Marking Time with Integrity: A Calendar for Hope and Renewal

A paper presented for the Doctor of Ministry Class Theory, Models, and History of Religious Education RE-601, Professors Elizabeth Caldwell and Jack Seymour Written by Stuart D. Smith at McCormick Theological Seminary


The casual observer may think that the passage of time and seasons is little marked in an establishment like a coffeehouse or bar. Often except for the décor and the occasional "drink special" there seems to be little on the surface to mark the passage of time, season, and year in these establishments. In truth some bars seem to do little except pull out a dusty artificial tree and a dog-eared Rudolph cutout to observe Christmas. Some coffeehouses appear to be so overwhelmed by their clientele's "mourning the death of creativity" that the thought of celebrating anything is just too passé.

These secular institutions, however, mark the passage of seasons as strictly as any High-Church clergy and choir, and their patrons depend on these establishments, not only to help them observe the passage of time, but also to provide frameworks for rituals and observations that give time meaning. The young people who attend Café Pride, like all people, depend on seasonal frames, and this paper will discuss ways to help these youths recover a sense of hope and renewal from the observation of "liturgical" seasons.

Issues of Marking Time

My study site, Café Pride; a coffeehouse for persons 21 years old and younger who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or gay-friendly; is patronized by youths from a variety of religious traditions—both Western and Eastern. Additionally most of the youths, because of the difficulty in finding a gay-supportive religious community find themselves alienated, and often hostile toward their parents' or grandparents' faith tradition. They are, however, still spiritual beings craving community, celebration, and commemoration.

The young women and men at Café Pride, although often from stable middle-class homes, are still only a little removed from the street gang members who visit the graves of dead comrades every year at appropriate anniversaries to pour whiskey on the graves and report the accomplishments of the living. Young people may feel alienated from religion, but they crave ritual and ceremony. If no ritual observation is readily available, they will create one. The problem is not lack of a "liturgical year." Rather it is the lack of commonly accepted seasonal observations designed to celebrate hope, reconciliation, and community rather than materialistic self-absorption.

A further issue that I believe must be addressed in this context is the discontinuity that was discovered within the religious community surrounding Café Pride and the actual staff persons. When I administered the inventory in Jack Seymour’s Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning (1997, 90-92), I discovered that there is a tension between the desire to teach and the desire to live in community. Those who actually have a hands-on experience with Café Pride are much less comfortable practicing directed, overt teaching and are more inclined to a community model that communicates values more indirectly. The session of Lincoln Park Church and that church's Christian Education Committee scored on the inventory as much more comfortable with programs that are more obviously explicit in their educational content. The Café's staff was more comfortable with a ministry of presence and a less overtly expressed set of educational goals. I believe that the use of some sort of seasonal themes can help us to be indirect and yet still communicate values that matter to us and to our supporting bodies.

Problems of Simply Letting Time Roll

It almost goes without saying that if a religious group ignores the pressures of the wider culture to communicate meaning and values by its use and misuse of holidays and seasons, that group will quickly be forced into the mold of the dominant culture. In the larger culture, Advent and Christmas are not about developing a "watchful heart" as Presbyterian Religious educators were encouraged to understand and teach in the materials associated with the Celebrate Youth Action Curriculum (Brewer and Brewer 1994); they are about materialism and consumption. If any religious education setting does not ascribe to some degree of the "Christ against culture" paradigm as to the observance of seasons, it will soon be overwhelmed by the materialism, self-centeredness, and attendant despair that dominates the larger culture.

Gay culture has its favorite celebrations and holidays that also have the potential for undoing the kind of community and faith perspectives that those of us who staff Café Pride value. Coming Out Day in early October (usually October 11) and Halloween later that month are often celebrated in such a way as to push the heterosexual community away rather than create or celebrate any type of unity with those who may not be gay. Pride Parades and celebrations in June can be structured to remind everyone of the common struggles of humanity or they can be structured to be venues for expressing anger and difference. Celebration that is designed to be aggressively "in the face" of the straight community rather than to include all who value diversity in the gay and straight communities undoes much of what Café Pride exists for.

Special Issues

Gay Pride is often about discovering self worth in the midst of hostility. Many gay persons, therefore, react to the world's hostility and seize the differences they have been condemned for and amplify them. This is obviously not a constructive technique. For instance a person who feels he has been reviled as promiscuous because he is gay may become more openly promiscuous as a way of declaring worth. Women who have been reviled for not being good girls may find themselves rejecting all forms of traditionally feminine behavior as a way of asserting worth. They may become "wild women" with all the attendant loneliness that that entails (Hess 1997, 129-140). There is a reason many lesbians are overweight. It is one more way of rejecting the dominant culture's authority. The counterculture "outlaw" gains personal worth by being the most daring, the most vicious, the most outside the norm—by grasping the condemned behaviors all the tighter. Gay celebrations that focus on shock value, and offending community standards rather than on love, unity in diversity, and building community are reactive to the larger community. They are living out the negative stereotypes in a way that defies the larger community. Healthy discovery of self is never purely reactive. Although it may be satisfying, self worth is not advanced by thumbing one's nose at those in authority. It is advanced by discovering and elevating a new, supportive authority.

Holiday celebrations in the larger culture often celebrate the acquisition of material things, occasionally celebrate biological families and their closeness, and rarely celebrate the commonwealth of all people. Holiday celebrations in the gay community often emphasize distance from the larger community, occasionally encourage personal distinctiveness, and rarely celebrate the unity of all humanity.


The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC), a mostly gay denomination, recognizes this problem and consciously practices the lifting up of all kinds of minority celebrations—Black History Month, Kwanzaa, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Native-American festivals, etc. The UFMCC, however, has published little in the field of religious education. Additionally, at Café Pride, we are still struggling to put this "liturgical year" into terms that can be observed without creating overt, intrusive, programming.

Within the dominant western religious traditions, the religious year is marked by celebrations that restate the themes of salvation and reconciliation. In Christianity, Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost all model a life of watching and hoping for a savior, for atonement through the work of that savior, and for the birth of a church to witness to that savior. (Whole People of God Resource Booklet 1998) In Judaism, Chanukah, Passover, and Yom Kippur remind one of God's deliverance and claims on the community and on the individual. In Islam, observance of weekly and monthly fasting in general and the fast of Ramadan in particular remind one to offer "sincere love to God" by teaching through the physical body, through family and community observation, and through conscious reflection of the unconscious actions (Introduction to the Articles and Pillars of Islam).

In each of these traditions there is a place for the traditional four questions (or some alternative) but there is also the learning that comes unconsciously from the foods, the preparation, the family gathering and special clothing and music. It's not overt teaching as much as placement in the midst of a community that sometimes consciously but often unconsciously transmits its values. There is deeper psychological understanding than might be immediately obvious in those Orthodox churches who are violently opposed to giving up their old style calendar and its, now—to us—misdated, holidays. To the average believer, it would be giving up to the pressure of the mold of the world and giving up the uniqueness that has kept them united in community through centuries of oppression.

In Protestant churches the observation of the full trappings of the liturgical year is a relatively new phenomenon. The Reformation was a period in which all the actions of the Church were examined and in many cases rejected if there were no obvious connection between the observation and the proclamation of the gospel. There was very little consideration given to the subtle teaching methods of the seasonal observations. All the feasts of the church were minimized to emphasize the observation of the Lord's Day. (Daniels 1992, 7) The Second Helvetic Confession returned some possibility of observing days other than Sunday in the church year; although, it forbade the churches to observe any extra-biblical feasts or saint days. (Book of Confessions 5.226)

The Sunday School movement during the 1880's re-popularized the religious observation of Christmas and Easter into American Protestantism ("White Gifts for the King: The Ideal Giving Christmas Service" November 1929, 1) and along with the Romantic movement caused Protestants to reexamine ancient liturgical traditions and led to a call for liturgical reform (Daniels 1992, 10).

In the Presbyterian Church, the turn of the century was a period of great interest in reestablishing some kind of observation of the great festivals of the church. The Book of Common Worship of 1906 included prayers for civil holidays and for the observance of the traditionally evangelical feasts (Daniels 1992, 10). By the 1920's, the idea of seasonal themes was firmly entrenched including the specific Sunday School holidays of Rally Day and Harvest Home (Vieth November 1929, 17). And in her article "Home and Church School: A Year's Work in Cooperation," Ione Catton identified a theme for each of the months of the year and suggested encouraging the parents of the Church School youths to reinforce that theme in their homes (October 1929, 29). This tendency to add to the "liturgical" calendar continues today with the recovery of such observations as Ascension Day, All Saints Day, and Christ the King Sunday and the addition of Native American Day, Children's Sabbath, and May Fellowship Day. However in some periods the "evangelical" holidays had a different kind of emphasis. In the late 1950's and 1960's the church again struggled to determine an appropriate use of seasonal observations. It is as if now the traditional religious holidays were a troubling yoke around some Christian educators' necks. G. Clyde Dodder in the "Senior High and Young People's Departments" of the International Journal of Religious Education recoiled against both the materialism of Christmas and "the slogans and hawking of the 'religious significance of Christmas' as though it were a bar of soap." (November 1959, 39) And in the November 1960 issue of that journal in an article entitled "Educational Use of Special Days" Paul Price mentioned only Children's Day, Christian Family Week, and Christian Education Week as being notable opportunities for education (pp. 15-44).

Today as in the Reformation period the calendar is so crowded as to make the weekly observation of the Lord's Day less noteworthy. Every condition of life has gained some special Sunday with a current discussion to add a yearly observation commemorating victims of hate crimes. None of these observations is unworthy; however, too many feasts make all feasts of less importance. Additionally there are the civil observations as designated by various levels of government and by national trade and fraternal associations. There is no shortage of holiday possibilities. The question is to the usefulness of a given holiday to advance the mission of religious education, specifically education at Café Pride.

Relationship of the Literature to Café Pride

Most of the young people who patronize Café Pride are not interested in the changes in denominational attitudes about the observance of the liturgical year. They are usually happy to ignore any observations that do not involve presents, costumes, or special foods (in that order). The holidays that the youths who patronize Café Pride bring to the coffeehouse are not always the ones that serve our stated purposes the most directly. Consequently, it is useful to discuss the use of holidays in terms of Café Pride's Mission Statement. That statement is as follows.

Café Pride is a religious outreach of Pride Ministries that exists

This statement gives us a set of questions to ask regarding the possible holiday observations that the coffeehouse could choose to use.

  1. Does the observation encourage the goal of integration into the larger community?
  2. Does it respect the religious diversity from which Café Pride draws its patrons?
  3. Does it offer the wider community an example of inclusion and support or of exclusion and isolation?
  4. Does it build community or encourage an in-your-face, confrontational attitude toward community?

A further observation about holidays and special celebrations is that we cannot easily ignore highly publicized observances in the larger culture. This is particularly true for those holidays which relate to the needs of our patrons. In some cases, we must overtly oppose or co-opt the larger culture's observance. This is particularly important with regard to the gay/lesbian high holidays of Gay Pride Sunday, Coming Out Day, and Halloween. We can't ignore them, neither can we afford to be influenced by them in their raw state. We must adapt them.

As a result here is a short list of the holidays that will be observed/emphasized at Café Pride.

These celebrations allow us to construct a paradigm of hope and reconciliation—inclusive of but not limited to Christianity—that connects youths to a larger idea of community than they may have imagined. If we begin the year with the Winter Holiday, this cycle moves to remembering a hero who taught us to respect others and ourselves, to an affirmation of love. It affirms the visible renewal of life in Spring, declares self worth. And completes the cycle with a celebration of unmasking and community celebration.

This circular movement is not too different from the movement that takes place in Christian and Jewish yearly cycles of promise, renewal and restoration. It balances a time of celebration with a time of reflection and it has the added advantage of providing a safe place for the youths who have other difficulties that they need to process during this period such as alcoholism and family stresses.


A major personal learning I have brought from this project is a realization that much of what is currently understood as religious education/Christian education has changed dramatically in the last hundred years. Furthermore, I have discovered that my beliefs about what people should learn and how people learn are more in line with some of the older teachings but with the newer methodologies. I am interested in the learning by doing that characterized the liberal period of "religious education" in the early part of this century and would be comfortable with much of what Coe and Dewey did (Boys 1989, 39-59). I find the hands-on learning very much in line with my understanding of liturgy as the work of the people. Not just in the words and actions of worship but in the foods, decorations, and seasonal observations of the church. I appreciate Freire's understanding that we must acknowledge the contradictions of reality as we work with any marginalized group (Boys 1989, 126) and especially with a group of sexual minority youths; however, the queer youths I know don't need to be taught that they are outcasts—they don't need to be trained in "conscientization." They are often lonely being outlaws and crave to find a way back into the larger community.

Additionally, perhaps contrarily, I find myself firmly in the school of Lex orandi, lex credendi. I believe that much of what should be taught in religious education is best taught not directly or "head on" but by community life, and in an associated note, I believe that what cannot be prayed is seldom if ever an appropriate part of a religious education curriculum. As I read through the journals of the 1960's and 1970's I found myself wondering what group of youths would tolerate the monthly (virtually Maoist) self-criticism. These educators needed to recover some fun in their practice.

Were these educators so unhappy with the status quo that no part of their culture could be enjoyed? I am more comfortable with the teachers of the 1920’s who recognized the importance of a well-designed Christmas Pageant than those of the 1960’s who found no time to mention traditional holiday’s but spent their time in cultural self recrimination. I believe that young people are quickly bored by lectures on racism and sexism, but they can respond well to a longer-term process of living in a community that recognizes and celebrates diversity. For Café Pride the racial mix of the DJ's play list is more educationally significant than any number of speeches on race.

That is not to say that I believe one can be passive as to educational goals and objectives. I value what Maria Harris is trying to do with her emphasis on community life and it's multifaceted approach to learning. We are not taught by syllabi alone but by the lives of our teachers and the way they live in the community that we share with them. As she has written, the student asks, "'Where does your life teach me about my life'" (1989, 119). I find myself attracted to the interplay of overt and subversive education and community life that I understand from Harris' mix of community, service, proclamation, prayer, and teaching.

Valuation of diversity is in the air of an integrated community just as fear is in the air of a segregated one. The basic values are not taught in classrooms but in all the insignificant moments when what Alexis de Tocqueville called "the habits of the heart" are evident. A learner will value an element of affective learning not when the religious educator states that a value or belief is important but when the life of the educator demonstrates that it is important to her or him. Unlike skill or fact based learning, affective education is a product of the larger environment not just the curriculum. At Café Pride we will try to teach not in an overt curriculum but by celebrating these holidays with our patrons. We express joy not by lecturing but by working together, socializing together, and dancing together.

In the local bars around our Café Pride meeting site, the passing of time is marked not so much by discussions of the weather, televised sporting events, or seasonal jokes but by the culturally received and transmitted values, remembrances, and unconscious actions. It's not the political slogan on the button the patron wears when he chooses how to dress for the evening's bar crawl, it's the memories and conversations he finds himself in at 1:00 am when the alcohol has brought his guard down. It's not the overt act of having a day off for Dr. King's Birthday, it's the act of sharing jokes with an unconsciously racially mixed group of friends.

In Café Pride, the issues that those of us on staff like to feel we live as important are not so much the specific seasons, holidays, or festivals as it is self worth, community building, and future. These youths don't really need to know the details of what happened at New York's Stonewall Inn in 1969, They need to know that they are part of God's family. These youths need to believe that they are valuable no matter what the larger culture teaches them. Our seasonal observations will be designed to encourage the living out of the values that we have in our mission statement and that we have experienced in our own lives. Maybe it's true that anything beyond what is lived is mere "slogans" and "hawking of religious significance."


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