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Sharon Groves

Biography

Sharon Groves, Ph.D., justice worker in multifaith and LGBTQ settings, wrote this chronicle of her life journey:

My life's journey has thrown unexpected curveballs, leading me to invest a significant chunk of it in safeguarding the spiritual well-being of LGBTQ folks. Growing up in a secular family in a conservative Christian town in the 1970s, my curiosity about faith was always present, but the early message was clear: be wary of Christians! In my family, there was little distinction between Christians, whether conservative, progressive, or anything in between. As a queer woman, looking back at my upbringing, it seems clear that diving into literature provided a personal haven in a family without the vocabulary to connect with human spiritual longings and a community that in the 1980s could not accept my sexual identity. I pursued an academic career in literature, getting a B.A. at Illinois State University (1989),  I wrapped up my dissertation in 18th-century British literature in 2000 while working as an editor at the academic journal Feminist Studies at the University of Maryland.

Then, 9/11 hit, and like many others, I found myself in a personal crisis, questioning what I was doing to make a real difference in the world. I jumped into the antiwar movement, but the political organizing I engaged in at that time lacked the heart and compassion needed to connect with those grieving personal and existential losses. In a spiritual crisis, I found what I was looking for at church: a gentle encouragement to explore my personal spiritual journey; a spiritual community where people cared for and were accountable to each other; and a community with an outward commitment to social justice. I was immediately hooked.  While I never wanted to be a pastor, I saw the untapped potential in progressive faith organizing where the faith journey, the community and the outward commitment to justice reinforced each other.  To this day this remains my core path.

As a volunteer faith leader at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., I learned a great deal about organizing within a church community and leveraging its power for external social change. I tackled internal issues like developing a covenant of right relations that explored how our community could address conflict, I teamed up with a social justice committee to combat post-9/11 Islamophobia. Meanwhile, after the crushing presidential victory of George Bush in 2004 and the victory of same-sex marriage rights in Massachusetts, scapegoating queer communities for moving the culture too fast against so-called "family values” was taking hold not just among conservatives but among progressives as well. Pro-LGBTQ organizations realized they couldn’t run away from religion but needed to engage it directly to leverage its power for LGBTQ inclusion. This was exactly the kind of work I longed to do. In 2005, itching for a change from academia, I threw my hat in the ring at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for the brand new position of religion and faith program manager.

Despite my unconventional background, the new brilliant director Harry Knox and I hit it off immediately and I joined HRC. Under Harry’s leadership we pioneered initiatives such as Out In Scripture, a lectionary-based weekly preaching and worship tool; A La Familia, a bilingual resource for Latinx families working toward LGBTQ inclusion; Clergy Call for Justice and Equality, a first-of-its-kind national faith lobbying effort that brought clergy and religious leaders to DC to lobby on key LGBTQ legislation from every state in the country. 

When Harry departed in 2009, I assumed the director role, focusing on multifaith engagement during the marriage equality years. Together with a racially and religiously diverse team, we diligently built multifaith coalitions to garner religious support at both the state and national levels. In my final years at the Human Rights Campaign, we focused on fostering deeper conversations with more conservative religious communities, engaging with Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, and Evangelical Christian groups. During this period I had the opportunity to work clandestinely with the Salvation Army, who sought guidance on repairing their relationship with LGBTQ communities. We initiated educational engagement with the Army, helping them understand better how to create welcoming communities for trans youth and offering tools to wrestle with their own faith and the necessity of recognizing that the community that needed their support was often traumatized by the heteronormative and cisgender assumptions prioritized in their faith. This was hard, time-consuming, but often deeply rewarding work that quietly persists under the radar in individual communities today.

As my interest in connecting with more conservative religious communities grew, so did my involvement with Auburn Theological Seminary. They invited me to be part of their inaugural group of senior fellows and later asked me to join the staff to contribute to building relationships with faith movement partners and to support a new research project, Being in Relationship, developed to provide sustained tools for engaging with evangelical leaders and conservative black Christians to become more LGBTQ inclusive.

At its core this work was invested in changing hearts and minds about LGBTQ people in conservative religious communities.  Yet as the project evolved, it became more intertwined with a methodology to support communities on a journey toward greater inclusivity and openness to differences, regardless of how those differences manifested. It transformed from  a methodology to change people to a supportive framework for all of those who needed support moving out of a more isolationist form of religious identity toward a more loving and expansionist expression of what it meant to be invested in human flourishing as a principle of faith.

Using the principles of the Being in Relationship research, we conducted training sessions with those involved in reparation projects within their congregations, Black male leaders addressing internalized misogyny, LGBTQ state leaders figuring out how to work both with their base and with a conservative majority in their states, as well as initiatives with evangelical and conservative Christians moving toward a more inclusive stance toward LGBTQ individuals. I carried out this work at Auburn concurrently with extensive involvement in national movements, collaborating with leaders dedicated to reproductive justice, LGBTQ inclusion, faith and policy work, and those seeking ways to enrich the spiritual dimensions of their organizing work.

In late 2023, I departed from Auburn to delve into avenues for enhancing the spiritual and values-based efforts essential in movement spaces. At present, I am collaborating with Valarie Kaur and the Revolutionary Love Project, alongside state and national LGBTQ leaders, spirit-rooted faith leaders, and local DC organizers. From the perspective of nearly two decades of faith organizing, I am in many ways returning to the beginning of my faith journey and asking how a personal spiritual journey, a commitment to community, and values-driven work for justice can better shape our world.

Biography Date: February 2024

Tags

Unitarian Universalist | Activist (religious institutions) | Marriage Equality | Human Rights Campaign | Washington, D.C. | Knox, Harry | Groves, Sharon

Citation

“Sharon Groves | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/sharon-groves.

Remembrances

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