I’m so excited to be in my first week as president and CEO of the Religious Institute. As we begin this journey together, I’d like to share with you some of what has led me to this point in my ministry and how I hope to approach the vital work of leading the Religious Institute.
I am passionate about this work because I believe that, in the words of the Religious Declaration, “Sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.” Religious traditions have caused harm to many people by ignoring sexuality or treating it as something shameful. I am proud to take over the leadership of an organization that works to heal that harm by claiming, in the name of faith, the goodness of our sexuality.
I grew up in a small town outside of Atlanta, GA, where conservative Christianity was the dominant religion. I attended various churches growing up, and in each of them, conversations about sexuality were either non-existent or focused on sin. Everything about sexuality was deemed “sinful” for a teenage girl. Eventually, I stopped attending church altogether and later came out as a lesbian. I only returned to faith in my 30’s after discovering progressive Christianity with the help of Jesuits, Episcopalians, and Metropolitan Community Church folks.
During this faith journey, I was working as a high school teacher, which was my career for twenty years. When I became the advisor of the Gay Straight Alliance at my school, I began hearing firsthand the struggles of LGBTQ kids—most of which had to do with religion. Many were kicked out of their churches, and some were kicked out of their homes.
I spent a lot of time trying to convince distraught kids that God didn’t hate them, and I began to feel increasingly called to do something to change what my students were hearing in their faith communities and families. After much discernment, I quit my job, sold my house, and went to seminary.
At Episcopal Divinity School, I learned that theology is not only an academic discipline. Being a practical theologian means that it is just as much ministry to work for justice as it is to pastor a church. I learned to question the status quo, and to attend to who is being left out—of scriptural interpretations, of our communities, of our theology. I also engaged in anti-racist work for the first time and began to learn how to honor diversity, engage in responsible dialogue, and work across differences of race, class, sexuality, and gender. Most of all, I learned how my love of Jesus and my love of justice come together.
For the past five years, I have had the honor of living out my call at the Religious Institute. I’ve taught seminarians about sexuality, preached against violence and persecution of LGBTQ people around the world, and stood on the steps of the Supreme Court with other people of faith to advocate for everyone’s right to make decisions about their own body.
Now, I have the honor of leading the Religious Institute into its next phase. I’m excited about this particular moment in US society, what I’m calling “a movement moment.” We are seeing thriving movements to reclaim religion, to fight for bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom for all people, to assert the importance of black lives, and to demand full equality for LGBTQI people. The beauty of this moment is that these movements are intersecting and interconnected.
Making connections with other passionate people and working for justice across differences is central to who I am and where I find my deepest joy. My hope for the Religious Institute is to find more ways to connect our work for justice with other people and organizations. I want to see us work on our own and in intersectional, collaborative ways with other organizations, faith communities, and individuals working for sexual and social justice.
I believe that we must also begin to think differently about what constitutes a faith community. We have to move beyond lamenting the decline of institutional religion as we know it and find where faith communities are happening. We must find relevant and innovative ways to enter into these spaces with the message of sexual health, education, and justice.
As a Christian who sees her faith consistently misused and misrepresented in debates about sexuality, I believe that bringing a progressive religious voice to public policy issues is deeply important. We must continue to lift up progressive religious voices that celebrate the gift of sexuality and each individual’s moral agency.
I look forward to working with all of you in faith communities and society to make manifest the truth that “sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.”
Marie Alford-Harkey is the president and CEO of the Religious Institute. She entered into this role on May 1st, after serving five years as Deputy Director.