Ms. Penny Cost Inspires and Challenges
On November 6, 2021, Ms. Penny Cost inspired and challenge attendees at Room for All Coalition Indiana's "Living into the Hope of an Inclusive Church" with the following keynote address. Ms. Penny Cost invites you to follow her on social media and learn more at mspennycost.com.
"Good morning everyone! I can’t even begin to tell you how elated I am to be here with you on this marvelous day! Thank you for taking time out of your lives of ministry and witness to come together to learn, to grow, to deconstruct, and to reimagine the United Methodist Church. Thank you for working exhaustively and tirelessly to get our Church to a new place: a place we have never been before: a place unafraid to denounce queerphobia, a place which aims to end systems of
white supremacy, a place where all have equal and equitable access to God, to pulpit, and to community.
May this time grant you each peace and stillness and hope: may you each be reinvigorated as you prepare to go forth into the world. And may you each be equipped with the tools necessary, the connections sought, and the empowerment needed to enact real and deliberate change.
Now, before I get too far ahead of myself, I would really like to invite us into a moment of prayer and meditation. If you have heard me preach before, you will recognize this prayer. I wrote it when I was first discerning my call to ministry as a way for me to remember the deep “Why” of my calling and ministry as a whole. It has become a ritual of mine to pray it before a sermon or speaking event either out loud with the congregation or in silence before I approach the pulpit.
In the name of God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Trans Identifying Parent of Color, I ask that the Holy spirit wash over the words of this manuscript so that justice may drip from every letter, love may linger on every comma, and grace may swell in every space. May all those who hear my voice today, approach it with unending questions and wrestle in it’s meaning, but most of all, may we each seek to find a single shard of your divine form within each and every syllable. May you, my fierce mother in heaven, instill all minds with the urgency of Christ, may you move all stagnant feet into a marvelous march, all bodies into holy protest, and all hearts out of complacency and into a state of active prayer which engages the past, dwells in the present and yearns for a future in which all bodies may thrive. May we, here in this sanctuary, be moved to the same level of tempestuous communal love shown to us by Christ himself, God themself, and the Spirit itself, so that we may be for the world the heart and hands of God. It is in your most holy name that I pray,Amen.
2 years ago, I had my debut in Drag. Let’s just say, it was far from the Ballroom Eleganza Extravaganza I had hoped for; and yet, it was nonetheless, an undeniably life changing moment of grace and healing. As soon as my stilettos touched the stage, a feeling of peace and power fell over my entire being. “This is exactly who I am meant to be,” I thought. For the next two minutes and fifty-seven seconds, I paraded through the crowd, dancing, and lipsynching to You Can’t Pray the Gay Away by Laura Bell Bundy. My “dancing” was reminiscent of the awkward gyrations of a grandmother humorously attempting to show her grandchildren just how hip she used to be. The
crowd erupted in praise and in laughter. Several individuals who had stood more reserved and quiet in the background, mouthed two words as they handed their crumpled dollar bills to me, “Thank you...”
The song concluded. I gathered the last of my tips. I made my exit. As I descended the stairway, I sent up a small prayer to the Divine, thanking them for the opportunity to see myself, to feel the Holy Spirit, and to experience the peaceful assurance of Heavenly Love. How was it that I was able to connect so powerfully with the Divine through this art?? How was it that something so inherently Queer and so historically Unholy, could hold such seraphic zeal? How was it that random strangers could be moved by the comedic reclamation of church and God? A thousand questions of theology and faith whirled and twirled through my head. One thing was clear, there was something here: something intrinsically powerful and intensely Holy.
My name, is Ms. Penny Cost and when I am all dolled up in drag, I use she/her pronouns. I am 23 years old, a Certified Candidate for Ordained Ministry, and the Associate Pastor of the queerly centered Hope United Methodist Church, in Bloomington, IL. I am also an artist. Unlike many artists employed by the Church, my mode of expression is not exactly a conventional one. No, I do not play the organ No, I don’t paint on canvas. And you definitely do not want to hear me singing from the choir loft: my expression is delivered through the Artistry of Drag.
I do wish to note that I identify as a cis-queer man. Though the Art of Drag is largely dominated in the mainstream media by cis-men, anyone and everyone can partake in this revolutionary artform. Being a Drag Artist does not equate to identifying as a Transgender individual; however, these two identies are also not mutually exclusive either. The beauty of Drag is that it lives and it breathes.
Drag means something different to every single individual who performs and partakes in it. No singular identity or sexuality holds it’s tradmark. Though no two definitions of Drag will ever be the same, I believe that it is any act which bends the traditional view of self and others through intentional space taking, subversive system shaking, and joyful community awakening. The Art of Drag has historically laughed in the face of injustice while wiping the tears off of the cheeks of the oppressed. It was born at the convergence of fear and hope. And it dreams of tomorrow, while unabashedly living today.
It is not a solution to oppression. It is a starting point at which we may each begin to reclaim the power of love and of life for ourselves. It is a starting point at which we may showcase the truth of our harm. It is a starting point at which we might celebrate our experience and position, regardless of what society and church demands that we think. Drag allows us to see ourselves and each other as worthy: worthy of our stories, worthy of our creation, and worthy of our connection to God,
to Neighbor, and to Self.
When I paint my face, meditating upon those who came before me, I can reach into my soul, I can access every part of me i was told to hide, to deny and to hate, I can externalize it and I can celebrate it. Drag allows me to not only celebrate the Divine surety that dwells within me and it allows me to show others how to celebrate the parts of themselves boxed away by others. There is holy liberation occurring when folks feel they can release their mysterious secret shrouded by society.
My stilettos, rest upon the shoulders of every queer person (closseted, out, and outed) who sought ministry and healing within the Church. Under my stilettos, arm in arm, linked through history marches those who paved a way and those who were turned away from pew and pulpit. Under my stilettos, stand thousands and thousands of my ancestors, my queer ancestors, who built the platform which I have inherited and one day pass on. Before me, in the rows which you dwell, rests the hope, the assurance, and the echoes of the past. Echos, which cry out for justice and healing. Echos which ask for solidarity. Echos which I pray, cause your hair to stand on end and your heart to be warmed. For we, as members of the United Methodist Church, have a privilege and a duty, to change the very doctrine and systems of oppression which surround us.
This time will likely be uncomfortable for you, but just as the liminal last days of Christ’s life were uncomfortable for him, the liminal days which rest between now and the next iteration of the UMC will be uncomfortable for us…. I do not need to tell you, that change is messy, that broken systems lead to broken hearts, that doctrine without care only inflicts wounds. And yet we, especially those of us with the privilege of whiteness, cis-ness, and the privedge of access to power, must be willing to get uncomfortable. It is in this liminal space of comfort and discomfort that action is made. It is there that the voices of wisdom and hope can be heard, if only we give them a chance to speak.
In Proverbs 8: 1-6 it is said:
Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
“To you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all mankind.
You who are simple, gain prudence;
you who are foolish, set your hearts on it.[a]
Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say;
I open my lips to speak what is right.
Does wisdom not call out? It is where our paths meet, that she can be heard. But before we can meet her, we must first meet each other and we can never do so, until the doors of the church are thrown open, until the love of God flows forth from our deeds… until we create a space where one does not have to question their acceptance or their safety. Wisdom is not easily found in singularity. Scripture tells us that she is found in the most common and habited spaces. Where lives of those who are different from us converge in a cacophony of reality. It is there that the hard truth of wisdom can be heard. But it is not easily internalized.
It is easy for the complacent oppressor, from an ivory tower of privilege, to look around at the burning world and declare, “everything happens for a reason.” It is easy for the white slack-tavists, who reap the reward of systemic oppression, to ponder quietly the theoretical injustices which exist outside of their screens. When self appointed governors of status quo place suffering at a safe distance, the painful experiences of those on the margins are sterilized and minimized until all that
remains are textbook ready case studies: barred of emotion, reality, and spirit. This is to say, the “comfortable” omit The Comforter’s holy call to collective participatory defiance and liberative action.
In Christ’s last days, he mobilized his disciples and his followers, to go into the temple for a planned action of protest. Christ flipped tables, whipped the money changers, and demanded better from the Temple which was built to honor God through community, love, and worship. In Christ’s action, he sanctified systematic participatory protest against that which causes harm. Christ calls us into protest and into action. Christ calls us to use our privilege to question and demand
better from our Church.
It is easy, for all of us, to build a cardboard citadel of unquestionable doctrine. For it is this flappable tradition, without concern of experience, without concern of reformation, and without concern of the Spirit of Creation, that is the most dangerous of all.
It is hard to doubt and to question. It is hard to align ourselves so closely with those within the brutalized margins as to lose the very power which we have inherited from our ancestors. It is hard to beat our heirloom-ic weapons of privilege into keys of extrication.
It is hard to truly listen, to uplift, and to liberate. And yet, it is necessary, holy and good.
It is good to amplify the cries of others, while granting resources, power, and care to those suffering within the systems that we must collectively work to change. It is good to say that lived experiences are valid and that painful trauma is true. We walk this earth together, so that we, as a collective body, may stand in solidarity with one another. We are not here to silence the margins nor are we here to dilute reality. We are here for far more than mere clinical observations and platitudes. We are here for each other. Our lives, our destinies, our journey towards tomorrow are tied together.
As Gabriel Marcel once wrote in The Philosophy of Existentialism, “... evil which is only stated or observed is no longer evil which is suffered: in fact, it ceases to be evil. In reality, I can only grasp it as evil in the measure in which it touches me -- that is to say, the measure in which I am involved…”. If we, as people of faith, especially those within the United Methodist Church which I am a part, are to resist evil, injustice and oppression: we must first be willing to get uncomfortable, to get our hands dirty, and to become inexplicably intertwined within the participatory liberation that we are called, by the Body of Christ, into. If we are not willing to do so: we are committing the sin of the Pharisees, we are inflicting the pain of Pharaohs, and we are initiating the sorrow of Judas.
The precedential call to question doctrine and reform toxic theological stances was canonized within an unlikely book: the Book of Job. For many in this room, The Book of Job is well known. It is utilized and construed in such a way as to uplift Job as a pinnacle representation of christian resilience in face of harm. Many sermons are preached on his unwavering faith, his ability to face persecution by God, and be blessed in the end. Many ministers inadvertently use this story to cause cycles of harm to continue within the lives of their parishioners. For when one is told that abuse (spiritual, emotioinal and physical) flows from God, they have no choice but to accept it as Divinly anointed torture. For many queer folks, a cycle of Holy Trauma is perpetuated by the Church every day of our lives because every scriptural lash is dripping with misconstrued doctrine.
There is so much more to this story than Prosperity Gospel and resilience. The Book of Job was written between the 7th and 4th century B.C.E. and it is a story of profoundly subversive truth. In a time of great crisis, depression, and pain, Job cries out to his closest friends. Once a man comfortable within his pious unwavering tower of faith, Job now must reconcile the presence of injustice and sorrow. Once comfortable within the privilege of his wealth, once distanced from the threat of loss, Job is suddenly left with nothing to his name but the raw scars of reality. Everything in his life is lost, not for any fault of his own, but because the promise of tomorrow is never known. His friends hold tight to a doctrine blind to experience. They proclaim a transactional theology accepted and venerated by the culture to which they belong (much like the Prosperity Gospel found in modernity). They, representing the privileged few, discredit Job’s experiences of loss and besmirch his truth of pain. They are unwilling to question their doctrine of theodicy which states, “If you are good, good things will happen. But if you are bad, sorrow will only follow”.
Job, frustrated by their innocently ignorant circular arguments, declares in Job Chapter 16: 2-6:
“How often have I heard all this before!
What sorry comforters you are!
‘When will these windy arguments be over?’
Or again, ‘What sickness drives you to defend Yourself?’
Oh yes! I could talk as you do,
If you were in my place:
I could overwhelm you with speeches,
Shaking my head over you,
And speak words of encouragement,
And then have no more to say.
When I speak, my suffering does not stop;
If I say nothing, is it in any way reduced,”
Their doctrine does nothing for his care. It does nothing for his healing. It does nothing for his past, present, or future circumstances. In fact, it is actively causing harm to his already hurting current reality. Job is a story of an individual facing harm and asking for help. Job is a story of the “upstanding faithful” doing nothing but observing his pain from a distance.
Job is a story of the Methodist Church today.
Our queer sibblings have been crying out for help, for change, for acceptance and for protection. We as the United Methodist Church have answered as Job’s friends did: with empty platitudes regurgitated from our leaders:“we are on a journey”, “maybe one day we will get there”, “there are other churches for you”, and “don’t rock the boat”, and “it’s all in God’s time”.
What sorry comforters our church has been. When will these winding arguments be over??
We as a church, as individuals, as members of the collective body of christ have a choice to make: do we continue in winding arguments, postponed conferences, decades of complacency… or… do we do the grassroots work of liberating our faith, one pew at a time.
How incredible would it have been for Job to hear, “The our teaching was wrong, I am sorry, I see you, I hear you, and I will do better. How can I help you?”.
How impactful would it be for the UMC to enter collective penance for it’s harm. Acknowledging it’s wrong, apologizing for it’s trauma, and immediately changing it’s ways to prevent it from happening again.
Do I believe this will happen from the Top Down? From General, to Annual to District to Church…. No…
Do I believe that this can happen from the bottom up. Yes.
With all my heart and with all my soul and with all my being.
Christiantiy was founded upon a grass root movement of change. The disciples did not get it all right, but they questioned, they asked for forgiveness, and they attempted to do better.
Job demands a re-examination of the systems he once believed without question. He demands a reformation of doctrine he once trusted. He demands liberation from the toxic faith which shackles him to unjust suffering. As Gustavo Gutierrz states in Sorry Comforters, “The friends believe in their theology rather than in the God of their theology… they do so because they have not experienced
the abandonment, poverty and pain that Job has”.
They have placed the pain at a distance, shielding themselves from the reality of existence. For them, it is easier to dutifully regurgitate doctrine than it is to worship their God through the care of Holy Creation.
In much of a faith leaders ministry two duties are held as central tenants:
1. Duty to Doctrine
2. Duty to Care
I will also add that this statement is controversial in its own right. Many folks will argue that there is far more that we as leaders must be worried about in our lives of ministry, that this is a grossly oversimplified statement. To that I say, I partially agree, however, 1) I have a limited time with y’all today so there is only so much I can cover and 2) I believe all those other tenets can inevitably be sorted into one of the two aforementioned duties. And 3) even Jesus spoke in oversimplifications
because its a literary way to get a point across quickly.
But alas, I digress…
You see, when these two divine duties converge in conflict with one another, the Duty to Care must always be given ultimate priority: for, doctrine is but a document of humanity, but humanity is a testament of divinity. In caring for one another, we care for the Well of Justice… the River of Peace… the Source of Unyielding Love itself.
So now I ask: How can your doctrine be utilized to end exclusion from the church? How can your theology be utilized to empower and uplift those on the margins? How will you harness your Duty to Care for good in the world? Are you protecting your stail doctrine with pacifying platitudes like those who surrounded Job?
Or… are you allowing space for defiant doubt filled re-examination, subversive reformation, and divine Liberation within your faith? The moral arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but it shall only do so, if we bend it there ourselves. Harm may not flow from God, but Good sure as
hell does. It flows from our hands, our mouths, and our hearts. You, yes you, are called to collective liberative actions.
You are called to the discomfort found in the fight towards everlasting equity.
You are called to be like Job, questioning your friends and yarning for more.
You are called to be like Christ, flipping tables in the temples and enacting systemic change.
You are called to meet Wisdom at the convergence of life’s path.
You are called to get your hands dirty in the muck of reconstruction.
You are called to be a christian: not by name, but by deed.
You are called.
You are called.
Before I go, I end and we open the floor up for questions, I would like for us to join in one final prayer:
Oh Light of Love and Justice, May the shadows of our lives be driven out by the flame of your love. May we kindle your presence into a fiery mantle, one which is ready to part the dark waters
of fear, doubt, and complacency within our lives, community and world.
May we see you Oh Magnificent Spirit, in vastness of our cities, in the faces of social media, and in the silent spaces of our conversations with friends, family and strangers.
May we seek to be like Christ, like Job, and like our ancestors who have paved this way for us.
May we seek to enact inclusion, equity, and justice within all systems of the UMC.
And may we always remember: Not to speak is to speak, and not to act. Is to act.
It is in your Holiest Name that I pray