"Stonewall at 50"
"STONEWALL AT 50"
23Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham [and Sarah’s] offspring, heirs according to the promise.
(Galatians 3:23-29, NRSV adapted)
There is more than one American revolution including at least one prior to the American Revolution. I like to think of our Pilgrim forebears as America’s first revolutionaries. Granted, there was no America in 1620 when these English Separatists, good Congregationalists like us, set foot on what would become American soil. Their American revolution was religious freedom.
The American Revolution began in 1775 and led to the founding of our nation free from British tyranny. This was one of many American revolutions to come. Some scholars say that the adopting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in 1789 was itself a revolution. It was a groundbreaking document to be sure, charting a new direction for our fledgling nation where laws can and should evolve over time. The framers of the Constitution left the door open so the document could be amended which has happened 27 times. It’s no secret that we’ve fallen short of our creed time and again which usually sparks another American revolution.
Case in point, the American Abolitionist Movement, beginning in earnest in the 1830’s starting another American revolution, this one to abolish slavery. I’m proud that New England Congregationalists helped lead the way. This revolution took decades culminating in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the surrender of Lee to Grant in 1865. Slavery was abolished but the fight for equality against legal discrimination had just begun. But make no mistake, God’s revolution of love was on the move.
It was not just slavery of course, the next American Revolution crystalized in the Women’s Rights Movement with roots stretching back to 1848. Part of the revolution succeeded when women won the right to vote in 1920. Other parts took decades from Rosie the Riveter during WW II to 1973 when women finally won the right to reproductive choice, a right that is under threat in our time primarily by men who are not willing to leave medical decisions as a private matter between a woman and her doctor.
It took one courageous African American woman, Rosa Parks, and one Montgomery bus to spark the Civil Rights Movement in 1955. The spokesperson for the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott was a 26-year-old little known preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. who was inspired by Christ’s revolution of love. As we know, under the leadership of Dr. King and others, unjust laws were overturned and great strides were made to gain civil rights for African Americans. The work is still unfinished but thanks be to God that progress has been made.
Our lives and our world are in desperate need of a revolution, a revolution of love. Jesus both taught and lived this revolution which led him to love everybody including those driven to the fringes of society. Growing up a white southerner in the cradle of the Confederacy, I knew significantly more about the Civil War than I did about the Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately, in seminary I met professors who had participated in the 1963 March on Washington. It was these wonderful teachers who told me to read Martin Luther King’s pivotal book, Why We Can’t Wait. With that I started to understand the heart and soul of the Civil Rights Movement. This revolution of love made our country a more just and fair place, albeit not for everyone.
And so it was 50 years ago this June 28 that a revolution was sparked in Greenwich Village at a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. It was the summer of 1969 when marginalized members of the LGBT community finally had enough of being treated like second class citizens and decided to fight back. Harassment of LGBT people was nothing new. During the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, several thousand federal employees lost their jobs because a superior suspected they were gay and might be subject to blackmail. Throughout America in the 1950’s and 60’s, LGBT people were discriminated against even in New York City of all places.
LGBT romantic relations were against the law. It was also against the law to wear clothing of the opposite sex. Both of these violations could land you in jail. The FBI kept detailed lists of people who were suspected of being gay as well as their friends. The only places where LGBT people could gather was in gay bars which were frequently raided with patrons arrested if they had no identification. Wouldn’t it have been great if they had felt welcomed to gather in churches too? At least progress has been made in some of our churches. As an aside, many gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn, were owned and operated by the Mafia. Apparently liquor was not the biggest moneymaker at gay bars. The Mob made even more cash extorting hush money from wealthy business people.
Information provided by the National Park Service describes the Stonewall uprising as follows:
The Stonewall Inn…was the scene of an uprising against [legal] repression that led to a key turning point in the struggle for civil rights of…LGBT Americans. In a pattern of harassment of LGBT establishments, [authorities] raided the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969. The reaction of the bar’s patrons and neighborhood residents that assembled in the street was not typical of these kinds of raids. Instead of dispersing, the crowd became increasingly angry and began chanting and throwing objects…Reinforcements were called in…and for several hours they tried to clear the streets while the crowd [resisted]. The initial raid and the [uprising] that ensued led to six days of demonstrations and conflicts with [authorities] outside the bar, in nearby Christopher Park, and along neighboring streets. At its peak, the crowds included several thousand people…Stonewall is regarded by many as the single most important catalyst for the…expansion of the LGBT civil rights movement. The [rebellion] inspired LGBT people throughout the country to organize and within two years of Stonewall, LGBT rights groups had been started in nearly every major city”
I knew something of this history, but one thing I did not know until I visited Stonewall last Sunday was that as of 2016, “The site of the uprisings in Greenwich Village were recognized as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service and is considered significant…because of its association with events that outstandingly represent the struggle for civil rights in America. (Ibid.).
Colleen and I were in a church in the Village last Sunday afternoon to train as volunteers to assist with next Sunday’s NYC/WorldPride March in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Sitting in St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street, I was struck by the painting of Jesus with open arms, above the altar, looking out on the volunteers. We didn’t look like your typical Sunday morning crowd and that’s okay.
This is the love I believe in: a love that invites everyone to the table. A love so wide it’s a cause for celebration.
May we celebrate the revolution of love that continues to this very day. Amen.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
June 23, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, Creator of the universe and our Creator, we give you thanks for those brave people who struggled to make the world a better place. We give thanks for those today who encourage, prod, and push us in the direction in which we should go. Let us not rest until all your children, white and black, gay and straight, rich and poor are welcomed and included everywhere. Throw open the doors of our hearts that we might throw open the doors of our churches to welcome every single person as a sister or brother.
Through Jesus Christ our Friend and Savior we pray. AMEN.