This is the letter I have just sent to Senator Joe Manchin regarding his hesitation to speak out for the civil rights of LGBTQ people.
Dear Senator Manchin,
I have delayed writing this letter largely because I have not been able to figure out what I should say, exactly.
I thought about sharing with you the stories of West Virginia natives I went to high school and college with who have chosen to take their skills and talents to other states because they knew they would not only be rejected by the culture of the state they loved, but would be denied the civil rights they deserved by that state’s government. But that is their story to tell, not mine.
So then I thought instead I would tell you about the temptation I experienced when I left West Virginia to attend graduate school. Although I had always planned to return to the Mountain State, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to the more inclusive, more accepting culture of the distant city in which I was living. At that time, you were governor and you were pushing programs that would entice educated young people to stay in West Virginia. I heeded your words and encouragement, and to be a part of the fight on the “brain drain”, I returned home.
Coming home meant I would have to deal with being a woman in a predominately male profession (ordained ministry). I would be paid significantly less than my colleagues in other states. In order to fulfill my professional goals, I was required to obtain a bachelors and a masters degree. I relied heavily upon student loans that I would need to pay back with less salary than my classmates. As a minister, I was not able to utilize government programs that forgive my loans with a period of time spent working in highly impoverished areas.
And work in a highly impoverished area I did. I requested and was granted an appointment to serve two churches in McDowell County. I don’t need to tell you the extensive problems that face the Southern Coalfields region. Poverty, drugs, an elderly population, brain drain, recurrent and devastating flooding, lack of employment, environmental destruction… those are just at the top of the list.
I spent the first four years of my ministry serving the poorest county in our state. I did so while drowning in debt. And I did it because, in part, you had convinced me that if things were going to change for the better in West Virginia people like me had to make sacrifices. Although others with comparable levels of education and experience would be paid more for their service elsewhere, I needed to come home and contribute to a better educated crop of young adults. I believed so much in what you were saying that I did not just stop with coming back to West Virginia, but went to the place in West Virginia that most people do not wish to go.
I want you to know that I will never regret the time that I spent in McDowell County. The challenges were exhausting and at times heart-breaking. But I loved the people I met there and still passionately believe that they deserve the best that we have to offer them. As do all citizens of our great state.
This year I have moved to Marion County in order to serve two churches here. I understand this is from whence you hail. Everywhere I turn I see the name “Manchin” reminding me that this is the place that gave you your start.
One might think the pride would be infectious. But instead, I have felt myself gravely disappointed in your behavior in congress.
I returned to West Virginia because I believed that we could move forward only if we all moved forward together. That seeking my own advancement would be meaningless if I did not seek the advancement of my fellow West Virginians. You convinced me of this.
And yet, you have consistently failed to uphold the civil rights of all of West Virginia’s people. Men and women are being actively discriminated against for no other reason than for whom they love. Even as other states are taking huge strides forward, guaranteeing the civil rights of all its citizens, and even as most other Senate Democrats (at the time I write this, you are one of three holdouts) are deciding that the truly American thing to do is to uphold the rights of all people, you have continued to turn your back on a portion of the population you claim to represent.
I know this is not an easy subject to deal with. As a minister, raised in a theologically conservative family in this theologically conservative state, I began my faith life adamantly opposed to recognizing homosexual unions of any type. It has been only through years of painful spiritual growth and stretching that I have come to understand Christ’s love is extensive enough for all people.
I do not expect you to abandon your faith. If you cannot accept homosexual marriages on the basis of faith, you have that right. But what you, nor I, nor any one else in this country have the right to do is to withhold the civil rights of fellow citizens because of our faith.
There are many people right here in West Virignia, who for faith reasons, believe I should not have the authority to stand in a pulpit, or to hold an advanced degree of education higher than many of the men in my congregation, or to teach men. But just because they are entitled to those (backward as they might be) religious beliefs does not mean that they would have the right to withhold my right to marry just because they do not approve of the sort of egalitarian marriage a woman like me would expect.
I would assume that if any of those people who religiously oppose the equality of women attempted to legalize the inequality they espoused, you would be an advocate for me. I am asking you to do no less for the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/sexual, Queer) population.
People of faith, like you and I, will need to work within our faith communities to determine how those communities respond to LGBTQ peoples. But as citizens of a free nation, which is built in part on the principle that all people are created equal, we really have no choice.
I hope that when the history of this civil rights movement is told that you will not be the last to defend this segment of America’s citizens… and I certainly hope and pray that you will not go down in history as the lone holdout… the one Democratic Senator who simply refused to grant basic civil rights to all Americans.
Your Sister in Christ,
Rev. Amanda Gayle Reed