It is with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes that I write this post. Since the beginning of this series (Countdown to Ordination) I planned on writing something like this post, but not on this day. Not the day after a senseless, horrific mass shooting that took what may end up being over 50 lives. I thought about not writing it, for fear of judgement or of this post being labeled “too soon” or “look at me” or whatever people might say. But as I went to a prayer vigil last night, an older gay man said (to me and the only other pastor in attendance, who was also United Methodist): “I’m encouraged by the pastors who are speaking out. Thank you for being here.” And this morning, my cousin, who frequented the Pulse as a college student, shared words on his facebook page about his disappointment that more of his “Christian” friends weren’t speaking out. So I began to write…and then found these lyrics:
“Oh, I cannot understand just how somebody can murder an innocent child; I swear their lives won’t be lost in vain, even if I get knocked down, I will stand my ground, And I’ll never hide or run away. Love will prevail. By God it will.” -Love Will Prevail
I found out that my cousin had come out as gay at my brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner. He hadn’t told me…another one of my cousins did. So I very proudly went up to him to let him know, “hey, I know…and I just want you to know that I’m here for you and that I love you.” And I’ll never forget his response:
“Really?! Because I asked you about this several years ago and you told me I was going to hell.”
I swear, I do not remember saying that. I don’t remember any time growing up that someone taught explicitly against homosexuality. I don’t remember having any ill feelings about gay people. And that’s what so scary. I don’t remember. This kind of teaching is so deeply embedded in our culture, especially Christian culture, that we just grow up thinking that’s the norm, and that anything else is crazytalk.
What I do remember is that after listening to my cousin, I immediately felt a change in my heart, in my soul, at the very core of my being that seemed to say, “You don’t have to ‘get it’ or agree with it, but please, please, please, love. Love your cousin.”
But being me, I needed to “understand.” So I spent several months (and years, really) reading scripture, praying, having conversations with trusted theologians, talking through things at Crazy Faith sessions, watching documentaries, looking at blogposts trying to understand how I as a Christian was supposed to respond to not only my cousin but any gay person (or for that matter, any person…especially those who were different than me). And as I tried to match my thoughts to my heart, my circle of friends grew to include many more gay/queer people (a best friend, an ex-boyfriend, a best friend’s ex-boyfriend, a roommate/friend, two church members in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” congregation, etc.).
Over the years, I prayed (and prayed, and prayed) that God would lead me to what I was supposed to believe. I struggled to reconcile what I had been taught to believe with what my heart and soul (and mind, after extensive study) was feeling to be true. As I prayed, my convictions only grew stronger.
And then one of my youth came out to me (before telling any of his friends or family…I really honestly thought it was a joke at first). It was a truly humbling experience that I didn’t quite understand. I asked, “Just out of curiosity, what made you feel like you could tell me?” He responded that I was always talking about love and acceptance of all people and that he felt like I wouldn’t judge him or condemn him. (And he was right.)
And then another youth came out to me. And then another. It was like, I was meant to be in that place at that time for a reason – to help these young people know that they were (and are) beloved children of God…to make sure they felt loved and accepted and had a place where they belonged. I’m so proud of these young people and who they’ve become and how they’re making the world a better place, and I consider it a holy privilege to have been part of their journey.
I served in a Reconciling congregation for three years while Jonathan and I lived in Illinois. Part of my ministry there was working with a youth health service organization to co-host a pride group for middle school youth. A high school student ended up coming to the group and after a short time of getting to know him, he revealed that he had never been to church before. Time passed and we were getting ready for the Christmas eve service, and he asked if anyone could come. After the initial shock of someone asking if they could come to a church service, I said, yes, of course! He ended up coming. We had communion; we sang “Silent Night” to candlelight. I’m sure it was a strange experience, for an 11pm Christmas Eve service to be the first worship service you experience. But he came back, for Graduation Sunday…for Christmas Eve the next year…. Did he come to be a regular church member? no. But he wasn’t scared away, either. In fact, he still goes and helps with the church rummage sale.
Northbrook UMC’s Welcoming Statement is: “Our welcome knows no boundaries of race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic reality, education, faith background, family status, physical or mental ability.”
Our Reconciling Committee’s task was to help the congregation live into our reconciling identity – not just to be a welcoming space for LGBT people but for ALL people. We got rocking chairs so that nursing mothers and mothers with young children could be more comfortable as they participated in the service. We encouraged fellowship events to be upstairs because getting to the (larger) basement area was difficult/impossible for some. We tweaked our style of worship to be more accessible for a variety of learning styles and ages. And yes, we waived our rainbow flag proudly next to the cross to be an outward symbol of our belief that God’s love and grace are for all people and that all people are welcome.
I saw on a news report that some people called Pulse their “sanctuary,” which I find both heart-warming and incredibly sad.
My cousin said the Pulse was a “safe and welcoming place.” All people should have a place of sanctuary, where they feel welcome and safe. Pulse was this place for so many people, a place they could laugh, dance, sing, celebrate, bond…and not be judged or condemned.
What makes me sad is that I know that churches, in general, are not this safe space. I fielded a call from a concerned citizen of Northbrook about our rainbow flag; she was angry and did not want her children to see a rainbow next to a cross because she “didn’t want to have that conversation.” I responded calmly and invited her to talk over coffee but she refused. It convinced me even more that our flag needed to be waved – that we must not hide or run away…we must show, embody, and share God’s love and grace with everyone…because that’s what Jesus would do.
We cannot let fear and hatred be attached to Jesus’ name. We must stop it. We must turn to Love. We must pray that God’s love will prevail and we must ACT, by embodying that love.
I changed my youth group plans last night to have a prayer vigil. We sat in silence, lit five candles, and said a prayer for the victims and their families; for all LGBT people who no longer feel safe; for the killer and all who respond with violence out of fear and hatred; for our religious and political leaders who have the power to change the rhetoric and our laws to make a difference in the way we treat people; and for the courage to stand up against injustice and to shine God’s love and light in the world every chance we get.
I then challenged the youth to come up with positive, inspiring messages to put on the church sign, and this is what they came up with:
(top) No matter how crazy life is, God’s love is still there.
(bottom) Love ALL our neighbors like Jesus loves us.
Thanks to my gay and queer friends who continually challenge me to speak out and for showing me unconditional love and patience. Thanks to Northbrook UMC for being a safe place for ME, and for giving me courage to speak out. Thanks to the lady at the Goat Farm we went to recently who said, “don’t hide who you are. don’t be afraid.” Thanks to clergy who have inspired me to be more vocal in my convictions by your words and actions. Thanks to Oak Hill UMC for being a place where we can dialogue and struggle with this together and still love and respect one another, even if we’re not of similar minds. And thanks to Rev. Jill Auman, who always said that if you’re on the side of Love, you can’t go wrong.