This week, the UMC denomination that I serve in voted to strengthen its stance on “self-avowed homosexuals.” And I was disappointed. Broken.
But I haven’t always been this way.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, and although it was conservative, the message that rang was “Jesus loves you!” I grew up hearing it constantly, which is what drew me to the church: hearing that Jesus loved me was needed in my life.
It wasn’t until my last few years of high school I heard “Jesus loves you, except…” We had a new pastor, and although my previous pastors probably had the same beliefs, this pastor was more vocal about who Jesus had beef with. And the people who Jesus has the most beef with, according to many Christians, are those living in sexual sin, especially the homosexuals.
When I went to college, I signed a contract that, among other things, said I couldn’t partake in, and I quote: “pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, and homosexual relations.” I always thought that was an odd way to say it — like, implying that gay people can’t have sex, or even if you like, kiss another person of the same gender, you’re out.
There were a few people from my college who hid their sexuality, one of my childhood friends included. And I remember praying the gay away because I was worried about their salvation.
My college was protested against by an organization called SoulForce. They went on an “equality ride” around the country to different colleges that had anti-LGBTQ doctrine, like mine. At the time, I still agreed with the “traditional” stance on marriage, but I also knew that these people deserved a friend. Being the only girl who wanted to be a pastor and not marry a pastor at a Southern Baptist college meant I had some enemies of my own. I knew what it was like to be told “Jesus loves you, except…” So, I signed up to be a student ambassador for the university.
The Equality Ride changed my life, but it didn’t change my mind. I did become curious, though, especially about a trans woman named “Mia TuMutch.” She gave herself that last name/stage name because she’d always been told that she’s “too much.” And I have too (literally a trigger of mine). I attached myself to her, and listened. We became friends on Facebook, and I’ve watched her journey unfold into now working in politics and with trans youth. She always inspired me, even before I agreed with her.
After college, I found myself in a pickle. I had been fortunate enough to find work in a Southern Baptist church for my first Youth Director job, but it became clear that I wasn’t going to find another opportunity like that as a woman. So, I began looking outside of my denomination.
When I was hired at St. Luke’s UMC, one of the questions they asked me from the very first interview was how I would deal with LGBTQ youth. I was honest: I wasn’t sure how I felt theologically about homosexuality. But what I knew was this: teenagers are always shifting, always changing, on the never-ending hunt to find themselves. And I promised the hiring team that no matter who that teen was, I would love them and welcome them. That’s all I had — not theological answers, just love.
And I was hired.
Three months in, I heard my first pro-LGBTQ sermon. Also, let’s pause: I was also meeting my first woman pastors. So, like, I was in quite the whirlwind.
After I heard our senior pastor preach a sermon on how biblical interpretation leads us to believe that being gay is not a sin, I was shook. I went to my boss’s office the next day and wept. I confessed that I wasn’t as progressive as I thought I was, and I was worried I’d be fired because I didn’t have the same Biblical interpretation on this subject as the church. But my boss asked me: how are you going to treat our kids? And I said — with love and acceptance. And my boss told me that was all that mattered. I was worried I’d be fired, and he told me that I technically was in line with the Book of Discipline, and couldn’t get fired for that.
This was five years ago.
A few months later, we hired our first “out” gay employee. She was loud, she was proud.
And she was kind.
She was an ordained pastor in another denomination, but took a break to serve our church in a non-pastoral role.
Until one day, in Staff Chapel, our Senior Pastor asked her to assist with Communion.
Communion Lord’s Supper was a time between you and the Lord. You took this time to repent and to check your heart. We were taught that if you had unrepentant sin, that you should go correct it before taking Lord’s Supper. It was a big deal — a time to pray and get real with the Lord.
As she was going around the circle, serving each staff member by name, I began to panic.
How could I take Communion from a sinner?
And that is when I changed my mind. I looked at this woman’s actions and words and recognized that she worked harder at her relationship with Christ than I did. I realized the fruit in her life was evident. And that’s when I decided that it must be okay to be gay and a Christian.
So I drank the kool-aid. Well, holy grape juice.
This was just four years ago.
In the last four years since, God has just gifted me with members of the LGBTQ community who have helped me grow my understanding and my heart. I “came out” as LGBTQ-inclusive just three years ago when writing an article for a prominent youth ministry site — the first positive article on the topic they’d ever had.
And to be honest, I’ve remained fairly silent since. But I won’t be silent any more.
To be silent would be to deny my trans cousin of the truth I’ve known since we were little. To be silent would be unfair to my friends who braved Baptist College, despite signing a contract that said they were unnatural. To be silent would be to disrespect the promise of unconditional love I’ve given so many students. And to be silent would crush one of my dearest friends, who came out to me on her couch two years ago, who I helped build her dating profile and personally swiped right on her girlfriend, and who is now in seminary.
I’m really heart-broken by what happened in General Conference last week. Like, shaking-sleepless-sick-shocked broken. I am dreading church tomorrow for the first time in 5 years. I am especially dreading telling our 8th graders that the letters they wrote to our delegates asking for more progressive doctrine failed. I don’t want to admit that we failed them.
But I have hope: 9 years ago, I thought everyone who wasn’t a Southern Baptist was going to hell. Today, I study the fruit from everyone I meet and judge them based on that, not their labels. 5 years ago, I sought refuge to lead in a church. Today, I admire the faith of gay Christians who fight to do the same. 4 years ago, I changed my mind. Today, I choose to speak my mind.