Oppression Olympics

He fumed about gay (white) men being the most oppressed group in the Disciples because our version of middle management (regional ministers—the equivalent of bishops or conference ministers) was afraid to trust that a congregation might like a pastor for who he was and then not really care that he was gay. The more he universalized his story and the more heavily he carried that mantle of oppression, the more irritated I got. Which is funny, because I care a lot about GLBTQ rights. And it makes me furious the ways the church has dehumanized faithful GLBT members and leaders by speaking in generalities when they know that their music program, their deacons, their after-church coffee set-up crew has GLBT folks forced to stay in the closet by their rhetoric, while those pastors and churches continue to benefit from the very gifts of the people they marginalize.
And yet something about the conversation was making me crazy. “You know that women of color sit in search and call for 18 months longer than white men and women as we look for ministries in which to serve, right?” I finally said. (Search and call is the process by which churches see the ministry applications of all the clergy who might be looking for a church like theirs—it’s a little like matchmaking, where the churches see our profiles and say, “Oh! That person loves to preach, is gifted in pastoral care, they have great references, and they’d be delighted to take a small church in a big city, a church like ours. Oh wait—how do you say that name? Hmmmm…anyone else we could interview?” Or that’s how it felt to me.)
“Yeah,” he responded with (in my head, at least) a curled lip. “Slightly less time than GLBT people.”
I came up with a great retort that night as I was falling asleep, that anxious/angry energy still churning in my stomach. “Buddy, that’s because you think you’re too good for a church like the one I’m serving. Your privilege tells you that you should get to stay in the community of your choice and pastor a church that financially sustains you. You would never have taken my church for $200/week and the honor of sleeping in the basement of the building. But women of color take all SORTS of churches no one else would take, and the churches are resigned to us, because we remind them they couldn’t afford a real pastor.”
But my retort might be beside the point (although I still kind of feel that way). My point is how easily I, a fairly public and proud queer ally, got baited into what my friend Jessica Vazquez jokingly refers to as “the Oppression Olympics.” If you’re from ANY sort of marginalized group, you know what I’m talking about: my wound is deeper than your wound, my people have suffered more than yours. I am not responsible for your pain because I have pains you could not begin to understand.
I’ve been in enough anti-oppression trainings to watch it show up defensively: “Well, I’m a woman; we experience all sorts of marginalization.” And that’s true, but often we go into that space to say, “I don’t contribute to the systemic oppression of your community because I don’t have the power to participate in it.” We treat our own experience of oppression as a get-out-of-jail-free card, instead of paying attention to where we benefit from some “isms” while suffering directly at the hands of other “isms.”
I’m pretty sure the guy I was talking with is a people of color ally. I think he’s participated in and even encouraged our denomination’s GLBT community to engage in some anti-racism work. So how did we end up in a boxing match? Jesus said we often default to “let me help you with that speck in your eye” while ignoring the log in our own eye. So I’ve spent the last 8 months since that conversation trying to work on the log in my eye. And I’m aware of the straight privilege that allowed me an interview for an associate minister position in a region that has explicitly disallowed gay ordination. And I’m aware that I can be considered for children’s ministries because no one holds ignorant, backwards notions about me as a straight woman. And I was easily able to serve as an ally to the people in my church who wanted us to have a more vibrant and thriving GLBT inclusivity commitment, because no one would have thought I was being self-serving (even though my GLBT colleagues don’t advocate for GLBT inclusion as a self-serving act either).
But I still wish I had had that retort while we were at the bar instead of when I was back in my hotel room that night. Because I can see his speck so clearly. Which is why we get a lifetime to practice self-reflection and self-growth.

Comments (3)

  1. Tabitha Isner

    Big hug of solidarity to you, Sandhya. Shane and I talk regularly about the damage that the Oppression Olympics do to our mission of restoring wholeness to a broken world. Yet we see it all the time. Most importantly, thank you for sharing this story! Maybe if we all confess it more often and more openly, we can reach a point where we can laugh at our logs, understand others’ specks and then get back to being each others’ biggest allies.

  2. Steve DeFields-Gambrel

    In our search and call system regional ministers filter out applicants and give the churches a small stack of carefully selected candidates. Churches don’t see all the resumes. Pastors are kept from seeing which churches are searching, so that they cannot directly apply for jobs, and so that churches cannot directly recruit pastors. You know that I love my regional minister – I trust my life to him, His heart is the heart of Christ; his judgment and his wisdom are awesome. But the nature of middle-management is to not ruffle feathers. Perhaps churches and pastors from oppressed groups would find each other if we eliminated the middle-man (or woman)?

  3. Sandhya (Post author)

    Amen, Tabitha! And Steve, I wonder about the same thing…although in my case, my church actually needed a regional minister to nudge them into taking a very unconventional pastor, so that’s the flip side of middle management–when it’s good, it nurtures risk-taking. (John Shelby Spong says the reason he got away with preaching about civil rights throughout the sixties is that he had a bishop who told the congregation that if they didn’t like it, they could leave–with our polity, the congregation’s anxiety about going into hard places would have resulted in his getting fired…and some of my favorite radical clergy in this region did get fired for standing up for farm workers, civil rights and GLBT inclusion.) But my colleague did have the experience of a regional minister not trusting a congregation to give him a chance, because the regional minister was confident the church wasn’t ready for that yet. Our congregations AND our Regional Ministers function best when they function free of fear….what was it the angels said to the shepherds again?

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