Ben Borne, 24, who self-identifies as gay, was talking to Krista Loewen and Joe Heikman, his co-pastors and friends, after attending a Mennonite Church Saskatchewan meeting to discuss its Safe Church Policy when Borne was condemned on the basis of his sexual orientation.

The policy, ratified last March, ensures that no person will be granted or kept from a church position on the basis of age, gender, cultural background, physical appearance or sexual orientation. The meeting in October was an attempt to hear voices from all people, including those who affirm the importance of the policy, especially when it comes to creating safe spaces for people of differing sexual orientations, and those who don’t.

After the meeting, Heikman, Loewen and Borne say they were approached by an older man they didn’t know, who asked Borne, “Are you a homosexual?” Borne replied, “Yes, I am gay.” They say the man then proceeded to compare Borne to a sexually depraved animal that should be put down and called him “sick.” Borne says he tried to laugh off the response, but was deeply hurt.

Heikman and Loewen say they were shocked and horrified, and told the man his words were inappropriate, at which point he left.

Borne says this isn’t the first time someone has reduced his humanity to a warped idea of his sexual orientation, adding that many lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer (LGBTQ) people face discrimination on a regular basis.

Creating and maintaining a safe space

Heikman and Loewen say they felt the violent words called for a peaceful response. They invited Borne to speak at church the next Sunday, to share his experience.

On Nov. 2, Borne addressed his home congregation, Wildwood Mennonite Church, in Saskatoon. The congregation strives to be a safe, inclusive place for all marginalized communities.

“Growing up here, I have always felt loved and safe in this special place,” Borne said. “When I walk through the doors here on a Sunday, I am reminded that I am a beloved child of Christ, and this has cast out any fear and doubt of who I am and what my role is as part of the church body.”

After Borne spoke, nearly all of his fellow congregants got to their feet and formed a prayer circle around him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

“It was a time of overwhelming community support, something I haven’t experienced before in response to something so traumatic,” Loewen says.

Borne says it felt like his church family was renewing its love and support for him.

Church members talked about the service for days, and Loewen says she heard from people who don’t even attend Wildwood who heard about the traumatic incident and wanted to offer support.

“Everyone was emotionally touched by this,” she says.

But Heikman and Loewen say the work isn’t over.

Goals for the future

MC Saskatchewan is working to identify the man in an attempt to bring about understanding and reconciliation.

Heikman says the broader church needs to acknowledge the hurt LGBTQ people like Borne deal with, sometimes from people within the area church itself.

“If we stay silent, this implicitly becomes the message of the church,” Heikman says. “We have to speak out and take action to make it clear that this kind of hate and discrimination has no place in the church.”

“If we say nothing, if we aren’t proactive in making the church a safe place, then it won’t be seen as a safe place,” he adds. “It won’t be a safe place in spite of the vast majority of people who desire to be compassionate and welcoming.”

Heikman, Loewen, Borne and others are planning a listening day in January for LGBTQ people and other marginalized people in the community. They want it to truly feel safe for people who are typically on the edges of society to speak up. They hope other area churches will plan similar listening days so gender and sexually diverse Mennonites will feel less like an issue and more like a part of the body of Christ.

In the interests of full disclosure: Rachel Bergen attends Wildwood Mennonite Church.

--Posted Nov. 19, 2014