My Facebook memory on Wednesday was from two years ago. Kim and I got up super early and drove to Yosemite National Park so we could watch the sunrise at Tunnel View. We were in countdown mode, experiencing our favorite California places before moving, yet again, across the country. As the sunlight filled that iconic Yosemite Valley view, we held each other and soaked in that moment.
We moved to California from Tennessee three years earlier to live a dream that was now in pieces. California was home for me, and I had hoped that we would make it home for us – that we would find home in a community that would affirm our belonging and promote our flourishing.
Previous to moving to Tennessee to be with Kim, I lived in Fresno, CA. I was connected with a church community that meant the world to me. It had nurtured my theological development and welcomed my service. I preached my first sermon there. I worshipped there when I was just starting out teaching within the Biblical Studies department of their denominational university. I was eager to grow into a leader within the Mennonite Brethren (MB) worlds of church and higher education. I wanted to belong within a chosen family and to experience the Anabaptist vision for community and peacemaking.
I remember going through the process to become a member in 2008. I met with a small group to share my story and discern the fit of membership. At that time, I still used an ex-gay paradigm to understand and tell my story. I talked about my struggle with same-sex attraction throughout my teenage and college years and how following Jesus led me to resist and overcome homosexuality. I felt called to serve God by devoting my life to teaching bible and theology. I needed a community that would help me continue to grow in my faith, challenge me to obedient discipleship, and provide deep relational connection.
In the few years prior to my attending the church, they had gone through a period of wrestling with the issue of LGBTQ people and membership. The outcome provided the option to join the church as an “affiliate member,” a category used for those who want to be part of the community, but who are out of alignment with the Confession of Faith in some significant way. Article 11 of the USMB Confession of Faith defines marriage as “a covenant relationship intended to unite a man and a woman for life” and dictates that “sexual intimacy rightfully takes place only within [such a] marriage.” So, for a same-sex couple to formally become part of the church, they must accept a category of membership that deems their relationship outside the boundary of the community’s interpretation of the Bible for ethical practice. Policy, then, would prohibit such members from serving in a couple of key leadership roles. At the time, I was impressed that the church was willing to have those hard conversations. Though I was a bit uncomfortable with making room for what felt like passive acceptance of same-sex relationships, I was confident that the church would support my own decision to reject homosexuality. I was welcomed into membership and actively participated in various lay leadership roles over several years.
As I’ve shared before, my journey led me to wrestle with my sexuality and theology intensely for a period of two years that culminated in a full affirmation of myself as a lesbian and for same-sex relationships. During that time, though I felt the support of a couple of trusted people within that congregation, I did not trust I could live that period of my journey “out loud.” I did not share what I was going through with many people. Because I was also struggling with depression that radically limited my capacity to engage, I quit the leadership role I was in and stopped participating beyond attending Sunday services. No one asked questions, and I felt largely alone as I slipped away from active participation.
Toward the end of that two year period, I found most of my connection through the Gay Christian Network’s online community (now known as Q Christian Fellowship). On November 10, 2013, I received a message from a woman who had also recently come out to herself and reconciled her faith and sexuality. She asked me about my experience of coming out to my best friend, because she was about to come out to hers and she knew, as was my experience, that it was not going to go well. Thus was the beginning of my relationship with Kim. We connected during a very difficult time in our lives, and we’ve been by each other’s side every day since then (even when we were 2,000 miles apart for the first 10 months of our relationship).
The first time Kim came to visit me in California, I took her to my church. We had the practice of passing around the microphone to introduce our guests toward the end of the service. I stood up and proudly proclaimed, “This is my girlfriend, Kim.” She wanted to crawl under her chair. I was also nervous. Though a few people knew about my affirming shift, that moment really was my public coming out. For some who only knew me as ex-gay or committed to celibacy, I’m sure it was surprising. The service ended, and several people came up to us to welcome Kim and express their joy for our relationship. A couple of those people told me years later that they had been hoping I would embrace my sexuality and find someone to love authentically. At the time, I had no idea anyone would feel that way. After all, the church was non-affirming, and coming out resulted in the loss of my closest friend and meant that I would not be able to work for the denominational organizations within which I had spent much of my professional life. For years the desire to belong within that MB world, though I was not aware of it at the time, kept me from even being open to honestly seeing myself and wrestling with my theology around sexuality. That Sunday morning gave me hope that I might find belonging as my authentic self within the community I loved and had invested in for longer than I had connected with any other community.
Circumstances kept Kim from moving to California as was our original plan, so in September 2014, I moved to Tennessee to begin our engaged life together. We got married soon after SCOTUS declared same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Though we got married in California where it had already been legal, Tennessee – home of one of the plaintiffs that culminated in Obergefell v. Hodges – had no legal protections against workplace or other discrimination. Kim was not out at work and even though same-sex marriage now had to be legally recognized, she didn’t feel comfortable telling people that we had gotten married. We flew out to California on a Thursday, got married in Tahoe on Saturday and flew back to Tennessee on Monday. The cultural climate toward LGBTQ people in Tennessee combined with the hope of making the Fresno community our family motivated our plan to move as soon as it was possible.
A job offer moved us near Sacramento, CA for a year before a transfer opened up to Fresno. In my mind, we were finally home. I had kept in touch with several people from the church and was so excited to rejoin that community. The conversations I had over the three years I was away only served to grow my hope that the church was moving toward LGBTQ inclusion. It wasn’t long after we began attending that we were invited to participate by sharing our faith stories in the Adult Education hour, I was invited to preach, and we read scripture during several Sunday services. The more we talked to people, the more we heard a desire to become affirming. We were finding our place, and I invested myself in moving change forward.
Our experience during the two years we lived in Fresno will be the topic for an upcoming blog post. Now we’re back where we started: the Facebook memory from two years ago. With dashed dreams of belonging within that community, we were soaking in the sunrise filling Yosemite Valley and saying goodbye. Several days later we loaded our two pups in the back of our car and drove away.
I share this memory today to say to all those LGBTQ people (and allies) who have lost the people and places they most wanted to belong: I see you. I have suffered my own hurt and grief. As someone who deeply feels the pain of “this is not the way it’s supposed to be,” I understand that these losses, these rejections, these shattered hopes are traumatic. As I said in my last post, the anger and sadness I feel in response to suffering is energy I want to engage to offer the healing gifts I have to give: compassion, resilience and imagination for seeking justice and flourishing.
If you want support as you navigate your own journey, I would love to connect with you about spiritual coaching. If you are in a non-affirming church that you want to influence to move toward LGBTQ inclusion, let’s talk about how I can help facilitate that change. As in my story, things may not work out the way you hope. However, you are not alone. Together, we can chart a path that opens you up to greater healing and flourishing.