The LGBTQ Experience in the Church, and the Children that Keep Me HereThis 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 third installment of our series; a new article or story will be published each day this week (Oct 8-12). All photos are courtesy of Julie Mack and Christy Pessagno at THEY bklyn. By an author who requested anonymity
My church is a second home for me. Walking around the hallways, seeing the smiling faces of adults who watched me grow up, goofing around with the kids in youth group: all these things were regular occurrences and I delighted in every one of them. When I sat in service or mingled during fellowship hour, I felt as if I truly belonged. No one treated me differently because of my race or gender or even my sexual orientation. Even when I came out to my fellow parishioners, it wasn’t a big deal. I was greeted with the same cozy hugs, the same eager talk about school or sports, and the same questions about my desire to go into ministry. There was never a moment that I did not feel completely in my skin being a part of this church or of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Then I went to General Assembly.
For the first time in my life, I saw my national church as “the other”—or rather, as a church that made me “other”. As I wandered through the Exhibit Hall or watched the plenary sessions, I was struck over and over again by the same thought: no one here is like me. No one looked like me. Of course, that was not entirely true: More Light and Covenant Network Presbyterians had their LGBTQ advocacy tables; people of all ages wore with pride their rainbow scarves; and the LGBTQ community, even if a minority, had a significant presence—some courageous young adult women even coming out while testifying during plenary. But that didn’t change this feeling of being, radically, alone—a feeling based in the normative cultural and structural power of the event. Instead of my fairly diverse congregation, I was swimming in a sea of white men. The more conversations I had, the more discussions I heard, I became painfully aware that most of the people around me were straight and many of them would not be very pleased to hear that I was not. Watching the debates over marriage issues certainly didn’t help, but even before that happened, I knew I was out of my element. It only took a day for me to understand that I was not at home, that I was an alien in this denomination I love so much.
LGBT and questioning children are part of our denomination. Their love for God fills their hearts and souls and minds and it is a beautiful light that no one should put out. Truth is, though, someone could put it out. These children could look around a church and see no one who looks or feels like them. They could be taught that they must choose between the God they love and the people they love. I can’t let this happen.
Facing the reality that my denomination may not be the loving, diverse, inclusive community I had grown up thinking it was shook me. Ordination is a long and often difficult process for everyone, GLBTQ people especially, so I found myself asking: Is it really worth it? Is my calling strong enough that I can stand up in a crowd, the minority of so many minorities, and proclaim my place as one chosen by God? Other denominations have easier processes with fewer demands and open attitudes towards all sexual orientations; would I not be better off switching and serving them? But other questions also surfaced: With all the love I feel towards the Presbyterian Church, how can I ever leave it? Should I just give up altogether? I knew what I wanted to do, but the wind had been taken out of my sails and I just wasn’t sure why I was even bothering.
In my storm of confusion, a ray of hope came in remembering an old Sunday School student of mine. A bright and energetic child, she and I had formed a meaningful teacher/student bond, and I appreciated learning about her life. I remembered that one day, right before church started, she pulled me aside and did something I was not expecting: she came out to me. In that moment, I felt overwhelmed and honored and responsible at the same time. This person, with little fanfare or outward anxiety, shared something with me that few people at the time knew. What’s more, when she told me, she mentioned that one of the reasons she was telling me was because she knew about me. She knew I could relate and understand, perhaps answer questions if she had them. In that moment, I felt proud: of myself, of her, of being in a place where such a thing could happen. This was the denomination that raised me, and I was part of the denomination that was raising this child. How could I not belong here?
When asked to describe my call to ministry, I often say that I feel like I’m following something bigger than myself; that God chose me to follow this path and I’m just thankful that I finally had enough sense to do it. I truly believe this. This is bigger than me. What my student made me realize is how this is bigger than me. She, and many children like her, are part of our denomination. They hope and breathe and believe just as strongly, sometimes even more so, than those older. Their love for God fills their hearts and souls and minds and it is a beautiful light that no one should put out. Truth is, though, someone could put it out. These children could look around a church and see no one who looks or feels like them. They could be taught that they must choose between the God they love and the people they love. They could see no example of themselves in the Church and just give up. I can’t let this happen. I am a living, breathing, believing example that God does indeed welcome all, and in the midst of all these other messages, mine can shine through. I can be a leader in the Church now so that I can inspire the leaders of the Church’s future. Fear and alienation happen and that’s to be expected, but that’s not a reason to quit. If you love something, if you trulylove it, you fight for it. I love my denomination, and as long as I am able to do so, I will fight to make it a loving, welcoming second home for everyone
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“
____________________________Presbyterian Welcome, composed of 20 supporting congregations and countless individuals, works for the full participation of individuals in contexts of faith, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.