautiful transgender person through the eyes of their loved one.

Maybe it was only this one time. Maybe it’s dangerous to believe that it works. But no one seemed to expect the vote to go the way it did. Everything similar was about a ten vote margin in the other direction. For three minutes, one Pentecost-Eve, love won.

And if I can choose to lead from love that one time, however subconsciously, however unintentionally, if I can risk my own vulnerability enough and be wide-open enough that all I show is love, if I can trust that love will be the only force that can break through and transform and leave me dry-eyed and calm in the midst of a storm of ignorance and fear… then I could choose that again. And again. And again.

Something whispers, you know this. This is what the Gospel is. This is what is sacred. This is the only path, the only Way. Only love. 

Hate cannot drive out hate, Dr, King says. And maybe it can’t sway votes, either– nor can anger or statistics or the righteous indignation of my own denied humanity. Only love can do that. Only love.

Sermon: Standing in the River

Slide2 copy“Standing in the River”

(September 27, 2015) In a message inspired by and based upon the Bible studies of Rev. Grace Imathiu at RMN/MFSA’s Convocation “Gather at the River,” we remember and commit to the need to hold space for one another. We will stand in the river and wait with love, until all people can enter into the promise of Beloved Community. (Joshua 3:9-17)


“Beloved Community: How the People of God Create Community” is an original sermon series. The topics are:

Sermon: All Means All

Slide2 copy“All Means All”

(September 13, 2015) We begin a sermon series on the Beloved Community, examining the marking of the people of God, being formed into community. The first aspect of this community is that all of us are welcome. That means all of us– every person, and also all of us– our whole selves. (Galatians 3:23-29)


“Beloved Community: How the People of God Create Community” is an original sermon series. The topics are:

Sermon: What’s to Stop Me?

wall broken“What’s to Stop Me?”

(May 3, 2015) While we tend to see so many labels and categories, fragmenting humanity into different boxes, Jesus and his early followers broke down these barriers and eliminated the separations between people in creating a new beloved community. As Phillip and the traveler on the road to Gaza discover, there is nothing that can prevent someone from coming into the presence of God. (Acts 8:26-40)

wherein a certain Ethiopian eunuch is discussed in ways that have nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity…

The White Echo-Chamber

I’m offering these reflections honestly, as part of my own thinking and growing, and to share what I see. I’m claiming no special awareness or insight, and I really don’t want to compare how enlightened I am to anyone else. Spoiler: not very. You probably have more non-white friends than I do, and that’s cool. My self-reflection is about what I can learn about myself, and how I can do better.  

hands children black whiteAs part of my preparation for the Board of Ordained Ministry meeting next week, I read this article, which in turn references this study, and states “in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend.”

This made me curious. I used my Facebook friends list, which inflates my friends in both number and diversity, by including people who would otherwise be separated by geography. Still, it’s a sample set I could easily identify. I know it’s not a perfect or scientific exercise, but it’s a place to start.

I have about 840 friends (excluding duplicate accounts, people’s pets, and group pages)
35 people– 4%– are people who are black. An additional 41 people are non-white members of other ethnicities (5%). In total, 76 of my Facebook friends (9%) are not white.

As I reflect on this, several things come to mind.

1. My shelter and privilege– and loss– as someone who has lived primarily in 95%+ white communities. I grew up in a town of less than 1000 people. In seminary, I looked back at some demographic information from the 2000 census in the larger town nearby, the place where I went to high school. There were listed on that census “African American: 6.” Six people. In the whole town. I knew the names of all six. I don’t think that’s a good thing; homogeneous communities don’t help individuals learn about much beyond their own experiences. And while I did learn a little from the experiences of at least three of those six people– black men as close as family– nothing can undo the whiteness of my childhood. It’s not bad, per se. It just is. Compared to my friends who have lived in more populated and diverse areas, I start farther back on the line when it comes to seeing, owning, and dismantling my privilege and racism inherent in homogeneity. 

2. The tremendous gift of friends who have shared their experiences with me so I can see beyond the blinders of my social location. I’m embarrassed, looking back, by the ignorance of my questions and lack of understanding when I did venture into the wider world. In college and then again in seminary in the Boston area– my first and only daily contact with an actual city– I was a well-intentioned but largely naive white girl. I know that no one was under any obligation to be patient or loving with me as I blundered my way through that early awareness. And yet, time and time again, I’ve been met with people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds who have been patient, kind, long-suffering, and honest, people who have let me make mistakes and called me out gently but clearly. That’s not the responsibility of people of color, to educate and pull along their friends and classmates and peers. Each time, it is a vulnerable, unmerited gift. Thank you.

3. Where I see color, and where I don’t, and what that might mean. This is not something I’m proud of by any means, but it’s something I observed. Fascinatingly, as I was going through my friend list, person by person, looking at profile pictures and calling to mind friends by name, I noticed that there are some people whose ethnicity I instantly think of, while others I only was able to identify as non-white after thinking intentionally about it. Family members topped the list, followed by friends who are bi/multi-racial, and then followed by Facebook friends who I know in a particular role or function. What does this say about the times I “forget” the ethnicity of persons in my circle? That the role of family or of function is the primary category for my brain while skin color is secondary? That bi/multi-ethnic persons suffer the same erasure in my consciousness that these friends have also reported in their lived world experience? No conclusions here, but a hard thing to look at for me.

4. The choices I have made and can still make about where and how I make and keep friendships that shatter my echo chamber. Living outside Boston in a duplex instead of as a single person in an apartment downtown, trying to make friends “as a couple” with my first spouse, being immersed in the dominant cultures of the towns in which I’ve lived: these have increased the number of friends I have who look (and think and act) like me. Intentionally staying in touch with people I’ve met on travels, getting out on my own, looking for the people on the margins of my communities with whom I might actually have more in common: these are choices that have increased the diversity of my friendships in every way when and where I’ve made them. And the good news is, I get to pick how I approach the world, so I can continue to do the latter.

But number five is the beauty. 

5. The church is the place where I have broken out of my echo chamber. I realize that for some, the church is a homogenous, white, straight, middle class institution. Certainly for some, the church is less diverse than the rest of their lives. But for me, the church, The United Methodist Church, is a place where I have come in contact with and relationship with more people unlike me in every way, including ethnicity. When I look at those 76 people who are not white, nearly all of them are people I know through church— mission trips, the worldwide UMC connection, local connections and friendships that bring me into places and into the lives of people where I might not otherwise go. The church has made my life richer and fuller, given me colleagues and friends that I would not otherwise I have met, and opened to me a world of connection and grace that would never have been possible for me without it.

For all its faults, the church has given me the extraordinary gift of a life that is broader than my own context. It’s incomplete, but that’s a beautiful kin-dom.

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