For over 40 years, the Reverend Dr. Nancy Wilson’s leadership has built bridges between faith groups, LGBT communities and the general public. Her advocacy work has addressed racism, AIDS, poverty, women’s rights, and countless social justice issues. President Obama appointed her to the White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2011. The program’s current focus is addressing the under-reported issue of human trafficking and modern-day enslavement.
Wilson became a Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) pastor in 1972 and currently serves as their elected, global leader. MCC is an ecumenical denomination founded in 1968 with a specific outreach mission to LGBT parishioners. There are over 300 MCC congregations in almost two dozen countries worldwide.
The Reverend is one of 25 leaders on the President’s Advisory Council which represents a diverse group of nonprofits, faith-based and secular organizations. The council analyzes and makes recommendations to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP) regarding public policies and programs. The OFBNP was founded by executive order in 2001 by President George W. Bush. By executive order, President Obama extended the existence of the Advisory Council to 2015.
Reverend Wilson spoke to the The Seattle Lesbian about her personal journeys as a lesbian and clergy member, the role of religion in modern society and her work as part of the President’s Advisory Council to combat human trafficking domestically and internationally.
How did you recognize that your calling was to join the ministry and did you face particular challenges being a lesbian?
I grew up in the United Methodist Church in Long Island, New York, but my family wasn’t particularly religious. When I was in my early adolescence, I didn’t have a vocabulary or many words to deal with being a lesbian or female. I had a spiritual experience around age 11 of feeling that whatever it was – this presence – God was my friend and that someday I’d have other friends. I remember hearing that promise. I don’t have the words to describe it, but it was a mystical experience.
In college, I declared as a religion major. I wasn’t out of the closet about my sexuality when I started. I came out senior year before seminary. The Methodist seminary didn’t know how to handle it [homosexuality], but they didn’t kick me out. If I’d tried to stay Methodist, they would have, but it was before it was even in their disciplinary books. They didn’t have words for it. They weren’t happy about it, but I managed to stay for a few years and then finished at a Catholic seminary in Michigan. As a young person, I was drawn to the social gospel. It was a time of civil rights and the Vietnam War and I understood what I was being called to do. It was an amazing adventure to start a new community, a new church (MCC), and have the freedom to do it our way.
How do you observe many young people, especially LGBT, relating to religion in today’s culture?
Many of the mainstream churches are opening up, but the Methodist’s doors are still slammed shut to [homosexuals] being in the ministry and lots of other churches are skating on the edge. They struggle with being completely open, especially on a local level. I think the biggest issue for young people is what’s the relevance of religion at all? Institutional religion has betrayed a lot of people whether it’s the Catholic Church’s scandals, a general lack of justice or just irrelevance. We need to challenge ourselves and be churches that are true to their values. Hypocrisy is what really alienates and drives people away.
For some young people, they want to be involved in a religious community, but aren’t embraced due to issues such as being LGBT. How do you advise them to affect change – work from within the institution or from without?
There is heartbreak and disappointment for young people raised in churches [who are marginalized] and also for those with no church background at all. What do they do when they want to be part of that community? I think you sometimes come in through a side door, maybe not the front door. If a church is engaged in a project or service that’s helping people in need – food pantries, AA meetings, homeless programs – that’s a way to feel connected to the community.
In July 2012, President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, began earnestly addressing human trafficking. It’s estimated that 21 million people are enslaved in the U.S. every year. Were you surprised by the extent of the issue?
I don’t think anyone on the council was an expert in this area at the beginning. We all admitted how shocked we were about how much we didn’t know. This is a global crisis. It’s a domestic problem as well as international. Human trafficking is a low-risk/high-profit industry. People make phenomenal amounts of money on the suffering of others. We have to flip it so this becomes a high-risk/low-profit enterprise. We need to open our eyes that trafficking is happening in many places – small towns, big cities and right under our noses – where we just don’t see it.
You’ve said that the LGBT community needs to be particularly aware. About 10 percent of individuals trafficked are LGBT. Are there particular risk factors?
In the U.S., about 40 percent of teen runaways are LGBT. We know these people are targeted by traffickers because they don’t have any defense. They’re easily lured or kidnapped. From my perspective, I began to make connections that this directly relates to religious communities. Many of the 40 percent of homeless teens are runaways because of prejudice or abuse at home related to religious issues about them being LGBT.
People often associate human trafficking with the sex trade, but aren’t they also used for labor?
Women, children and men are enslaved and exploited to perpetuate a certain style of life – clothing, perfume, meat, tomatoes – the chances are that someone was flagged to work in that supply chain to make it happen. We need to ensure good practices and fair trade and fair food in our country. So much (trafficking) exists and there isn’t an easy way to see or evaluate it. We need to educate people about the implications of having easy and cheap access to goods and services. What if there was an app on your phone that could tell you whether a product was made slave-free? You could verify that people worked with dignity and decent wages to produce it. We all need to be conscious about this as human beings.
What progress are you witnessing?
I think there is going to be an explosion of awareness in the next couple years and we’re hoping that we [the council] can be a part of long-term commitment. There are corporations who want to cooperate and are pledging to ethically operate. They’re pledging that the goods and services they produce won’t involve labor from trafficking. We’re giving out annual prizes to corporations making these commitments.
For the average person who wants to help, what can they do?
There are two groups that I think are especially great on this issue. One is Slavery Footprint. Before the first White House Advisory Council meeting, we took the online Slavery Footprint test. It’s a self-test about what products, services and goods you use. It tells you how many people – slaves – it likely took to produce those items. It’s an easy, but powerful thing to do.
Polaris is another organization working to stop human trafficking and rescue those already enslaved. Sometimes you see phone numbers about domestic violence hotlines in public restrooms? They want to do that for human trafficking – publicize 1-800 numbers in restrooms, on billboards and more. People can call the hotline and someone will rescue them – literally.
The Council is comprised of non-profits, secular and faith-based organizations. What role do you feel religious groups should play in public discourse?
I think everybody in a diverse, public sphere should have a voice and bring their own values and views into the public square for discussion, evaluation and conversation. It’s a way to find common ground. Right now in Congress, we see such awful dysfunction because people’s vested interests are not in seeking common ground. When faith groups want their ideology to be the only one that rules people’s lives, that is not appropriate and we need to safeguard against it. But they [faith groups] also represent significant constituencies that should be able to speak about their values and public policy. I think secular groups should also be able to make a case for their values.
Recent tragedies – such as the Boston Marathon bombings – have spotlighted the issue of religious extremism. How do you feel society can constructively address the topic without causing more divisiveness?
I think we live in a world that truthfully has more organizations working for peace than the other direction – even though it sometimes doesn’t seem like it. The world has been a violent place for a long time and religion can go either way. It can be a force for good, peace and justice or intolerance, hate and violence. Those of us who are spiritual or religious, it’s our jobs to speak from a place that’s for justice, understanding and tolerance. Most Christians in the world are not hateful, but there are Christian extremists who’re racist and violent and abusive. That distorts faith and serves a negative and dangerous viewpoint. The same is true of Islam and other religions [who have extremists]. I deeply respect other people’s faiths and positions. What’s important are the values we share. It’s very important for people of all faiths to speak out against fear and hate mongering.
The Supreme Court’s ruling regarding DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) is expected in June. Do you feel optimistic?
I feel very optimistic. I don’t think we’ll get everything we want, but I believe DOMA will be overturned. It doesn’t mean gay marriage will be universal in our country – that’s another fight, I’m afraid – but you can see the momentum of change in the world and the United States. For DOMA to collapse would be huge, but then the deeper fight is on the way. It’s still a cause for enormous hope. I’ve been in this movement for over 40 years and came from a time when this discussion was unimaginable. I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.
What progress do you foresee in the next 20 years for the LGBT community?
I think transgendered people are still at an earlier place in our community’s movement. I think that many people, especially younger people, will increasingly be fluid around issues of gender and sexuality. In the next 20 years, I feel that the big issues will be more global – such as women’s issues. The truth is, if we can help women get equal access to education, we could end poverty. Also, a lot of places in the world are still so far away [from progress] regarding human rights and LGBT rights. That has a lot to do with religion, a lot of which is exported from the U.S. We live in a world that’s increasingly complicated and volatile in some ways. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens.