HRC Blog

Well-Deserved Honor for Rev. Irene Monroe

Irene MonroePost submitted by Sharon Groves, former HRC Director, Religion and Faith Program

Earlier this month, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) announced that the Rev. Irene Monroe was a recipient of their 2012 Spirit of Justice award. Rev. Monroe is an extraordinary woman who serves as an ordained minister, a Huffington Post blogger, a syndicated religion columnist and a friend to HRC’s Religion and Faith Program. She was chosen in 2009 by MSNBC as "10 Black Women You Should Know."

The recent honor reminds me of a previous piece I penned for HRC’s Equality Magazine about Monroe that is worth sharing to commemorate this well-deserved recognition:

Irene Monroe grew up in the most extraordinary of circumstances. 

Abandoned in a trash can as a baby, she was named after Sister Irene, a nun at a New York hospital, and actress Marilyn Monroe. As a child, she was shuttled back and forth between a Catholic orphanage and a, well, unusual foster home.

“I became a number runner for my gambling foster mother,” Monroe recalls. “My foster mother’s gambling habit also introduced me to the church; there were many number runners in the church as well. The experience helped shape my appreciation of the multiple uses of the black church as a place of worship, place of politics, and a place where you can be somebody when in the larger world, you can’t be anything.”

One day, when she was 12, Monroe saw the Macy’s Day Parade in downtown Manhattan, and experienced nothing short of a religious revelation — to be a Macy’s Girl! “I wanted to work for Macy’s for two reasons: to get a discount on clothes and to be in the parade,” she said. When told by a salesman at the department store that she would need a high school diploma, Monroe first burst into tears and then promptly turned her life around.  With a clear goal in sight, she transformed herself from a D student with behavior problems to the valedictorian of her middle and high school classes, followed in turn by degrees from Wesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University. 

Today, Monroe is one of the most sought-after theologians in the United States, speaking out about a “theology of liberation for all of us.” As a former pastor of an African-American Presbyterian church and now a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, Monroe believes that theology, like the kind grounded in the abolitionist and civil rights movements, should be shared with those who have been marginalized or discounted because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race or economic background. “Liberation theology can only have integrity if it is done in tandem with a struggling community,” she noted.

“My ancestors expanded not only the understanding of what it meant to be human, but also the parameters of what it meant to be a Christian,” she says. “Having known this history, I found calling myself a queer African-American Christian to my community neither less black nor less Christian. For all are tied, as my community ought to know, to the unending struggle of human acceptance, but at different times along the human timeline.”

Since HRC launched its Religion and Faith Program, Monroe has been an invaluable adviser and advocate. She serves on HRC’s Religion and Faith program African American advisory board, writes regularly for its “Out in Scripture” preaching and devotional resource, and distributes its resources wherever she speaks. In the meantime, she writes regularly for In Newsweekly, a GLBT newspaper that circulates widely in New England; The Witness, an Episcopalian journal; and The Advocate. And she is featured in the award-winning film For the Bible Tells Me So. 

Recently, Monroe had a close call with cancer. But, true to form, Monroe refused to see her personal battle with cancer as separate from her GLBT and African-American faith work. Instead, she is using her experience to shed light on how health care disparities affect people of color and the GLBT community. A most extraordinary woman, no matter the circumstances.

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