[Image description: Cover illustration from picture book A Church for All, showing a dark-skinned pastor blessing a congregation of people of all races and genders. Rainbow banners and welcome signs are displayed on the walls.]
CW: Minor mention of church bigotry
I woke too early this morning. Dragged myself to Sunday School with wet hair. Struggled to warm up my voice while we sang the first hymn. I love my home church. It is pretty much “the little brown church in the vale.” I hop right back into the choir when I visit (of course, the fact that my mom is the pastor has something to do with that).
The members of that church are my family, and I wouldn’t trade them. When I’m sleepy, church can feel like a chore, but seeing queer friends visit (and noting today that almost half the adults sitting in the congregation have grown LGBTQ children whom they affirm) reminded me of why my church community is so valuable, how it’s so freely yet painstakingly built.
In my conservative Southern hometown, my little church is becoming a place of haven for LGBTQ people and our families. A couple of years ago, I felt safe enough to come out as bisexual to my Sunday school class (mostly middle-aged adults) because I just wanted them to know who I was. More on that story later. It wasn’t always this welcoming a place.
When I was a child, nobody talked about queerness in my church community. The only occasion when I remember anything being said about homosexuality was one Sunday when an older male church member, substitute preaching while my mom was away, listed homosexuality as a sin during the regular Prayer of Confession. In a sense, my mom limited the conversation around queerness, not because she disapproved but because a fundamentalist segment of the congregation always overwhelmed the discussion with bigoted views. Saying “We’re not going to talk about it” was the lesser evil.
What eventually broke the silence was a 2014 PC(USA) General Assembly ruling that allowed same-gender couples to marry in the churches. You see, in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), big changes are made by a national governing body and ratified by Presbyteries. As we say in the Presbyterian Church, “We do it decently and in order.”
This constitutional change tore my home church apart. More accurately, most of the fundamentalist faction broke off and joined other churches. They perceived a church that was more welcoming to me as less welcoming to them. For a church our size (fewer than fifty members), it was a significant loss. We were sad to lose them–it was like losing aunts and uncles–but their absence made room for needed change in the community. It also allowed me to be open about who I was without feeling like I would be causing trouble for my parents. We lost a bit of our theological diversity to evangelicalism but created space for people like me to participate more fully (after coming out, I felt confident enough to get confirmed).
Today, I was reminded once again that ‘diversity’ is chosen. It usually doesn’t just happen; the kind of diversity that appears in a church community depends on the values and consistent work of the people involved. What a refreshing feeling it is not to be made expendable in the name of theological diversity, not to have to shrink for the comfort of people who think I’m hell-bound. Can someone who isn’t ‘affirming’ be part of this community? Sure. But I’m not expected to hide who I am to make them comfortable.
With its steady welcome, my church community is becoming more sexuality and gender-diverse, and its children are being raised to understand that they are loved and have something of value to share regardless of how ‘normal’ or ‘different’ they are. When one of my grandfriends makes a Pride month announcement, when my mom gives thanks for LGBTQ people in the Thanksgiving Prayer, even when a little boy in the congregation gets to be an angel in the Christmas pageant (yes, that is actually an issue for some people), I can tell that my little church is doing the work.
We’re all still learning, but we’re working together to build a community that welcomes everyone who wants to participate. If that offends our fundamentalist siblings enough that they leave, then it’s a loss for everyone, but it won’t stop us–and it won’t stop me–from building and celebrating our community.
That’s what gets me out of bed early in the morning (to drag myself to Sunday school with wet hair). I have the opportunity to be a full member of a church that works to reflect the love of God more fully each day, and I won’t squander it.
Be of good courage,
PS–For Christians (especially faith leaders) looking for ways to help folks to see the beauty of a church with people of all ages, races, genders, abilities, etc., I recommend the award-winning picture book A Church for All by Gayle E. Pitman and Laurie Fournier.