A friend asked me recently, “Why did you stay in Mennonite Church USA when they really didn’t want you?” I had been asked that before, but no one had ever said “when they really didn’t want you.” That stung, but I knew he was right. The only thing I could say was, “It’s complicated.”
The truth is, I didn’t stay. In 1997, at the age of 49, I decided to publicly declare I was gay. It was an extremely difficult decision. I had a wide network of friends, a family who loved me, and I was in the prime of my career with a senior management position at Mennonite Mutual Aid, now Everence. I also cared about my connection to the Mennonite church. The church had nurtured me in my faith and provided opportunities to serve on congregational and churchwide boards. To come out was to risk everything. My church involvement gave me a front-row seat to see how the Mennonite church was treating LGBTQ people and congregations who supported them.
It wasn’t until I met my partner, John, that I felt it was the right time to come out. I had someone who would support me, and I also felt my close friends would stand by me. I wasn’t sure about my family; my job, I assumed, was in jeopardy. Of course, I knew where I would stand with the Mennonite church — an exile.
Charting what seemed to be the safest path, I found employment in Chicago and resigned from MMA. John and I joined a local welcoming Methodist church. One day our pastor told me, “JB, you will always be a Mennonite.” I wanted to say, “But they don’t want me, and why go where I’m not wanted?”
Some months after leaving MMA, however, I received an offer to provide consulting services for them. I readily accepted. Eight years before, I had felt a call to join MMA, and returning now seemed right and an affirmation for me.
While MMA did face external criticism, senior management shielded me from most of it. Throughout my tenure there, I was affirmed and valued for the gifts I brought to my assignments. I realized MMA staff were living the mantra spoken often by Howard Brenneman, the MMA president then: “Be the best of church and business.”
When John and I moved from Chicago to Oak Park, Ill., we decided to find a church. A year later, we were still looking. John said, “Why don’t we try Oak Park Mennonite Church [now Chicago Community Mennonite Church]?” We knew it was a welcoming congregation under discipline from a regional conference. Why re-enter the fray? Nevertheless, we began attending. We found like-minded people who focused on peace and social justice and following Jesus in daily life. Four years after leaving the Mennonite church, I became a member again, and John, the son of a retired U.S. Army colonel, joined the Mennonite church for the first time.
Since then, there have been two more moves, first to Indianapolis and then Sarasota. Each time we found Mennonite congregations that welcomed us, affirmed our gifts and challenged us to become better people.
I don’t criticize LGBTQ people who left the church. The constant bombardment of judgment and nastiness that permeated church life is exhausting, and for many it wasn’t worth waiting around for things to change.
Fortunately, MC USA has become more accepting of LGBTQ people, and I believe new leaders are guiding us in ways that will rebuild a denomination where all people are welcome.
JB Miller lives in Sarasota, Fla., and attends Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.
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