Center for American Progress

Spirited and Faithful: An Interview with Rev. Marvin Ellison on the Role of Faith Leaders in the Reproductive Justice Movement

Spirited and Faithful: An Interview with Rev. Marvin Ellison on the Role of Faith Leaders in the Reproductive Justice Movement

Sally Steenland interviews Rev. Marvin Ellison, a writer, educator, and advocate for reproductive rights, about his work to organize clergy for reproductive justice.

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Rev. Marvin Ellison is the former Willard S. Bass professor of Christian ethics at the Bangor Theological Seminary in Portland, Maine. He sits on the board of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the advisory board of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. He is also president of the board of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination. Rev. Ellison has written a number of books and articles and has lectured extensively on Christianity and reproductive justice. He is a leader in the Center for American Progress’ Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute.

SS: I’ve got lots of questions, but I want to start with the midterm elections. We know that there are a lot of issues on the minds of voters this fall
work and family issues, economic issues, reproductive health, contraception. A lot of these issues have a very direct impact on women. So what’s high on the list of priorities in Maine?

ME: Right, great question. It is a very important election everywhere—that’s also true in Maine. The whole large question about access to affordable health care, including reproductive health care, is very much an issue that both women and men in Maine are addressing during this election season. But that’s not the only issue. It’s interesting, there’s not a single issue that’s motivating people. I think we see a cluster of issues. Another very important set of issues is around immigration reform—and that includes asylum seekers and people who have come here as refugees and are in the process of getting established here.

Climate change is huge in Maine. One of our cities along the coast has successfully pushed a local referendum to try to block the tar sands oil pipeline from coming through Maine and into South Portland. Many of us are being very watchful of what’s happening this weekend with the People’s Climate March in New York City. Many Mainers—myself included—are here in New York to be part of that march and to push for the United Nations to take leadership on climate change. Union Theological Seminary, where I’m now on staff, is sponsoring a large conference titled “Religions for the Earth” and has gathered around 2,000 faith leaders from around the world to talk about the role of faith and public advocacy in the integrity of the Earth and responding to the climate. And then, of course, it’s always going to be a big issue about jobs and about family, including a decent raise in the minimum wage.

SS: I want to ask about a piece of legislation that was introduced in the judiciary committee in Maine last year that was a so-called religious liberty bill that progressive religious leaders did not support because it gave license to opt out of anti-discrimination laws. A very interesting thing happened during the testimony before the judiciary committee.

ME: A number of Maine faith leaders went to our capital in Augusta to testify before the judiciary committee, including the executive director of our Religious Coalition Against Discrimination. The chair of the judiciary committee had explained that [the committee] would allow supporters of the bill to testify for a period of time, and then opponents would come to the microphone to testify. He wanted to reassure people on both sides that everyone would have a fair opportunity.

When our executive director came to the microphone, she had her clerical collar on, and the chair of the judiciary committee said, “Excuse me, ma’am. We’ve heard from supporters, and now it’s time to hear from opponents of this religious liberty bill.” Our executive director said, “Yes. Thank you, I understand.” The chair said, “No, no, no, you can’t speak now because we’re ready for opponents of the bill.” Three times she said to him, “Sir, I am an opponent of the bill” before he finally registered that even though she was wearing a clerical collar, she was not there to support this bad bill but instead to object to it. I think it was another indicator of how people make assumptions that if you are a clergy or faith leader, you couldn’t possibly object to some legislation.

SS: And it sounds like there were follow-up calls to members of the judiciary committee that led to a good result.

ME: It was an important reminder that it matters to make phone calls and speak with legislators. After the judiciary hearing, a number of us made calls to legislators to encourage them to oppose this bill. It uses religion as a pretext to legitimate discrimination and has precious little to do with protecting religious freedom. We’ve got strong constitutional protection for religion. What we heard again and again from legislators after the bill was defeated was how appreciative they were and what a difference it made that they had gotten our phone calls and support—that as faith leaders we would have their backs if they did the right thing and defeated the legislation.

That was such an important reminder. I think many of us hold our convictions more privately and don’t always understand that we need to go public—and the difference it can make not only when we speak up in our congregations but also when we can speak with legislators and let them hear a progressive religious view.

SS: You know, one thing I love about that story is that you don’t always get to know the result of your work in such a clear-cut way, and that’s a very rewarding thing to hear—that it made a difference. And as you say, it’s a really good reminder of the importance of this work.

ME: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.

SS: You’re doing similar work with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England in Maine in which you are organizing clergy on behalf of women’s reproductive health rights and justice. That shifts the narrative a bit because people assume very often that organized religion is opposed to this work.

ME: A number of clergy in the southern part of Maine have been organizing, for about a year now, a volunteer chaplaincy program where for the most part ordained clergy, but also some congregational leaders, have been going through a training process to volunteer as chaplains in the health center, particularly on clinic days when abortion services are scheduled. And one of the things Planned Parenthood has said to us again and again is how important it is to have people of faith, especially clergy, not among those who are protesting Planned Parenthood and denouncing it but instead inside the clinic supporting Planned Parenthood.

One of the reasons we wanted to do this chaplaincy program was to offer care and support to women and their partners and to the Planned Parenthood staff, but the other motivation was to reconnect clergy—who in great numbers are pro-choice—to the reproductive justice movement and to encourage them to not only volunteer but also to do more public education in their congregations and in the legislature. I’m really very excited about the program and hope it all goes well. I’m also hoping that we can replicate this in other health centers.

SS: That sounds so exciting.

ME: Yeah, you know, it is. It’s sort of funny, it’s like déjà vu all over again, Sally. I’ve been doing some reading about Margaret Sanger and her history of developing family planning resources, and she was very smart. She had clergy on her advisory board form the beginning. What we don’t realize is people of faith have been part of this reproductive rights and justice movement all along.

SS: I’m encouraged to hear that Margaret Sanger had faith leaders as part of her coalition work. I’m also discouraged we’re fighting about contraception so many years later! So in Maine, is there any kind of groundswell of people smacking their heads and saying “I can’t believe we’re still doing this,” especially after the Hobby Lobby ruling? Or are people just worried about other things? What’s your sense of the mood in your part of the world?

ME: What I continue to hear after the Hobby Lobby decision and after the Supreme Court ruling on the buffer zone is that the combination of those two decisions has intensified the determination of Mainers to support pro-choice public policy. Being on the board of Planned Parenthood, I’ve had the benefit of hearing about the internal polling. Something like 73 percent of Maine women polled trust Planned Parenthood and plan to listen to Planned Parenthood when they make their decisions about candidates for public office.

SS: I want to ask about the work that you have done on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, equality rights and justice, as well as reproductive rights and justice. What lessons have you learned? Is there any wisdom that you could share with us?

ME: I think many of us have discovered that our passion around gender justice or sexual justice may be the entry point for us. But all justice struggles connect. Much of the work gets complicated because you can’t think in one dimension, “How is this going to affect LGBT people?” You also have to ask, “How is this going to affect their families, LGBT people of color, and LGBT people who are low income and are recent refugees?”

So in many ways, what we’re learning is to be grateful that things in some ways have gotten more complicated because they’re becoming more real. Life is complicated. It’s about movement building and rebuilding community. What I love is showing up in places where the gay man—I’m not expected. As a white gay man, to show up at a Trayvon Martin event around anti-black violence and police madness, for many of us to hear about reproductive justice, to show up there and say, “No, that’s part of the big picture that we all need to be invested in,” I think is a challenge and a wonderful opportunity.

So that’s one of the lessons: You don’t have the luxury anymore of just paying attention to whatever puts your life at primary risk. You’ve got to think about how this is connected with other people’s struggles.

The greatest surprise of doing this justice work is what a source of joy it is. So many of us have come alive in ways we never expected when we joined an alliance with folks we were never meant to know or work with, much less trust. Building this community of solidarity is so much fun. That’s the secret we need to tell people: If you want to have a good time, join the justice committee.

SS: What you’re saying reflects reality in the sense that all the issues are connected. People don’t live in siloes. Their economic situations, housing, and legal statuses all affect their ability to have children, to not have children, to be able to raise those children. When people talk about equality and justice issues, and then cultural issues, they’re actually all justice issues, and I think we’re increasingly seeing that, which is very encouraging.

ME: I’ve been thinking more and more along the lines of “Let’s help each other understand how we got here in terms of what moves us. What was our entry point?” And then to understand, “What do we now know that we want to share with others?” Folks have gained enormous moral wisdom and courage around these struggles. What can we share to lighten the load for others? And the other thing is, “What can we learn from others?” None of us started out with what we needed. It’s been a steep learning curve the whole way.

SS: I’ve got one last question, and that has to do with the wonderful leaders in our Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. We’re thrilled that you’re one of those leaders. Why is it important to have faith and reproductive justice in the same institute?

ME: There are a lot of things that I could say and a lot of things that our wonderful group has shared with each other. One of the things I’d say: Faith is not about so much what you believe but [more] about how you live your life, who and what you care about, and what moves you. I think our faith traditions are much more deeply about desire than they are about right thinking.

What kind of life do we desire, what’s the vision of possibility that moves and sustains us in the struggle and deepens our hunger and thirst for a new way? I think religion is much more about what shapes and creates the right kind of desire. It’s about our passions. Maybe it goes back to that earlier question about social justice and a lot of things I’ve learned. Every injustice has harm not only to our body but also to our psyches and our spirits. When you crush peoples’ spirits and you crush their passions, when you teach them that their erotic desire is wrong and perverse, then that is a fundamental assault on the source of their integrity, the source of their power, the source of their spiritedness.

One of the ironies to me is that if you’re going to have a spiritual revival—if you’re going to renew the spiritual life—that’s only going to happen when you embrace the body, when you embrace the earth, when you love and embrace the community. And so one of the things I’d say, Sally, that you and your team at CAP have done so well, is helped us gather to be a community and to be so alive, spirited, and faithful. I think many of us who are progressive want to claim that religion is not the enemy but instead the source of life and energy and passion to seek justice and compassion in all things. And there is a lot of good news in that.

SS: Yes. Yes. And there’s a lot of good news in having you as part of our institute. We’re so grateful for the work that you’re doing and thank you so much for talking with us today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. You can learn more about this project here.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative