From the Trenches: Reflections on the long road to equality and the meaning of community
From the Trenches
Reflections on the long road to equality and the meaning of community
by Howard Hanger
Community is finally what it’s all about. The make or break point in any living cooperative [system] is whether or not community can be established and maintained. The better the community, the happier everyone is. The stronger the community, the more respect and camaraderie blossoms. The healthier the community, the more support everyone feels. And when all feel supported, all support the community.
Community, however, is not a program. It’s not an operation. Not something that can be formed and sustained by following any kind of schedule or manual. Community is a living organism and as such, a moving target...
It’s like parenting. There are all kinds of classes, books, and videos on how to be a good parent. But, finally, parents and children have to learn together how a family works. Guidelines are helpful but never the answer.
Life is not linear. Life is not neat and tidy. Life is a dance—a dance in which toes sometimes get stepped on and stumbles happen. But, it’s a goofy, messy dance that can bring exultant joy and a sense of genuine freedom as long as the partners listen for the music and feel the beat.
Community forms and thrives on the music of sharing, compassion, forgiveness, and respect. And, knowing that there will be missteps—knowing that there will be embarrassing blunders—as long as all do their damnedest to dance to that music, magic will happen.
- from Let’s Move in Together—A Manual for Shared Housing by Howard Hanger
I was ordained in 1972 into the United Methodist church, and I was appointed to experimental ministries beyond the local church, which simply means they wanted me outside the mainstream church. They knew that I was a musician, and musicians cause trouble. They wanted me experimenting with new ways of enabling people to connect spiritually. First, there were musical productions, and ultimately, this resulted in the creation of Jubilee, which became an experimental ministry in 1989.
There are a few things, that I have always felt were part of my gig. One is the belief that living on this fine Earth means living in community—in community with nature and people as with family, churches, neighborhoods, and political systems. So, I went as far as to purchase a big house for use as an intentional community, in which I have lived more than 30 years.
Another part of my gig is to bless love, meaning that wherever love is happening I seek to offer a blessing for it. To bless something is to say “yes” to it. For me, that’s basically what a blessing is—it’s a yes! So, as a minister, I was asked to perform marriages. And I was asked to perform gay unions. Unfortunately, at that time in North Carolina, marriage was illegal for LGBTQ people. But you could do a gay union blessing with no legal ramifications, which I did. In 1996, the Bishops of the United Methodist church sent a letter out to every Methodist minister including me saying, "You will no longer perform gay unions. You will cease and desist from this.”
Well, I didn’t cease and desist. I thought I had a higher calling to support my community and to bless love wherever I found it. I could not rationalize saying that one couple’s love is worthy of God’s blessing because their genitals are different and another couple’s love is not worthy of God’s blessing because their genitals are the same. I just could not bring myself to do that, and so I continued to bless gay unions. I ended up doing a high profile gay union blessing that appeared in the New York Times. There was my name—busted.
The Bishop’s office called me, and the conversation went somewhat like this:
"You can’t bless gay unions anymore!"
"I cannot stop doing this"
"Well then, you cannot be a United Methodist minister. We’re going to have to take you to trial."
"Church trials? I thought those went out with the Middle Ages.” (I even mentioned thumbscrews and things like that.) “Do you want me just to send you my papers?"
I sent in my ordination papers and they took me off the rolls.
This was about ten years ago in the spring of 2006. It was painful because I had been ordained and ministering with the United Methodist church since 1972. The couple whose blessing got me into trouble was torn up with grief that theirs had caused this, and yet, the truth is that it freed me up. I was sorry that the church did not want my services, but I was happy that I could perform as many gay unions as I wanted to. Nobody was looking over my shoulder. No one was slapping my hand or threatening me with anything, and it all felt very comfortable. I could shout it to the heavens, “Come one and all, let’s bless your love. Your love is welcome here.”
Ironically and joyfully, on October 10, 2014, the ruling that overturned the law against same sex marriage in North Carolina happened here in Asheville. It was a big “Oh, Yeah!” This was a completely unexpected breakthrough, especially considering the make up and structure of the North Carolina Supreme Court at that time. Our local community celebrated exuberantly. No matter what the sexual or gender orientation of a couple, I could now gladly say, “By the authority vested in me by the state of North Carolina, I pronounce that you are married.” Now, the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed as well, and our country has said, “Yes, this is right!” The idea that love is love no matter what has been affirmed. I see this affirmation as a breakthrough for community in general. I imagine the women who fought so hard for the right to vote years ago must have felt this same exhilarating feeling we have now.
We had an organization here in Asheville of which I was a part whose sole purpose was to promote the LGBTQ community’s right to marry. It was a day that made me very proud when we all voted to disband the organization because our work was finished. Anything that affirms an individual’s rights for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a win-win for everybody.
I have learned that community is all about affirmation and acceptance, accepting each other as we are. When we live in community there will be differences in beliefs, race, sex, and whatever else you can think of. In successful community, we learn to work it out, to talk about it. And we also learn that some things are just NOT acceptable—for instance, we don’t abuse or trample on the rights of others. These are some of the principles that the large community that is the United States of America was founded upon. Sadly, in a lot of cases, we are still grappling with what is not acceptable in this country, but, at least in this instance with the LGBTQ community, we are moving in the right direction as a country.
When we are intentionally living together in community, living together as a family, we engage in the practice of accepting each other and working, connecting, and enjoying together while also creating our own individual space. As it is in our greater communities, when we work together for the greater good, it is not only life-giving through the acceptance and affirmation we give and receive, but it is also economically very advantageous.
While writing my next book, Let’s Move In Together—A Manual for Shared Cooperative Living, I have been looking closely at what works in community. My home has been a diverse intentional community since I purchased it in 1973, and one the things people who have lived with me have said is that having a benevolent dictator (which would be me) has worked. The benevolent dictator is one who, while looking out for everybody’s rights, intervenes when community agreements are broken, saying, “This is the way it’s got to be.” The buck has to stop somewhere; there has to be somebody in that role.
Perhaps, like the strong parent, I am very conscious of giving everyone a fair shake, and when someone is dancing too far outside the lines, I let them know. My own growth has been huge in this process as I have learned that when I am upset about something, I can be simultaneously honest about how I am not doing too well and aware that it is not the time to deal with house issues. I wait until I have dealt with my own issues. Eventually, everyone begins to be cooperative with such things as quiet between 10:00 pm and 7:00 am because they realize that it is for everyone’s good, which is the essence of community.
There are lessons here for our local and larger communities as well. We obey traffic laws for the sake of a safe community. We support strong family units by blessing love and accepting the bond of marriage whatever our sexual orientation. We discern and recognize our own need for growth and change in the face of challenges.
I am glad that I am not wrangling with the Methodist Church anymore, but it saddens me that Methodist ministers are still not allowed to perform same sex unions or marriages anywhere in this country. As we celebrate the fact that allowing consenting adults to marry each other no matter the sexual orientation is now a freedom we all share, let us contemplate that this is not just a win for the LGBTQ community but also perhaps a way to strengthen all of our rights and, therefore, our communities within our greater society. §
Howard Hanger is a professional musician and the minister of JUBILEE Community, an independent church in downtown Asheville, NC. He is founder of Hanger Hall, a school for middle school girls, which inspired him to write Precious Window of Time: A Manual for Teaching & Nurturing Middle School Girls. Howard has lived in intentional community since 1973 and is currently working on his latest book, Let’s Move in Together - A Manual for Shared Cooperative Living.