All posts by Hannah Adair Bonner

Hannah Adair Bonner is the Director of Frontera Wesley, The Wesley Foundation of Tucson. She was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 2012.

Body Taken Into Custody

“Why didn’t the women go to prepare the body right away?” my brilliant Jewish friend asked me yesterday as I tried to explain what Easter meant to me.

“Huh?” This wasn’t the way that I was trained to think about the three days in the tomb, but it seemed rather obvious to someone who had been educated to understand the Jewish way of doing things and how odd it would be to wait that long. Like leaving the image of God unloved.

I wondered how obvious that would have been to a Womanist theologian… to Mike Brown’s mother… to Sandra Bland’s mother. Of course, no one leaves the body of their loved one unprepared that long… in the street that long… in the morgue that long, unless it has been taken into custody. Unless it is guarded by men with swords or spears or guns. Unless the tomb is sealed with the Roman seal, or the murder scene surrounded by yellow police tape.

“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”

I had never understood Matthew 27:61 until Eri pointed out what was right in front of my eyes. The women didn’t come on the third day – they were there all along. They were there on the first day, sitting opposite the tomb, when Joseph of Arimathea put the body inside. They were merely prevented from honoring the body of Jesus the way they longed to do.

“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”

They did not choose to wait to take him in their arms, to bathe and prepare his body for burial. They were held back. The scene was surrounded by yellow tape, while soldiers stood guard to keep them away, and the male disciples hid in fear in the upper room.

Today, I’m thinking of those who can understand the pain of the Marys as they waited and watched. I’m thinking of those who understand what it is to walk the desert with your baby on your back, only to see her have her life taken by the State. I’m thinking of those who have had to stand back while the bodies of their loved ones are taken into custody as evidence, locked up behind the seal of the Empire.

Today, we wait, to see whether they will be able to hold this body in custody; whether they will succeed in using this Body as evidence of the power of the State… or whether it will become evidence of a power even Greater.

Update: More beautiful thoughts from Eri:

Additional thought on the Shabbat timing: even if a body cannot be buried because of Shabbat, it is not left alone. The body is accompanied by members of the community (seen as an honor for the witness and loving kindness toward the dead —- both protecting their body from further harm and comforting their soul in the hours after their death) until preparation and burial can occur. No matter the day, you can’t simply leave a being made in the imagine of Gd alone and unattended.

Love Is In The Lead

The mid-afternoon sun beat down painfully on the crowd of people surrounding Gretchen, as Dottie and I arrived simultaneously to provide back-up. They were the first 30 of what would become 120 of God’s children from Guatemala and Honduras and Brazil, dumped on the streets by vans from ICE and Border Patrol with no instructions or support this Palm Sunday. Chaos was the goal as mothers and fathers used their bodies to shield their little ones from the burning sun. Yet, as on so many occasions before, Gretchen Lopez was somehow there to intercept and redirect people from despair to hope, from confusion to affirmation, from danger to security.

“Bienvenidos a Tucson,” I hollered as Dottie and Jim and I walked up to join her, and Esperanza bounded towards the children. This “release to the streets” game that the administration plays was one we knew all too well. Earlier this year, El Paso had been hammered for weeks by the “release to the streets” strategy, and here in Tucson, Gretchen had already navigated it before. For days we had been getting warnings that ICE & Border Patrol would be delivering people to the streets, rather than the shelters, in what we know is the ongoing attempt to create the illusion of crisis and surge here on the border.

As The Inn and Casa Alitas were full, Gretchen and Dottie were calling around trying to get an answer from any church who might be willing to take them. It was Palm Sunday afternoon, and answers would not be quick to come by. The huge white wall of the building we were next to was acting like a mirror, intensifying the heat of the sun, and we needed to get them out of it.

Remembering that it was the Episcopalians night at the Campus Christian Center up the street, I told Gretchen that Rev’d Benjamin Garren would surely not mind some extra attendees this Palm Sunday. Dottie’s husband Jim and I began to shuttle people up the street from the parking lot of Office Max to the Campus Christian Center.

“Should I start to cook?” Ben asked as we entered. The answer was an enthusiastic, “Yes.”

Just as soon as we had gotten everyone settled, we got a call that they had released more to the streets. 60 this time. To the same big, white, scorching wall. The exhaustion and despair in 60 sets of eyes hit me like a punch in the gut as Gretchen and I pulled up. What would we do?

One of the Greyhound employees came around the corner with a cart full of water and began handing it out.

Soon another van pulled up from Border Patrol to unload more people. We begged them to take them to the church instead. But they opened the doors of the van and added another 10 people to the crowd. A volunteer from No More Deaths happened to be coming around the corner, and began to get the word out that we needed support.

There was no way we could get these people out of the sun fast enough, so Office Max gave us permission to move them to the shady grove of trees on the opposite side of their building. Gretchen communicated with other shelters in town, while Dottie dove back into calling churches to find some willing to take a big crowd on short notice.

The Mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, had sent Tucson Police Department officers to deliver teddy bears and to let us know that the city would be donating buses to take the people to wherever we could find room for them. Seeing the officers, it seems the last van from Border Patrol thought it wiser to unload around the corner, and soon another 20 people started walking up to us to bring the total to 120.

Back at the Campus Christian Center, Rev’d Bailey Pickens was getting the Presbyterians involved in supporting the first 30 who would now be staying there for what would become the Episcopalians’ all night feast and vigil to begin Holy Week.

After what seemed like ages, Dottie got the approvals from 3 churches, and Gretchen was able to begin sorting people into groups to head out. Nancy would be riding up with one city bus to take a large group to one church, while another bus would take a large group to another. Jamie and Colby and Jim would be shuttling the rest to the last.

While we waited for all the logistics to be worked out, and transportation to arrive, the volunteers from No More Deaths arrived and began to unload water and hand out snacks.

Finally, the streets were empty. There was no crisis, because our community knows how to take care of each other. You don’t have to be from Tucson to be one of us. All we did was take care of us today. All we did was act like family.

Getting back to the crowded CCC, I plopped into a chair, grateful to share the meal that the Episcopalians had prepared in the many hours that we had left them with little warning or information and a dramatically increased community.

Knowing it would be an all-nighter for me, the Wesley Student President came by to check on me and put a cup of water in front of me, before putting her fluency in Spanish to use explaining things to our guests.

“Gretchen is badass,” Bailey’s wife Kelli said to me as we watched her continue to make phone call after phone call to make sure that people got in touch with their families and to their destinations. The admiration in her voice let me know that I finally had someone who understood the level of surgeon-like skill that this woman has for the very difficult work she does. Because she is laity in a religious world that celebrates clergy, it is so easy for us to miss that humble, tireless force that skillfully interrupts injustices on a daily basis without ever expecting to be thanked, acknowledged or celebrated. It’s so easy for you to see me, so important for us to see her.

Today, it took dozens of people to work together under her leadership to intercept injustice, heartless cruelty, and the illusion of crisis. It took pastors, and bus drivers, and police officers, and No More Deaths volunteers, and church members, and Greyhound employees, and students to fight with everything they had and work together for love to win out today. And it did.

Tomorrow is another day, and we’ll face it when it gets here, but tonight, here in the Campus Christian Center, at the Inn, and at United Methodist Churches and other shelters all around Tucson, LOVE is in the lead. Love is in the lead.

 

To help replenish our supplies and support the work of The Inn, donations can be ordered from our Amazon Wishlist or monetary donations made here.

 

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What are you fighting for?

Riding my bike along the narrow inches of shoulder between the paved road and the deep ditch, I struggled not to fall in the water, and thought about the children I was told had walked these same treacherous trails to come to church. It was about a decade ago, and I was in my first appointment, a rural community where folks worked hard and loved harder. I would hear many stories before then and since then, but no other story would haunt me the way this one did – if by haunt one means accompany, travel with, teach, convict and inform. 

It all started when the congregation that I had come to serve had hosted a vacation bible school at their church. They had a great time and so did the kids. There were two children, in particular, that were so drawn to the love that they found that week that they began to come to church on their own. There was no one in their family willing to bring the two young kids, but they would not give up. So they walked to church along that dusty shoulder by themselves. 

Living in the marshes, where flooding was a constant and a way of life, an intricate system of ditches interlaced our landscape to control, or diminish, the interruptions that the water brought to our lives. The ditches meant that roads were sometimes narrow ribbons, curves were sometimes sharp, the shoulder was sometimes eroded, and the cars were sometimes fast. Walking to church was never the safe option, it was always the brave option. And brave they were.

The church members were overjoyed by the children’s commitment to coming to church, but as time passed some of them decided that they needed to “love” the children better by telling them what they were doing wrong. To start with, the kids were not wearing clothes appropriate for church, they were just wearing jeans and t-shirts, the only clothes they had. Secondly, with all that walking in the dust, the kids were showing up dirty and dusty and not quite presentable. Eventually, somebody took it upon themselves to sit the kids down and explain to them what they were doing wrong. 

The children never came back. 

The woman who narrated the story to me told it with so much grief. A justifiable grief. A grief that many of us have felt over similar missteps in our journey, as we mistook our own discomfort for someone else’s problem; as we mistook our need to control the behavior of others for love; as we mistook our exclusive actions for welcome and embrace. 

That was, for me, in a nutshell, the relationship between young people and the church. They come to us longing for a place that pushes them away. They walk such treacherous and sacrificial paths to get to us. And, often, as soon as they decide to trust us, they end up wishing that they had not.

At that time, a good decade ago, my solution was to protect young people from the excessive criticism and control that the church is so prone to exert by being perfect myself. I thought that if they were happy with the most visible young person in the space, then maybe they would not notice the torn jeans and flip flops worn by the rest of us. Maybe I could distract them. 

I got up each morning, in my big, country parsonage, and dressed in slacks, a button down, and dress shoes. I did my hair and my make-up. I ruined more shoes than I can count walking out into my all-too-often flooded front yard, trying to look the part  in attire that was not built for the rigors of marsh life. Some days, the roads would be too flooded to leave my house, but that did not stop me from putting on my armor. I never knew when someone might drop by unannounced to check on the young pastor. Besides, even if no one came by, twice a day, the elderly gentleman across the street could be counted on to pull his big brown sedan out of the driveway and up the street to the garage where the men gathered, to get a coke and report on the movements of the young woman in the parsonage. 

I knew I was loved and respected in that parish, and the love and respect was returned, but I still felt the eyes upon me. I concluded that if folks were happy with the young pastor and I gave them no reason to complain in how I presented myself, then the young people of the community would draw less criticism. For my part, if my appearance did not draw any complaints, then I’d have more space to stir things up with my words, as I preached about the Gospel that rejects racism and sexism on a regular basis. 

When I was commissioned and was moved north, all that began to change in my second appointment, in another rural part of another state. One day, looking out at a congregation where many young people wanted to just come as they were, something clicked. I decided that the best way to be a good shepherd and to shield the young people was not to look less like them. I decided to come to church looking like me, looking like them, looking like us. I decided that if people wanted to be mad and complain about the young person in blue jeans, that young person should be me. 

So I put on my blue jeans before I walked into church the next Sunday.

I decided, if you want to judge someone, judge me. 

If you want to complain about someone, complain about me. 

If you want to push someone out, make it me. 

Not them. Not our beloved young people. Make it be me. 

I learned that distance and respectability and authority will never be so transformative as solidarity. That is why Jesus gave up all of those things to come and walk amongst us, to look like us, walk like us, love like us, break like us.

We often do not have any idea what a young person has gone through before they walk through the doors of our churches. Maybe they have walked for miles in the dust along the narrow shoulder of a country road. Maybe they have spent three years in therapy trying to get over the ways they were rejected the last time they trusted a church, before walking in that morning and giving yours a try. Maybe they did not have the “right” clothes, or the “right” hair, or the “right” look, but they came anyway because they knew that this was the right place for them and they hoped you agreed. In so many different ways, they risked themselves, they risked their lives, they risked their hearts… on us

In November, after more than a decade in ministry, two decades if we start before licensing, I had listened to more tears and broken hearts and shattered dreams than I could even begin to count. I had ministered to too many mothers of gay sons, and brothers of Queer sisters, and non-binary youth.

I finally realized that it was time to put on my blue jeans again. I acknowledged to myself and to others that I was Queer, just like so many of the young adults I had ministered to from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to the poetry events of Houston, Texas, to the college students of Tucson, Arizona.

It was not enough to tell them, “God does love you” while wearing my armor, when I had it in my power to say, “God does love us.”

So I put on my blue jeans.

I decided, if you want to judge someone, judge me. 

If you want to complain about someone, complain about me.

If you want to try to push someone out, make it me.

Not them. Not our beloved young people. Make it be me.

I will not let them be pushed out onto the street alone. 

I’ll be there. You’ll be there. We’ll be there.

When the final vote came in at Special Session of General Conference, I thought of all the millions of dollars, and countless hours and thousands of initiatives that had been launched to create new places for new people. Could it be true that they were all rendered null and void with the push of a button?

In her book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, Charlene Caruthers reminds us that we must not get so caught up in thinking about who we are fighting against, that we forget to ask ourselves what we are fighting for… 

…I am fighting for those kids walking along the dirt road to get to church because it is a place they believe they will find love. I am fighting to make us worthy of the trust they offer us, the risks they take for us, the sacrifices they made for us. I am fighting because I want our promises to ring true again. I am fighting for love. I am fighting for them. I am fighting for me. 

What are you fighting for?

When the hand that held you holds the stone

“I miss my dad,” I thought looking down at the creamed chipped beef on the plate in front of me in the Thunderbird Cafeteria outside of Canyon de Chelly. The last time I had seen my father, he was looking down over the railing into the entryway of the Dome in St. Louis where I stood locked out with many of the Queer clergy and allies after the Traditional Plan had passed at Special Session of General Conference. Did he see me? Was he looking for me? I don’t know. 

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Maybe it doesn’t matter. I was not the reason he was there. He was there to support my mother as she cast her vote for the Traditional Plan. 

A week later, sitting in the cafeteria of the old-fashioned motel in the town of Chinle in Navajo Nation, reminders of him were everywhere. They served all of his favorite foods – creamed chipped beef, corned beef hash, cream of wheat – all the foods that would have been popular when he road tripped through this region with his family in the 1950’s. Everywhere I turned, every vista and landmark, reminded me of him. As Wade and Hannah T. led us deeper into Navajo Nation, on this journey of “Decolonizing Theology,” I found myself coming to a deeper understanding of why a part of my father had never left this place.

That last time I had seen him, looking down at us with confusion as we sang, I had waved at him. I do not know if he saw me, but I wanted him to see me. I wanted him to find me. He had always found me before. Countless times, he had found me. 

I missed the weight of his hand on my back the hundreds of times that I had run to my room, plopped facedown on my bed, and emptied my eyes into my pillow case. It was predictable as clockwork that when the pillow under my face was as wet and worn out as my tiny shaking body, I would feel the weight of his hand on my back. Countless nights my little-girl heart pounded like a drum in my ears, every part of me straining, hoping for an apology that would never come. She never came. Instead, it was always him that came. It was always him that could not listen with indifference to my pain any more. He never said anything. There was not anything for him to say. The apology that was needed was not his to give. Quietly, he would slip into my room, sit down beside the limp body of the youngest of his four daughters, and place his hand on my back. Warm. Heavy. Comforting. Silent. It was not everything I needed, but it was enough to hold me together. 

Time after time, the former Drill Sargent transformed into a field medic, putting pressure on the wound to keep me from bleeding out. His hand on my back the only thing standing between me and irrevocable despair. His hand on my back silently fighting the lie that I was not and could not be loved. His hand thrust out at the final moment, pulling me back to safety again and again and again.

Like many Queer clergy, I am the intensely ethical child that my father raised me to be. My ethics are consistent, just different from his, emerging from a different identity and experience. Still, my convictions are passionate. My determination is tireless. My spirit is indefatigable. And somewhere along the journey towards solidarity, I left my home and  learned from those who have suffered more than I can imagine how not to cry. I learned how to swallow tears whole before they see the light of day. I learned to be a sponge, relentless in my absorbency of trauma, unwilling to allow the District Superintendent, or the Sheriff, or the white nationalist see a glimpse of my pain. 

I have not cried since General Conference; since I was locked out of the Dome; since I watched my dad turn and walk away. I do believe he was looking for me, but at the same time he was not in St. Louis to be there for me. He was there for her. There would be no hand on my back, no hand to catch me, so I better keep far away from the ledge. 

It had been somewhere around the time that John Lomperis’s photo went up in my parents’ kitchen that I knew this day would come. There he was staring back at me as I sat at my mother’s kitchen table. The place where we had drunk so many thousands of cups of tea; the place where my father had served me scrapple in the morning, and my mother pork chops in the evening. Now, across the small round table – my first altar – the smiling face of the Inquisition stared back at me, affixed with a magnet to my mother’s fridge.  

Home was no longer home. Tears were no longer safe. Love was no longer mine. 

In grief, I told my mother that someday our church would split, and that I would not be able to be in the same denomination with them anymore. Undeterred, she spent the next several years doing everything in her power to ensure that day would come to pass. 

Sitting in the spectator stands of General Conference, I watched all this unfold before my eyes. “Hi daddy,” I said to my father softly as I climbed past him up to the top row where the polity wonks were gathered. I longed to be with him, but he was not there for me. 

Over and over again, I heard the verse that had hounded my family throughout my childhood read out by the Traditionalists as an argument against the LGBTQIA community. 

“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19:3-6. It had been the reason that my father was not allowed to serve on the school board at my Christian school in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. My mother was his second wife. Throughout the twelve years that I was enrolled there, the shame lay heavy on my parents, heaviest on my father. Slowly grinding down. For his children, the shame was not heaped as heavily on us as it was upon the students who had two homes. At least my own parents were still married to one another. That put me one step up in my school’s hierarchy of shame. 

I remember one day when my brother and I decided to sit in on the adult Sunday School at our home church, Bethlehem United Methodist Church, when my parents were teaching. One couple in the Sunday school was unleashing vitriol, arguing that to divorce and remarry was an abomination. My brother and I turned red with embarrassment. This conservative couple was saying this to our parents’ face, in front of their apparently dishonorable and illegitimate offspring, not knowing – or not caring – that my mother was my father’s second wife. I will never forget how hot my face burned that day. 

Now, this same verse that had caused my parents so much pain when I was a child, was being used by their Traditionalist compatriots to heap shame upon me. And they were not speaking out against it, as my brother and I had in fact done in that Sunday school classroom for them. This weapon that had hacked at the roots of our family tree for forty years, they now watched without protest as it was lifted to sever one of their own limbs.

Those that shamed my parents called that correction “love,” just as my parents would now insist that what the Traditinalists are doing to me is “love.”

The exegesis of those who used a scripture about divorce to speak of the LGBTQIA community was confusingly inaccurate, and the irony close to unbearable. Rev. Anthony Tang got up and proposed an amendment that if we were going to use this verse, then we should also bar divorced and polygamous clergy from serving in the church. He was followed soon after, however, by my candidacy mentor, Rev. Dr. Joe DiPaolo, who got up to the mic with condescension and annoyance in his voice, to tell the gathered assembly not to be distracted by the amendment. In other words, not to fall for this attempt to reveal our hypocrisy and make us ethically and exegetically consistent. Instead, Joe encouraged them to stop wasting time and vote the amendment down so that they could push forward in focusing their exclusion solely on the LGBTQIA community. 

In the end, the same verse that had pushed my father’s head down in shame throughout my life, was used to deal a blow to me. It was used to argue against my morality, my humanity, my identity, my call. And it won. What a strange legacy to pass on…

…but I will not bow my head beneath this false weight. I refuse. I dissent. I defy. 

Thank you dad for holding me together decades ago, until I gained the strength to stand up to anyone… even you… even your beloved IRD… even your cruelly punitive WCA. 

I’ll be standing my ground right here, if you ever want to come and find me. I do not need a hand on my back, but I would take another friend in this struggle, if you could ever bring yourself to stand with me – and for me – on this side of the divide. 

Grief on the Margins of UMC General Conference

Amidst the concentric circles that sat within The Dome in St. Louis this week, it was the outer ring that leaves my heart hurting most as I walk away. We gathered for this Special Session of General Conference to discuss human sexuality and bring to a conclusion the battle that had raged in the church since the 1970’s. On the floor of The Dome, where football rivalries are usually waged, a different game played out. In the center, on that floor, the voting delegates, elected from around our global church, both clergy and laity, convened to cast their votes on our Queer family’s place in the church. Around them were the Bishops, and pages, and various support folks given access to the space. Above all that, in the stands, were the Observers, folks like me, who had come from far and near to witness what would take place.

Yet, even they were not the outer circle.

Outside of the stands, on the Concourse Level, were the non-unionized employees working the concessions stands of the Dome, serving us overpriced water and soda and popcorn. Positioned to their left and to their right in each opening were large television screens, broadcasting the images and sounds of everything happening inside on the microphone into their ears. The screens were there for the people in line to stay up to date on what was happening inside, and few of those people probably thought about the effect they were having on the people behind the counter, handing them their hotdog and taking their cash. 

As the Conference moved through the first couple days, something beautiful began to happen. Seeing those of us in rainbow stoles, our beautiful brothers and sisters behind the counters began to feel excitement and hope. Many of them began to wear rainbows themselves, at first just a little, and then fully bedecked. There was something of a sense of celebration to it. It was as if they were not only showing solidarity to us, but also celebrating an affirmation of themselves as supporters of LGBTQIA+ folxs who had found church people who agreed. 

Yet, as we got into discussions, there were those screens above their heads, the speakers blasting every word that was said into their hearing. They were not passive recipients of our presence, they were active participants in our church community this week… for those of us who had the eyes to see them, the ears to hear them, the hearts to love them. 

They, in kind, heard every ugly word we said from the microphone. They heard every bit of gaslighting. They heard every snide conversation held between Traditional Plan supporters waiting for their soda. They saw the results of every vote we passed to condemn our Queer family.

It did not take long for the rainbows to vanish, disappearing as quickly as the joyful smiles left their faces. 

My heart ached most of all for them. 

The amazing Rev. Sara Baron had a bag full of small yarn rainbows with notes that said “You are loved” that had been knit by a woman at her church and prayed over by the children of the congregation. She had given me a bunch of them to hand out to people who needed them, and as I walked by a concession stand, I handed them to one of our family behind the counter. “Wait, I want one!” the person next to her called out. They took them, and slipped them into their pocket, away from condemning eyes but still close to their hearts

The small bundles of colorful yarn matched the large yarn rainbow stole that I was wearing, and so word spread quickly among the workers that if you wanted one of the notes with rainbow yarn, to look for the lady in the big yarn stole. I found myself being hailed down as I walked through the halls, dropping pieces of rainbow yarn into people’s eager hands. The colorful drops of love, that matched the stole my Aunt Jackie knit, became like water running off the edge of the cup that overflows with mercy.

When the Traditional Plan passed, and I rushed down to the lobby to make sure that Queer family and allies were safe from police, we found ourselves locked out. Police barred us from re-entering to the closing worship service. I could not get to my belongings, and I could not get to my family behind our Concession Stands. I could not remind them they were loved. I could not tell them we would still fight. I could not tell them this changed nothing about how precious and beloved they were. I could not tell them that I will still put my collar on this Thursday and serve Holy Communion. 

Yet, though separated by police, and gates and distance, the air between us was clear. So, when we sang out at the top of our voices there in that lobby about the unconditional love of God, I know they heard us.

I know they heard us.

I know they heard.

I know. 

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

 

When Celibacy Conflicts With Faithfulness

Most young clergywomen are familiar with the predictable conversation that takes place when people encounter us for the first time in the wild. Scrunching up their face in puzzlement at my clergy collar, the woman cutting my hair, or the man ringing up my groceries will almost inevitably ask, “So can you get married?”

In earlier years my answer always came easily, “Of course I can get married! No, I’m not a nun.” In more recent times, however, I have found the answer does not come as readily. “Technically…” has become my cryptic reply.

Having come out as Queer clergy a few months ago, I have been wrestling with what that word “technically” means to me. It means that I can get married – technically – but not in a way that would be life-giving for me, since the only marriage that my denomination condones – technically – would be if I were to marry a man. In a few days in St. Louis, many people that know and love me will have the ability to vote on whether that technicality will change. What a strange circumstance, that there are people that I have lived with and worked with that will be able with the push of a button to decide something so important to me. Some of them plan to vote to set me free, and some of them plan to vote to end my career by requiring me to reject who I am to continue in it. Emotionally, and practically, it is a strange power for people I love to have over me, like holding the keys to a medieval chastity belt.

A heavy weight has sat on my chest every time I try to write about this. Since coming out, I have observed that some who know me would like to make this reality easier for themselves by choosing to think of me as “not like those other Queer people” or somehow better than my Queer family because I’m not in a relationship, and am therefore not “practicing.” It seems easier to tell themselves and others that I am the one choosing celibacy, than it is to talk to me about it and understand how I feel. 

While it is uncomfortable for me to talk about this as well, I do not want to be used as an easy out by anyone either. I need to speak my truth and my reality.

So, let us be accurate. I am celibate. This does not mean I have a call to celibacy. This does not mean I have the “gift of celibacy.” If someone tells you that, then it means they have not loved me enough to talk to me about it. This is simply my reality. I am celibate. Full stop. And I wish I wasn’t.

It bears noting that it has been a difficult year for women who grew up in the purity culture. Joshua Harris expressing his remorse over his book – that was treated as evangelical doctrine – does not lessen the trauma it caused. 

It has also been a difficult month for women with vows of celibacy. The Pope expressing his remorse that nuns have been being used as sex slaves by some priests and Bishops does not lessen the trauma caused by those who feel betrayed by their vows and their institution. 

It will be a difficult week for queer clergy ordained in the United Methodist Church. The expressions of sympathy from church leadership will not lesson the trauma that is about to be caused as the intimate aspects of our lives will be casual discussion for our global colleagues, as they are discussed right in front of us as though we are not in the room.

Here I sit. Occupying all three of these realities. This is no coincidence. 

How heavy the task of finding the words to say about my own life, when for others it is so easy to speak of us. It is so easy to assume things about Queer clergy. The word Queer somehow makes people think they have permission to assign all kinds of assumptions onto you that they would feel shame ridden to have cross their mind about their heterosexual colleagues. Somehow logic does not prevail, and they assign judgment to the object of their imagination rather than to their own imagination itself.  How comfortable sits the man with power and hubris, speaking with ease about things which he will never experience, know or understand. 

This vow of celibacy, shared by those nuns, their abusive priests, and I, was imposed upon us for the purpose of institutional preservation, then camouflaged successfully over the centuries and decades by a rationalization built upon a false equivalency between being called to the priesthood and being called to celibacy. 

Let us break this down. 

Somehow the church survived the first 1000 years of its history without this connection between celibacy and the priesthood. Yes, it certainly appeared here and there, and now and then, but never as a comprehensive and compulsory requirement. It was not until the First Lateran Council in 1123 A.D., in a selective and non-ecumenical gathering, that celibacy was decreed as a comprehensive commitment for priests, rather than the occasional and geographical ways it had sprouted up from time to time. The church, frustrated with fighting over inheritances with the children of priests, was eager to rid itself of the complications and costs that accompanied a priest who had wives and children. Thus, it was decreed in Canon 7:

We absolutely forbid priests, deacons or subdeacons to live with concubines and wives, and to cohabit with other women, except those whom the council of Nicaea permitted to dwell with them solely on account of necessity, namely a mother, sister, paternal or maternal aunt, or other such persons, about whom no suspicion could justly arise

The fact that protecting the finances of the church was the crisis of the moment was further emphasized in the next line, Canon 8 of the First Lateran Council, which stated that laypeople, regardless of “how religious they may be,” may not carry out church business because they may “arrogate to himself the disposition or donation.” In other words, the church feared laypeople getting their hands on those tithes and offerings, just as they feared the families of priests getting their hands on church resources in Canon 7. 

Therefore, we found ourselves a thousand years into the history of the church, compelling all people who were called to devote their lives to God, to also devote their lives to celibacy. We placed upon them the requirement to suppress something that was good, godly, and beautiful about themselves, in order to be permitted to answer their call to serve the church. 

This requirement of celibacy for the priesthood did not come from God, however, and was not rooted in scripture. It was a decision made by man. Requiring something so huge from people as the price for “letting them answer their call” did great damage to the relationship between God and those called to serve God. It created a false barrier in the communication between God and those God called. It required them to give up something that God had not called them to give up, but that the church needed them to give up for financial reasons.

This is abuse. Abuse of the trust that people place in the church. 

In time this became evident to some. The many traditions that arose as a result of the Reformation permitted their priests to marry. Vows and expectations shifted, and with time the priesthood in these other traditions even came to include women as well as men. 

The latest chapter of this came in 1983, when I was only three months old. At that time, my own tradition, the United Methodist Church was concerned for their institutional preservation, as the Roman Catholic Church had been at the First Lateran Council. 

As Bishop Jack Tuell would later give testimony:

“It’s February 1983, a little over 20 years ago.  I am meeting in an airport in Albuquerque with two other United Methodist bishops and an executive of the Division of Ordained  Ministry out of Nashville. We are doing preliminary work on legislation for the 1984 General Conference. Our subject matter was ordained ministry. We worked on many aspects of the subject. But a particular concern being raised was: “How do we screen out homosexual persons from becoming ordained ministers?”   

I proposed a seven-word addition to the list of things to which candidates for ministry must commit: “Fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”…
Now why did we do that?  You would think that on as important a matter as that we might look to Wesley’s guidelines of discernment: that is, scripture, tradition, experience and reason.  But I’m here to tell you that we did not look at the scriptures; we never mentioned tradition; we did not refer to experience, and reason.  It was almost absent from our discussion. Instead of those four classic words guiding our conversation, we were unconsciously guided by two other words: institutional protection.”

In other words, men in my denomination made the choice, for the purposes of institutional protection, to avoid the whole “gay conversation” by taking advantage of the law of the land, and the fact that it was not legal for gay folks to get married. By inserting a phrase “celibacy in singleness” into the ordination vows, they could ensure that those who could not legally be married would have to remain lifelong celibates, in order for the church to avoid an authentic engagement with them and a loving conversation about their thoughts, experiences, identities, and realities. 

I was born and baptized into a church that did not include that in the vow. Yet, 28 years later, it would be a vow that I would take when I answered my call to ordination. At the time, I believed the vow to be a part of the history of the church, I did not know it had been inserted in my lifetime. At the time, I had not embraced my queerness, and I had no idea how that vow was strategically created to bind me. 

For the years that followed, there was something that I could not put my finger on that lay between God and I. It was not until recently that I would find out what it was: this vow that God did not require of me, that man forced upon me as the price that I had to pay for others to gain the ability to avoid the loving conversation.

God, on the other hand, has never avoided the loving conversations with me. I felt the same good-humored embrace of the Spirit when I accepted my Queerness as I had when I accepted my call, “Welcome, it took you long enough.”

We can debate the content of the vow, whether it is reasonable or not, but that is a straw man, a distraction. Why those words are there matters. As a person who strives to live with integrity, the “why” always matters to me. The intention behind putting those words in my mouth matters to me. Both in the case of the Lateran Council, and in the case of the General Conference of 1984, institutional preservation was what was at stake, and not spiritual integrity. That is a betrayal. 

There have always been people on all ends of the sexuality spectrum, both heterosexuals and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who have recognized that this vow was a result of church politics and not sound exegesis. There have always been Queer clergy who have followed God’s calling into the relationships that God intended for them.

I admire them, and I aspire to have their courage to follow God with boldness.

To make a person choose between two callings God has placed on their life – one to be ordained and the other to be in loving relationship – is spiritual abuse. It is meddling in an area where only the Spirit has a say. It is prioritization of the institution over the community of faith. 

I am Queer. I am celibate, but I will likely not always be. I have never feared anything so much as I fear being outside of the will of God. So, if God calls me into relationship, I will obey. That is the integrity and courage that I have seen from my colleagues like Mary and Susan, Kimberly and Sofia, Bailey and Kelli. That is the integrity and courage that I want to have. I don’t want to hide any longer behind my work, behind my collar, or behind my vows.

 

The Table of Man

At the back of the hotel ballroom, I stood shaking from my encounter with the Spirit. Outwardly composed, the pen I held in my hand betrayed my secret, resisting being steadied each time I tried to set it to the page. 

I had just stood on the stage with simple straw basket and cup, and celebrated Holy Communion for the United Methodist Women as if my life depended on it, because in so many ways it does. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, as I tried to calm myself. Stepping out of the focus of this community of women so beloved to me, I found myself standing face to face with the core of what is at stake this month: This Table. This welcome. This meal. This family. This calling. This community. This life. 

We can write and think and debate all we want about legislation and pensions and politics until we become safe and numb, losing all connection with the emotional and spiritual consequences of our actions. Losing all sense of the fact that families once said “I love you” across the breakfast table, and churches once said “Peace be with you” across the Table of the Lord.

At the end of the day, this is what is at stake: Will I lose my ability to serve at the Table of the Lord in the United Methodist Church simply because I have named that I know myself to be Queer?

I word that statement carefully, because this is not a question of whether I can serve at the Table of the Lord. The United Methodist Church does not have the authority to invite me to eat at the Table of the Lord, nor does it have the authority to invite me to serve at the Table of the Lord. Only the one to whom the Table belongs can give those invitations. This is the theology of my tradition. We believe that this is an open table; that our priestly task is merely to extend the invitation that Christ has already made to those that love God, repent of their failures to love, and seek to live in peace. It is my denomination that credentials me, but it is my God who called me.

It is possible that the strategies of those that fear us could rip my credentials from my hands, but they cannot put out the fire shut up in my bones, the coal that has touched my lips, or the lamp that shines from my eyes. Cowardice cannot quench the force of my courage. Hate cannot weaken the power of my love. The assumptions birthed in the dirty minds of patriarchal men cannot imagine away my integrity. 

You should know by now, love never goes down without a fight, and justice never lets the oppressor define the terms of success or failure.

Justice is a beautiful and creative dance, and the clumsy steps of those who do not know how to sway to its rhythm will soon painfully reveal where each of us truly stands. 

If the end of this month brings news that I, and my Queer sistren and brethren, have been barred from a Table, it will not be the Table of the Lord. No mortal has that power. Instead, we will stand shut out from the Table of Man. For a Table to which not all are invited, cannot be called the Table of the Lord. That is not Wesleyan theology, even if it was sadly his youthful behavior.

When we use the word Wesleyan to describe ourselves, which chapter of John Wesley’s life does our behavior emulate? Do we admire the young man, heart yet unwarmed, who barred Sophia Hopkey in 1737 from the Table for his own petty, personal and ego-driven reasons? Or do we admire the experienced leader, who in 1771 would break with church tradition, as well as the accepted interpretation of scripture on a woman’s role, to argue that women like Mary Bosanquet should be permitted to preach on the grounds of having an obvious and extraordinary calling?

As we think to our own future, let us remember in which chapter his ministry was destroyed by his arrogance, and in which chapter it was strengthened by his humility.

Let us be clear, if we choose to exclude from God’s table those whom we exclude from our own table, then we will have built for ourselves an idol in our own image. A Table, surely, but not the Lord’s.

Just as those before us have so often gathered their coins and trinkets to melt into a Golden Calf, those groups who have squirreled aside their coins, in violation of their covenant with the greater community, will have their moment to forge an idol to Man. Whether that idol will stand within the bounds of United Methodism, or outside of them is what we have yet to determine.  Those who find themselves, at the end of the day, standing before that Idol, will continue to say the words, “We confess that we have not heard the cry of the needy” without ever facing the real crime: that they never truly tried to listen.

They have been too scared that they will find their heart strangely warmed, their attitude strangely shift, their mind strangely altered. They have been afraid of what love will do to the beliefs they hold so dear.  I know well this fear of transformation, for as a child I was taught not to listen. All throughout those years, my little brain wondered every day: if what we believe is true, then why are we so scared that someone will change our minds? 

That little girl with all her questions, has become a woman with the humility to know when she does not have the answers. A woman whose strength has been forged in fires whose heat no man who now stands against her could bear. A woman whose mind and heart have blossomed as she has aged, without ever losing her reliance on the vine supporting her, that is Jesus Christ.

So, when all this debating, and strategizing comes to an end, you will still find me at the Table of the Lord. Somewhere, perhaps in a United Methodist Church, or perhaps in the highways and byways, I will still take that loaf in my hands. I will break it as if our lives depend on it, and I will eat it together with those that hunger and thirst for righteousness…

and we will be filled.

and we will be loved.

and we will be welcomed.

and we will be whole.