Conversation With Jean-Marie Navetta

Jean-Marie Navetta is the Director of Equality and Diversity Partnerships for PFLAG National. In her role, she leads PFLAG’s Straight for Equality project, an effort to invite, educate and engage new straight allies in the fight for equality. Her most recent accomplishment was the completion of be not afraid – help is on the way! straight for equality in faith communities, a publication, web resource and training series to engage more allies of faith to come out with their support for people who are LGBT. Jean-Marie lives in San Francisco, CA, with her wife, Jude.

How has your personal journey to being an out lesbian and Christian strengthened or challenged your faith?

I think that there was a time when I would have said that the journey was only about challenges because like it is for many people in our community, there have been some tremendously tough times. But the good thing about perspective is that I can now see that the challenges have been blessings. I don’t think that faith is ever meant to be easy for us – it is those moments of feeling abandoned, adrift and even doubtful that make us understand what real belief looks like. The rejection (and even outright hostility) that I’ve experienced has made me stronger in my faith and realize that this is about my relationship with God, not what people tell me that relationship is or isn’t.

Is there a prayer or meditation that helps you make it through trying times?

I was reading Anne Lamott’s newest book last week and had to laugh that one of her everyday prayers is a variation on my daily one: God please help me not be a jerk. I know that it isn’t missal-worthy, but if I can get past being self-absorbed and limited in my scope of understanding, it changes what I do, who I am and how I treat others. But I always find myself coming back to St. Augustine and Kierkegaard when I need help. Augustine for his perfectly imperfect nature and relationship with God, and Kierkegaard for many things, not the least of which is reminding me: “If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe.” When nothing seems to make sense, this is where faith comes in.

What is one of the defining moments in your life as a Christian?

There are many, and I often think that we have a tendency to focus on the unpleasant ones that are the big wake-up moments for us. But the one that I think put me where I am right now happened a few years ago. I’d finally decided that I could not attend Catholic services any longer and started attending a small Episcopal church near my house in Virginia. They did not identify as a community that went through any formal process of becoming open and affirming, but it was the most welcoming faith community I’d ever attended. It was the place where my wife and I were actively invited to be part of the community, to not have to hide who we were, and to feel valued. At the last mass that we attended before moving to California, the pastor of the church made an announcement that two members of the parish family would be leaving and would be very much missed. As someone who felt that she had no faith community family, this simple act was one of the most Christ-like things that I had experienced in many years. It reminded me that even if we didn’t see eye-to-eye on every issue, there were places where I was still welcome for who I am, as I am, and it did not have to be in a community that was specifically designated as welcoming. Faith allies are everywhere.

Do you have a story of a person who embodies Christ’s teachings?

I’m going to have to say without exception, my mother. She is a former Catholic nun who is still very active in her church. This is a woman who is fully supportive of her gay daughter and has decided that some places—like the faith community that she loves—are worth staying and fighting for. She listens to the frequent vilification and scapegoating of the LGBT community and then finds ways to speak up. While I have my soapbox in tow at all times, she has patient, kind and compassionate conversations with people one-on-one that I think are actually the way we’re going to see real change happen in many faith communities that are resistant to this discussion. And she’s brave! A couple of years ago she called me at work to ask if I could send her a pin with a rainbow flag. When I asked her why she needed it, she said that she wanted to wear it to church so that everyone knew where she stands and that she’s supportive of equality and part of that community. In a time when communion is being denied to people because of their sexual orientation or support for the LGBT community, this takes courage—and wasn’t so much of what Jesus did fiercely courageous?

In your mind, what are the Biblical foundations for LGBT inclusion in the church?

There’s been so much written about this—we could point to many of those writings and outline where there has been misinterpretation (intentional or otherwise) and misunderstandings in many places. I usually leave that to the scholars who are far more well-versed (and good at Greek and Latin translations!) than I am. But here’s what it comes down to for me: There isn’t a place in the Bible that anyone can point to where we see Jesus rejecting people and excluding them from being part of his following. Even in cases where he may not have affirmed someone’s role (ahem, tax collector) he invited them to be part of his following, treated them with respect and kindness and, in fact, spoke against those who practiced exclusion. If we are to truly be followers of Christ then aren’t we called to follow the example that Jesus set for us? Sometimes I find myself questioning if it really can be this simple, but I think that it is. And when we follow Christ’s example of inclusion and leaving the judgment to God, then doesn’t this mean that at the very minimum we are compelled to make everyone feel welcome in their faith community?

What would you say to those Christians who have a different view on inclusion?

I don’t know that I have one blanket statement for everyone, because I think that we need to treat each person we meet as an individual and find out what it is that makes them believe and act in a certain way. But the thing that I’ve learned is that if I am interacting with someone who really does believe what they say they do, there are some things that I want to share. I want to share what it feels like to be pushed out of the faith community that I once called home, labeled as “intrinsically disordered,” and to question if God really was there for me at all. I want to share how there have been countless allies of faith who have taken the time to make me feel welcome, valued and included, and who have modeled Jesus’ teachings and brought me back into the fold—even if they couldn’t say that they were completely understanding of people who are LGBT. I want to ask them to get to know people who are LGBT and hear their stories and to see them as children of God (and not some ominous force as we’re too often framed). I want them to actually ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” in a way that is not a pithy slogan for a bracelet or bumper sticker, but a real spiritual examination. And above all, I want to hear what they say and have the grace to see them as individuals on the same journey that I’m on and not repeat the behavior that is, for lack of a better term, un-Christian.

What can we do to foster dialogue and build bridges with people with different views on inclusion?

When we do Straight for Equality training, I find myself saying the same thing in every session, no matter where I am: Changing the world starts with one conversation. It doesn’t matter how small or seemingly insignificant. When we are the ones extending the olive branch—no matter how many times we’ve been hurt and rejected—we’re modeling the behavior that we want to see. We’re following the model that Jesus taught us. I have no illusions here: I’m sure that there are people who will not change their beliefs on this and will continue to practice exclusion. Yet there are so many out there who will listen but have never been engaged. We, LGBTs and straight allies, need to help them be part of this change that is happening all around us, in every faith community out there. It takes time and personal strength. But doesn’t Augustine remind us that patience is the companion of wisdom? Talk. Be patient. Listen more than you talk. Be a little more patient. And walk with them. That’s what we’re called to do. That’s where change happens.

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