Monday, August 29, 2011

Knowing Our History: Remembering Pamela Chinnis

by Susan Russell

It was Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett who taught me that we learn our history in order to back up and get a running start on our future. And you can’t know the recent history of the Episcopal Church in general -- or the history LGBT inclusion in the Episcopal Church in particular -- without knowing about Pam Chinnis.

The first notice of Pam’s passing on August 24th came in an email that evening from House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson:
Dr. Pamela Chinnis, 30th President of the House of Deputies, died this evening at 6:31 p.m. Dr. Chinnis, a lay person, was the first woman to serve as President of the HOD. She is remembered for her many achievements, writings and service to this Church she loved so much. Please keep her family in your thoughts and prayers. May she rest in eternal peace.
And literally within minutes the tributes started pouring in. Elizabeth Kaeton called her “a trailblazer in pumps and pearls.” “No one in a position of leadership in the Episcopal Church was more committed to full inclusion of LGBT people or did more to bring it about than did Pamela Chinnis,” said Kim Byham (Integrity President from 1987-1990) "What a blessing she has been to us all," said Integrity founder Louie Crew.

Integrity President Caro Hall, in the tribute Integrity issued on August 25th wrote “Dr. Chinnis’ proactive advocacy for LGBT inclusion literally changed the face of The Episcopal Church. In 1993, as the church looked toward its 1994 General Convention in Indianapolis, Dr. Chinnis became the first President of the House of Deputies to address an Integrity gathering. At that historic meeting she promised to appoint “out” gay and lesbian deputies to legislative committees at the upcoming convention and pledged personal vigilance for "the whole issue of gay and lesbian rights," speaking, she said, "as the mother of a gay son."

And then there was this from Michael Hopkins:
To say Pam was a faithful Christian and Episcopalian is to make a vast understatement. She was gracious beyond the telling, but she also had a backbone of steel. She was supportive of lesbian and gay people in the church long before that was popular, and her commitment to our full inclusion never wavered. She was extraordinarily well thought of among African-American Episcopalians and was one of the primary encouragers of the House of Bishops to do its work on racism that resulted in the Pastoral Letter of 1994, "The Sin of Racism."
And those are just the tip of the iceberg of those offering tributes to and memories of the work and witness of a woman whose commitment to the gospel agenda of justice, compassion and inclusion was such an extraordinary and inspirational example. So let me add mine.

My memories of Pam Chinnis are ones of a strong, graceful, confident presence leading the House of Deputies in Indianapolis (1994), Philadelphia (1997) and Denver (2000). They are of an early and fervent supporter of the ordination of women with deep roots in the ECW (Episcopal Church Women) – who modeled for my generation the power of the laity and the call to challenge the interlocking oppressions of racism, sexism and heterosexism in the Church.

They are memories of her great friendship with then Presiding Bishop Ed Browning and their shared commitment to the ideal of a church where “there will be no outcasts.” They are memories of her support of our Claiming the Blessing collaborative – launched after her tenure as President of the House of Deputies – and of her sharing pitchers of margaritas with our steering committee at a National Cathedral adjacent restaurant in 2002 after our inaugural meeting.

They are memories of a woman of privilege who used her platform of privilege to live out the baptismal promise to strive for peace and justice and to respect the dignity of every human being – even when it earned her the animosity of those determined to maintain the status quo. In stepping out of her comfort zone, as a straight ally she became the target of some of the same slings and arrows aimed at LGBT Episcopalians.

To illustrate, here’s some more history. It is an ENS (Episcopal News Service) report from Pam’s last hurrah as President of the House of Deputies -- the 73rd General Convention held in Denver in 2000.
Nelson Koscheski Jr. of Dallas, a clerical member of the House of Deputies, had scattered salt beneath the tables of deputies from Newark (N.J.), Dallas, Ft. Worth, South Carolina, and other dioceses. He also scattered salt beneath the seat of Pamela Chinnis, president of the House of Deputies and an outspoken supporter of homosexual rights within the Episcopal Church. Deputy Louie Crew, the best-known homosexual activist in the Episcopal Church, protested Koscheski's action.

"The deputation of Newark is sitting in salt," Crew said. He asked that the House of Deputies stand in recess while the salt was removed, and that the deputies use the time to "meditate on what it means to respect the dignity of every human being, including the deputy who spread the salt."Many deputies gathered near the Newark deputation. Holding hands or locking arms, and swaying in unison, they sang "We Shall Overcome," "Jesus Loves Me," "Jesus Loves the Little Children," and "Balm in Gilead."

Koscheski later protested that he meant the salt as a gesture of healing, pointing out that he spread it among both liberal and conservative deputations. The Dallas deputation apologized to the House of Deputies twice. Koscheski resigned the deputation and returned to Dallas.
For the record, salt has historically been a symbol of exorcism – not healing. It is used to expel or protect from evil spirits. Not even the Dallas deputation bought Koscheski’s efforts to “revision” his actions on the floor that day.

And as part of Integrity’s communication team in Denver that summer I remember the bemused secular media folks in the press room trying to wrap their heads around what came to be known as “the salting incident.” Trying to grasp that a Clergy Deputy to General Convention resorted to an ancient exorcism practice -- scattering salt – to “protect” the Church from “homosexual activists” … including President of the House of Deputies Pam Chinnis.

I also remember – like it was last week, if not yesterday – the legislative progress we made in Denver … passing a groundbreaking resolution (GC2000-D039) which included these two “resolves:”
That we acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships; and

That we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.
There were originally eight “resolves” – the eighth and final instructing the SCLM (Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) to create rites for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

The resolution was crafted knowing that the “8th Resolve” was likely going to be a bridge-too-far for this convention. Yet when it came to pass in the legislative process that it was separated off and failed by a narrow margin, our strategists inwardly celebrated the victory of writing into the record both a de facto recognition that same sex relationships fell within the bounds of our common life and the characterization of those relationships that continues to inform the work of the Episcopal Church over a decade later.

It was -- as I described it in a Denver 2000 press statement --“Not the whole enchilada but it has enough guacamole for me.” Setting the goalpost further than we expected to go and then stepping back to “compromise” for what we wanted to achieve in the first place was a carefully orchestrated strategy which paved the way for further movement forward in 2003. And at GC-2006. And GC-2009.

And like Fredrica told us, re-learning our history helps us get a head start on our future as we work toward GC-2012 in Indianapolis – where compromises will again be made. And progress will again be achieved. And like the Persistent Widow in Luke’s gospel, we’ll keep coming back – again and again – until justice is done, equality is achieved and we don’t have just the whole enchilada but the combo plate … with guacamole.

In a 1992 speech to the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, Pam Chinnis said: "One day we will overcome barriers -- but not in my lifetime or in yours. However small the gains are, or seem to be, we were and are not willing to make peace with oppression." The gains we make from General Convention to General Convention may seem to some to be small ones but cumulatively they have and will continue to move the Episcopal Church forward to more fully becoming the Church God is calling it -- and Pam Chinnis helped lead it -- to be.

“The greatest tribute we could make to the life and leadership of Pamela Chinnis is to complete the work of fully including all the baptized in all the sacraments,” said Caro Hall in Integrity’s statement on Dr. Chinnis’ passing. “As we prepare to gather again in Indianapolis for General Convention 2012, let us not only give thanks for her work and witness -- let us also pray for the power and perseverance to move the church forward in our generation as she did in hers.”

And let us always remember that we stand on the shoulders of Pam Chinnis and other of Giants of Justice as we move forward into God’s future.
Rest eternal grant to her, O Lord;
And let light perpetual shine upon her.
May her soul, and the souls of all the departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

I started this piece in my head driving around Colorado on vacation but didn't get a chance to get it written until today. Thanks to the Episcopal Church Archives for the photos.


Ann said...

Great photos -- memories, onward.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

What wonderful memories of the past. What great inspiration for the future.

JCF said...

[I esp. love the picture amidst the AIDS Quilt]

May Pamela rest in peace, and rise in GLORY!

Unknown said...

This is a fascinating revelation, Susan about the crafting D039 when you write, "The resolution was crafted knowing that the “8th Resolve” was going to be a bridge-too-far for this convention. And so when it came to pass in the legislative process that it was separated off and failed by a narrow margin, our strategists inwardly celebrated the victory..."

At least that is now out of the closet as well.




Hardly a shocking "reveal" -- it wasn't really all that far in the closet. Diane Knippers and I had a moment in the press room after that vote in Denver and she certainly "got it." We've had other times when the Church surprised us and "the bridge too far" went further than we hoped it would -- and of course those times when the bridge got blown up and we were back to Square One. But I hope the point I was making was it's about commitment. And it's about compromise. And it's about changing hearts, minds and votes along the way. Pam Chinnis was a paragon of perseverance ... and it's been a joy to honor her memory with a trip down memory lane.

Hope you made it through the earthquake and hurricane unscathed!

JCF said...

An (honorable) woman has died, BabyBlue, and you're politicking. Way to lose the plot!