For a number of reasons, over the past couple of weeks, The Salvation Army in Australia has come to be associated with the worst kind of homophobia in our media and in the LGBTQI community. I'm personally devastated by this association, as are many of my Salvo friends and colleagues.
There's a part of me that's naturally defensive. Certainly, there's been some irresponsible and inaccurate reporting going on. No doubt, the officer in the middle of the saga was unfairly targeted. I know, as well as anyone, that this characterisation doesn't reflect the wonderful, non-discriminatory work that goes on in hundreds of social programs right across this country - some of which is performed by gay and lesbian employees on behalf of The Salvation Army. But somehow, this doesn't satisfy the shame and sorrow that I'm feeling.
I've lost count of the stories of anger and hurt that I've listened to in recent days. No matter how much misunderstanding may have contributed to this, a defensive attitude just doesn't seem to work in the face of the very real pain that people are feeling. Context is everything and the public perception at the moment is that The Salvation Army, an organisation with massive public support in this country, has been seen to vilify a group who already figure disproportionately in terms of depression, self-harm and suicide, particularly amongst young people.
No matter how much we might want to reclaim our own image, those who've been hurt by what they've heard need to be our first priority. There's no quick fix to the damage that's been done. We need to genuinely engage corporately and individually with the gay community firstly with an unequivocal apology and secondly to build the kind of robust relationships that ensure that such misunderstanding never happens again.
Some honest self-examination is needed to identify the various factors that have led to this tragic episode. We may not be guilty of all the things we're currently being accused of, but we're not innocent either. Though I'm confident that our social programs function without discrimination, I'm not so sure that our Corps are all gay-friendly places of acceptance and belonging. How many gay soldiers and officers are continually dealing with feelings of shame and guilt? How many are quietly slipping away? It's not just a matter of doctrine or positional statements or how we read the Bible (though all these things matter), it's the acceptance, compassion and love that we show to people, not because of who they are or aren't, but because they're made in the image of God.
I am sorry. I am deeply saddened. I have shared some of the pain of my gay and lesbian friends and colleagues. I am committed to playing whatever part I can to ensure that we can and will do better.