Still at the Table
The church has always been my home. My life has woven through different congregations and denominations, each shaping a part of me as I have grown. The church has been full of life. Within the walls of the church I encountered the kindness and nearness of a God who sees and knows, a God that so deeply loves. The life I saw amidst the community drew me into the goodness that I believed radiated from the very fabric of the way they cared for one another. This is the goodness of God that captured my heart from before I can even remember. It is a table that is set and open for all who need to rest, and eat. Yes, the church has been a home full of life, and the same church has been a place of deep pain.
I am a bisexual man. As a passionate child who loved his creator, I wanted nothing more than to be a part of the family of God, to celebrate the goodness of the creator and his community with my whole self. It was so early I learned that my whole self was not welcomed into that community. As I grew, the roots of the message that I could not be who I am worked deeper and deeper into my heart. I was terrified by the tension of those roots pressing against such a rich desire to be in the family of God. More than terrifying, it was unbearably painful. My young heart believed that I was made incorrectly; a mistake. If I could not enter into the life of the community of God, then I did not know how to be alive.
I grew and became more and more skilled at splitting off that mistaken part of who I am and hiding it. I worked so hard to hate myself enough to be loved, but I never felt it. The hate had to grow and yet, I remained in the church. Despite the pain and confusion, the desire in my heart for the goodness that I believe rests at the core of a caring community always calls me back into the family.
It was in pockets of that family that I was called into a journey that led me to see the beauty of God expressed in my LGBTQ siblings. This was not such a short journey as one sentence may suggest, it was a hard fought and long path. With the Spirit and an honest group of friends I grew to support the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians at all levels of the church. An even longer path was learning to see the goodness of the way that I was made in my own identity. I am grateful for those that have walked that journey with me, particularly my wife. I could not have imagined a better partner. Since before we even began dating, she called me into seeing the beauty of the unique way that God has made me. She walked with me as I discovered that my identity in Christ is strong because of who I am, not in opposition to who I am.
The past two and a half years I have poured myself into the community at Radiant Covenant Church in which I saw a bright glimpse of the goodness I have always sought. From the first time I stepped foot into the small bar with tightly arranged chairs where they worshipped, I knew there was something special about this community. This church is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination in which I have witnessed an honest pursuit of good news for all people. It is the denomination of my undergraduate university where I began to cherish the beauty of the diverse world we live in. The ECC is also a denomination that recently pushed for the firing of my dear friend, mentor, and North Park University campus pastor, Judy Howard-Peterson, this past December for officiating a same-sex wedding. More on that here.
It wasn’t long until I prayerfully moved into the role of Radiant’s worship leader. We have grown and transformed, and it only ever increasingly became my family and community. We have sat at the table together, shared our food and shared our lives. We have spent time in each other’s homes; we have become family. Each friend I have grown with at that church has worked their way into my heart and I carry each of them with me so dearly.
I continued to journey on in my hope for inclusion at this church. In my weekly meetings with Pastor Michael Thomas, we often discussed our views on LGBTQ inclusion, both very aware of where the other stood. While I was vocally supportive of a full welcome to queer Christians at all levels, I kept these conversations at a theoretical and distant level. The pain that I carry from growing up as a queer kid in the church made the prospect of locating myself in the conversation feel so risky. Although I had the support and encouragement from my wife and close friends, I didn’t feel ready to move that deeply into the conversation, because there is no going back.
That changed in October of 2017 when I felt ready.
At the first meeting with Pastor Mike in the month of November, I shared that I am a bisexual man. I shared that I am hoping to move into further authenticity in the community, being known in the unique way that I am made.
After sharing with the pastor, the leadership team began discussions about me that largely did not include me. I was asked to sit before a small panel of leadership team members twice, once to share my sexual identity and respond to questions and a second occasion in which I was informed that my employment with Radiant was terminated. What happened between those meetings was a time of isolation, confusion, and hurt. I left that first panel meeting so heartbroken. The heaviness didn’t leave me and I sat in that heartbreak for three days without hearing anything from the group of board members or the pastor. On that third day I received a text from a board member informing me that there would be a different worship leader that weekend and that he would be stopping by to pick up my work computer. Without any further communication over the next two weeks, I was removed from the website, I was removed from the church’s Facebook page, and my email account was deleted. All of these things occurred before anybody informed me that I would no longer be working at the church. I was even told by a close member of the worship team, that I served with for more than two years, that the pastor met with the worship team members to let them know I would not be coming back. When I expressed my confusion and hurt to the chair of the board, a final meeting was planned for the following week.
Even as I write those words, I have a sense of disbelief. The story feels distant; I can’t comprehend that this happened to me, it has to be someone else’s story. Maybe it’s all too fresh and hasn’t quite set in, or maybe it’s too much to process still only a few weeks later. There were countless surprising and painful details of the events after that first meeting, but what heartbreak I do understand is feeling that I am not welcome to remain in my community. Equally painful is the broader sense that I am only welcome if I am not authentic to who I am.
I walked into that final meeting well aware of what decisions had been made. I would lose my job and my community in a few short and distantly professional sentences. The reason provided for my termination was that I am choosing to no longer abide by the guidelines of the Evangelical Covenant Church. This is in regards to holding and sharing an open and affirming stance toward the LGBTQ community. There are rules and guidelines given for ordained ministers of the ECC surrounding human sexuality. I am not an ordained minister of the ECC and throughout my time as a part-time staff member at the church, I had held and shared my open and affirming views. The vague language of the church’s announcement easily leads to an assumption that what I believe has changed or even that I have done something deserving of being pushed out. Nothing has changed and I haven’t done anything. The only noticeable change was that I moved toward being known in the community of God by sharing that I am bisexual. I reached out to the board requesting a letter of termination to better understand the guideline being cited. I was denied a letter of termination.
Outside of how personally devastating this process has been, I have been saddened by the way my church and the Evangelical Covenant Church have been willing to harm and disregard our own people in order to avoid a conversation that they are so afraid of. My presence as a bisexual man carries with it a conversation that the church does not seem ready to engage. As I was pushed out and left without a community, there was no care for me in the painful time I was going through. There was no care for my wife as she suffered this experience with me. There was no support for our marriage even when we voiced that this situation had taken us to dark difficult places. We were left out on our own. I reached out to Greg Yee, a leader in the ECC whom I served under for the previous two and half years, for care amidst the difficult time and he responded saying he was too busy but somebody else could help. He attached a stranger onto an email that contained very vulnerable information and a sincere request.
It doesn’t have to be this way. People pursuing authenticity don’t have to be excommunicated by their community. Children don’t have to learn to hate themselves to be loved. I love the church and the way it is capable of caring for those in need and in pain. Because I love the church, I want it to do better than it is doing at loving our LGBTQ siblings. I desire that we would learn from the way that people have been hurt, and right now, I am very hurt. Even in the midst of this season I believe the church is a place where all are welcome to the table of Jesus, where each person should be held up to join in when they don’t have the strength, where bumps and bruises and wounds are mourned and tended to. I have not left the table, I remain in the conversation. I remain and long to see the church pour out the kindness of God to a hurting world.
As I write these words, a very sweet memory comes to mind. This past Easter at Radiant, we took on the brave task of forming a small church Easter choir for the second year in a row. This year we would step up our game and do a traditional Easter hymn in four parts, acapella. I got allready for our practice, I printed out the sheet music and recorded the individual parts. This was the next level for our ambitious little choir, and every single individual worked so hard that night to give themselves to the sound of this song that we were creating together. We stood in a circle on the wood floor of the small front room in our home, struggling to hold strong on the notes we carried through the music. On one of those last times through the song before we would part for the night, we each held the tension of our own notes and together made a beautiful sound. As the last measure of music slowed and came to a close, I was struck. I looked around the room at the face of each dear friend and tears welled up in my eyes. It was gratitude. Never before had I been so grateful for a community. This truly was my family. Together we created a beautiful noise that night, and part of it was the music. But truly, the most honest beautiful sound was that we each came together, offering ourselves, caring for one another, carrying one another, and we worshipped.
I feel the same gratitude welling up in my eyes now as I hold that time in my memory. I am so grateful for the goodness I have sought and found in the community of God, and I am so heartbroken for the ways we forsake that goodness for power and for fear. I know that mine is not the only story of hurt at the hands of the church, and specifically the Evangelical Covenant Church. This is a pivotal time of choosing a path forward and I hope for the Evangelical Covenant Church that fear would not dictate who is welcome. I hope that in the Evangelical Covenant Church the humanity and beauty and image of God in each individual would be so deeply honored and held up to join at the table of Christ, open to all.