‘Maybe I could sit in the back row’

Stories of fear, rejection underlie MB letter calling for conversation on LGBTQ inclusion

Photo: Barcelo, Pexels. Photo: Barcelo, Pexels.

At the request of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, John Unger, a former MB pastor from Winnipeg, Man., met with conference leaders and members of the National Faith and Life Team on April 1 to discuss an open letter — released on March 27 by Unger on behalf of a group of Canadian MB pastors and others — calling for conversation about LGBTQ inclusion (AW, April 16).

Unger provided a copy of his remarks, presented here in condensed and slightly edited form.

In response, CCMBC officials said: “We do not at this time have an official comment, time frame or description for family meeting(s) on this topic. However, the NFLT is working on this, and when we have more information, we will follow up with churches.”

Ever since the 2013 and 2015 ­CCMBC conversations on sexuality, including gay marriage, pastors and others in the MB conference have been coming to me to talk. I finally wrote several of them an email. Do you want to talk together? They all said yes.

Out of that first call has come a fluid conversation group. We have no regular schedule. I am not always part of it. There is no designated leader. It is not a lobby group. It is a conversation. We make space, and people can join as they wish.

Ever since then, people have come to us — my wife, Merrill, and me — with their stories. Individuals, couples, parents, grandparents, pastors, all asking the same question: “What should we do?” about an LGBTQ+ child, sibling or relative.

Many came to us in secret for fear of what will happen if people in their church discover their child is gay, because they know they will lose all their church friends if they do.

This includes grandmothers who do not feel safe going to their pastors to talk about their gay grandchildren.

A gay woman came to me and asked if, based on what she knows about MBs, if she would be allowed to attend her father’s funeral in an MB church. Maybe she could be allowed to sit in the back row? 

Another woman is careful to come late to her MB church and slip into the balcony, quickly leaving before the service ends. She is not ashamed of being gay. But she is afraid of the rejection she has experienced from her church family. 

Two men had coffee with an MB pastor after visiting his church for several weeks. “We’d like to come to your church,” they said, noting they were gay and living together. “We are not crusaders. We don’t want to cause problems. We just want to worship with the music and listen to the sermon. Is your church safe for us?”

Another MB pastor told me about spending some time with a women’s group at an MB church. “I’ve come prepared with a speech,” he said, “but is there anything else you would rather talk about?”

One elderly woman raised her hand. “I want to talk about my gay grandson,” she said. She had never spoken about it to anyone in the church before. Before long, four other women in the group of 25 said they, too, had a gay child or grandchild but were too afraid to mention it in church.

The stories go on and on. These are your churches. These are our churches. 

When I hear these stories, I ask: Why are people afraid to come to us and tell us what they are struggling with?

The members of the small group I am part of have wrestled with stories like these. That’s why they have come together to talk. It’s a safe space where they can ask questions and find support. There is no other place in our conference to go.

And that’s why we created the “Open Letter to MB Leaders,” asking for a church family conversation, a safe place to have this discussion.

My prayer was if this is chaff, let it be scattered to the wind. If this is seed, let it find root. 

Over 450 people (now 500) from over 40 churches have said, “Yes, we need to talk, and we would like our conference leaders to guide us.” 

We are asking you to help us create safe spaces to listen to the experiences of people in our churches. 

Help us think about how we can live out the good news of Jesus to our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and to those who do not yet follow Christ.

What are we hoping for? We don’t believe the current isolated conversations across Canada are healthy for our church family. But they are happening, and they will continue to grow. We think you as leaders can get ahead of this conversation by creating spaces for people to talk. 

Our question is not “what would you have us believe?” but “what would you have us do?” In light of all the hurt that has been caused, how can we do better?

Will you lead us in a family conversation in which grandmothers, parents, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors can share their stories and listen to one another? Will you help us imagine how we can do better?

There is a hunger for such a conversation. It will take time, maybe years. But we need to start.



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