Progressive Christians Ruined Me (Or, Everything Changes When You Know Their Name)

IMG-6011.JPGAll I could think, as I headed into my second day of the machine of Rethink Leadership and the Orange Conference (a mostly-evangelical Christian leaders gathering) was:

Progressive Christians have ruined me. 

Before seminary and my classmates – those brave and bold friends who taught me over and over again the meaning of that song that I sang growing up: They will know we are Christians by our love.  And before witnessing the compassion and innovation of colleagues who lead Christian churches all across the country.  And definitely before Anne Lamott and Glennon Doyle, and Jim Wallis, and Barbara Brown Taylor, and before Rachel Held Evans – whose sudden tragic death the day after the conference ended only underscored the grief that was weighing on me in that gathering of about 8,000 people younger and more-racially-diverse than most UU gatherings.

Before any of these voices and relationships that have over the last 12 years, drawn me in and sent me out, loved me, and known me. Before, as the conference theme said it – progressive Christians made Christianity feel personal for me, I could’ve dismissed all of the discomfort I was experiencing (and sometimes nausea) as inevitable. I could’ve rolled my eyes, shrugged it off.  I could’ve dismissed it all as confirming my shallow, stereotype of what Christians are like.

And how not-Christian I am.  How unwelcome I am.

Before it got personal, I would’ve thought it was just further proof that to Christians, I am the enemy.  My people are the enemy.  The ones to pray for and to look down on, and to convert. And most of all, before progressive Christians ruined me, I would’ve remembered to keep my guard up.  Because they are my enemy, too.

But instead, I was caught off guard.  I was caught off guard by my grief, and even more, I was caught off guard by my rage.

Which is not to say that I didn’t love a lot of what I experienced at Orange.

Actually, the opposite.  I think what they are doing is brilliant, and mostly spot-on – which is what makes the whole thing so especially infuriating, and terribly sad.

This combination of brilliant/infuriating can be summed up in one question.  The question that the conference put at the center of this year’s conference:

What’s your name?

I was standing in line for my free/Jesus-approved coffee, when one of the volunteers looked right at me with this question.  (One piece of their brilliance is that they are not shy about immediately putting their tactics into practice.)

Before I could respond, the guy wearing the perfectly-designed Christian t-shirt read my name back to me off my badge. And then, he had more questions.

Do you know what it means? Do you remember? What’s the story behind your name? Why did your parents call you that, do you know?

Do you know my name? is actually just the first in a series of five questions the conference kept coming back to.  Because these are the questions that they say lead to real belonging, hope, and transformation.

The others:

Do you know what matters to me?

Do you know where I live?

Do you know what I’ve done?

And Do you know what I can do?

All of these questions go to support this year’s theme: Everything changes when things get personal.  Everything changes when you know someone’s name.  And everything changes when that knowing leads to another layer of knowing.  When you see someone not just at the surface, but for the story behind their name.  When you know what they care about, where they are from, what they struggle with, and what they long for.

Everything changes when you see someone.  And, everything changes when you let yourself be seen.

Which basically feels like the core of what I’ve been preaching for the past few years in my Unitarian Univeraslist church – vulnerability, connection, belonging.  I kept thinking about my 13-year-old daughter and her friends, a peer group that has seen three attempted suicides and regular psychiatric care for more than that in just this school year.  They need exactly this sort of ministry.  Personal.  Committed. Deep. Ministry that says – you matter.  It would be literally life-saving for them.

That’s the brilliance.

As for the infuriating…note I said I was in line for coffee when the guy hit me with this approved-line of questioning.  Which means I hadn’t had any yet. But my under-caffeinated state was not the only reason – despite being totally sold on the whole idea –  I shrugged and half-smiled, and thanked him for the coffee, unwilling to play along.

Because, see, each time they asked the question flashed on the big screen – do you know my name? I couldn’t help thinking about one of my friends whose parents’ evangelical faith was the primary reason they have never even tried using his name, or his pronouns.  It’s been decades. Even though studies show that using a trans person’s name automatically decreases their risk of suicide and depression, this question of “do you know my name” does not lead the evangelicals to a campaign for all adults to use all kids’ names and pronouns.

Instead, we get bathroom bills and righteous wedding cake-cases, and chick-fil-A.


When the question about names wasn’t making me think about trans and queer folx, I’d instead remember the chanting of protesters and lamenters: Say Her NameIt was a call that began after the death of African American woman Sandra Bland while in police custody, and that has become the cry of a movement seeking justice for Black women and African Americans everywhere who have been profiled, targeted and brutalized at the hands of police officers.


It wasn’t that there was no racial lens at Orange. A few of the speakers, especially those digging into the “do you know where I live” question linked their faith directly to their cultural and ethnic context.  And Dr. Bernice King – that’s MLK’s daughter – held the floor with bad ass bravery with a straight-up Micah-centered call for social justice as the heart of Christianity.

It was a moment where I wondered – if white evangelicals might manage to grow in their understanding and vocabulary around race, even a little – there is such a potential for organizing with Black Christians.  They wouldn’t need to move any or at all on women, or on GLBT inclusion.

Another reason I’m so grateful for Black Lives Matter’s insistence on intersectionality, and why I don’t see Orange connecting their “Do you know my name” campaign with the “Say Her Name” campaign anytime soon.

After they presented all sorts of stories and ideas related to the “Do you know my name” question (and the other 4), the speakers’ lines took a small but important turn: We make it personal, because God made it personal.  In Jesus. 

For the most part, Orange is remarkably low on specifically-Christian content.  It’s how they can have a crowd of 8,000 with beliefs ranging from Presbyterian to Pentecostal to Unitarians (hey, we were took up at least a row of 8 at one point!).

For example, they chose one bible story – the story of Zacchaeus – and came back to it repeatedly – but even that, only about every third talk.  The way they told the story, it was accessible regardless of what you believe about who Jesus was, or what his life, or death or resurrection meant.  Instead, their message focuses mostly on how to improve life for everyone, at every age, now.  How to love the outcast, and how much that matters when the outcast is you.

The smaller-than-you-might-expect-Jesus-content makes this turn to Jesus, and how everything changes when you know Jesus’ name – feel both sneaky, and again, brilliant!


And it was in this sneaky brilliance that the rage hit.

And the grief.

Because before that I was starting to give in, as I remembered the women in the prison where I served as a chaplain my first year of seminary, how they taught me about swaying and raising your arms – in vulnerability, and solidarity.  I was giving in to being present, without defense. Yes, we’re all in this together.  Seen people see people.

I was even thinking – I was wrong to have not let myself be seen by that friendly coffee guy.  How could I see them if I wasn’t willing to be seen?

And even more, I was wrong to have not let myself be seen by the senior pastor who I’d sat next to the day before.  After two days of conversation about church life, and leadership, he asked me what the name of my church was, and I said simply: Foothills.

Are you a part of a denomination, he asked? I said, no.  I mean, it wasn’t exactly a lie.

But then the name of JESUS flashed across the stage.

And the people around me were deep in the swaying and the singing What a Beautiful Name

and instead of vulnerability and solidarity and telling them my name, I wanted to say all the swear words.

But not because I don’t think that it matters that we know who Jesus was – and where he lived, and what he cared about, what he did, and what he was capable of.

But because I have seen what it looks like when Christians think it matters too.  I’ve felt what it feels like when Christians put Jesus at the center of their worship lives, their communities.

When Christians center Jesus (and not just Paul), they throw baby showers for two women who have a new baby – as my classmates did for me and my family my first year in seminary.


When Christians center Jesus (and not the Republican party line), they show up at the border and feed and clothe the migrants seeking refuge – just as I witnessed so many doing when I was in San Diego in December.

When Christians center Jesus (and not patriarchy), they tell a young (heretical, queer) potential church leader: the church needs you as you – as one of my mentors did for me.

But what Christians who care most of all about who Jesus was, would not do – is (on the same day they flash JESUS from the mainstage) celebrate the latest expansion of “religious exemptions.” Exemptions lobbied for by Christians just like those in that stadium, that make it legal for anyone in the medical field to refuse to care for someone because of their religious beliefs.  Which is another way of getting personal, I guess.

“Religious exemption” is of course code.  Code for refusing to care for women needing reproductive health care.  Code for refusing to learn where women really live, and what matters to them.  (An afternoon session at the senior leaders portion basically tried to persuade the room that women are people.  Thank Beyoncé they didn’t ask us to talk at our tables after that one.)  And…code for refusing to treat trans people for all sorts of reasons.  Code for refusing to learn – in a very literal way – their names.

Before progressive Christians reminded me, in a really personal way, of what centering your life on Jesus for real looks like – I would’ve let all this slide.

I would’ve accepted that Christianity is inextricably connected to bigotry, and even death.

But because Methodists and Lutherans and Baptists have given me a taste of what it means when Christians follow Christ – I found myself so angry at this disconnect, this hypocrisy.

Especially when it is packaged up in this much brilliance.

Because I have a sense, a lived-in personal sense of Jesus – far beyond his name.  And because I know what it looks like when someone cares about what he cared about, when whole communities work to understand his context and applies it to our own, and when leaders wrestle with complexity as Jesus wrestled – I really want to stand up like Emma Gonzalez and call BS.

Because I really don’t think it matters if you can say the name of Jesus, if you don’t know the name of Amber Nicole, a trans woman who was recently beaten in Denver.

And I don’t think his name is all that wonderful if it doesn’t compel you to say the name of Stephon Clark, who was shot by the police while in his grandmother’s back yard in Sacramento just over a year ago.

And while millions of Christians are singing about what a sweet name Jesus is, how many are working to find out the name of the 16-year-old boy who died recently in ICE Custody?

Dear Orange.  Dear Evangelicals.  Dear Christians.  Dear friends who I know in my heart are not my enemies, but my kin – You are so right.  Everything changes when you know my name.  And when you know their name.  And my prayer, my lament, my rage, and my grief, which I pray with my hands raised and my heart open – is that you’ll keep growing whose names you mean, and whose name you’re willing to call beautiful.  


About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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4 Responses to Progressive Christians Ruined Me (Or, Everything Changes When You Know Their Name)

  1. Susanne Skok says:

    Beautiful, Gretchen.


  2. Logan says:

    Thank you so much for this fantastic piece. I am grateful to you for the work you do, and for being yourself in that work. I grew up with a deep mistrust of Christians, and I was always on the defense in case of sneaky tactics like this. I’m an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ now, and it’s because I know that the name of Jesus is synonymous with the names of those who suffer on the margins. Thank you for your words.


  3. maytheforce says:

    I remember that day at Iliff so long ago. I still talk about it because that’s what being the body of Christ means. Powerful piece loved the flow of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. -WN Middleton says:

    Thank you. #SayHerName #AllBlackLivesMatter


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