That is what lay between my aunt and I for years after I answered the call to ministry. I knew that it was because the idea had been planted in her mind that I condemned her, because she was a lesbian and I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church. The distance hurt both of us, but I did not know how to fix it. The pain of potential rejection blinded this pioneer of women in the film industry to the fact that I too was walking a path difficult for women. Meanwhile, the pain of what felt like her rejection made the tears trap the words like a lump in my throat, incapacitating me from communicating to her how I really felt.
That is until she lay dying of cancer.
When the cancer attacked her body, it was not the first time that it had come knocking, but it would be the last. I found myself driving across the state of Pennsylvania as often as I could to visit her. My congregation in Lancaster was incredibly supportive and prayed persistently for her and for me. The loving families of the church made sure I knew that I was not alone.
The ice began to break when I visited her in July, before I went to spend a few weeks in South Africa. I remember sitting in her garden while she still had strength; taking a walk at night to look out over Mount Washington as she told me her story; and getting scolded by her partner Ana for letting her exert too much energy – but really there was no stopping her, there never was.
On my last visit, after returning from South Africa, I visited her in the hospital daily, bringing her a different gift each day. A large blue beaded bracelet that hung loosely from what had once been her muscular forearm. A lamb made out of beads – like her name, Amy K. Lamb. On the last day, I brought her a rainbow pin, made of beads at a hospice near Durban, South Africa. I had purchased three, and began handing them around. One for my aunt, one for her partner, and one more for them to give to a friend. “No,” she said, handing it back to me. “This one is yours.”
Of course it was.
And that’s when I knew- that she understood. That she knew that I did love her and did accept her and did support her.
That was the last time I saw her.
She insisted that I be the only one to lead her funeral. Not everyone understood why, but I did. It did not have anything to do with family politics or favoritism. Suddenly there was so much to say to me, but no time left to say it. It was the only way she had left of communicating something huge that we no longer had the luxury of time to tell one another.
She wanted me to know that she understood how hard what I am doing is. That she supported me. That she trusted me to do the right thing.
So I climbed up in the pulpit of my friend Sue Hutchin’s church in Pittsburgh, and I addressed the largest crowd I had ever stood in front of, film producers and Pittsburgh Steelers, all there to honor their beloved Amy. And I told her story, every beautiful bit of it.
Silence between us had returned in her physical absence, but it was a comforting silence rather than the silence of distance. It was a silence that spoke everything that needed to be said.
She is still trusting me to do the right thing.
I have served rural congregations and urban congregations; and every single place where I have gone, in every single county and country, the families of those “Family Churches” knew and loved people who were LGBTQ and were looking for the space to love them and support them. And they are not alone.
To the United Methodist Church: please change your stance. I do not want my stole and my collar, my credentials and my calling, to continue to be the cause of her suffering or anyone else’s. I do not want this to be the only ceremony I could give for her.
“Church never felt safe to me,” he said, standing at the microphone of New Day UMC’s Harlem Open Mic night, his gentle face revealing a soul made beautiful by struggle. “The church was always a place that made me feel judged and unwelcome as a gay kid… but I came out to this event tonight because it really means a lot to my partner.” And with those words from the young veteran of four tours of duty overseas, giving testimony to his partner’s witness of faith and love, every argument against inclusion and compassion was brought to its knees before a Christmas light bedecked microphone… or, rather, it should have been.
Unfortunately the debates upon which our future metaphorically hinges are based more upon theory than practice – based more on principles than people. Competing ideologies waging war with innocent bystanders hit on both sides. Words like bullets piercing the armor of those whose scar tissue has not yet hardened enough to make them impermeable.
Although I walk with a good coating of scar tissue, I can still testify to the courage it takes to walk into a spiritual space that has not been safe for you. When I walk into the church I grew up in, although it is a different place under different leadership, I cannot forget being taught there that women should not be the ones holding authority.
My declaration of calling was one that people responded to with politeness – “oh that’s nice” – rather than the exuberant excitement reserved for men entering the ministry. Polite was the best they could muster, but we both knew what it really meant, and it ached inside. I cannot forget the funeral of the pastor I grew up under, and seeing every man who had entered ministry during his tenure seated on stage as a sign of his legacy; while I, as a woman, was not a legacy he wanted to claim. I certainly cannot forget when an email exchange among church leaders culminated in a mentor asking when we would cease our “adultery with these false prophetess Jezebels.” No one was able to convince me that those words were not intended for me, because whether he meant to hit me or not, his aim was true.
Word bullets. We do not intend them for the people we love, but sometimes we have a hard time accepting that the people we love are also the things that we hate – and when we fire at the things we hate, we will hit the ones we love. We think we are fighting over principles, but when we make our churches a war zone, it is people that are being harmed.
Both the principles and the people are important, but Jesus seems like he kept giving people precedence over principles when he healed on the Sabbath, saved the life of the woman caught in adultery, spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, allowed his disciples to glean from the fields on the Sabbath… you get the idea.
Living a life of faith is more than following the rules; it is about having an intimacy with God that helps you to live with such extreme discipline that you have the courage to do the right thing, rather than the obvious thing or the expected thing. The rules for living in such a way cannot be scribbled on the palm of your hand so that you can peek at them like a crib sheet; neither can the memorization of lists of do’s and don’t’s give us the answers to all of life’s dilemmas.
We live in an era where the fear of the slippery slope reigns supreme; where those who do not put much stock in “perfect love casts out all fear” broadcast the terror that if we let one thing slip, then everything will fall apart. This is the world that told me as a teenager, struggling with a call to leadership, that if we let the women in, then next it would be “the gays,” and then the pedophiles – somehow linking all of us, against all reason and logic, in a continuum of crime.
Yet, it is in fearing this mythical slippery slope, that they themselves create the very danger that they fear by leaving our communities exposed, without the ability to discern responsibly; without the ability to honor love that is healthy and monogamous, of any variety, and separate it from that which does harm.
A more responsible choice would be to recognize that we are living in an era where we have to come to terms with the fact that the lens of privilege – through which the world has been labeled, divided, judged and structured – is ultimately broken. The only way to move forward, knowing this, is to come to terms with the crimes that lens has led us into; and carefully, prayerfully and honestly examine the situation through many lenses and voices, rather than only the most powerful.
There are lines, there are limits, but lets find them together through respecting one another’s voices. Let us not sever from the body and the conversation a huge segment of our population and label them as “headed down the slope” and, thus, not legitimate conversation partners. This is not only counterproductive, but also harmful and abusive itself. I cannot agree with this viewpoint, because the world it wishes to preserve is not one that I feel comfortable inhabiting.
Whether the word bullets we have delivered, buck-shot style, were meant to strike our own children or not: they have. They were not meant to harm the ones we love, but their aim was true and they hit their target, leaving many as the walking wounded. Nothing short of a verbal refutation of previous statements can undo their existence in relationships, can take down the walls of guardedness they build. Only when you are told that you can truly be all that you are – and you will still be loved – can you believe it. Niceness is the necessary evil when truth and vulnerability are not an option. Politeness becomes an unsatisfying placebo for the authentic, real, vulnerable, honest, life changing experience of community you need.
When I look at my beautiful generation, with so many invisible battle wounds already present and new ones inflicted every day, where do we even begin? We start by creating the real in response to the placebo.
We may disagree about how to do that, but it has to involve spaces where people can feel safe to fully divulge, fully emerge, fully converge. Niceness and politeness do not have the power to create those kinds of spaces; they only have the power to create half-people living half-lives in half-communities. Courage and honesty, compassion and kindness, truth and justice have the power to create whole-people living whole-lives in whole-communities. That is why you will see those words in the scriptures rather than “nice” or “polite” or “sweet” or “well-intentioned.” That is why you will see the word “embrace” not the word “tolerate.”
These kinds of courageous, boundary breaking communities are what New Day is striving to create in the Bronx and in Harlem. Spaces where young adults, with the support of the Rev. Doug Cunningham, are being empowered to lead and to speak and to explore creatively how to “connect with God”, “cross boundaries” and “confront social injustice.”
The words “crossing” and “confronting” are not in the category of polite discourse; but they are necessary. Because, you see, polite is an insult when you are starving for truth. And nice feels like emptiness when you need courage to fill you. And good intentions are merely a placebo when you will surely despair for lack of justice.
What we need is truth, honesty, vulnerability, courage, authenticity, healing. What we need is the ability to be whole – but you do not need to wait for anyone’s permission to become whole. What you need is the courage to speak your truth, and the intimacy with God that assures you that no matter what your truth may be, you are still loved and still a person of sacred worth.
Listening to all of the amazing, heart-wrenching truths that were told with such mind-bending precision and eloquence at the Christmas light bedecked microphone of New Day’s Open Mic, I had to keep reminding myself to pick my jaw up off the floor as my mouth hung open in wonder and horror and celebration. Such an intense experience of community leaves you changed and wanting more – and that is exactly what church should be.
The kinds of things we say at open mics are the things we would never say in polite company otherwise. We bare our souls.
That kind of honesty hurts. It is not polite, but it is true. And so we take the risk to be honest, and we become whole.
That is church, and there is nothing safe about it. It is dangerous; not because of the voices it excludes but because of the voices it includes. It poses a threat to our complacency, and offers us the opportunity to change.
"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)