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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: How do you get beyond fiery debates to fostering real dialogue? Our next guest, the reverend, Irene Monroe, describes herself as an African-American lesbian radical feminist. She’s got her work cut out for her as she tries to open up the religious community to LGBTQ issues. But if anyone can do it, it’s her. She has already overcome unbelievable odds. Abandoned as a baby. Monroe went on to study at Wellesley and Harvard. She now has a pod cast called “All Rev’d Up” where she talks through the issues with an evangelical colleague. She told our Michel Martin how she made it to where she is and the essential need for dialogue with people of different views.
MICHEL MARTIN: I just have to start at the beginning. You don’t know who your birth parents are because you were literally found.
REV. IRENE MONROE, CO-HOST, “ALL REV’D UP”: You know, at six months, I was found in a trash can in Fort Green Park and was taken to the New York Foundling Hospital. They had to give me a birth name, and that’s the name and date of birth. So, I was found on July 11th. And so, gave me a birthday of January 11th. They estimated that I was six months. I get the name Irene Monroe because Sister Irene of the New York Foundling Hospital was the head nun and a Marilyn Monroe fan. So, I mean, I think that adds a little levity there in and off itself.
MARTIN: OK. And you knew that? Growing up, you knew?
MONROE: Yes. I knew that. I knew that growing up. And you know, you have to laugh at that. We’re talking about, you know, the 50s here and stuff and Marylin Monroe was, indeed, you know, a super star.
MARTIN: For some people, that would have been just the defining fact of their lives but you graduated from college, grad school, became a minister. Why?
MONROE: Why? Well, you know, there’s a couple of things here. You know, a lot of people liked to always have the sort of story about, “Oh, I just picked myself up by my boot straps.” But, you know, my story is about community and very much about what King talked about this beloved community. So, although I had no mother. And my foster mother, she used to have this, this was her mantra to me, “You come from nothing, you are nothing, you’ll be nothing.” So, this is a woman — yes. Well, listen, but I resided in a community in Brooklyn that where — really, where there was a little bit of help and even less and less hope here. But the point is, is that there were many mothers. I mean, I grew up in a black community that clearly you had a lot of mothers raising you. “Girls stop that. Don’t do that, OK?” I mean, the church, the black church was very central at the time that I was growing up. So, I’m a kid who is hungry, looking for food. It’s not that I was a religious kid at all. It had everything to do that if you know anything about black church at that time, that on Saturdays they were fixing dinners because on Sundays we all would gather down, you know, in the basement and have a meal. And it was also a place that I could be somebody. You know, the whole sort of social gospel. You know what I mean? It didn’t matter what your station is — in life and it reminds me of a sermon by, you know, Martin Luther King. You know, “If you lot us to be a street cleaner, be the best that you can.” So, this was a place where you can be a janitor, you could be a maid, but you come in this church, you’re the mother of the church, you’re the deacon of the church. I was on the children’s usher board because I couldn’t sing a lick, you know. So, they found something for me as a place I could be and it helped me to think of me, the individual and me the community. And I think that has a lot to do with the kind of work that I do today and the necessity, in many ways to pay it forward.
MARTIN: Do you remember the point at which it was formed in your mind that you would become a minister yourself, especially if you don’t mind me —
MARTIN: — saying, when you learned your sexual orientation —
MONROE: That’s right.
MARTIN: — when you came to an understanding that you’re not — you’re a woman, you’re African-American —
MONROE: And a lesbian.
MARTIN: — and a lesbian?
MONROE: That’s right. I’m (INAUDIBLE) so.
MONROE: Everyone always asks you, you know, “Why did you go to seminary?’ And I always say, “Some are called, some are sent and some just went.” And so — but always I say this year that it’s to change an institution that you love. The only way to change it is to be in it and change it. And so, I felt that if my coming out gives permission for more to come out, even some of the ministers to come out, and that we need to wrestle with what the bible says. So, if we have a liberation discourse that clearly says that the God we serve, and we got this cannon within a cannon, that says that as black people we are not three-fifth human but we’re human and we are precious in God’s sight. There is something up in the bible too that we can use about LGBT folks as well as about women and that we need to stop using these texts of terror to denigrate and to demean and to damn people.
MARTIN: What do — I mean, you have pastored a church and you’ve worked at Harvard, you’ve been on the staff at Harvard University. And now, you’ve got —
MONROE: (INAUDIBLE). Yes.
MARTIN: Yes. And now, you’ve got a pod cast.
MONROE: Pod cast. Right, right.
MARTIN: So, you are kind of walking the walk in your way.
MARTIN: You’re talking the talking and walking the walk, I guess is what I would say.
MONROE: Right, right.
MARTIN: Tell me about that. It’s called “All Rev’d Up.”
MONROE: “All Rev’d Up.” It’s a segment that I do every Monday with Reverend Emmett Price on WGBH, a member station of NPR. Emmett and I are two different people. Emmett is a black male, evangelical and teaches at a white evangelical institution. And I am a black, radical, lesbian minister. Even on a bad day. So, any event, what we try to model is how to talk across our differences. And so, let me give, you know, a good example. You know, gun control. You know, how do we find a middle ground? Not take away people’s guns but understand not only that life is sacred, then what’s — you know, what — maybe we should have background checks. I think when you speak it sort of broad terms and you skip over the nuances. So, we try to — we wrestle. We really do, verbally, we wrestle. We’re the best of friends. At the end of the day, you know, I may have, you know, moved a little. He may have. But what we’re trying to do, particularly, in this election year is how will we reach — what I depict as the movable middle. There’s a movable middle. And we talk too much in extremes and say, either this or that. And so, why can’t we be in the middle? And I think we can find a middle ground around gun control.
MARTIN: But for the most part, I mean, we hear, that, for example, white evangelicals are among the president’s strongest constituents.
MONROE: That’s right.
MARTIN: And they certainly have a right to their political views. But what I’m asking you as a person of faith leader, as a faith leader yourself is, first of all, why is that?
MARTIN: And secondly, you know, what about that? Why is that the group of people for whom we most often hear when it comes to matters of faith and policy?
MONROE: Well, one is that white evangelicals, number one, has good messaging in a way that your liberal left and progressives don’t. What we do is that — and I saw this when I was at Union Theological Seminary as an MDEV student and then clearly, when I was at Harvard as a doctoral student is that we have some brilliant theological voices and thinking that would really open the discourse, because always say that we got to make a distinction between blind obedience and reasoned faith. And that what happens here is that — this is what we do too much, I think, as progressives, we either look to the church or we look to the academy and that we now need to look towards the world. And the evangelicals have always looked to the world first, more importantly to the white house to get their messaging, to shake their policy and then to get their constituents to rally behind them.
MARTIN: So, how is that possible? I mean, when you consider, like who is one of the — if no — if let’s say that, for example, you were raised on island and you are completely disconnected from Christianity in America, who is the person you are likely to know? Martin Luther King, right? I mean, so, how did it happen that Martin Luther King is, for some people, like the foremost articulator of a social justice message, you know, right or wrong, but that’s the person people — I mean, we have a holiday named after him, for heaven’s sake. But somehow, the progressive left no longer has the supports in American life. Why is that?
MONROE: Well, there are a couple of things here. One, King died, OK. Because clearly, when he was alive, he was considered one of the dangerous, you know, men in America here. But I think what happened is that we also had a movement, and we don’t have that. We don’t have what we used to have in terms of a movement. And I’m not pointing the type of movement that we have now, but you had people from, you know, parts of the south that you could have never imagined protesting. These people were protesting, you know, out of fear but actually were thinking about a future for their children, if not for themselves here. So, King becomes even bigger because, by that time, the moral sort of — you know, I would say the moral fabric of America is changing and it’s changing for a couple of reasons here. We certainly have the Civil Rights Act — you know, bill passed in ’64. The Voting Right Act in ’65. But we also had JFK And LBJ in the House. We did not have someone in the White House spewing the kind of virtual and hatred that, you know, that we’re now, you know, hearing.
MICHEL MARTIN: Do you see a revival on the religious left?
MONROE: What I’m hoping for — you know, very it’s interesting. I remember listening to one of the presidential debates and Pete Buttigieg, Buttigieg — Mayor Pete, OK, he said we need — in many ways I heard there is sort of a clarifying call. Please, you know, religious progressives and the left, come out, speak. You know, we have to. And the interesting thing we have to think about church differently anyway and we have to think about faith differently because millennials don’t want anything to do with organized religion and understandably so. But this is what happens when you get fed up with a church, because you don’t been change it from the inside and so many of us have left. I’m not saying that go back to church, but what I am saying is that many of us can change the messages in our church to have a much more embracive gospel. And what I’m hoping is a kind of social gospel.
MARTIN: You said that millennials are fleeing the church and you said and rightly so.
MONROE: Right, right.
MARTIN: Your words. Why do you say that? Why rightly so?
MONROE: Well, rightly so because, listen, it’s very interesting because a lot of millennials will get me to do their weddings. So it will be at a wedding venue or a backyard or someplace and even then come back, you know, after they’ve, you know, been married and they have a kid to baptize their kids. And so that’s —
MARTIN: But they don’t come. But you’re saying they’ll come for these life cycle events but they won’t become part of a congregation.
MONROE: Right. They won’t — that’s right. Absolutely will not, but they want those rites of passages. So it’s there to me where you meet them. And when they do that, not only do they want sort of the ritual, but then in some way they’re begging for community. And we got to do community, as I say, in a way that when you think about community, you think of yourself as the individual and the community. But I think that — and I’m not booing social media, but I think that we’ve lost that human connectedness, the way in which we do community, the social skills of learning how to talk across our differences in a very civil way.
MARTIN: We are seeing, though, for example, in North Carolina the Moral Mondays movement.
MONROE: By reverend — yes, Reverend Barber. Yes.
MARTIN: Reverend Barber who’s been named a MacArthur Fellow for —
MONROE: Rightly so, yes.
MARTIN: And there’s also — we’re seeing, for example, members of the Jewish community demonstrating around immigration policies because they — those who are participating see a communion with their own experience —
MONROE: That’s right.
MARTIN: — of being cast out and are being very vocal and visible.
MONROE: And what those two models really show is a kind of sort of I call it intersectional activism as a spiritual practice. They got their community riled up or revved up, if you don’t mind my saying, in a way that they feel called to do this in this particular time. Not enough of that is happening. Some of it could be, OK, the pews are empty. Many of them are trying to survive. But I think that you can survive if you face the world, if you find — if you pull in more millennials. And I do think millennials will come. I mean, we see it with — we saw it with the Occupy movement. That was something greater than themselves. We see it now with Black Lives Matter. I mean, so it’s not that we don’t have a younger generation that is not interested in righting wrongs and in pushing back the kind of just sort — I would say white nationalism that is certainly happening. I don’t think that a lot of ministers are doing enough in the progressive realm about it. And I don’t think that enough theologians that are, again, in the academy or in the church doing enough to reach the outside world. We’re very clustered.
MARTIN: Have you ever considered leaving yourself?
MONROE: Oh, yes. You know, just about every Sunday.
MONROE: So when people say to me, you know, you’re a minister. I said, well, on a good day. It really depends here. Yes, because it’s a struggle. It really is a struggle, because sometimes you say the same thing over and over again but there is a kind of tenacity around the way in which religion is just promoted in this country. I really do say you’ve got to make a distinction between blind obedience in recent faith. We — and a lot of people say, well, because it’s in the Bible. Well, the Bible says a whole lot of things here.Why are you uplifting this particular, you know, passage over and against the really sort of heart of the text, you know, the sentiment of the book, which is about love — which is about a universal love and in many ways a multicultural society and a participatory government, if we want to use some of what, you know, evangelicals use.
MARTIN: How would you —
MONROE: That’s what I’m hoping for.
MARTIN: And so people who are a young woman like you —
MONROE: An old woman.
MARTIN: No. When you were a young woman discovering yourself as queer, is I think the term you prefer —
MARTIN: — you know, understanding that as a young black girl there are a lot of people who didn’t think you were worth a whole lot and you found that place in the church. What do you say to the young people who say, you know what, I see myself in you and I don’t see a place from you. What do you say to them?
MONROE: Yes. And I say that it’s really not true. And that — when people tell me that, I also give them a list of places and other people that they can talk to, along with me, because what happens is, one, your silence will not protect you. That certainly what the Lord has taught us through her writings and own experience. And number two is this that when you feel you’re isolated, you continue to be isolated. But when you really step out in the world, you’ll be surprised how many people are just like you, struggling with you, and also will be allies with you in the struggle here. This is what I say, you know, in any struggle. I say that the power of the people is far greater than the people in power. That’s whether the government or whether that is the church. And then I tell them this, OK, we will fight until hell freezes over and then we will fight on the ice.
MARTIN: OK. Reverend Irene Monroe, the host of “All Rev’d Up,” podcast and the author of many, many, many articles and thank you so much for talking with me.
MONROE: Thank you so much for having me. It’s my absolute pleasure, really.
About This Episode EXPAND
Mark McKinnon and David Axelrod unpack the September 12 Democratic debate with Christiane Amanpour. Reverend Irene Monroe sits down with Michel Martin to discuss how to open up some religious communities to LGBTQ issues. Azadeh Moaveni joins the program to discuss the lives of the wives, widows and children of ISIS militants living in refugee camps in Syria.LEARN MORE