A few weeks ago Level Ground received its first bit of negative press. I have to admit that I am a little surprised it has taken this long. After the first stop of the Level Ground Roadshow in Portland, Becky Garrison wrote a critical but gentle critique of her experience from that weekend on Bilerico. She noted our small attendance, lack of diversity in the gender, race, and sexual orientation of our speakers, failure to provide resources, and unwillingness to push marriage equality. Reading her article has taught me a lot and I wanted to respond by sharing a couple of my thoughts with our Level Ground community.
Not too long ago I finally sat down to watch The Wolf of Wall Street. (It is a goal of mine to see all of the Oscar nominated films every year.) In the film, Leonardo Dicaprio’s character is the head of a large stock agency and just when he “makes it,” a journalist runs an article that slams him and his company. A friend of his responds by saying, “all press is good press” and he arrives in the office the next day to hundreds of stock brokers who want to work for him after reading the article.
While neither our staff nor our budget doubled overnight, I think the underlying gist of this phrase is true for Becky’s critique too. In many ways, we did fail in Portland but there were also a number of successes and it takes someone pointing out the failures for us to learn how to be better.
Portland posed a number of important challenges for us. For one, no one on the Level Ground staff is from Portland and so we were planting a seed on entirely new and mostly unknown ground. We had relatively few networks there, no experience to prove we were trustworthy, and scarce resources that could be used to help the Portland community know we existed, let alone risk showing up. Unfortunately, this resulted in a small band of followers with whom we personally had done the legwork to get in the door, and low attendance otherwise. Judging by our experience at the festival in Pasadena where we had 2,000 attendees, we had expected our small Portland band to multiply into their own city. We realized, however, that they too were learning to trust us before they felt comfortable inviting their community.
This is the hard part about working along a fault line. There is risk of fissure. In Portland, the risk was too large for most. Like Becky, many people hear about the mission of Level Ground to create healthy and humane dialogue about faith, gender, and sexuality through art and wonder, “Why even have this conversation if not to convince others to support marriage equality?” Some are scared to show up for fear that their faith, which has landed them in a more conservative camp, will be put into question or called upon as bigoted. And what about people who are gay and people of faith? What happens when one person decides their faith means living a life of celibacy and another decides that means being in a relationship with someone of the same sex?
These are some of the questions we are asking at Level Ground — questions that often complicate and nuance a conversation for the purpose of maintaining human dignity across difference — and these are the people showing up in our spaces. Level Ground does not have a political agenda that is for or against marriage equality. While that is an important and societally relevant topic, we are focused on bringing people into conversation and, ultimately, unity with one another. The intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality are precarious, fraught with past pain and fear. Level Ground wants to create the kind of dialogue where it’s okay to be fearful, where vulnerability wins out, and where people are willing to do the hard work of remaining next to their “other,” if only for a weekend or a single film screening.
I am thankful for Becky’s article because it reminds me why what we are doing is so important. It reminds me of the danger of failing to do the work of learning to live together despite ours differences. And the danger of ending conversations as soon as one political party or social agenda has “won.” Our country has fallen victim to this mentality during the Civil Rights movement for racial equality. And Level Ground’s own lack of racial diversity on our panels in Portland is evidence of our society’s failure to equip people to embed difference into their communities. Let’s not do the same thing with gender and sexuality. Let’s keep talking.