You won’t remember the moment your courage began to awaken mine, but I will never forget it. It was my first Annual Conference, and I was home from seminary at Duke Divinity to intern for the summer at Wayne UMC with Joe DiPaolo. As I left the large hotel ballroom where we gathered for plenaries and voting, you stood at the doorway with a group of young clergywomen peers. Yet, you were not there as a clergy delegate – you were there as something much braver. You were there as a lay delegate, because a couple years earlier, our Conference had brought you up on trial for being in a covenant relationship with a woman, and taken your credentials. Yet, there you were, standing in the full and obvious power of your calling, regardless of what the words on your nametag said.
I had grown up in a United Methodist congregation that did not allow women in the pulpit, where the senior pastor was admired for once having tried to bring a complaint against Bishop Susan Morrison. With little knowledge of our world or system, I was stumbling through my first steps into my call. I was entering ministry, despite having been told my whole life that to do so as a woman was rebellion against God.
I followed my mother out of the room, and stepped onto the escalator to descend to the next floor. You must have sensed me watching, because your head turned and you saw me. It felt like you could see right through me. I stood there frozen as the stairs of the escalator moved beneath me, slowly taking us out of one another’s line of sight.
That little part of me that knew that I was a Queer pastor – even if I would not admit it to myself -was running around in circles inside of me. She did not know whether to run back up the escalator and hug you and thank you for your courage, or run away and hide. She felt like she’d been seen, and it was terrifying. She finally calmed down; she strapped herself in for the ride, and spent the next decade hiding from herself in order to serve the church she loved.
The trauma of what you and your young clergy colleagues had been through still saturated the air that day. I did not understand, I could not understand, but I felt it. The weight of your witness was impossible to ignore. The intensity of their love and respect for you meant that the wound your trial left has never healed. It has never stopped being visible. There is a hole blown through this generation, because a piece is missing that should never have been taken away from them. A limb was severed, and they are still mourning. We are still mourning.
I was not at home in Philadelphia when it happened, when our Conference put you on trial. In 2004, I was over 600 miles away in Greenville, South Carolina. I was a college student working four jobs, running new student orientation, and fighting not to answer my call.
In those final months of 2004, however, I stopped fighting my call. The Spirit was doing something. I began to attend a United Methodist Church pastored by a woman. Growing up in one of the churches in our Conference that vocally opposed women preaching, I had only seen a woman in the pulpit once when our District Superintendent, Violet Fisher, came to speak. My resistance, my liberation, my obedience to God started with the simple but revolutionary act of waking up on Sunday mornings to hear Rev. Jo Anna McGehee proclaim the Gospel in the sanctuary of Monaghan United Methodist Church.
Within a year I would be a student enrolled at Duke Divinity School; and a few years after that, I would be ordained in Philadelphia.
That was only the beginning of what has been a very difficult journey to get to this point. Seven years have passed since that ordination. It feels as though I’ve lived a dozen lifetimes in the years between.
I’ve spent my whole career living in the shadow of what we did to you, but now I’ve stepped out of it.
Last year, I came out myself as Queer clergy. Tomorrow, I will walk into the meeting of our Annual Conference as the first openly Queer clergy since our Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference put you on trial, and wounded us in a place where we have never recovered.
I want you to understand what your courage has meant to me. Remarkably, it was not your dramatic and highly publicized courage at your trial that impacted me. It was your completely subtle, unrecognized act of courage when you walked back into Annual Conference that day in 2007 and showed us all how intact your calling still was. Your name badge may have said Laity rather than Clergy, but it was clear that God said otherwise. That blow that you dealt to exclusion created the first crack in the wall that was holding me back.
I needed to see you that day, in order to someday be able to see myself.
Now it’s my turn to show up. Because someone needs to see me like I once needed to see you. Someone needs to see what it looks like when we love ourselves despite what they say.
Thank you for all you did to make that possible. Thank you for still showing up even when you did not have to, even after what we did to you, even when we did not deserve you. Thank you for being there to let me see what real courage looks like in person. The church law books may not have changed, but a different battle has been won – the battle for my own mind and my own heart and my own calling.
Thank you for showing us the way.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
– Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, by United Methodist author, Harper Lee