Just One Vote: The Power of Relationships

June 14, 2011 @ 03:05 pm by Jacqui Lewis

Hello everyone. Today several of my staff and I went down to City Hall to join our voices to those gathered in support of marriage equality. As we watch and pray for an affirming vote, read these words from my colleague Tricia Sheffield.

And, when you finish reading, go to Marriage Equality New York to reach out to your legislator to encourage them to vote yes.


Just One Vote: The Power of Relationships Dr. Tricia Sheffield, Research Consultant, The Middle Project

When many U.S. citizens (and not just white, middle class women!) were agitating for women’s suffrage, it all came down to one vote. Several states had ratified the constitutional amendment, but after the ratification in Washington, the amendment languished. As the decision went state to state, it all came down to Tennessee. If this state ratified the 19th amendment, then such an amendment would become national law. But the vote was tied 48 to 48. It was then that a young legislator, Harry Burn, just 24 years old, stepped onto the stage of history. He had previously sided with the anti-suffrage movement, but his mother had urged him to vote for suffrage and the amendment. She wrote: “Dear Son: Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt! I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Your mother.” Burn voted for women’s suffrage, and on August 18, 1920, Tennessee ratified the amendment and the 19th amendment, the right for women to vote became U.S. law on August 26th. It wasn’t an ideology, an argument, or an under the table deal that changed Harry Burn’s mind. It was a relationship.

I tell this story because we are now at such a time in U.S. history, with another kind of vote being debated in New York: the right for same sex people to be legally married. The arguments have been filled with vitriol, using naïve and unfounded religious arguments, quoting Scripture out of its cultural context, and asserting slippery slope arguments that are, well, just silly. But our civil servants in Albany aren’t necessarily going to vote “yes” for marriage equality based on a persuasive argument; they will vote in the affirmative because of a person, a story, or a relationship. As one of my friends once said, “It is easy to hate an ideology, but it is a lot harder to hate a person who is standing right in front of you.” It is the Mrs. Burn of history that will change minds, a woman who told her son to be a good boy. We can translate this phrase to say, “Do what is on the side of justice and love.” Now, I’m not so naïve that I don’t think there are many issues driving this debate, but in the end, it I believe it will be relationships, our living together in a peaceful, loving and civil society that will sway Albany to the affirmative for marriage equality.

I know the power of relationships. I myself was once a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, a person who went out to malls and beaches, proselytizing, trying to win souls for Jesus. I was raised in the racist South, hearing the “n” word on a constant basis. I also heard that gay and lesbian people were choosing to sin, and only the power of God could “cure” them of their hedonistic ways. But, as much as these viewpoints were a part of my story, this intolerant world in which I lived never felt comfortable. I felt uneasy when I heard from the pulpit, Sunday after Sunday, how women were not really made in the image of God, but in the image of man. I didn’t understand how women couldn’t be ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament just because they were women, especially since the women in my family were such strong, independent people who basically ran the family. I felt disturbed by the racist remarks; something seemed wrong, off, not God-like, although these statements usually came from so-called God-fearing people. I know the power of people’s stories, for it was my relationships with individuals, and a challenging education that changed my worldview. After I went to seminary, I disavowed the type of Christianity that said only people who believed in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior would be saved and enter into Heaven. I rejected the racism of my former world, vowing to work against racism for the rest of my life. This meant I had to first deal frankly, and oftentimes painfully, with the inherited racism in my own body. And I learned that one’s sexuality is a fearfully and wonderfully made God-gift, a way to love and be in this world.

So, love informs what I do now. It was no one person, no Mrs. Burn that made me view the world in a more loving way and to work for justice, but many people with her same spirit, many encounters that moved me to examine my own soul. I listened to people, their stories, their pain, their joys, and in those relationships I found a part of myself. In my community, we believe that none of us are saved until all of us are saved. That is, salvation is not an individual position of whether you are part of the elect of God and are assured of your place in Heaven, but salvation is communal; salvation is now. Salvation involves having enough food to eat, enough clothes on your back, having a safe place in which to live; in other words, salvation is loving others as you love yourself, doing justice, loving kindness, and making sure that everyone has equal rights before the law.

We stand on the eve of a vote for marriage equality in New York. We only need two more “yes” votes for it to pass. And I’m hoping that the spirit of Mrs. Burn shows up again.

About This Blog

Preparing ethical leaders for a just society. Posts by Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister.

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