BEING SAFE

Somehow, despite years of refusing to go to church and managing to avoid it like the plague, I find I am a weekly regular fixture at a Methodist church here in Denver. And when I occasionally think about taking a Sunday off, and just spending the morning the way I used to, reading the newspapers and lolling around ‘til noon, I can’t make myself miss church.

This is really strange because, as a preacher’s kid, I thought I had enough church to last a lifetime. We preachers’ kids tend to see the underside of church from a very early age and it is disturbing. Either we think our dads are misunderstood or are hypocrites. I thought my dad was terrific and I hated the people in the congregation who criticized him. He always seemed to have trouble with his churches—he was too liberal back in the 1950s and there were always whispers behind my back by irritated church members. This made my mother nuts. So our home was a tad fraught with tension.

By 1956, Dad had gotten the training to be a chaplain and we moved to Texas, where he had been offered a job. There the liberal bias of our family (pro-Civil Rights, pro-U.N., among other things), got us in such trouble that the Klu Klux Klan sent someone, as a courtesy, (since he was a preacher, they gave him a warning) to suggest to my dad that we leave town. Or a cross would be burned on our lawn. Which was just step one.

The people who were so appalled by our politics and so eager to punish us, were members of churches, every one of them. And I decided at the age of 8 that congregations were bad things and people did not go to do good but to reinforce their own prejudices.

Consequently I chose not to attend church when I became an adult. And then the Methodists, in uniting with the United Brethen and the Evangelicals and the African Methodist Church, put wording in the Book of Discipline for the United Methodist Church that said homosexuality was incompatible with Methodist teaching.

So I resigned officially from the church I was born into. And vowed never to go to another Methodist Church.

Lauren and I were married in California on Sept. 20, 2008. November of that year, California removed that right from its constitution. We went to a rally here in Denver to protest that latest assault on gays. And at the rally was the minister, assistant minister/intern, and his wife, also an intern/assistant minister. All in the Methodist Church. The minister was a coupled gay woman. She told us about the Reconciling movement in the Methodist Church, which has been working to change the homophobia and hatred within the church.

Their church is the one we now attend. The minister has moved to another church; the intern has become a full time associate minister with a circuit of churches; his wife, a full time youth minister. They are both active in the Reconciling movement, which takes tremendous courage.

And we have found, in our church, a group of people dedicated to the original Methodist principles of social action and social justice. They have supported us, welcomed us, encouraged us. They have NOT merely tolerated us nor merely accepted us. Thank goodness.

The Reconciling Methodists have a display which consists of over 3000 clerical stoles representing gay people of many faiths who have been denied serving the church or who serve in silence. Individual churches may also add a stole with the signatures of church members.

Our current pastor arranged to have 50 of the stoles on display for the Sunday we celebrate our decision to become officially Reconciling. And I offered to create a stole that could represent our church, which people could sign.

I wanted to use the rainbow colors, of course. But not typically. I selected large floral prints in each of the six rainbow colors and ran them from red to purple on one side, and from purple to red on the other. I felt that the stole should not have the kind of religious symbols a clerical stole has, since our stole was for the congregation.

So to include the spiritual, I used my decorative stitches: a stipple to represent community; a heart for love; the Greek key, for unity; a circular stitch for the Alpha and Omega; and small flowers for the lilies of the field. It is subtle but it is there.

Our pastor wore the stole for that Sunday service. I was so touched. And people signed it, before and after the service. His sermon was about inclusion. It was a stunning service.

Sadly when I was initially setting up the display where the stole would be signed, two new members of the church came in. I was alone so they felt emboldened to attack me for being gay. I knew they didn’t approve of Lauren and me—they had made that very clear from the first Sunday they attended, with comments and glares and snubs. But apparently finding me alone was all the encouragement they needed. It was frightening.

I didn’t want it to wreck the day for me, so I deliberately focused on the people who came to sign the stole, and who spoke to me after the service. And that worked while I was there. But once I got home, I broke down. And I thought, I can’t go back to that church.

I feel unsafe most of the time. I wear buttons that identify me as gay, because I believe that is the only way to get people to see gays are just like them—63-year-old grannies (in my case), harmless, church-going, quilt-making, in a committed relationship.

One place I had felt safe, prior to that couple joining, was church. They had taken that from me.

But I really LIKE the people I know at church, for the most part. Love some of them. And I feel liked and needed. So I wrote an email to a few of the people who I felt were church leaders, and copied our pastor. It took me 3 days to write it, and I sent it as a leap of faith.

Their response, to a person, was extraordinary. They were shocked and angered by what had happened. They were appalled that their welcome had been dishonored. They wanted to take action.

The decision was made for the pastor and a member of the committee that had helped lead the congregation to become Reconciling, to talk to the couple and tell them that they needed to either apologize to me or to leave the church. It was explained to them what this particular congregation and clergy stood for. The couple decided to leave. For now, at least. Which was a tremendous relief to me, because, although we missed an opportunity to reach out, I just didn’t want to face them again.

I was told that I was a valuable member of the congregation. That I was supported and loved. Valued. Wow.

And so after swearing I would never EVER go into a Methodist church again, I find I am committed to this church and this congregation. Because, in part, it is committed to me. And instead of jumping back in bed with the New York Times, after we take the dogs out Sunday morning, we get dressed and go to church. Where we again feel safe.


photos by our current intern, Peggy Stempson.