Yesterday Lauren stumbled across one of those "Why LGBTQ+ persons might not be attending your 'welcoming' church" articles on Facebook. Out of curiosity, she read it. Usually, we nod through that kind of piece because they say things we already know: saying you're welcoming and being welcoming are two different things; you might think you're doing everything right but you might not see things that are offensive or hurtful; your members might not be as on board as you think. But this article actually managed to illicit furrowed brows and frowns from both of us. It said, essentially, that all churches are still straight, cis-gendered safe spaces where LGBTQ+ persons might be tolerated but not really celebrated. I'm not going to argue that that's not true for many churches, or even most churches. But that hasn't been my experience here at Dickey. In fact, Dickey Memorial was the community in which I found the freedom to be really and truly myself - my full self, as God created me.
If you'd been looking for it, you might have been able to tell that I was gay when I was in preschool. I remember the first time I learned what marriage was - explained as when a man and a woman make promises to each other and live together as family for the rest of their lives. And I distinctly remember thinking (and perhaps wondering aloud) why I couldn't just do that with my best friend Sarah. Certainly, that was far preferable to spending my life with a boy. But in spite of that, I didn't actually start wondering if I was gay until High School, when I realized that I'd fallen in love with my best friend.
Unfortunately for me, my older brother had just come out earlier that year. And it just so happened that his coming out coincided with the lynching death of Matthew Shepard, which made everything far more frightening. My parents seemed to deal with the fact of his sexual orientation better than most - especially in the stories that I've heard. But they were scared that his openness might get him hurt, if not killed. And so I was told to keep it a secret. While it was never meant this way, I internalized this need for secrecy as shame. I found myself lying awake at night thinking: I can't be gay. I can't be the second gay kid. That literally can't happen, right? Both kids in a family can't be like that? And if I AM gay, what will that do to mom and dad? Will I be a huge disappointment?
So I didn't tell anyone. I dated men half-heartedly, thinking that maybe my feelings would change - but they didn't. And in college, my relationship with my best friend grew far more complicated. With that, I knew that I wasn't straight by any stretch of the imagination. Which would have been fine if I'd gone into the intelligence field like I was supposed to. But I didn't.
In the summer of 2007 I suddenly found myself called into ministry - in a denomination that said that I needed to be "chaste in singleness" because I certainly couldn't be married. In fact, I risked not being able to be ordained at all.
It was gut-wrenching. To serve the church I loved, I would have to forgo a life-long, loving relationship. To serve the church that I loved, I would have to risk public exposure and the probability that someone would tell me that I was a sinner doomed to hell. To serve the church I loved, I would have to keep a part of myself incredibly hidden.
So I did. I wasn't brave enough to be a part of the LGBTQ+ group on campus at seminary - in part because of myself and in part because my girlfriend (that complicated best friend) might have taken it poorly. Between my second and third years of classes I moved to Northern Ireland to serve a Presbyterian church for a year. No one knew I was gay, so no one had any qualms about talking about it as a sin in front of me. No one had any qualms stating that LGBTQ+ folks should not be ordained or married.
During that year, the PC(USA) changed their constitution so that people like me could be ordained. It was the first step on the journey to freedom for me. But I still kept it hidden - after all, not all churches are willing to hire a gay pastor.
When I interviewed with DMPC, I waited as long as I could before testing the waters around homosexuality. I didn't feel like I could go through with a hiring process without knowing that they would accept me if I wound up married to a woman (which Maryland had recently legalized). The day that I preached my candidating sermon I plucked up the courage to let the Pastoral Nominating Committee know: I might not be straight.
They didn't care.
It still took me a while to get my act together. It wasn't until I finally broke up with the complicated girlfriend at the end of 2014 that I even thought about telling others at church. But then this crazy thing happened. One of the women, who happened to know my orientation and whom I respect deeply, said to me, "Jennifer, why don't you date Lauren. You two seem like you get along really well with each other." We did. But Lauren was a member of church and that was a no no.
Still, this lifelong church member was trying to set me up with a woman. Just like any good traditional church person might set their pastor up with someone of the opposite gender. I was floored. She treated me like I was normal - and all that she wanted for me was to be happy.
Needless to say, I did start dating Lauren (with the Presbytery and church's permission - remember, she was a member and that was a no no). And I decided to come out simply by letting people know we were together. Everyone took it in stride - or they were overjoyed to hear it. A couple of people said, "It took you two long enough."
The church community essentially treated me as if nothing had changed but my relationship status. I started bringing my full experience into the life of the church - and it was encouraged. I was encouraged.
Most of the church came to our wedding. We aren't just tolerated at DMPC - we are celebrated.
Dickey isn't perfect - no church is. We're still learning. But on the whole, DMPC has been one of the safest communities I've been a part of - and it's where I've learned to take pride in who I am.