Tools for Elul: Michele Gray-Schaffer

In June of 2016, a homophobe killed 49 and wounded 53 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shortly afterwards, I attended a candlelight vigil in downtown Pittsburgh. One speaker urged each one of us to act, in any way we could, to support the LGBTQ community. That evening, surrounded by thousands of candle-holding, mourning people, her call resonated strongly.

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As the Spiritual Leader of Congregation B'nai Abraham in Butler, I had been active in Butler Interfaith, an organization of faith leaders who support the LGBTQ community. I knew of the failure of a proposed ordinance, introduced in Butler years earlier, that would have added LGBTQ individuals to the list of those protected from discrimination in housing, education, and work opportunities. In a meeting at Butler Interfaith, I brought up the idea of reintroducing the ordinance at an upcoming City Council meeting. Because the group did not usually get into the political realm and because some members were not able to support the LGBTQ community openly, only one retired pastor signed to attend the meeting with me and to speak. Naively, I happened to mention my intentions to a friend who worked for the local newspaper. An article appeared the day before the meeting, giving anti-Ordinance groups time to organize. There was a huge attendance at this meeting, allies and opponents, all crammed into a third floor meeting space. At this first meeting, only a pro-Ordinance pastor and I had signed up to speak in accordance with the City Council rule. Regardless, the Mayor allowed a few evangelical pastors to speak against the ordinance. Consideration of the Ordinance was tabled.

The July City Council meeting was so largely attended by supporters and detractors that it was moved to the Fire House, where it was standing room only. This time, close to 50 people spoke for and against, with a slight majority against. The anti-Ordinance crowd even flew in an attorney from Texas (!) to raise the specter of lawsuits against business-owners who refused to serve the LGBTQ community. Many statements were simply false. With that number of speakers, we were only allowed 2 minutes to speak, and the mayor loudly yelled at me when I tried to finish a sentence.

This circus-like atmosphere lasted for a few meetings, after which a committee was formed. We were charged with coming up with a compromise acceptable to both sides, a Herculean task. Our monthly committee meetings slogged on through the next year. While we actually made some progress, it was not enough. Of course, this had been the Mayor's strategy all along. With the 2017 elections, we lost all supportive Council members. Once again, the Ordinance was "dead in the water."
My "if not now, when?" moment had come to naught after a hellish year and a half. Did any good come out of this well-intentioned, but naive action?

Perhaps the best outcome was for the LGBTQ community in Butler to know it had real support in the community. LGBTQ-affirming groups that had operated in an insular manner learned of other supportive groups. Friendships were made. During the committee meetings, we learned to respectfully listen to the other side.

Individually, we found an inner strength and what we were capable of in adversity. Personally, I learned a lot about politics and the importance of "getting your ducks in a row." Finally, I got to live my faith and personal mantra, "We are all created in the image of God - no exceptions!"

-Michele Gray-Schaffer, aka Cantor Michal

Rodef Shalom