Changing the Public Meaning of “Christian”

Who speaks for you?

I wonder what the Holy Spirit is up to in this world, especially in my life. I always understood that being a pastor meant being a pastor to both the community and the congregation. I never imagined that it would mean being a committee member on my small, rural town’s Human Growth and Development Curriculum Committee. The committee is required to meet once every two years to go over the curriculum for fifth, seventh, and ninth graders in the area of puberty, sex, and relationships of all types. The committee consists of teachers, administrators, a school nurse, a representative from our Tri-County Council on Domestic Violence, parents, and community members. And then there is me, a parent of a high school student and a clergy member. On the committee, I am a representative of the faith communities on this topic. And for me, that has become problematic.

“I am a Christian too. But you don’t speak for me.”

I never thought those words would come out of my mouth, especially in an incredibly public forum. But something (I should say someone) stirred inside of me at a recent Human Growth and Development Curriculum Committee meeting. The curriculum that the school district had been using for years added a section with the definitions of gender, biological and sexual identity for the fifth-grade curriculum. In addition, a group of high school students and parents were advocating for awareness and definitions of gender, biological and sexual identity to be taught to high schoolers, which would be taught by the Tri-County Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, not teachers. The teachers and administrators needed permission to teach this section of the curriculum and have a guest speaker come into the classroom. Unfortunately, the committee could not give a recommendation because we couldn’t agree.

A community member, whose youngest child recently graduated from high school, stated that LGBTQ+ awareness was persecuting Christians in our school district and community because that form of identity and behavior went against Christian beliefs. She continued that as Christians we believe that gender identity equals our biological identity at birth, which meant either male or female only. Again, she restated that Christians were being persecuted in our schools. 

And so I interrupted her and I said, “I am a Christian. And you don’t speak for me or my beliefs.” She leaned across the table and said to me, “You must not believe in the Truth then.” I wish I could have said something profound or quoted scripture or somehow pushed back against her words. But we weren’t sitting in that classroom to debate theology. We were there to assist the teachers in helping kids grow, thrive, and be who they were created to be. We were there to make sure that students had the tools and resources they needed to navigate this crazy and broken world. We were there to provide a safe and welcoming environment where all students felt like they belonged.

And all I could think about in that moment was the Jewish mother of a lesbian high school student sitting between us. At that moment, I was her clergy person too. We have no synagogues or mosques or other non-Christian places of worship in our small town. Who represents her and her beliefs? Who represents her daughter and speaks out for them? Isn’t this what it means to be a community pastor or a leader in our community? Aren’t we called to represent ALL people and speak on behalf of the voiceless and marginalized in our communities?

Encuentro: the clashing of opposing forces

For me, this was an “encuentro moment.” Less than a week before I was with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in LaCrosse, Wisconsin for their mission assembly. The theme was “A Revolution of Encuentro.” During my four days with the Sisters and their Affiliates, we struggled with what it means to live lives of encuentro. We learned that encuentro means “encounter in the midst of a clash; confront, fight, oppose.” It means to meet an adversary or the coming together of two opposing forces.

It has been over a month now since the mission assembly and I am still reflecting and processing what this encuentro moment means for me. Part of me wants to resign from the committee and work on issues that feel more comfortable. The other part of me wants to become more vocal and less fearful of these types of moments. I also know that I need to speak out so that others are encouraged to walk alongside other people too. I talked with a school board member about what happened. I contacted another clergy member in our community. I am also becoming a curious learner about issues that affect our LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. I joined a monthly book club hosted by “The Many,” a queer Christian music group, so that I can learn more about the beautiful, complex world in which we live. 

“To find yourself you must go through encuentro”

Whenever there is another mass shooting, police-involved shooting, racial violence, and countless acts of injustice and oppression, we plead, “How long, O Lord? How long?” Then we hear that we need to pray more or act more. What I have learned from the Franciscan Sisters is that to live into a revolution of encuentro means that we need to do both—pray and act. We need to pray that we as individuals are changed and transformed so that we can meet others where they are at and accompany them on their journey. 

In order to accompany others in this journey of encuentro, first, we need to attend to our spiritual practice of contemplation. We need to journal, pray, breathe, walk, and reflect on our own attitudes, behaviors, and physical responses when we encounter people. We need to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us and refine us.

Second, we need to continue to be curious learners. We can only learn by asking questions and even becoming “travelers” in our own communities. Where are places that we tend not to go? Where do we experience culture shock in our own communities? What perspectives are we not reading or listening to?

Third, sometimes accompanying others means jumping into a freezing pool of water. Reese Witherspoon in a recent podcast with Glennon Doyle talked about how building relationships, especially when we are fearful, hesitant, or nervous, feels like jumping into a freezing pool. Once we do it, we get over the initial shock and fear. After that, the relationships can be deep and lasting. In those moments of encuentro, we need to just jump in and trust that the Holy Spirit will give us the words and actions we need at the moment. 

By experiencing these encuentro moments and reflecting and praying on them, I am discovering who God created me to be. As Catherine of Siena writes, “Be who God created you to be and you will set the world on fire.” When we walk and journey with others outside of our comfort zone, God transforms and refines us too. 

Your turn

How are you discovering yourself through encuentro?

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Andrea Fluegel

Andrea Fluegel

Andrea Fluegel is currently serving as an interim pastor in the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, ELCA. She is also a Faith+Lead Coach, a certified nutrition coach, and is discerning affiliation with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She will be entering into a spiritual direction certification program in September. In her leisure time, she enjoys reading, hiking, kayaking, and snowshoeing. She lives with her husband and has two adult children and one in high school.

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