Tuesday, May 27, 2014

For Such A Time As This

When Connie called me a few days ago and told me she was ready to finally break her silence about all that happened to her as a cost of loving our LGBT brothers and sisters I knew before she asked the question that I needed to decide whether I was going to tell my story publicly as well. A number of my friends know what really happened to make my family leave Christ Methodist in February of 2010 but now I find myself compelled to join Connie in speaking our truth in the hopes that it will embolden others to do so as well. I write this account with much prayer and no little amount of fear and trembling. And yet to paraphrase Mordecai’s admonishment to Esther, I know that if I keep silent justice for (our LGBT brothers and sisters) will arise from another place but who knows whether or not we have come into the kingdom for such a time as this. And so I tell my story now.

I grew up in a small rural town in Middle Tennessee. I was born in 1968 and I came of age in the height of the AIDS crisis. I am not sure as a child that I realized I knew any LGBT people but looking back now I know that I did. I am choosing not to name names here because I do not want to inadvertently out anyone. The ones who are still living can weigh in once this is published if they choose. It is the ones who are not that first challenged my belief systems. It is appropriate that I am writing this on Memorial Day because their memory is always with me and they are the ones that set me on the path to where I am today. Five years and four graves will get a person’s attention.

I remember when AIDS was still called GRID and when being gay was presumed to be an automatic death sentence. I still catch myself operating under the mistaken assumption that everyone I know in the LGBT world is also HIV positive, which thankfully is no longer the case. My formative years in the ally world were ones filled with death and fear and stupid horrible statements from nationally known “religious leaders” about it all being God’s judgment. It was in this toxic atmosphere that I found myself grappling with what I truly believed about God and grace and salvation and being gay meant in the context of all of that. A wrestling match with God that began the day in 1986 that I got word that the young man who had been my first real boyfriend had been arrested in a bathhouse on a Sodomy charge. For the next decade it would be our shared history that defined my thoughts on the matter. When he died in 1995 of a cancer related to AIDS an ally was born. It would take another decade and a half though before I would find my full voice.

My first few years at CUMC it seemed to me to be a safe place for all God’s children after all the church was running a major ad campaign that advertised the United Methodist Church as being one with “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” I was to find out though that on one subject none of those were true. That subject was homosexuality. I knew that Maxie Dunnam who had been my pastor when I joined the United Methodist church in 1989 and who I deeply admired was a leader in something called “The Confessing Movement” but I had neglected to look too deeply into what it was we were confessing. I’m not sure at that stage in my life if knowing would have changed anything because I had not yet fully grappled with the issue in that much depth. I was still operating and teaching under the idea that of course it was a sin, but no greater sin than any of the others in “the list”.  I do remember discussions of the fact that all sex outside of marriage was defined as sinful and that it seemed to me that the logical answer was to let folks marry. Yep, marriage equality evolved first for me, I mean even Paul said that if you weren’t gifted with celibacy it was better to marry than to burn. I remember that we invited Tony Campolo to come and speak and in his talk he raised the same point, that it was his wife’s position on the issue at that time. I also remember speaking to him after that talk and telling him about my darling wonderful friend’s recent death and him embracing me with tears in his own eyes and whispering in my ear that I was “ten years ahead of the church on this issue”. I had no idea that those words were both encouragement and warning. I was going to find that out.

By 2000 I was teaching youth Sunday school at Christ Methodist and when the subject would come up I chose to direct the focus on the command to love everyone, even “sinners” rather than to step outside the party lines and admit that I was no longer sure it even was a sin. I came up in the age of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and as my beliefs and understanding about what God’s true opinion was of his rainbow children were evolving that seemed to be the safest rule for me to follow.

And then in 2005 Zach Stark, a friend of some of the kids in my Sunday school class, made the national news when he managed, through early social media, to get word that he was being held against his will at a local “ministry” called “Love In Action”…a ministry that Christ Methodist had been supporting for years. Now while I had no issue with adult GLBT people choosing reparative therapy for themselves I had enough of a psychology background to be really concerned about the effects of such therapy on an impressionable adolescent. When some of my kids wanted to join the protest outside “Love In Action” I supported them doing so. That would be my turning point.

I had no choice now but to grapple with what I had avoided. I had to know in my deepest knowing what I believed about sin and grace and the GLBT issue. I read everything I could get my hands on but even as my own views were evolving I toed the party line when it came to teaching the kids. I didn’t feel it was my place to go against the church position publicly. God had other ideas. I began having kids confide in me that they weren’t straight. Nothing in my youth ministry training had prepared me to navigate this. If I encouraged them to out themselves to their parents I had no doubt that some of them would end up just where Zach had if not worse. By now I had educated myself enough to know just how many evangelical kids ended up out on the street when the words “Mom, Dad, I’m gay” were spoken aloud. So I focused on getting them safely to 18 and on continually reminding them that God loved them, and I loved them, no matter what. Publically I was still living and teaching “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” I was sneaking off once a year to hammer AIDS markers in the lawn at First Baptist and I was passing resources to my kids and their friends but I was not standing publicly against those words, “Incompatible with Christian teaching.” I stood in that tension until 2010.

In February 2010 I “Liked” a pro-gay-marriage page on Facebook. I had no idea what I had just unleashed. I was co-leading a seventh grade D-group at the time and my co-leader replied with “Really? Houston, I think we have a problem.” I was miffed but I figured that a gentle reminder that people of faith hold different opinions on such issues would suffice so I replied: “Yes, Really. Why is that a problem? Christians of good conscience hold all kinds of different beliefs on GLBT issues and the civil rights involved.

I then left my house for several hours with my family and returned to the following response: “and there are plenty of churches where nonbiblical teaching is propagated for people who prefer to make up their own doctrine- ours just doesn't happen to be one of them- So, when in a leadership role in a church such as ours, it would show better discernment to keep these nonbiblical views to oneself if those under your influence have access to these comments.”

At that point I took the conversation to private message hoping to engage in a dialogue about what I had been studying and why I believed that the issue of Same-Sex Marriage was an issue of social justice that the UMC was on the wrong side of…what ensued was a fight…one that ended with her repeating basically what she said above but ending with “There are churches all over this city that believe as you believe. You need to go find one of them.”

In that moment I realized that I could no longer stay at CUMC as long as my GLBT brothers and sisters were looked at as less than, as “incompatible with Christian teaching” At that point I copied the entire exchange to the youth staff and resigned. After a decade in youth ministry the fact that not one of them tried to change my mind told me everything I needed to know about where I now stood. We left the church that day. My daughter lost the only church she had ever known, friends that she’d been with since the toddler years, her entire spiritual support system. All because I dared to believe that “All” meant “ All.” That LOVE truly was what was supposed to show the world that we were His disciples.

I fled to First Baptist that Sunday. A few weeks later I crossed paths with Connie again and found the Outlaw Preachers. In October, with the full support of my new church family, I marched in my first rally for equality. In December I was at the first OP (re)Union. It would be easy to cut my losses and keep my peace about what is happening in the UMC but I cannot. I cannot remain silent when the church that taught me the true depth and breadth of God’s grace continues to deny that grace to his LGBT children. I cannot remain silent while the church where I renewed my wedding vows prosecutes through ecclesiastical courts those courageous members of the clergy that dare to perform wedding ceremonies for their OWN CHILDREN who happen to be GLBT or who do so for others believing as Connie and many of us do that to be forbidden to do so places them in violation of their mission to minister the sacraments to ALL the members of their flocks. I cannot remain silent when the words of the discipline are elevated above the clear command of scripture to LOVE. And so for such a time is this I choose to finally tell my story in the interest of following Micah 6:8’s command to, “Do Justly, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly”. Here I take my stand.