PORTLAND, Maine — “There are lots of folks who would like LGBTQ folks to disappear from the face of the earth,” the Rev. Marvin Ellison said. “And there are other folks who would be delighted if religion disappeared from the face of the earth.”
But while religion and queer life don’t often intersect, the ordained Presbyterian minister has spent his career helping Mainers find common ground.
On Monday, Ellison and the Rev. Tamara Torres McGovern, a queer faith leader in Portland, will launch a talk radio series called “Queer Spirit,” exploring the intersections between spiritual, religious life in Maine and the lives of those who identify as members of the larger queer community.
The show will be broadcast at 1 p.m. on WMPG 90.9 FM, and will be available online at the station’s archives. It’s hosted by OUTcast, a weekly LGBTQ-themed community radio show. In the first episode, Torres McGovern, a pastor at Portland’s Woodfords Congregational Church, will interview Ellison.
Ellison has been on the frontlines of LGBTQ civil rights activism and reproductive justice movements in Maine for decades, from the anti-discrimination campaigns of the 1990s and gay marriage referendum battles of the past decade, and has been one of the state’s leading interfaith voices. Originally from Tennessee, Ellison moved to Maine to finish his doctoral program, signing on at Bangor Theological Seminary where he taught Christian ethics. Torres McGovern attended Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Ellison is also an alum.
He and Torres McGovern pitched the idea of “Queer Spirit” together, and plan to use the series to discuss the evolution of queer religious life in Maine from intergenerational, as well as interfaith perspectives.
Starting from the perspective of “the outcast” is an intentional theme.
“I think that while it is not a revelation for our generation that people could be spiritual and queer, for a long time the church kind of forced people to choose,” said Torres McGovern, who also leads Arise Portland, which she described as “an emergent inter-spiritual community in Portland that focuses on bringing people together to celebrate and foster wholeness.”
Mainers have made great strides in their understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ people over the past few decades, but conversations in the church move more slowly, Torres McGovern said.
In southern Maine, there are many LGBTQ ministers and open and affirming churches, a term for congregations that do not discriminate based on church members’ sexualities. But that’s not the case everywhere.
Where inclusive church communities have been absent, Torres McGovern notes that many queer people of faith and their allies left religious life long ago.
“In some ways the queer community became a form of spiritual community — like a church of sort — a place where people found one another and confronted the hard things about life together,” she said.
The most recent example of religious life’s intersection with LGBTQ issues came just weeks ago when the United Methodist Church announced that it planned to formally split over the issue of LGBTQ inclusion, with a conservative “traditionalist Methodist” group spinning off that wouldn’t embrace same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ministers.
Conflict over moral matters is hardly unique to Methodists, Ellison said. He sees movements to rethink gender roles, sexual differences and relational and family models within many religious traditions, often stressing their communities to the point of separation. He recalled that Presbyterians split 150 years ago between abolitionists and those who supported slavery.
“People have supported terrible moral evil in the name of religion, and it’s caused lots of suffering and pain for people,” Ellison said. “I think you find many who say unity can come at too high a cost if that unity depends upon injustice done to any group of people.”
As the series progresses, Ellison and Torres McGovern will interview Mainers who belong to religious communities spanning the spectrum of denomination, faith and belief. In April, the queer Muslim activist Samaa Abdurraqib is expected to appear on the show, talking about her involvement in social justice work from her grounding in Islam. Ellison expects the show will also address nontraditional spiritual practices such as “alternative masculinity.”
The hope is that the series can reflect how faith communities can be a source of change and renewal. They’ll talk about the problems of religion, but also how spirituality can make a difference in people’s lives.
“Queer folks and spirituality and religion are facts of life that are going to be with us,” Ellison said.
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