Dreams Not Surrendered


Presbyterian Welcome—All Are Welcome

This week on Unbound we honor National Coming Out Day (October 11) and LGBT History Month (October) with a series of stories from PC(USA) inquirers and candidates for ordained ministry, who gathered this summer to explore their call, support one another, and discover the power of their own voices. Below is the fifth and final installment of our series; a new article or story has been published each day this week (Oct 8-12). All photos are courtesy of Julie Mack and Christy Pessagno at THEY bklyn.
By John Russell Stanger
Communion at presbyterian welcome retreat
Communion at the Presbyterian Welcome Retreat

Before classes had even begun, I remember trudging around my high school marching band’s practice field. As you can imagine, it was a miserable experience standing on black asphalt, baking in the middle of a south Texas summer. To make matters worse I played the euphonium, a bulky (and unflattering) instrument. These memories, though certainly not the worst, are far from my favorite from childhood.

Yet, I enjoyed marching and I was significantly better at it than I was at playing my instrument. Still, I sometimes found myself missing a step or tripping over my own feet when I became distracted by our baton twirlers. A little educational moment: baton twirlers are a big deal in Texas. A big deal. And the best twirlers—feature twirlers—are an even bigger deal, as made apparent by the extra sequins on their uniforms.

I watched, while pretending to play the right notes on my huge brass instrument, as the feature twirlers whirled about, their batons extensions of their bodies. While I only had slightly fancy footwork to show off, these girls were (quite fairly) stealing the show. I wanted—no, needed—to be a feature twirler. I wanted to leap around the football field with my baton twisting around my arm, up into the air, and flawlessly back into my perfectly extended fingertips.

But I knew I could never be a baton twirler. It would only give the other boys another excuse to call me a “fag” and I was near my breaking point. Instead I settled for “going out with”—it was tenth grade—a baton twirler. I got to play with her baton, but no one was fooled by our glorified friendship, especially her.


Those men reminded me this sum­mer of the power we have as LGBTQ peo­ple and as the church to help peo­ple to dream, to keep dream­ing, and to pick up old dreams. By telling stories of how we fol­low our dreams, whether we be straight, queer, trans, or gay, we help oth­ers fol­low their own. We help them pick up their batons and twirl.

Fast forward to this summer: Now an activist for the inclusion and celebration of trans, bi, lesbian, and gay people in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I was passing out water, cookies, and church fans to drag queens sashaying down Fifth Avenue in the New York City Pride March. Long gone was the repressed fourteen-year-old with dreams of being a baton twirler. Or so I thought.

Imagine my shock when I turned around with a fresh tray of water and, in the midst of all the rainbows, glitter, and blaring dance music, saw two older men twirling their way down the asphalt. They were fierce and fabulous in their costumes… and terrible twirlers. But it didn’t matter. I stood still with my widest grin plastered to my face as I remember my old dream and watched two other gay men who had not given up on theirs.

Though I would look fabulous as a baton twirler, I now have new dreams. As LGBTQ people seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we have also not given up on our dreams—our calls. We have not forgotten our dream of presiding at the table, breaking bread and pouring wine. We have not given up on our dreams of welcoming people into the covenant of marriage and of walking alongside families as they grieve. We have not let go of dreaming about the moment we first welcome a child into the family of God through baptism.

Those men reminded me this summer of the power we have as LGBTQ people and as the church to help people to dream, to keep dreaming, and to pick up old dreams. By telling stories of how we follow our dreams, whether we be straight, queer, trans, or gay, we help others follow their own. We help them pick up their batons and twirl.

Get Involved with Presbyterian Welcome

I hope that in hearing our stories, you are encouraged by what God is doing in the church. For us to come out to you, inviting you to see us as God does, is always frightening no matter how many times we do it. I know that our community has found joy and hope in hearing how God is working in each of our lives.

As Mieke wrote, participation in the retreat has doubled in the last eight years and we have brought together almost 75 inquirers and candidates together from around the country in that time. Since the retreat began four people have been ordained. Sadly, 13 have made the difficult decision to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) because of the deep pain they have experienced in our denomination. If it were not for the retreat community who supports and helps one another to heal, even more would be gone.


If you are an LGBTQ person seeking ordination (or even thinking about it!) we would love to hear from you so that we can support you and connect you with our community.

With the passage of Amendment 10-A and the adoption of inclusive ordination standards, we are excited and encouraged by the ways in which God continues to transform the church. We look forward to gathering again next summer to hear each other’s stories and be reminded of why it is we follow the calls God has placed on our hearts.

If you are an LGBTQ person seeking ordination (or even thinking about it!) we would love to hear from you so that we can support you and connect you with our community. Or if you have simply been moved by these stories and would like to get involved with Presbyterian Welcome and find out more about our ministry working for inclusion and justice, visit our website, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. Of course, you can also email me or Mieke for more information.

Please consider to help us continue to offer the unique space our retreat provides to this amazing community of LGBTQ inquirers and candidates.

We all have stories of the challenges we have faced, the choices we have made, and the hope we have discovered on the other end. Please share in the comment section your own reflections after hearing these stories—or share a story of your own. Longer stories can be submitted to Unbound for publication consideration: simply email your story, article, or artistic expression (yes, we welcome poetry, music, video, and art!) to [email protected]. If helpful, you can refer to the Unbound publishing guidelines

Check out the entire National Coming Out Week series, featuring the stories of LGBTQ candidates for ordained ministry, with an introduction from Rev. Mieke Vandersall in “Telling Our Stories: We Are Pastors Who Happen To Be Gay


John Russell Stanger




John Russell Stanger is the Organizer of Mission & Advocacy at Presbyterian Welcome in New York City. He recently graduated with a Master of Divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and formerly served as a Young Adult Volunteer in South India. 
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