For me right now, Valentine’s Day could have easily passed by without my batting an eyelash. Colombia (thank goodness) has not caved to the consumerism of the holiday. When I saw the notifications that all of my friends were talking about Valentine’s Day on Facebook for the past few days, I decided to not let it bring me down; I would reclaim the day. I began by reclaiming the day as Singles’ Self-Empowerment Day, because I’m not fond of the idea of Singles’ Awareness Day; that just seems depressing and like it continues placing coupled people on some sort of pedestal. Of course, it’s also the birthday of Anna Howard Shaw, so it is already reclaimed as a feminist holiday. But this morning, I saw that a friend had posted the following, a history of St. Valentine:
Valentine of Rome (d. 269)
A Christian priest in Rome, Valentine was known for assisting Christians persecuted under Claudius II. After being caught marrying Christian -couples and helping Christians escape the persecution, Valentine was arrested and imprisoned. Although Emperor Claudius originally liked Valentine, he was condemned to death when he tried to convert the emperor. Valentine was beaten with stones, clubbed, and, finally, beheaded on February 14, 269. In the year 496, February 14 was named as a day of celebration in Valentine’s honor. He has since become the patron saint of engaged -couples, beekeepers, happy marriages, lovers, travelers, young -people, and greetings.
And it hit me. I knew how I could reclaim the day. Saint Valentine was martyred for his work of providing a safe space for and marrying Christians in a time when Christians were being persecuted. He risked and, ultimately, sacrificed his life for the sake of affirming love, both between two individuals and between those individuals and the God they chose to worship.
And today, I see a similar pattern emerging in our beloved United Methodist Church. Of course, no one is persecuted to the point of being killed (though the tragic suicides of many LGBTQ youth and young adults in the past couple of years is arguably death due to the persecution suffered by the community), but the church is faced with the same sort of dissonance as St. Valentine lived. The institutional church says that The UMC does not affirm non-heterosexual marriages; that “the practice of homosexuality…[is] incompatible with Christian teaching”; that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained. But there are many people who, like St. Valentine did, speak out against discrimination and in favor of love, both in word and in deed.
Over 1,100 United Methodist clergy have risked their ordination orders and taken action, committing to practicing marriage equality regardless of the church’s policy. These pastors, like St. Valentine, have taken a stand to speak up for love, doing what they believe to be the right and just thing, knowing that the precedents are against them and that they could be risking their ordination orders by acting on their commitment.
Almost 500 United Methodist churches, groups, campus ministries, and other communities have declared themselves “Reconciling”, that is, open to and affirming of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other identity marker that some might use as a pretext for inclusion in the life and ministry of the church.
Over 2,000 United Methodists have signed a statement, speaking out for such themes as racial justice, LGBTQ inclusion, gender equity, the global and connectional nature of The UMC, peaceful pursuit of self-determination and religious expression, stewardship of creation, and economic justice, pledging to work towards a UMC which embodies and practices these concepts, and committing to carrying out themselves on the grassroots level.
To some effect, each in its own way, these acts are risky. True, no one will be martyred in the sense of being killed like St. Valentine for any of these. But these individuals, groups, communities, and churches are making sacrifices and taking bold and prophetic actions to speak out in the name of love.
At least 38 retired bishops have spoken out against discrimination in the case of ordination, breaking the forced silence and tyranny of the majority practiced by the Council of Bishops, voicing their “minority” opinion that LGBTQ folks should be ordained.
And then, I’m brought back to Anna Howard Shaw. Imagine – a woman pastor in 1880 – that’s 132 years ago! If my mother faced as much discrimination and consternation she did as a female pastor throughout my childhood (and likely still today), I can only imagine the kind of discrimination and rejection Howard Shaw faced in 1880. It was probably not unlike the discrimination and rejection LGBTQ clergy, candidates for ordination, and seminarians face today.
All of these individuals wished to live out their calling for ordained ministry, but were told by one source or another that they either could not or should not or were “not right for the job”. But this did not and does not stop them. Without Howard Shaw and her example, The UMC would likely be ordaining women today anyway, but the prophetic message of speaking out against injustices committed in the name of taboo would likely not be as strong. But it took that risk, that radical step in the name of love, justice, and inclusion.
In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, he asks:
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
I know what kind of extremist I wish to be. I believe in a United Methodist Church that affirms love of all people. I believe in a United Methodist Church that affirms calls to ministry of all people. I believe in a United Methodist Church that takes bold and prophetic, though sometimes risky, steps in the name of love. And this Valentine’s Day, and every day, I am ready to take the necessary risks to make that a reality. Who’s with me?