I was a freshman in college when I first saw my beloved Disciples denomination through the eyes of an outsider: my new friend, O. He told me he had been to a “Christian Church” in high school. He said, “It was a Christian Church like yours, but it split. People argued whether the Bible was literally true. My mom stayed with the church through those times, but then she heard a sermon that divorced people would end up in hell. So between the split and the negative messages, we stopped going.”
It doesn’t sound like a Disciples’ church, does it? Often “outsiders” don’t know if a church is in our denomination. And I did not think this recounting of church would have had a red chalice out front. After all, we argue about a lot of things but not the individual interpretation of scripture, right?
So when he started attending the Disciples church with a red chalice in prominent view outside our college town, I was excited. This friend would discover the unique openness and communion we have as a faith. Perhaps my friend would lose those fallacious ideas about the ugliness of the church, and he would come to see Christianity as I did – an endless abundance of God’s love for all people. I went with him a few times and felt at home – I knew the songs, the liturgy was familiar, and the people were very friendly. When I told the minister I was a preacher’s kid, he immediately talked to me like an “insider”.
Unlike me, my friend wanted to go to church every Sunday. He started going to other groups too. Once in awhile I joined him for worship. And when I did, the older folks continued to introduce themselves to me (despite having met me before), but the old ladies always waved “hi” to him. I sensed more confidence in him when we sung songs that were once like strangers to him.
By second semester we started eating brunch together more often after sleeping in on Sundays. I asked him, “Are you still going to church? Did you become a member?”
“No, I decided to stop. I started going to Bible studies and I went to the pastor’s house for a dinner. But at one dinner, a man was talking bad about people who were gay. I didn’t say anything, but I don’t think I want to be part of that church,” He said.
“You know not all Disciples think that way! That was just some stupid person – I wouldn’t let him speak for the church. God doesn’t care about homosexuality!” I said.
“Audrey – the pastor’s wife agreed with the person who said it,” he said.
I am sure my friend knew that he was talking to someone who could not listen. I was not wise enough to realize the same. I kept talking about who the Disciples were and that he could still be a Disciple and think what he wanted. I was not listening, and I was not using this opportunity to learn what I needed to know.
We have stayed good friends since starting off together that freshman year in 1995. He would major in theology and find a faith more reflective of himself in the Episcopal church. Instead of becoming a priest, like I always thought he would, he would go on to be a lawyer.
He would also come out after college – a few years before I would.
I look back on our time in college and I wonder what would have happened to me if I had taken his observation regarding the homophobia he witnessed more seriously.
My ability to see the best in my church and my love of our inclusive and grace-filled God led me to divinity school a couple years after college. I am not sorry for the struggles that I have ahead as an “out” minister, but I often think of this friend.
I wonder – what kind of leader would he have become if he had stayed with our church? He is now on the vestry of his Episcopal church.
I wonder about all the different people that our church closes the doors on without realizing it – in side conversations, in ignorant statements, and in leadership that is unaware of our exclusiveness.
And I wonder about how this church will change. After seven years of ordained ministry, I am learning a lot about the power of those quiet conversations my friend witnessed. It is those conversations that make it tough for me to find employment despite how wonderfully open minded and inclusive a church I used to know we are.
And I wonder how long I will stay a part of us. It becomes harder and harder for me to have tolerance for members of our red chalice churches who say negative things about people who are LGTBIQ on social media, to hear about back-door dealings of regions not promoting ministries by or for LGBTIQ people, and to abide the silence of so many who think they have something to lose by “coming out” in solidarity for people who are LGBTIQ.
I look back on that first significant conversation with an “outsider” to my faith, and I wonder now what God would have wanted for me in that exchange. I wonder how I could have responded better to my friend and better to the church.
Maybe I should have joined that old church 17 years ago and tried to teach them what the Bible really says about homosexuality… But I didn’t know then.
Maybe I should have talked to the pastor’s wife and let her know what her words did… But I didn’t think it was my business.
Maybe next time I will listen more and rationalize less and hear my friend’s pain instead of trying to fix it.
Or maybe I will just leave with my friend and find a place that we don’t have to constantly fight.