I grew up hearing my family’s concerns about an aunt who never came to visit. The only things I knew about her were that she was a respected scholar at a state university and that she was an “out” and partnered lesbian. I asked a few times about whether her sexual orientation impacted her relationship to my father’s family, and I learned that my grandparents barely knew how to respond to my aunt’s sexual identity. The whole thing to them was unconscionable. Thus, I never met her.
When she died unexpectedly, I was still young, but I witnessed my father’s grief, which I always assumed had added layers of pain because of his strained relationship with my aunt. I recall his tears and his anger at himself, his parents, and his sister. As for me, I remained confused as to why the adults in my life felt that there was so much at stake. If God’s love is boundless, I thought, then so is its expression in people’s love for each other.
What I did know was that neither of the churches my father’s family attended were from theological perspectives that openly embraced, affirmed and defended the rights and identities of all people, not just the folks who come from dominant straight culture. I grew up in the same church she went to, and although I can recall many things I heard about “right belief,” I rarely heard about “right action.”
I learned after reading John Boswell’s groundbreaking work, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, that the church’s “official” actions in regards to sexual orientation have never been fixed. Church attitudes about sexual identity — including interpretations of Scripture — fluctuated over the millenia with socio-cultural trends, but nothing was ever absolute. It’s hard for people to think historically about things, particularly when most of us don’t live to be as old as the Church, and so we can get wrapped up in our own contexts.
For my father’s family, I wish they would have had the opportunity to stand in the context where I have grown up, wherein mainline churches are moving toward greater inclusivity of all people. I have the privilege of serving three different congregations in town whose members are welcoming and affirming: Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Douglas Community United Methodist Church and Northern Light United Church. “Right action” helps each of these churches live into a theology of Love and justice.
At Aldersgate, an engaging study group meets every other weekend to learn more about progressive theology and social justice. At Northern Light, the congregation has passed a resolution stating that people will be assessed for ordained leadership without regard for their gender or sexual orientation (or any other identity, for that matter). And Douglas is part of a larger movement within the United Methodist Church known as the Reconciling Ministries Network, which seeks to “transform [the] Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”
Douglas Community UMC will host discussion of Sara L. Boesser’s book, Silent Lives: How High a Price, which explores the consequences for individuals and society when sexual orientation and gender identity are repressed. Anyone can participate in the discussion, which will begin May 6 and continue every Monday in May. Refreshments will be served, and the discussion will last from 6-7:30 p.m. All are welcome.
No amount of action can reverse the pain, grief, and discrimination that many in churches have caused their LGBTQ brothers and sisters; no place is a perfect, shining example of inclusivity for all identities; and not all choose to express Love through a Christian lens. My hope, however, is that institutions like the church can continue to help families like mine develop new language for grappling with the impact that shame and oppression have on our lives and the world.
Many thanks to those who courageously and creatively shared their stories in this past week’s “LGBTQ in the Capital” series. Your stories remind me of the challenges that my own people face and give me hope that God’s love is working in the world.
• Allyn Steele is the Seminary Intern at Aldersgate UMC, Douglas Community UMC, and Northern Light United Church.