The murder of 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., is rapidly fading from our thoughts. But for members of the gay community, the massacre represents more than a random terror attack. It was an attack on the one place where LGBTQ people have felt safe.
For many years, gay nightclubs were places where LGBTQ people knew they wouldn’t be hassled or attacked. There were few other safe places. Jobs were jeopardized if sexual orientation was discovered. Families disowned their own. And the church was often the most hostile of all. Gay nightclubs became sanctuaries. The Orlando murders felt like a personal attack.
I was reared in a conservative Mennonite family, steeped in Mennonite education, where I gained an appreciation for Anabaptist teachings and the Mennonite faith community. At a young age I realized I was gay. For years, I was in the closet and actively participated in church life, both at the congregational and denominational level, but my awareness of being gay was always present.
After coming out in my late 40s, I quickly learned to be openly gay and Mennonite was to live on the fringes. True, I worked for many years at Everence, a program board of Mennonite Church USA. But that was a protective cocoon created by leaders who hired people who were committed to the core values of the organization. They did not force adherence to a confessional statement that has only been used punitively against LGBTQ people.
There were few welcoming and safe places in the church for me. Invitations to speak were rescinded. Board appointments were not possible. Church conventions were unwelcoming. For many years, LGBTQ people have been the topic of resolutions and conversations ad nauseam. Discussions during open-mic sessions made it clear LGBTQ people were not welcome. “Please go away so the church won’t split” was the clear message.
Thankfully, positive changes are emerging. For the first time in 30 years, this summer I was a delegate to a church conference — Central District Conference of MC USA, a conference whose polity encourages congregations to set membership guidelines.
As I traveled to the conference, I relaxed, knowing I would be welcome. The assembly acknowledged, but did not dwell on the fact, that one congregation was under review for licensing a pastor who is gay and in a committed relationship.
Participants were in a celebratory mood. The benches in the sanctuary of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church were covered with beautiful comforters sewn by the people of the congregation; later they would be donated to Mennonite Central Committee. Worship services were spirited, with many children present.
The highlight was three worship services on “Abounding in Love, Abiding in Grace.” Mark Rupp’s opening sermon was powerful. Using the parable of the sower, he said, “The strongest measure of a soil is simply whether it produces good fruit. Yet for too long the Mennonite church has continued to refuse to acknowledge the fruit that is growing in the lives of LGBTQ people.” He went on to say that when the church treats us as weeds, we cannot be surprised when someone tries to do some weeding at a gay nightclub.
Attending the Central District annual meeting gives me hope that we will find our way forward together. As followers of Christ, we can create spaces of safety and welcome and make our congregations sanctuaries for all of us.
JB Miller lives in Sarasota, Fla., and attends Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.