From Jay Leach, Senior Minister of Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte:
“You need to repent.” That’s what I heard as I walked past a sneering man in the lobby of the Government Center. He was holding a large, hand-lettered sign over his head. In bold letters it professed a message so vile I cannot write it out (and were I to do so, the Charlotte Observer would not likely print it.)
It was at the end of another very long night for our city. Once again we’d been subjected to message after condemnatory message about who among us was going to hell, who would soon be the subject of divine retribution, and who is disturbed and delusional.
I’m the minister of a congregation and part of a larger denomination that is enthusiastically supportive of the notion of non-discrimination. Drawing on deeply held religious values, we were active supporters of marriage equality for years before that dream was, at last, realized. Along with dozens of other Charlotte area clergy people, I had signed a statement supporting our city’s proposed ordinance, one that mainly declares that not liking someone is not a sufficient reason to refuse them service.
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I joined hundreds of fellow citizens at the Government Center on Monday evening. I was there in silent support, sitting in an overflow room alongside members of my congregation. I listened respectfully to each speaker though some of their words felt like an assault on my soul.
I shuddered to think of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members of my congregation whose lives and rights were being dragged through the dreadful rhetoric of those professing to be speaking on behalf of faith. I felt an immense weight of sadness at yet another public community devolving so quickly into hellfire-and-brimstone condemnation. I felt deep concern for those fragile transgender youth in our community who were hearing this torrent of repulsive bombast.
To be sure, quite a few who were opposed to the proposed ordinance spoke sensitively, with respect. These appealed to concerns in caring ways, expressing heartfelt interest in the well-being of all.
Sadly, they were shouted down by those angrily citing carefully selected passages from their Bibles, launching ad hominem attacks on the mayor, members of our city council, and city employees, and hysterically threatening our imminent demise.
In the end, the ordinance passed. Charlotte took another step toward becoming a safe and welcoming community for all. As pleased as I was, in many ways it felt more like a defeat.
What was lost? Decorum suffered another public defeat as we again proved unable to air our differences without resorting to insult and judgment. Compassion and respect – values common to all religious traditions – were lost in a morass of derision. Our children and youth experienced a huge loss as they witnessed adults expressing themselves with finger-wagging threats. Sadly, religion lost face again as it found its most vocal expression among those whose demeanor makes its decline in our nation more understandable.
“You need to repent.” That’s what I heard on the way out from a man looking for one last opportunity to spew an angry invective.
“Why do you need to say that?” I asked my red-faced assailant. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“I heard what you said when you were speaking in there,” he explained. “You’re serving an organization ruled by the devil.”
“You’re mistaken,” I said. “I didn’t speak tonight.”
He was incredulous, kept doubting my claim. Finally, conceding he had me confused with someone else he muttered “Oh, sorry” before quickly regaining his vitriol: “But you still need to repent.”
I stepped out into the falling rain with tears in my eyes, wondering how a night that should feel so encouraging could leave me so sad.