I grew up in a small, rural Presbyterian church. The sort of place that reinforces all the stereotypes of small, rural churches – conservative both theologically and socially. During my teen years, my growing passion for a deeper understanding of my faith was fostered by our minister. Under his guidance, I obtained a lifetime ordination as an Elder in the church for a youth term of one year. Just prior to my ordination, the comedian Ellen Degeneres, came out publicly as gay. An ugly, hate-filled editorial to our local newspaper followed. I wrote a passionate, if not profound, response in her defense and two days after my ordination, my letter to the editor appeared in the paper. Suddenly, my parents’ telephone was ringing with angry calls from congregational members and I was sitting in Session meetings where letters were read detailing my religious education gone wrong. My “indiscretion” was used by the growing body within the congregation who sought the dismissal of our minister as further evidence of his being unfit to lead the church. He was gone shortly after.
Despite this hurt, I entered college with the intent of pursuing a career in ministry. I majored in religion and philosophy and during the course of my studies I became increasingly concerned with the wide disparity between my experience of church and social justice issues. I gradually determined that I could no longer call myself a christian. I formally rescinded my ordination and terminated my membership with the Presbyterian church. Having spent most of my life attending church, I began to miss the sense of community that church provided and sought alternatives that would meet my spiritual needs in an inclusive environment. My experience of church led me to believe that an absence of exclusion, particularly with regard to the LBGT community, could not be found in a christian church. I therefore began attending and eventually joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation. My husband and I were later married by that church.
After moving to Lynchburg, my husband and I stopped attending regular worship. The local UU church was, at that time, not a good fit and we did not believe any other church existed locally that could meet our needs. Our first child was born a few years later and as a new parent, I began to crave a community of mindful parents. I did not expect to find the sort of inclusive congregation that I believed only existed in fantasy. I only hoped to find a place that would love and support us while hopefully staying quiet about the areas in which their views differed from ours. We visited several churches that were known to be “liberal”. During these visits, when we shared what our ideal church would look like we were consistently told that First Christian Church Lynchburg was where we needed to be. We visited and, while we were hopeful, we were also skeptical. Churches don’t often want to admit to their bigotries. We were waiting to learn the “catch”. While we believed we’d found our place for limited participation, we never took communion and never planned to join.
We were visited by David Cobb, who had recently become pastor of the church. He talked about Christianity in ways that I’d never heard. He spoke of the limitless love of God and of communion as an act of community and of what it truly means to “welcome as God welcomes”. We began to believe that FCC truly practiced what it preached and I gradually understood that I could, in fact, call myself a Christian. My husband was baptized and we joined the church.
As our involvement in the church deepened, our relationships with other folks in the church became richer and fuller. Some of our most dedicated and passionate members were of the LBGT community and it was clear that our church life was so much richer by virtue of their involvement. Their presence was a gift to us. These people became family to us and we to them. Most importantly, our children were loved by all and reciprocated in kind. When our daughter was a toddler, she wandered to the front of the sanctuary one Sunday during children’s worship. Having the attention span of the average toddler, she soon wandered back down the center aisle. However, along the way she stopped pew by pew to give and receive love from those people who were like family to her. There were many stops.
As a white, heterosexual, “traditional” family, we believed our church affiliation provided us the opportunity to be accepting. We wanted to welcome and we wanted to be inclusive and we wanted to love unconditionally. We worked to extend our goodwill outward. It took us longer to understand the importance of being welcomed and included and loved ourselves.
When my son was four, he decided he wanted a pink dress. I waited to see if his interest was as fleeting as most of his interests at that age, but he persisted. Together we shopped for and selected the perfect dress. But having the dress wasn’t enough. To him, his dress was beautiful, he was proud of it and he wanted to wear it out. I worried. I had no objection to him wearing the dress. I loved that he loved it and that he wasn’t bound by gender stereotypes. I wanted his experience of wearing the dress in public to be positive and the thought that he might receive negative or hurtful feedback frightened me. I knew he couldn’t wear it to preschool and come out unhurt. Likewise, I couldn’t imagine a trip to the library or grocery store or even to visit the in-laws that wouldn’t result in unkind things being said. Finally, I agreed that he could wear the dress to Sunday worship. If any place existed where my son could be loved while proudly wearing a pink dress, FCC was it. Still I worried. Would FCC be what I believed it would be? I packed a change of clothes just in case. My heart was in my throat when we walked through the doors that Sunday. I looked to the faces of my church family and saw nothing but love and acceptance. My son was complimented on his outfit time and time again. He never asked to change his clothes, was never humiliated or laughed at. After worship he played with his friends on the playground, swinging high with his pink skirt flying.
If the acceptance of my son wearing a pink dress to church meant so much to our family, I can only imagine what that level of acceptance and love means to the LBGT folks who bless us with their presence. I was initially inspired to write for the GLAD project by my observation of the profound normalcy of my children’s experience of Open & Affirming worship. Then I began to doubt myself. Was it appropriate for me, a straight, married woman, to speak to this? Or was my “outsiders” perspective presumptive and offensive? But then I realized that this is about me. It’s about me and my family having the opportunity to love without limits and receive that love in return. It’s about loving, and being loved, as God loves; welcoming, and being welcomed, as God welcomes. I feel profoundly grateful that I belong to an Open & Affirming church. The opportunity to worship with all Christians is a gift both given and received. Together, we build God’s kingdom on earth more completely than we ever could apart.