1. Still feeling the void
At Bethel Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio, my wife and I were meeting many delightful committed people. We had found a home.
A particular favorite of ours was a single, middle-aged woman whose intellect and interests ranged far beyond the little village we lived in. We were younger chronologically, but she was one of those ageless ones, blending the wisdom of experience with the exuberance of youth. Remember Rolfing? Conversations with her were like surfing a human Internet, before we’d even heard the term. Her connections to the Mennonite church were deep.
One night, she asked us what we thought about homosexuality. I still hadn’t examined the issue much, so I simply repeated what I thought was the standard biblical view: Love everyone but don’t accept wrong behavior. I figured homosexuality was probably unbiblical and that anyone who identified as such should perhaps have limited responsibility in the church.
Something in her involuntary body language gave me an uneasy sense that my reply had visited on her a kind of grief, not far removed from mourning. I left thinking I’d said things I didn’t really know much about or quite believed but knew they had more emotional weight than I had realized. I felt breakage.
I’ll never know exactly what I lost in the spiritual distance that I felt after that evening, but I feel the void still.
You can’t lose friends like that without paying a price.
2. Who we really are
We moved to Toledo Ohio, and transferred membership to Toledo Mennonite Church. These were our people, too.
Not long after we arrived, two young men also made their way to TMC. One was an artist, a painter and taught in the art department at Bowling Green State University 20 miles south. There was a fascinating, eclectic and thoughtful group of people in the church, with many young adults our age. This young artist was one of my favorites to talk with. We had the visual world in common, but like most people there, we also had active interests in other areas like culture, current events, social justice and the work of the local and worldwide church. He was an important reason why I looked forward to attending the church services and activities.
So the letter in the mail from him was unexpected. His feelings for me went beyond traditional male camaraderie, and what did I think of that? We agreed to meet at a local jazz club and talk about it.
It may seem awkward, but every person I’d met who I knew or I had good reason to believe was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered had made an undeniably positive contribution to my life in various ways, including spiritually. There was no reason for anxiety, but I was curious.
In this case, I was amazed at my artist friend’s ability to be honest and vulnerable. We all know how hard it can be to risk rejection in matters of the heart.
I said I was flattered for being thought attractive but explained that I had never had romantic or sexual attraction to another male. I went on to say I didn’t think homosexuality was biblical.
The other young man was a musician. When he played the piano in church I worshiped, was transported, washed by the Divine. He had a gift.
At some point in church conversations I heard he was gay. I hadn’t heard the term “gaydar,” but if there is such, I didn’t seem to have much. I wondered if simply being a sensitive, intelligent, gifted man qualified you for someone thinking you’re homosexual.
It’s strange now to wonder why I or anyone else there didn’t engage in some more meaningful way with either of these gifted young men. They both left separately around the same time and carried with them the wound of exclusion by invisibility. I didn’t think much about that at the time but have come to realize how important for all of us it is to be known and accepted for who we really are.
3. Being an example
One close friend at church was the administrator of a facility serving severely disabled, mentally challenged children. I was teaching and freelancing in public relations photography. This was one of my favorite accounts. The deep, vital caring I witnessed there awed me. The residents became familiar and personal to me, even though most could not communicate, move, or think in ‘normal’ ways. My experience and concept of love, relationship and personhood grew tremendously, an unexpected gift.
So it was particularly moving to me when my friend said there were a number of gay employees there and that they were some of the most competent and compassionate caregivers they had. I realized I knew and admired many of them. I just hadn’t known of their sexual orientation. I also realized that that didn’t matter much. When it came to Christlike, biblical loving and serving the “least of these,” there were no better examples of that than what I saw in them.
4. A marriage and a challenge
Several years ago, a young couple showed up at Toledo Mennonite Church, fresh from an evangelical college in Indiana. One of their favorite professors had been Mennonite.
He was teaching at the university. She turned out to be musically gifted and had one of the most beautiful voices I’d ever heard. They were recently married, crazy about each other and shared an equally passionate commitment to social justice and living the gospel. They moved into a largely minority neighborhood and began sharing their gifts with their neighbors and the church.
Despite her having a heart with a hole in it, requiring oxygen wherever she went, they became co-workers and leaders in the church, taking turns at worship leading, being on the music team, teaching Sunday school, participating in the after-school tutoring program and directing the choir on special occasions. They fit in like a hand in glove.
Three years into their time with us, the weight of being who you know yourself to be was too much to keep at bay. She had ignored it, denied it, fought it, prayed against it and lost. The need for truth was too great. She acknowledged she was attracted to women more than men. She said she always had been, but it was not possible to even entertain that notion in the conservative Christian home and church she grew up in.
If I were writing a guidebook on how a Christian couple, deeply in love with each other, active, effective and respected in the church and just fun to be with should go about resolving such a challenge, I would simply document their journey.
They visited other Christian couples, some well-known, who went through similar circumstances. They consulted our pastor and elders, read the Bible, books and blogs, talked with friends, prayed and supported each other. There was confusion, disruption and heartbreak, though all of it was between them.
We organized a special series of six Sunday school classes to allow all voices and viewpoints to be heard about homosexuality and the church. The elders counseled, small groups processed, people talked, tears were shed. A few families left anyway.
They divorced. I can’t speak for their most intimate feelings, but as a close friend to both, I can say that all divorces should have this kind of reciprocal support, mutual understanding and perhaps even some of the pain and poignancy of knowing they were leaving behind a well-loved and respected partner. Their great integrity and faithfulness wasn’t and isn’t a function of sexual orientation in any way. You wouldn’t have known who was which by the way they loved, respected, helped and grieved for each other.
Update: They are both doing well, are in love and pursuing their careers. Both are still passionate, faithful witnesses and workers for peace and justice, and both still thankful for the part of their lives they shared together.
Are we really to believe these gracious, gifted, giving people, friends, brothers and sisters, who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered are in any way less able to be fully accepted and utilized in ministry by the loving, redeeming, creative God we experience in Jesus? Do we actually think God’s arm is that short, ineffectual and graceless? These and others I’ve met have answered those questions for me.
A larger accounting is available from: firstname.lastname@example.org
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