A slide presentation…
By River Damien Sims
The first twenty five years of our life were filled with certainty. We knew who God was and that “He” made us in a certain way, no matter what. But in that certainty we were filled with fear, depression, and a horrible sense of being the “bad boy” because we were queer. The church in which we were raised, educated, and ordained told us we had to be straight or we were a “bad” boy, in fact we were “intrinsically evil.” The time came when we expressed those fears to our district superintendent and he reinforced our “badness” when he kicked us out of the ministry. Thus we lost all friends, all means of making a living, but most importantly that which gave meaning and purpose to our life—God.
It was on the streets of Hollywood as a whore, and terribly alone that we began to understand God in Christ as an always changing and moving, disturbing, and a totally grossing Mystery. All the gods–straightness, wealth, Jesus is the only One, white is best—all failed us. The following of the rules, being dressed in a certain way, being nice to the right people—all failed. They blocked the image of God in life. It was only in unmasking the image of the God who lives in our heart that we could see the panoply of the god images surrounding us, and come to an understanding of the process of life. It was coming to that understanding that we understood that God has always been in our life–from the moment our mother’s egg was fertilized and God knew who we were, and loved us for who we are. Being queer was a gift from that Mystery. God is in us now. And in that evolution growth became the purpose of life. Sister Joan Chittister says that “creation is the process of human growth, and that life is not a program of expectations, and the past is no longer a template forever, but the God of the future, beckoning us beyond ourselves, beyond the present into the eternal growth of God.” What is true of the individual is true of us corporately as well. God was no longer a certainty, but a mystery and our journey became one of faith. Holiness lies in the journey of faith, of questioning, and listening to that inner voice.
We have never returned to the “organized” church because it holds certainty as one of its “gods”, but we have moved out into the Mystery. In that Mystery we have learned obedience to that which is within us, to the One who created us, guides us; we have learned humility, that we are simply creatures of the Mystery, one among many, we have learned to come to view silence as our friend, to spend time simply in waiting, listening and praying, and from that silence we have learned our call to hospitality, to serving others, and that we are one with others, no divisions, simply children of the same Mystery. Community is found in loving our neighbor as ourselves without regard to race, creed, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or any other label we choose to place on others.
For us that Mystery is found to be best expressed in a creed prepared for children by the World Council of Churches:
“We believe in God, who loves us and wants us to love each other. This is our God.
We believe in Jesus, who cared for children and held them in his arms. He wanted a world where every one could live together in peace. This is Jesus Christ.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, who keeps working with us until everything is good and true. This is the Holy Spirit.
We can be the church, which reminds people of God because we love each other. This we believe.”
And in a summary of our own mission in life we prepared during our time on the streets in which we said:
“The best summary for my mission in life can be found in the statement that: ‘Obedience to Christ does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.'” To be a living mystery means to practice the works of mercy, and in the words of Dorothy Day “to live to the point of folly.” Or in the words of Toyohiko Kawaga “I am a free lance, a tramp, a vagabond. I must go until Christ’s work is done. I go like the wind.”
Deo Gratias! Thanks be to God!
Fr. River Damien Sims, sfw, D.S.T., D.Min. candidate
Part 2: A Proactive Solution?
In our last blog post on this topic, we discussed the increasingly complex relationship between faith communities and local governments: allies in seeking the common welfare of the community, adversaries on property tax policy, and on land use policy, a little of both. Across the country, local governments, driven by their own financial needs, have begun to look for other sources of revenue. Seeing faith communities as low-hanging financial fruit, they are “creatively” using land use and property tax policy to put the squeeze on churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship.
Meanwhile, faith communities are feeling the proverbial turnip, whose blood is being squeezed out. Most of us are not rich megachurches but smaller congregations who operate on a very thin margin. On the one hand, we can’t afford the additional costs forced upon us in the name of land use policy. But on the other hand, few of us can afford the lawyers and court costs it would to force local government to respect our rights under federal law. Nor do we want to make local enemies or spoil the cooperative efforts with local governments that we have spent years to build. It was a no-win situation, and it left us feeling like we were caught between a rock and hard place.
It felt like a pretty desperate place. But about a year and a half ago we began to seek a way out of the bind without having to sue. Several members of the Religious Land use Working Group, which I co-chair, decided to go to take a visit to the Justice Department to see if we might find release under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).
We did not understand every bit of legalese spoken in the meeting. But we came out much clearer understanding of the law than we went in with. But more importantly, we departed with an idea for a middle way between rolling over or playing dead, and suing local government: a forum that would bring the county’s faith leaders and officials all together in one place. At that forum, the Department of Justice’s special counsel for religious discrimination would explain to those present the rights of faith communities and the responsibilities of local governments under RLUIPA. Everybody would know the truth about RLUIPA, and knowing that truth would set everyone free. Hundreds of faith community leaders and their congregations would be empowered by knowing their rights and how to petition for the redress of those rights, if validated. The county officials present would have greater clarity about what they can and cannot impose on religious groups in the name of land use policy.
The event was held on September 7, 2016, in a civic center which all considered neutral ground. The special counsel spoke for 45 minutes about rights, responsibilities, and best practices. This was followed by a 30-minute question and answer period, curated by the co-chairs of the Religious Land Use Working Group, in which faith leaders posed questions, the special counsel answered them, and the county officials observed. More than 80 people attended: a dozen county officials and more than 70 faith leaders.
It produced an interesting dynamic among the faith leaders. Most of them came knowing little about RLUIPA and feeling like they were alone in their struggle with local government agencies. Now each faith leader knew their rights. And they knew that 70 other faith leaders knew their right and had experienced similar problems. And they knew that the local agency representative now knew the rights of faith communities. And they could see the looks of astonishment on the faces of several of the agency representatives that so many faith community people came to the forum. So the faith leaders felt much more empowered on the way out than they did before they arrived. And much less alone as well.
Will it work? Will it lift the excessive burden we have felt for so long? That remains to be seen. After all, it took decades to rise to the level it had. None of the organizers believe that a single 2½-hour forum would solve every problem. Our guess is that a lot more negotiating needs to happen before things get significantly better.
But the difference is: now there is hope!
Part 1 – The Problem: An Increasingly Complicated and Adversarial Relationship
Part of the increasing uncertain environment faith-based communities and organizations are facing is their relationship with local government. Faith communities and local governments once saw each other as natural allies. But as local governments face increasing pressure to find new sources of revenue for essential services, they are beginning to see faith communities as competitors. After all, every new house of worship built takes another piece of property off the property tax roles.
Suffice it to say that the relationship between faith communities and local government is becoming much more complicated and frequently adversarial. If leaders are to help their faith communities survive and thrive in this increasing complex environment, they must understand the dynamics at work:
A Complex Relationship
The relationship between local governments and faith communities is becoming a complex network of shared and competing interests. In some areas they are natural allies, while in other areas they are natural competitors, while in still other areas they are a little of both.
Allies in Seeking the Common Good
In seeking the common good of the community, local governments and faith communities are natural allies. Both are called to serve the poor in their midst: feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, and housing the homeless. Both are called to promote civility, prevent violence, and resolve conflict. Both are called to care for creation: balancing the needs of human commerce and the health of the natural world.
Competitors on Taxation
In tax policy, local governments and faith communities are natural adversaries. In order to exist, provide basic services, and carry out their responsibilities to their communities, local governments rely primarily on property tax revenue. Meanwhile, by virtue of long-standing social contract, because of the services they provide communities in which they operate, and in deference to the First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion, since the founding of our country faith communities have been granted property tax exemption from local governments. This exemption from property taxation has traditionally covered the buildings designated as their houses of worship, as well as the property on which the buildings resided, in recognition of the fact that religious activity involved much more than simply worship and was not exclusively limited to the official worship structures. Given that the overwhelming majority of faith communities rely almost exclusively upon the uncompelled generosity of their members for their support, many would find it difficult or impossible to survive a loss of (or decrease in) property tax exemption, and those that did survive would find it difficult to continue to provide the very same human services on which local governments have come to depend. Meanwhile, local governments, increasingly strapped for cash and realizing that every property tax exemption eats into their tax revenue, feel intense pressure to roll back property tax exemptions already granted or to manipulate their land use policies and procedures in order to make it difficult for new faith communities to obtain or build on property in the first place. Clearly, when it comes to tax policy, the vested interests of local government and faith communities are in direct opposition. It was to address this competitive advantage of local governments over faith communities that congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which forbade local governments from placing undue burdens on faith communities via land use policies and practices without a compelling public interest, and stated that maintaining their property tax base could not be considered a compelling interest under the statute.
On Land Use Policy… A Little Of Both
In land use policy, local governments and faith communities are a little of both. Local governments and faith communities are allies in some aspects of land use policy. Faith communities often support land use planning and zoning that maintain green areas, set aside agricultural and forest protection zones, and promote reforestation. They also support building construction and occupancy regulations that handicapped accessible and keep people safe. It is the manner in which in which local governments implement land use policy that frequently – and often inadvertently – turns the relationship between them and their local faith communities adversarial. Afforestation requirements (in which new forested areas are must be planted with new development to make up for forested areas previous lost to older development), especially when done in an all-or-nothing manner, may constitute an insurmountable burden for many smaller congregations. Zoning decisions may be used to limit where faith communities may locate, resulting in a higher percentage of faith communities operating out of rented space, thus maintaining more taxable property.
Conflicts in Local and Federal Law
Here’s where things really get complicated. Federal Law is clear. According to the Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), local government land use policies may not impose a “significant burden” on faith communities without a “compelling public interest.” The law offers a further clarification that maintaining its property tax base is not be considered a compelling public interest under the law.
Well, yes… Except that local governments don’t always see it that way. Rather, they tend to think that as long as they are not actively discriminating (that is, showing a preference for one religion over another) that they are safe. As one local government official once told be, “But we’re not discriminating… We require the same things of faith communities as we do any other business.” And that’s true, but in treating non-profit faith communities as though they were commercial business, local officials are creating a systemic burden on all religious expression. When a faith community has to pay over $800,00 in costs directly related to land use policies – permitting, afforestation, widening highways and replacing culverts, installing neighborhood sidewalks, and other so-called “proffers” – to build a 1.3 million dollar worship center (as mine did), as well as enduring years of delays, construction of a place of worship becomes cost prohibitive, driving many prospective faith communities out of “business.”
So why not just take the local government to court?
Well…that’s what makes it so complicated.
I mean, you almost certainly will win your case in federal court… The problem is surviving the costly and lengthy battle it’s going to take to get there, fighting your way all the way up through largely unsympathetic local and state courts. It’s literally going to cost your faith community hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of continuing delay to get there. And unless your faith community is a megachurch and/or very wealthy and/or has a lot of constitutional lawyers waiting in the wings for pro bono work and/or a legal foundation willing to foot the bill, you are unlikely to survive long enough to have your day in federal court, let alone do your legal victory dance in the end zone.
And speaking of lawyers, legal fees, suing the government, and victory dances, most faith communities just aren’t into that sort of thing. Members give their money for things like feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and providing for worship, spiritual formation, and fellowship, not suing people.
Nor do clergy want to take that route, either. They got into ministry to serve their congregation and community, to seek justice, and bring about the beloved community of God, not to fight legal battles over land use policies and property taxes. And they know that once you start down that road, there is is no turning back. Suing people, even governments… perhaps especially governments, is going to make your congregation a lot of enemies and will undermine all of the good work you have done in partnership with local government.
Doesn’t sound promising, does it?
Yet there may yet be room for hope.
In Montgomery County, where my congregation is located, and where I am a member of the Executive Committee of the Faith Community Advisory Council and the co-chair of its Religious Land Use Working Group, we are trying something new. After nearly two years of preparation, we have arranged with the U.S. Department of Justice to hold a forum at which the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination will education faith leaders to their congregations’ rights and local governments’ responsibilities under RLUIPA. We hope this approach can become a viable middle way between spending years in court on the one hand and giving in to unjust government policies on the other.
This forum will be happening soon… tomorrow, in fact. So in my next post, I can tell you more about how we got here and how well this approach is working out.
Local Governments and Faith Communities – Part 2: A Proactive Solution?
By Darren M. Slade
FaithX Research Coordinator
According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2016, nearly half (49%) of American churchgoers have actively sought a new church home at least once in their lifetime. Roughly three-in-ten Christians (29%) sought a new congregation within the last five years. While the main reason for this pursuit was due to moving (34%), the second and third most common reasons for seeking a new congregation was marriage/divorce (11%) or conflict with clergy or another member of the congregation (11%). Almost one-in-ten (7%) cite other problems with their previous church, including theological disagreements (3%), general dissatisfaction (3%), and difficulties with church leadership (1%). This indicates that internal conflict constitutes a substantial reason for why church members switch congregations and change churches, confirming the long-held suspicion that church fragmentation is due (at least in part) to theological and hermeneutical strife.
What is it about church life that compels American Christians to fight with each other and, ultimately, to abandon their houses of worship? Do we simply conclude that sinful humanity’s fallen nature precludes Christians from maintaining peace and harmony within the body of Christ? Is the problem regional where the individualistic, decentralized, populist, and pluralistic American culture (and even the West in general) creates a propensity for fragmentation? Does this trend reflect a more damaging christological implication, suggesting that Christ has failed in his duties to remain the “head” of an organized, coherent, and productive “body” (cf. Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18)? This is especially pertinent since conflict has permeated the church since its inception as indicated repeatedly in the New Testament epistles.
In his book, Paradoxy, Ken Howard argues that the focus of every church should not be doctrine or action but relationship with Jesus Christ. The foundation of this new paradigm is the acknowledgment that Jesus is Lord and that he loves humanity. This allows for a greater diversity of opinions and beliefs within the church body, but the presence of God’s love is the unifying factor that maintains a healthy and biblical congregation. A Christian is someone whose primary focus is to engage in a loving relationship with Christ and with others.
Is this a potential solution to the problem of fragmentation or does it reflect a community desperately seeking to avoid conflict at all costs? Is love for Christ enough to stop this trend of church splitting?
Dennis Hollinger explains that problems in ministry are oftentimes the result of overemphasizing one of three areas in the Christian life. He argues that churches need to focus on their maturation process by developing growth, balance, and interaction between the head (doctrine, theology), heart (relationship, worship), and hands (action, charity) of the Christian community.
Is this really the root cause of the problem? Are American Christians just overly immature and in need of good discipleship?
For me personally, I have attempted to be an active member of three separate churches in my life as a Christian, and I left every one of them due to internal conflict with members of the congregation, especially their leadership. While I have grown and learned from these experiences, the wounds of having been discounted, discouraged, and disowned continue to affect my understanding of Christianity today. And I know I am not alone. Even during my years at seminary and discussions with other PhD students, I have repeatedly encountered disenfranchised Christians who no longer feel welcomed inside a church building, though they remain anxious to build God’s kingdom. From my perspective, something drastic has to change in Christianity or the religion itself will surely die. [Read more…]