WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. >> Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, spoke on forgiveness during his keynote talk on Sunday at an interfaith conference at Williams College.
Robinson's election and consecration as Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 and 2004, caused an international uproar in the world-wide Anglican Communion of churches. Robinson served as an openly gay priest in the Episcopal tradition for over 30 years. He is originally from Lexington, Ky., and speaks with a soft southern accent.
"You know a little bit about this story, I'm sure, in the ensuing years and if you know any of that story, then you know why Gene Robinson is one of the great heroes for many of us," said Williams College Chaplain Rick Spalding in introducing Robinson. "I'm sure he would say not because of any particular qualities of personal heroism. He's a pastor, like countless others, but in the wisdom of the great mystery, he was also the right person at the right place at the right time, thanks be to God."
Studying to be an Episcopal priest, Robinson was a seminary roommate for a time with Peter Elvin, who is rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Williamstown. During his studies, Robinson served for a year as a chaplain at the University of Vermont, and after ordination ran a retreat center in southern New Hampshire for a time.
Before his own consecration as a bishop Robinson, served as assistant to the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire for nearly 18 years. Robinson retired as bishop in 2013 and now lives in Washington, D.C. He is an advocate for full rights and marriage equality for gay, bisexual and transgender people at the state, national and international levels.
Robinson began his talk to about 50 students and local residents in Thompson Memorial Chapel on a light note: "I just want to point out that I'm not the first gay bishop. You know that, right?" he said to considerable laughter.
"I would sum up that decade of being bishop with the most important learning from that whole decade. What I learned was: no matter how badly someone treats me, it does not relieve me of my responsibility to treat them like a child of God," Robinson said, noting all the hostility he endured when consecrated the first openly gay bishop in his denomination. "That's really hard. I got death threats for two years, I wore a bullet proof vest under my vestments when I was consecrated, so there was all that crap coming toward me, right? And what I learned is that the urge to return evil for evil is so seductive."
At that time the archbishop of Kenya said that "when Gene Robinson was consecrated a bishop Satan entered the church," and another archbishop said that gay people were lower than dogs, Robinson said.
"So I used to take great joy in saying publicly that those two guys and I were going to be in heaven," he said. "I actually believe that. I think they'll be more surprised to see me, however, than me to see them. And whatever differences we have will work out."
There's something about believing that you're going to be in heaven with someone that helps you treat them better, he said.
Robinson spent most of his talk examining the theme of the conference — "forgiving the unforgivable" — without making reference to his sexual orientation. He noted that there's truth to the saying "to err is human, to forgive divine." He had less sympathy with the common phrase: 'forgive and forget." It doesn't work, he said, you can't just will to forget things. "Even if you want it to work, it doesn't work."
The four-day conference was mostly for students, from Williams and other New England institutions such as Weslyan, Harvard, Middlebury and Colby, but was open to the public. On Saturday, Audri Scott Williams gave the first of the two weekend keynotes, also on "forgiving the unforgivable" but with a focus on the challenges of Interfaith work.
She is a World Peace Walker in the Red Flame for Freedom movement, vision keeper, author, and speaker. She is of African and North American Indigenous descent and was inspired by visions to walk the world for peace. Between 2005 and 2008 she and her peace walkers crossed six continents, stopping in communities along the way to give talks, to engage in interfaith dialogues, and to work in service to the community.
A former dean of instruction at the Institute of Divine Wisdom in Atlanta, Ga.; and dean of continuing education and community service at Charles County Community College, Williams also co-founded a theatrical company, Uprising, in the performing arts in Washington D.C. She currently serves as a trustee on the United Religions Initiative Global Council and is co-founder of the Quantum Leap Transformational Center. She has authored several books including "Embers of Glory," and produced documentaries about her journeys.
To a circle of about 40 people, mainly college students, Williams told stories from her wide-ranging experiences as an activist and filmmaker. "I have stood in slave dungeons in Africa," she said, noting it was a cell where women taken into slavery were locked up and often sexually abused. In a courtyard outside was a ball and chain for women who didn't comply. "Ten feet from that ball and chain, maybe 20, was a Presbyterian church," Williams said.
"I was like, 'my God, my God. Capture people, rape the women and then go to church, all in this confined space,'" she said. "And so I was thrown into contradictions within myself about who am I as a Christian, who am I as an indigenous person, who am I as a person of African heritage? And I cried, it hurt, just as though I was one of those captured, one of those that had to sit at the gate while I'm watching somebody go pray."
In Australia, Williams encountered an indigenous woman, matriarch of the family she was staying with, who screamed in the middle of the night. Other family members said this was due to memories from when she was stolen and taken into the mission school. She had never spoken to her family about what happened but clearly bad things had happened.
"So as we talk about interfaith work .everybody could have possibly some kind of story that is just as compelling and just as moving," she said. "You're going to work and talk in places and spaces where people have been as much broken down by church or religion, various religions, as they have been lifted up. You're going to be talking to people who have to deconstruct their lives in order to find value in how to move forward and embrace a religious tradition."
So true interfaith means at times being outside the comfortable space we have the opportunity to live in and to work in, she said, but guilt does not accomplish anything. "We cannot heal from a space of guilt but we heal from an informed position and from our compassion, our love and our drive to make the world a better place," she said. "That's where we can do something with that energy. But if we're just stuck in guilt we can't go anywhere."
Reconciliation in its most basic sense simply means to return to harmony, but it requires truth-telling. "So when we're forgiving the unforgivable we're stepping into that space of being pioneers, courageous and powerful enough to say we've got to tell the truth now," Williams said.
She spoke of critical issues now about which there is much denial, such as climate change, childhood poverty, the world's highest suicide rate for teens on native American reservations, mass incarcerations.
"Yes, there are good things happening, but we can't allow the good to override the things we need to have the courage to see," Williams said. "We can't talk about the beauty of our faith without the shadow side of it and how do we heal that, to make our faith-based tradition strong enough to create the net that we need to hold for spiritual empowerment of our communities and our people to be able to go through this period."
This is a critical time of what Williams calls " 'an evolutionary potential' because the decisions right now that we're making are so crucial that they can even be a part of our evolution."