A Time to Listen: On Apology

On November 23, 2022, I was invited to share my thoughts on apology as part of A Time to Listen‘s (ATTL) “Stories of Repentance, Apology, & Reconciling Initiative.” ATTL is a project that aims to create safe spaces to hear from members of the LGBTQ+ community in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren family.

Below is the recording, which also includes a presentation by John Unger. Below is the text of my prepared section. The recording also includes a time of Q&A.

I appreciate being able to share my experience here. I was invited to participate after John Unger saw my story appear on John Longhurst’s blog, A Time to Tell. I’ve been blogging in response to the US and Canadian Mennonite Brethren boards pulling the book On Holy Ground after its initial printing to delete three pages from Mary Anne Isaak’s chapter in which she mentions her journey of coming to make room for gay marriage within the church. Many people expressed anger and concern that in a book on women’s ministry experiences within a denomination that marginalizes women, denominational leadership censored one of the female pastor contributors. Within those pages, Mary Anne names me and talks about how my journey of wrestling with my sexuality in light of my faith impacted her journey toward greater openness.

Writing about all of this over the last several months has focused a lot of my attention and energy on reflecting on my history with the Mennonite Brethren. Let me give you a rough timeline:

In 1999, I transferred to Fresno Pacific University as a sophomore double majoring in English and Biblical Studies. Since I claimed the Christian faith as my own at 15, the Bible has been front and center to my entire life–it has been the source I’ve turned to for questions about who I am, who God is, and how I am to live faithfully in response to the truth I find as I explore those questions.

I graduated FPU in 2002. At that time I believed that the only faithful response to my “same-sex attraction” was to resist it as a sinful temptation. The ex-gay movement provided me with a path for doing so that would lead to “change” and “hope” for a heterosexual marriage. The summer after graduation, I moved to Orlando, FL to join the staff at Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization until its closing in 2013. I was the Publications Manager for just under a year: it was my job to promote the ex-gay narrative, including helping others tell their ex-gay testimonies.

I moved back to CA in 2003 and began a masters degree in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. It was my intention to pursue a career teaching Bible at FPU. My mentors kept in touch with me and continued to encourage me to come back and teach. I graduated in 2006, moved back to Fresno and began teaching as an adjunct.

In 2007, I became a member at College Community Church Mennonite Brethren (now Willow Avenue Mennonite Church). I became very active, I preached, led adult education sessions, ended up on the Adult Education Commission, and participated in other ways.

Since I was not making a living wage from my adjunct contracts, I ended up joining the staff at MB Biblical Seminary next door to FPU as the Registrar. I worked there from 2008 until 2010 when the school merged with FPU and the majority of the staff was laid off.

By that time, I was really struggling in every area of my life: professionally, I started experiencing closed doors at FPU and knew I needed to make a career shift in order to earn a paycheck; theologically, though I did not have the language of deconstruction at that time, I recognize now that I was at the beginning where cracks couldn’t be patched and things were crumbling faster than I could fix them; personally, my mental health was suffering. I was first diagnosed with depression in 2003 a few months after leaving Exodus and moving back to CA. I had managed fairly well for several years, but a friend and mentor of mine helped me acknowledge that I was in a pretty dark place and needed to turn toward the questions that scared me. Namely, what is the truth about my sexuality? I had stopped claiming an ex-gay identity (I could no longer say I had “changed” with any integrity). I had started trying to grapple with the possibility of lifelong celibacy. I even gave a workshop at the 2011 Exodus conference advocating for celibacy as the only faithful path for gay Christians.

From 2011 to 2013, I threw myself into exploring the scary questions–I was determined to be more honest than I had ever been with myself about my own sexuality, and I was determined to reexamine scripture with more openness than I had ever allowed myself before. I was terrified. For about a year during that time I was serving as a chaplain at a Mennonite retirement home, walking alongside people facing very scary realities–illness, aging, loss, death. Being present with them required I do the work I needed to do to be open my own difficult realities and feelings. I worked with a therapist, met with a pastor, talked with my mentor and a couple of trusted friends a lot during that time. I also did a lot of research, especially seeking out scholars and other resources outside the evangelical and conservative worlds of my academic programs and church experiences. Early in 2013, I reached a place of accepting myself as a lesbian and shifting theologically, understanding God as blessing same-sex marriage.

I have continued to shift and grow, and I would describe where I am now as embracing and celebrating myself as queer and theologically affirming LGBTQ+ identities and relationships. In fact, I think queerness is a gift the church desperately needs if it is to repent of its failures to embody Christ and fulfill its calling to cultivate justice and peace for all creation.

Today, I have been married to my wife Kim for 7 years, and I am always looking for ways to contribute to LGBTQ inclusion. Most recently I have been focusing my work on writing, consulting and teaching within Christian spaces. We are not part of a church community currently, in part because we had a very painful church experience in Fresno, which was a major factor in us moving to TN where she is from. Then the pandemic happened. We have been sorting through what it means to heal from spiritual trauma for the last 3 years. We just moved back to CA last month and have not yet had the opportunity to explore what community might look like for us here.

I hope that sketch of my journey provides helpful context for what I want to share tonight about the theme of apology, repentance and reconciliation.

When John and I spoke about my participation, he asked me, “What do I want from the church? What apology or requests do I have? What would it take to make things right?”

When MB leadership recalled the book On Holy Ground and deleted the pages from Mary Anne Isaak’s chapter before reprinting it, as I said before, many people were upset. A few people coordinated “Picnic Protests” in a few cities. I watched this unfold on social media. I saw photos posted of those who gathered hoping to get the attention of MB leadership. Several signs requested an apology. “Just say sorry.” “Apology please.” Several comments on those posts also called for an apology. I still feel awkward admitting this, but I felt really angry and disappointed seeing such a focus on getting leadership to issue some sort of apology.

I felt like the kid whose brother just punched him in the gut. Mom having just pulled him away from me, full of irritation and exasperation at having to break up a fight, turns to him and barks, “Say you’re sorry.” He turns towards me, “Sorry!” She walks away, back to the busyness of her day, and as soon as she’s out of sight, he sticks his tongue out at me. Taunting me. I know he’ll hit me again later.

An apology is not what I’m looking for. The first thing I need is safety: I want to know I’m not going to keep getting the shit beat out of me. After that, an apology might be a place to begin considering the possibility of repairing the relationship.

I was talking this through with my wife earlier, and I landed on a baseball metaphor. I’m not sure why. I don’t know much about baseball. But, there are those who offer an apology and act as if they’ve just hit a home run. Let’s imagine a player whose first at bat is in the last inning of the game. They swing big and that ball is out of the park. The bases were loaded and they’ve made the game winning hit. The whole team rushes to pick up that player and triumphantly carry them around on their shoulders. They’ve just won the freaking World Series; they are basking in the glow of their heroic play, soaking in the accolades.

First, the fight for LGBTQ inclusion is not a game. The opposition to queer inclusion is a war on the lives of LGBTQ people. Violence against the queer community is real. We are reeling from yet another shooting at a gay club on the eve of the Trans Day of Remembrance where we grieve the trans lives taken due to anti-trans violence. There are plenty of people whose work traces the harm experienced by LGBTQ folks to non-affirming Christian theology and culture.

Second, someone who has contributed to the creation or maintenance of that theology and culture who issues an apology is not a hero. An apology is like showing up for a game that many have been offering their blood, sweat and tears to for ages. It isn’t nothing. It is showing up. But you’ve yet to attend a single practice. You haven’t put in the work necessary to cultivating the capacity to play the game. You’re not the hero here. You’re a recruit who used to play for the other team. You’ve done real damage, or at least been complicit. If you’re showing up expecting to be the hero, you’re not ready to suit up.

Ok, this is a poor metaphor. The point is: an apology can be meaningless, as in the case of the siblings whose mother forced one to apologize to the other. An apology can also be a beginning. But it isn’t the thing I want. It is the thing that is the very first step in the possibility of the thing that I want. I want safety. I want repair. I want justice and flourishing. That requires trust. And building trust, especially after harm has been done, is not easy or quick. I want to see that the other person does not just “feel sorry,” but has done the work that needs to be done to grow in awareness, take responsibility, change their behavior, and contribute to personal and systemic justice for those harmed.

For an example, an apology from the MB leadership who continue to oppose even conversation about LGBTQ inclusion, would be meaningless. An apology is not enough.

I’m planning a short blog series to continue these thoughts, so please feel free to engage that conversation. Follow me on Facebook or visit my website.

I want to pause here. There is so much I could say, difference directions I could go, but I’d like to know what questions you have. Where would it be helpful for us to take this conversation from here?

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