As we walked the few blocks from the lot, we found ourselves joined by ever-growing crowds made up of increasingly interesting people. I had driven up that afternoon to visit my friend Bonnie and volunteer with the Episcopal Church’s booth at the Circle City Pride Parade and Festival and, though I had no idea what to expect inside the grounds, I could easily have predicted the scene across from the entrance. A man in dress shirt and slacks holding a microphone called out with raised voice for people to repent, to leave behind their lives of sin and receive the forgiveness of a God who was only too willing to offer it – pending their prayers of contrition. Now, to his credit, the few words I caught were more gentle and pleading than vitriolic, and the small crowd surrounding him seemed more bemused than agitated, yet the majority strolled past without a second glance and entered the main gates, where the voices of the ticket clerks, crowd, and music from side stages quickly drowned out the would-be prophet.
Once inside, we entered a world entirely new to me. Growing up and identifying quite comfortably as cisgendered and straight, I wondered if I would stick out or somehow be identified as an impostor, but as I looked upon the hundreds of people milling about, made up of every race, age, and gender expression, draped in rainbow flags or not much at all, I found I was instantly comfortable and immediately swept into the pulsing crowd, watching pounds of glitter and make-up run with the sweat under the Indiana sun.
Though I might have guessed the interesting make-up and clothes, I definitely was not prepared for the amount of skin. Young men in speedos, women without shirts and tape over their nipples (to obey the letter of the “no nudity” instructions hanging above the main entrance under the heading, Don’t act the fool), and innumerable short shorts, fishnets, chains, beads, other unique items. While the skin and clothes surprised me, more surprising was my reaction, because I was neither scandalized nor aroused, but felt a simple joy in their, well, pride. These beautiful people, I realized, people of every size and shape, people who might stand out were they to wander into a suburban mall, here felt safe and comfortable. The freedom stemming from a complete absence of judgment crashed into me like a tidal wave, obliterating my ever-present self-consciousness and leaving peace to fall as gently as the discarded fliers rolling through the air.
It wasn’t about the rebellion of displaying skin, and it certainly had nothing to do with popular conservative ideas of the LGBT community as sexual deviants, but a celebration of freedom. For the most part these people didn’t seem interested in attraction as much as expressing themselves without fear of reprisal, something they likely did not experience outside events like this. Bonnie continued searching the park map for our spot, as I continued people-watching, mentioning that the smiling crowd likely felt watched and under suspicion the vast majority of the time, many probably took great pains to hide their true selves in public. But not here. How many, I wondered, had been thrust from their homes, families, and churches? How many more would be if their true identities were discovered? Were it not for the joy saturating the atmosphere, I would have wept for the oceans of pain collected in that small park.
As we wandered through the grounds, searching for our tent, I drank everything in. Shirts for sale declaring in rainbow letters the pride of this community and its allies and of their determination to continue pushing for acceptance, along with many referencing current events; booths offering information for birth control and disease prevention, cannabis advocacy, and other less-embattled products like essential oils; booths offering everything from henna tattoos to community assistance and support group information. As we moved toward the back, we passed tents that served as rallying points for political engagement, as well as other affirming religious groups.
Finally, we found our tent. The booth was simple, with a white canopy holding the Episcopal shield and the words God loves you. No exceptions. emblazoned on the side. On the table were snacks for passersby, stickers and other logoed knick knacks, as well as a map displaying the location and website for every congregation within the 465 beltway. By the time Bonnie and I arrived, three women remained, two about our age and one that must have been the oldest person in the festival by a decade. She left soon after introductions, tired from the march and hours in the sun, leaving us to speak with the younger women.
One, whose name I (to my shame) cannot remember, was a disabled Army vet and social worker currently “taking a break” before pursuing licensure. The other, Sarah, was one of the priests at Bonnie’s church in town, St. Paul’s. As the hours passed, we talked work and education, faith traditions, ministry, and ordination, and anything else that came to mind as festival-goers wandered past our booth. I learned a bit of Sarah’s history and experiences in life and faith, but mostly we spoke with the people brave enough to approach our table.
Nearly all walked up cautiously, eyes wide like deer alert for hunters. Every time this happened, every time they looked at us fearfully or even suspiciously, I felt a twinge of pain as I saw etched on living faces the suffering endured at the hands of God’s people, recognizing that the mere presence of “outed” Christians in their midst was enough to disrupt the pervading wholeness this makeshift congregation enjoyed. One could almost see the waves of peace flowing throughout the grounds being disrupted near the boundary of our space: here, Christians were the impediments of shalom and gospel, rather than their heralds. I thought of the preacher across from the main entrance, and felt the heat of anger and shame, that we were lumped in with a people known to this community solely for their lack of acceptance and unconditional love.
Anyone who penetrated the atmosphere surrounding us was greeted with smiles and assured that, yes, they would be welcomed, loved, and affirmed in any of the dozen or so churches on the map. Most grew excited when they were told that women and members of the LBTQ+ community were numbered among our clergy, and not a few told stories about how they had once attended church, but had either been forced out or chose to leave after learning their presence was not desired. I found myself saying from the depths of my soul, over and over again, “I’m so sorry.”
I have never been so simultaneously proud and ashamed of my faith. Ashamed that the rumor of Jesus the Liberator’s presence would cause bondage – old wounds resurfacing and new burdens falling. That Jesus’ followers would be the outsiders in a place where wholesome, life-giving freedom thrived; that, in the midst of our church’s celebration of Pentecost we would find ourselves failing to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.”
Ashamed. Yet also, proud.
Proud that this journey has found me in the midst of a tradition willing to step up and advocate for this community, willing to ask for forgiveness for the time it wasted in coming to that decision, and willing to stand as a cruciform receptor of the pain, asking forgiveness for our own culpability and of those who strike in Jesus’ name, knowing not what they do. For many people with whom I have worshiped, many whom I love dearly, who express such passion for this world in the name of Christ, would be unable (as I surely would have even a couple years ago) to see what was so evident as I sat in the midst of this swirling mass of smiling and carefree humanity: liberty. That here, here at the Circle City Pride Festival the Spirit of the Lord had taken up residence – the Spirit in whose presence is perfect peace, wholeness, love . . . and freedom.