03/11/2013 12:57 pm ET Updated May 09, 2013

Fighting Illini Fight to Right the World

On the International Day of Women, March 8, I was in Champaign-Urbana at the more than 90-year-old YMCA at the University of Illinois, home of the Fighting Illini. Their Y isn't a place where you show up to swim. It is a place where you learn to show up in the world on behalf of vulnerable people and failing eco systems. It's a place where you grow and change.

I love the U of Illinois Y mission statement. You can't miss it when you visit. It is permanently printed across the entire foyer of their large building. It talks about their goal to nurture ethical action and responsibility for social justice and the integrity of our natural world. Many faith traditions are represented by the various campus ministries at the U of I and the Y has long been a central catalyst for interfaith conversations amongst the academic and external communities.

I spoke at their Friday Forum about putting faith in action and encouraged the attendees to act up a bit about the role of their respective churches in the oppression of women and sexual/gender minorities.

I hope our dialogue will encourage even greater and more public advocacy for women and sexual/gender minorities around the world and particularly in the 76 nations where millions of women and children have no protection under the law, no choice about their bodies and where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can be imprisoned and, in some cases, murdered without any consequence to the perpetrator.

When I am given the opportunity and privilege to speak to people of conscience, I talk about the correlation between the oppression of women worldwide and blatant discrimination against sexual and gender minorities. Where women are treated badly, researchers find that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are treated badly.

Where the church is silent on discrimination or stigmatizes women and sexual/gender minorities, the situation really devolves. It is heart wrenching to know that the subjugation of women is considered obedience to God and used as the justification for female genital cutting (mutilation) of more than 130 million girls in developing countries.

It will take conscientious people who are willing to work hard to dig patriarchy out of our relationships with one another. And it will take leadership in our churches to once and for all yank it out of our pews and pulpits. It is a nasty and gnarly old tangle that resists attempts to remove it and we must.

I am relieved and encouraged that U of I students will emerge from the world of academia with a strong foundation with which to put their faith in action in places where people like the President of Uganda say that gay people are worse than dogs and in Rwanda, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, where a dead rat is worth more than the body of a woman (Margot Wallstrom, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict).

I have faith and hope that the wonderfully talented and spirited students at the U of I will use their open hearts and minds and emerging technology to bring awareness and change to the rigor mortis that is present in the Anglican Communion, in the Catholic Church and in many radical fundamentalist churches around the world as well as evangelical churches that have corrupted the witness of Christ through their anti-gay sentiments and promotion of ex-gay therapy.

I had a moment of revery during my visit with the very hip U of I scholars when I imagined all of them tweeting their friends who would then tweet their friends until a million of them decided to tweet and greet the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to ask him to "make good" on his predecessor's statement in 2011 that:

Our churches must accept responsibility for our own part in perpetuating oppressive attitudes towards women ... our churches (must) truly become a living witness to our belief that both women and men are made in the image of God ... (and) we commit to strengthening our mission and ministry in these areas.

In the two years that have passed since former Archbishop Rowen Williams spoke these words, the United Nations has documented that:
  • Up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under the age of 16.
  • One-in-three women in some countries are beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetimes.
  • 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime.
  • More than 60 million girls worldwide are child brides without any say in the matter, married before the age of 18.
  • One-in-five women worldwide will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.
  • 55 to 95 percent of women who have been physically abused by their partners have never contacted anyone for help out of fear -- of loss of shelter and support, of worse abuse, of not being heard or believed by officials.
Tearfund commissioned the research report from which this data is revealed. You can download it at

Their objective was to explore the current and potential role of the church within Global South communities affected by sexual violence and conflict. The findings were harsh, detailing stories of terrible suffering and often, complete silence by the church.

Sadly, the Anglican Communion has not been silent about its position on gay people. The former and current Archbishops of Canterbury have directly participated in public exclusion of gay people from the full fellowship of the Church and spoken out against adoption of children by gay parents.

And yet, the people in communities served by the various denominations and communions and fellowships look to their churches as the primary source of care and comfort, hoping the find the safe place they need. In many AIDS impacted nations, the church is the sole surviving 'family" member for many women and children.

The silence of churches is often the result of fear and the inability to think about how to engage effectively. If churches can acknowledge their failure to provide care, support, safety and leadership that communities are longing for this could be changed.

I applaud the Archbishop of Canterbury for saying that the church needed to change its position on women. Now I want to see that faith in action.

As long as the leaders of these churches suggest that gay people are outside God's "natural" design for humankind, gay people will die at the hands of people of faith.

The Archbishop of Canterbury must show leadership to challenge the prevalence of sexual and spiritual violence against women and LGBT people.

He needs to commission his Bishops to equip themselves to be people to show compassion and care for those affected by sexual violence rather than stigmatizing them.

And he needs to extend a hand to aid agencies, governments and donors who recognize the potential of the church and work together to support them in this journey.

It is time.

"The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself."
-- C. JoyBell C.