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.
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 partin 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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…
Crumbs. Gathering them used to be the first task of sacred ritual with my mother. I would sweep them into a pile, and off the edge of the table into my cupped hand, while my mother put the teapot on to boil. Brushing them off my fingers into the sink, the dance continued as she pulled down the box of English tea from the cupboard. I would select two of the fine, china mugs from the corner cabinet, and finish my portion of the ritual with a pirouette-like turn back to the table. All that was left was to sit and wait, as she brewed the tea extra dark, extra strong, extra bitter, then poured it into the cups – mine with raspberries, hers with a peacock – as we settled in for our two or three or four hour chats.
We talked about all kinds of things at that altar. Bullies at school. My mom’s concern for my lesbian aunt. The boy that I dated for 4-6 years (depending on how we define it) without ever being able to muster up an interest in him to match his passion for me.
My mother’s nickname for me was her Second Brain. I picked up the things that spilled over the edge and held onto them until she needed them. I kept a careful mental record of every time she mentioned that she liked something, so that my father could always know the perfect gift to get her.
Crumbs. Pushing them around on my plate, I sipped tea from a styrofoam cup the day that all of this began to crumble. I sat in a large fellowship hall in a Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. I had driven up from the southernmost tip of Maryland’s Eastern Shore peninsula, where I was appointed to my first two-point charge. It was 2010, and I was there to attend one of the many conversations that my Bishop was hosting on LGBTQ+ inclusivity, in between the General Conferences of 2008 and 2012. I watched as the sacred privacy of my family was broken, as the conversations that were held around our kitchen table were taken into the public. My parents rose to talk about my aunt, about how she had a sad, hard life because she was a lesbian, and how if we were loving we would not encourage people to accept themselves as LGBTQ+, because to do so would be to condemn them to such a hard, sad, sinful life. I had expected to avoid this, having driven the further distance to attend a different District meeting than the one where my parents lived. Yet, I was informed upon arrival that my parents’ passion to speak out against LGBTQ+ inclusivity was so strong that they were driving to each and every District’s meeting to share about my aunt’s sad life.
I wept all the way home. Ashamed of my silence, of my failure to speak up for my aunt. Ashamed that I let my parents begin to build a platform on her back, while she sat somewhere in Pittsburgh unknowing. Yet, I could never tell her, it would break her heart. It was one thing to speak of my aunt that way in the privacy of our own home, but another to speak of her as a sad sinner and a cautionary tale publicly. It had been the constant refrain of my childhood, continually ensuring that this queer little kid would push down the questions that I had about my own identity; ensuring that I would hear the words, “I don’t care who you end up with as long as they make you happy,” without ever thinking that those words were really true. Happiness was not possible for the Queer community. As much joy as my Aunt brought into the world, it was all a performance, because Queer people could not be happy and could not live a full and abundant life. It was a logistical impossibility.
Crumbs. It is no wonder that my Aunt seemed hungry around us, if that is all we were ever willing to feed her. The partial acceptance of who she was. The withholding. The gaslighting. The unspoken undertones of “I love you, but not all of you” – of “I want you to be happy, but that’s just not possible for you” – of “I accept your partner, I just wish she wasn’t in your life” – of “You are the most loving person that we know, it’s just too bad your love is a sin.” Yes, she was sad around us – who wouldn’t be. Yes, she had a hard life – like every other person in my family regardless of their orientation… only the rest of us didn’t get to hang out with NFL players and movie stars.
Let me be clear, my aunt may have been hungry around us because we fed her crumbs, but boy did she eat well elsewhere. Nobody pours the kind of love and light and talent and joy and sacrifice into the world that she did without some of it splashing back on them. She loved hard and she was loved in return. She was a home to the homeless, a mother to the motherless, an anchor for the aimless. She was joy. She was the favorite person of everyone she met. She had the kind of talent that most can only dream about. My grandmother had a closet full of musical instruments in her house; when I asked who played which ones, the answer was Amy every time. Amy, who hung out with Katherine Heigl on set, and insisted she was a sweetheart to the crew. Amy, who talked people off the ledge, both literally and figuratively, and saved lives whether it was bridge-jumpers or Queer kids being fed crumbs of love just like her.
Amy K. Lamb, like her sister Jackie, was also a cancer survivor, and in 2011, a year after my tearful drive back to Maryland, that cancer would finally take her life. I would take the pulpit in Pittsburgh, in front of her NFL friends and her fellow film producers, and I would lead the final celebration of her life. I would stand beside her partner, my Aunt Ana, as we laid her ashes in the ground. As I walked away from the grave in the cold, Pennsylvania wind, a butterfly would appear where one should not have been able to survive. Of course it did, because this was Amy K. Lamb’s burial.
Crumbs. I have struggled my whole life with how to explain that starving someone will not change their appetite, will not change their orientation, will not change their identity. It may make them more willing to gobble up the crumbs we are willing to give them, but it will not change their desire to be loved for the wholeness of who they are.
I remember walking out of a poetry event in Houston a few years ago to find a woman in her 50’s collapsed on the front steps. She was inconsolable. Triggered. She kept insisting that God couldn’t love her, that her momma couldn’t fully love her, because of who she loved. I sat on the pavement with her and others for hours, but there was nothing I could say that could convince her otherwise. It did not matter that I was a pastor. It did not matter that I promised her God loved her. She had been trying to survive on crumbs of love her whole life, and she did not know yet how to eat anything else. There is no other moment in my life in which I felt more impotent as a pastor.
Three years after my aunt’s death, in 2014, I saw Amy’s face come across my computer screen in an article from UM News. “Sister believes in Jesus’ love for lesbian sister”, the headline read, the last painful crumb of postmortem gaslighting offered to my aunt.
“Amy died of cancer in 2011, and Jane is certain she is in heaven. Just as certain as she is that a “gay lifestyle” was not what God wanted for her sister.”
I remember the first time I met my Aunt Ana, Amy’s partner. I was a little kid, bouncing on the bed at my grandmother’s house in a town outside Scranton. Ana did not scold, instead she made me laugh harder than I had in ages. She brought me joy, just like Amy, and without a moment’s hesitation, I let her into my heart as my youngest, funnest Aunt. When I was assigned to my first church, and had to make that long drive down to Maryland the day after Thanksgiving, Ana was the only person who would make the sacrifice to help me move. I had just turned 27, and I was driving alone five hours straight south, and then twenty minutes west into the marshes. I was moving into a big, empty house, all by myself, and becoming the pastor of two churches on the same day. Ana was the only one willing to go with me.
Ana was not my Aunt Amy’s “gay lifestyle,” she was the love of her life. When Amy met Ana, she was in Paris, on her way to a tour of French wine country. She left for the trip with her friends, but could not get Ana out of her mind. She rushed back to Paris, found Ana, and they were inseparable for the rest of Amy’s life. Theirs was the greatest romance in my family’s history.
I scrolled below the pictures of my mother and my aunt, to the article below.
“Jane L. Bonner is president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Evangelical Connection and a strong advocate for The United Methodist Church’s position that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that God intends marriage to be only between a man and a woman.”
“Bonner attended both days of the trial of Frank Schaefer, the pastor who performed his son’s wedding ceremony. She also helped write a letter sent to Johnson calling for her to hold the pastors who officiated at the Arch Street same-sex wedding “accountable to their ordination vows.”
On cursory glance, the point that was being attempted was that people could be gay and sinners, but still worthy of love not condemnation. The point that was truly being made was that people could call their family members sinners and tell them they were not receiving the abundant life Jesus had planned for them, and still expect them to receive that as love.
This article was not about Amy. It was not about fighting to make the church more accepting of Amy. This was about proudly fighting to make sure that Amy could never be married in a Methodist church, while simultaneously pretending that my Aunt did not know whether my parents would have supported her marriage.
It does not work that way. One cannot fight with every part of yourself to keep lesbians from being able to marry, and expect your lesbian sister to not know your feelings on the topic.
Neither can you commit every fiber of your being to the fight against Queer clergy, commit vocally to vote against their existence at General Conference, and have your Queer clergy daughter not know your feelings on the topic.
When I finally came out to my mother, I heard an angry tone on the other side that I had not heard before, that could not be hidden anymore. “Well, I feel sorry for you,” she spit out. “You are going to have a hard, sad life. But don’t think you get to surprise me. I’ve known for a long time. Don’t think you get to pull a fast one on me. I’ve known for a long time.”
“Do you realize what you’re saying, mom? The biggest fight of your life has been against Queer clergy, and you’re saying that you knew that is what I am?”
It was my worst fear coming to life. That my mother knew that I was Queer clergy, and that she still had committed her life to fighting against our existence, to stripping me of my credentials and banning me from my vocation.
“Well, you’ve never heard my perspective,” she said.
This she said to her Second Brain, to the one who listens so carefully and retains everything; to the one who had heard little but her perspective all my life, but who had never truly told her mine.
“I have to go mom, we can talk about this later.”
“Well, don’t think you’re going to change my mind.”
“I have to go mom.”
Somehow, it was worse than I could have expected. She reacted as if she had been bracing for this. As if she had been preparing. As if I had an agenda to use my queerness to hurt her. Didn’t she know how many years I had been choking it down? How many years I had been resisting being used against her by those who found it humorous that they could guess the daughter of Jane L. Bonner was queer? Didn’t she know how that robbed me of the support that I needed, and made me a joke instead? Didn’t she know how I had been protecting her, while she waged war on me?
It may not make sense, until you think of all the odd ways that we protect the ones who hurt us… all the ways that Aunt Amy fought like a lion for my mother. Part of me still was, after all, that little girl who swept up the crumbs from her mother’s table, and focused all her imagination on what would make her happy. The little girl who brought home art history books to try to revive the spark of the passion her mother had given up for her children. The little girl who fixed the VCR and the toilet, and put in new countertops, and did whatever she could to make life easier and happier.
I was the little girl, living on crumbs, pieces of love to match the pieces of myself that were acceptable.
I was the little girl, who just wanted to protect her mom, and make her mom happy, and earn her mom’s love. I love my mom; I understand that sometimes we can only give to others the crumbs that have been given to us… but I also know that I am worthy of more.
Which is why… we don’t live on crumbs anymore. You hear me, Amy K. Lamb? We don’t live on crumbs anymore.
I’ve become a baker, and I’m going to bake so many beautiful things for you, so that the Queer kiddos that you loved will never have to live on crumbs again.
You hear me, Amy K. Lamb?
We don’t live on crumbs anymore.
I’m going to bake you cakes with icing so decadent that it will make your teeth hurt.
I’m going to bake you pies with butter-crust hand pressed into the pan so that I leave my mark with every finger print.
I’m going to bake you cookies that are vegan and gluten-free so that anyone and everyone can take a bite.
I’m going to bake you cakes, beloveds, because we don’t live on crumbs anymore.
“You are the answer to our prayers,” Madre Irene said in delighted surprise as we entered the quiet church yard. She had just finished breakfast with her fellow sister in the Order of Mary the Sorrowful Mother, when we came through the gates of Cristo Rey. The two nuns had been discussing the children in the tent city, within just a stone’s throw of their town. They had been struggling to think of what they could do. In this quiet town, on the Mexico side of the border, they could see and hear the children play in the mornings through the slats of the wall, with helicopters flying overhead to watch them. Yet, while they could hear them, and they could see them, still it seemed there was nothing they could do.
“We had decided that all we could do was pray, and then I walked outside, and here you were!” she informed us.
For months in Tucson, Free the Children had thought and planned and worked. We raised money, and bailed a father out of detention. We raised awareness, but we wanted to do more. Finally one of the mothers in the room, Carolina, simply insisted, “Why don’t we go there? Why don’t we see what we can do?” Now, here we stood, before the answer to our prayers, only to discover that we were the answer to theirs as well.
When the tent city had opened at Tornillo in June, as housing for immigrant children separated from their parents, the tents had been set up a short distance from the border wall. They were put together on federal property, exempt from state laws regarding children, at the Tornillo/Guadelupe Port of Entry between – on the Mexico side – the State of Chihuahua, and – onthe United States side – the State of Texas. As the statements that the tent city would close constantly transformed into falsehoods, the cluster of tents itself transformed into a militarized town that dwarfed the population of Caseta, the Mexican town. As the tent city sprawled outward, closer and closer to the border wall, it also came closer and closer to the people on the other side of the wall, making it impossible for them to ignore. Their hearts became deeply grieved by the constant sight and sounds of children imprisoned between fences, guards and the border wall.
By the time, we walked through the gates of Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Caseta, it had been four months since I had first spotted their spires. Sitting at the gate to the tent city throughout the month of June, I had spotted the distinctive twin steeples of the church and felt comforted by their presence. I hoped the illusion of watchful eyes, that the twin arches of the steeple created, would be comforting to the children as well. I dreamed about what it would be like to be able to send a more direct message, a message that they knew was for them. We had tried, from the US side, to do so with a balloon, and ended up with a vigilante sticking a gun in our faces. At the time, in June, the promises that the tent city would close seemed so certain, that it did not seem worthwhile to risk lives to pursue it any further.
Yet, the tent city did not go away, and neither did the desire amongst all those around it to let the kids know that they were supported and loved. Over the months, the tent city transformed from a temporary crisis intervention space for separated kids, to a long term incarceration facility for all manner of kids who had been classified as unaccompanied minors. As the classification of kids expanded, so did the numbers, from hundreds to thousands, until the sounds of their play vibrated the border wall and echoed over to the town of Caseta.
The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, standing and watching the children from across the wall, could not have been more aptly named. Where were all the sorrowful mothers of these children scattered? How many were back home in the countries from which they had journeyed? How many of them were waiting somewhere in Topeka or Boston or Durham, unable to claim their children because it would ensure their own deportation? How many of them had been deported and were unable to communicate?
Where were the many sorrowful mothers in whose place these Sisters now stood?
Where were the many sorrowful mothers whose grief mirrored the original, Mary, who watched her wandering son arrested, criminalized and bound?
After greeting us in the courtyard of Cristo Rey, Mother Irene invited us all into her living room: Mari, Summer, Carolina, Becky, Juan, Marla and I. She sat us down and began by ascertaining which of us was baptized, and more significantly which of us was baptized en la Iglesia Catolica. She was not disappointed to discover a few Catholic saints among us. We talked about the kids, and what we could do to bring hope to them. We told her about the dreams of being able to let them know they were not alone, “No estan solos,” the message that was to have been hung from the original balloon. She ushered us over to the church when the service was to start, and we were able to join the mourners at the morning’s funeral.
It was hard to leave when the time came to return to Arizona. Mother Irene took Carolina’s head in her hands gently and prayed a blessing over her, and then over all of us. The surreal and sacred time that we had shared with the Sisters was hard to release. Yet, they assured us – and we assured them – that it was only the beginning. We would return with a banner, with a message for the kids. They would hang it from their steeple so that if any kids might be able to see it, they would know that they were not alone – that God, the Church, and the people of Caseta were with them.
Over the next couple weeks, we communicated with our new friends, this sacred friendship giving birth to a profound mission of hope. The Sisters decided on a message that would be a little more direct. Rather than “No estan solos” – you are not alone – they preferred, “Liberen a los niños” – Free the children. This was not the time for subtlety. People were suffering. Mothers were suffering. Children were suffering. The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother had spent decades inhabiting lives of contemplation upon that sorrow, and service in response to that sorrow. Who better than they to know what to do and what to say, in response to sorrow and injustice?
As soon as was humanly possible, we returned. Piling into a minivan, we embarked once again in this journey of friendship, across state lines and border walls to Cristo Rey. Arriving, a group of people from the town had joined the Sisters in gathering to greet us and to make it known that Caseta supported this mission of mercy that the Sisters were pursuing. Members of Cristo Rey stood in the shadow of its steeples to make sure that their would be no impediments to the task. They explained that they were fed up, that they were tired of watching the kids imprisoned, that it was the right thing to do and they were the right people to do it. They wanted to send a message of hope and unwavering support.
Unfurling the banner, the Sisters smiled in approval and fetched a smaller matching banner that they had printed as well. We would take it to Joshua, who was their watchful mirror, keep vigilant watch on the US side of the wall.
Climbing the steeples on ladders, the men of the town hoisted the banner into place, suspended between the two towers that pointed skyward. The Sisters stood proudly looking up at the banner, watching as their prayer took the shape of action, and their compassion took the shape of courage.
Driving away from Caseta was even harder the second time than it had been the first. We had broken bread together, and heard more of one another’s stories. The Sisters had sung happy birthday to me as we walked through the streets of the town where Madre Irene had lived since before I was born. There was a sort of peace in knowing that the kids in this tent city were cradled gently in loving watchfulness between Joshua on the US side, and Madre Irene on the Mexico side. And now, thanks to their banner, we could pray that they would know it too.
The knit rainbow stole lay warm and heavy across my black clergy robe as I stood in the pulpit of my aunt’s Presbyterian church in West Chester, Pennsylvania.I looked out into the congregation from the pulpit, and down into the eyes of my young cousins, nieces, and nephews.I told them that the rainbow stole my aunt had knit was – at the same time – both the heaviest and the lightest weight that had ever been placed upon my shoulders.
Days earlier, I was in the air somewhere between Houston and Philadelphia when my aunt passed away. Rushing to be at her side, I had gotten there too late. I landed in the arms of her son, my cousin Jeff, who took me from the airport back to her house. Now, he and I, the two ordained pastors of the family, shared the pulpit and this momentous task of sacred remembering.
Touching the yarn of my stole as I stood in that pulpit, I remembered watching my aunt’s slender fingers move nimbly as she knit it together two years earlier. Jackie was still in chemo sessions, and it was the last time that she and I had time together to talk – just the two of us – without all the noise and beautiful chaos of our family gatherings that makes quiet, private moments hard to come by.
I always remember the last sacred conversation that I share with someone – the blessing. The moment is not always the same as the last time I see someone, although there may be some awareness of finality. For my younger Aunt Amy and I, it had been that evening in her garden, where we laughed and talked. When she insisted, despite her frail condition, on walking up the street to the point where Mount Washington overlooks the city of Pittsburgh. We watched as the street lights overcame the falling darkness, and she shared with me her happy memories, her plans, and her dreams. A few years later, with Aunt Jackie, that conversation happened in the side room of her house in West Chester. I kept her company while she knit rainbow stoles for the Presbyterian General Assembly that convened in 2014 to discuss marriage equality.
Jackie sat in the rocking chair, and I sat on the couch, watching and chatting. She explained that knitting these stoles for the General Assembly was her way of making sure that LGBTQ+ folxs had full equality in the church. She told me that she wanted LGBTQ+ folxs to know they are loved and accepted in the church. She had witnessed so much pain, and she wanted it to stop. She believed they should have the ability to both stand in the pulpit as preachers, and to sit in the pew together as spouses.
I had always been able to tell Aunt Jackie my secrets, ever since I brought my first boyfriend over in high school. She had told me not to elope with that boy, and I had told her there was no chance of that happening. Yet that evening, all those years later, words failed me. A silent question hung heavy in the air between us.An unspoken wondering. I looked at my feet, and somehow we reached an understanding. I did not say a word, but my face was so hot and my heart beat so fast – I could hear the blood pounding in my ears and I felt sure she must be able to hear it as well. She, in turn, told me everything I needed to hear, the relentless clicking of her knitting needles telegraphing love out with each and every stitch.
When Christmas came, my mother arrived to my sister’s house with the usual packages from Aunt Jackie. For as long as we could remember, all five of us kids had received five identical boxes from Aunt Jackie. One year it would be five sets of slippers in five different colors in five different boxes. Another year it would be five sets of gloves in five different colors in five different boxes.
This year was different.
The wrapped Macy’s box that my mother handed me was shaped the same as everyone else’s, but there was an unmistakable heaviness to my gift. When I opened the box, the rainbow spilled out. Aunt Jackie had sent me one of her protest stoles; perhaps the very same one that I had watched her knit. My breath caught in my throat. I wondered if I had turned pink, or worse red. I wondered if my family guessed at the meaning of her gift, a meaning that would have felt treasonous to my conservative Christian parents. If they did, no one spoke of it. My mother admired the colorful “scarf” that had – for the first time in our family’s history – broken the predictable rhythm of five different colored gloves or slippers for the five Bonner children.
I never thanked Aunt Jackie. As the days after Christmas turned into weeks and then months, I thought about what I should say to her. I had plans to call. I wanted to write. Yet, I never spoke to her of the stole that she had knit with so much love and given with so much meaning.
I was not ready to acknowledge what I believed she wanted to affirm. I had been brought up in a world that daily shamed and condemned this part of me. I needed more time, but it was time that Aunt Jackie simply did not have. She would not be able to be there when I was ready. She would not be able to put her arms around my shoulders when I needed to find my courage, so she sent me something else to lay across them instead.
The next couple years were grueling for both of us. As she went through chemo and radiation, getting weaker and weaker, I began my vigil at the Waller County Jail. Our lives were both under threat, mine from the social cancer of racism and hers from the ravages of the physical one. Like the rest of my family, she worried about me but never tried to talk me out of it. Those that know me best know how futile it is to try to dissuade me once I have set my mind to something.
In January of 2017, I placed my body between a white nationalist and a group of Muslim women. I ended up with a knife close to my back. It shook me like no other close call in my life had been able to do. It plunged me into a space of deep withdrawal and reflection about the value of my own life. It was a couple months into this period, in April of 2017, that Aunt Jackie passed away.
I spent that week with my cousins preparing for her funeral. I discussed her life with her daughter, Beth, and liturgy with her son, the Rev. Jeffrey Nagorney. I contemplated what I would say and what I would wear to her funeral. I had put the rainbow stole that she had knit for me into my suitcase, as I usually took it to stressful places for comfort. I felt it’s bulky, chunky weight in my hands, and I decided that I would wear it over my black academic robe.
Stepping into the pulpit that day, I was finally able to thank her properly. In that moment, I realized that the best way to honor my aunt’s life was to live mine; not just to stay alive as I had been struggling to do in Texas, but to truly live. I knew the joy it would have given my aunt to see me go from survival to thriving. That, I decided, was how I would thank her.
The night before, I had received a phone call about a position in Tucson, Arizona. As a coast-hugging water-lover, I had always said I could never live in the desert. Yet, for some reason, I had told them I would call them back after the funeral.
I dialed the number. When they picked up, I told them I would come to Arizona and interview.
My soul and body longed for rest. Longed for distance. Longed to be close to the earth. To the dirt.
Landing in Arizona, I fell in love – with the desert – with the heat – with the wind that swept away all the whispers of what others said I should be.
The strength of the saguaros called out to my soul. I sat and watched the sun set. I woke up in the morning and had tea with an old friend. I knew in that moment that this was a place where I could live. Not just stay alive, but live. Maybe for the first time in my life.
I began building a home again for the first time in many years. I felt safe enough to see the parts of me that I had spent a lifetime hiding from myself. I was surprised to find that the shame that I had expected to feel was not there, nor was the fear. I felt only joy, relief, and celebration. Freedom. Acceptance. Wholeness. Health.
My queerness did not treat me like a stranger, even though I had spent a lifetime turning away from it. It simply settled comfortably and quietly on my shoulders. Familiar, like the gentle weight and warmth of Aunt Jackie’s stole. Comforting, as if it had always been there – because it had been.
At first, I held it close to my heart, knowing that eventually I would have to let it out into the sunlight. I knew I could not spend a lifetime fighting for liberation and wholeness for others, and not be willing to give the same gift to myself. My life had been too defined by transparency and authenticity to make it possible for me to keep for long this treasure to myself.
So, in the words of Darnell Moore, I now invite you in…into this beautiful knowledge of myself as a Queer woman. I invite you into this celebration of life and wholeness and healing. I invite you to embrace with me this confidence that every part of me is beloved, is beautiful, and belongs.
I write this now, with Aunt Jackie’s stole laying across my shoulders, her love and acceptance knit into every stitch.
I know that Aunt Jackie did not need a thank you. What she needed was for me to have the warmth of her love with me when I finally saw myself. When I finally loved myself. When I finally accepted myself.
Thank you Aunt Jackie, for loving all of me before I could love all of myself. Consider this your long-delayed phone call. Your stole welcomed me, comforted me, emboldened me. It did exactly what you created it to do. You can trust that I will continue doing exactly what I was created to do, for I too was knit together in love.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:13-14)
After the weeks I spent sitting at the gate of the tent city for kids in Tornillo, Texas, I realized I was having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. I texted friends asking them to give me the big picture. Accustomed to trench work, to being close to the ground, I often see the things no one else sees, while at the same time missing the things everyone else is seeing.
One of the biggest things that was weighing on me was that while offering continual observations from the ground, and listening to firsthand accounts from inside, I had done little to look into the faith-based organization that was running the tent city, Baptist Child and Family Services. That is why I was so grateful when University of Arizona professor, Dr. Elizabeth Jaeger, offered to begin the research into BCFS. Using her research as a starting point, I have attempted to reflect upon what is a faithful response to what we are seeing.
My mind has been particularly ill at ease, because time and again we have been given a date that Baptist Children and Family Services planned to end their involvement in Tornillo and shut down the tent city they were running for the United States Government. Yet, whenever the date drew close, it was extended, and it felt that promises were broken. It began to feel familiar; delay tactics in Texas are one thing I know well. Yet, why did BCFS stay involved? They were supposed to be crisis responders, making a temporary response to a momentary crisis created by family separations.
It is now four months later and the kids are still there. Permanent structures have been constructed in addition to the tents. The timeline is now dragging on through the end of 2018.
The initial crisis that BCFS was responding to, the zero-tolerance policy and consequent large numbers of children separated from their parents, has been expanded. Rather than working to reunify the families and children and then shut down, the vision of the tent city has grown to include unaccompanied minors of other forms. The facility has constantly expanded rather than contracted, leading up to the event that returned it to the public eye: the mass movement of kids, during the darkness of night, from shelters around the country to Tornillo. Capacity has been expanded to house close to 4,000 kids from the original 200. Bodies will have to be conscripted to fill those spots. An industry is being created.
As projected date of closure after projected date of closure has passed, one begins to wonder whether the situation that Baptist Child and Family Services find themselves in is similar to the quandary that Maria Hinojosa exposed in her two part interview with Juan Sanchez, the CEO of Southwest Key. In their conversation, Hinojosa draws out the economic and financial considerations that Juan Sanchez feels he must consider when lining up what may be best for the kids against the financial survival of an institution he has built.
Sometimes we start out with the best of intentions… but then there are salaries to be paid.
The CEO of Baptist Children and Family Services, Kevin Dunnin, for example, received a salary of $450,000 in 2013 (while the average salary for non-profit CEOs is closer to $285,000).
According to CNN, in June, a week after Tornillo opened, BCFS was expected to receive $127,000,000 from the US Government during the fiscal year. Since that first week, the number appears to have skyrocketed to between $428,569,971 and $441,234,738 (depending on whether you go by Issue Date Fiscal Year or Funding Fiscal Year respectively) according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That is a lot of money, a lot of salaries. All relying on the continued imprisonment of children. All relying on the Administration’s policy of creating consequences in order to discourage sponsors from claiming children.
(Grants made to BCFS by US Gov. Source: Department of Health and Human Services)
Transparency and Accountability
This leads us to some very important questions. First, the question of transparency and accountability. According to a 2014 article, concerns have been raised in the past to the Department of Health and Human Services about the lack of transparency exhibited by BCFS. If you were to look at their website, perhaps as a potential donor, you will not see any mention of the unaccompanied minor facilities, that presumably make up a good percentage of their income. While we can assume that running a tent city has not always been the history of BCFS, which began as an orphanage in Texas, that is the history that it is writing right now.
With each day that passes, and each child that spends another week or month in the desolation of Tornillo, we are normalizing the imprisonment of innocent children. With each person that signs a non-disclosure agreement to enter, and exits carrying the warm impression intentionally created for them and compassion for those that work there, normalization is carried back to the communities they inhabit.
How soon we forget our original horror.
When you open the website for BCFS, it opens with an image of a young blonde woman, and the words “Empowering Youth Through Education.” However, until a new press release was issued this week saying that children at Tornillo would be receiving instruction from teachers, they have only been provided with optional workbooks to work on if they choose. Establishing educational opportunities is surely a necessary and welcome change from the past 4 months. One would presume that the requirements to abide by State regulations, stipulated by the grants BCFS receives, should already have been being respected and that education should already have been being offered. However, Tornillo, being on Federal property, is not subject to State inspections or enforcement.
It has been difficult at times for advocates all along the border in Texas and Arizona to know how to respond. Most of the responses that have taken place have been directed towards the more profitable Southwest Key. Over the past few months, many advocates have restrained themselves from bringing attention to situations, fearing that children will be moved to even worse locations. To many, Tornillo seems like the worst-case scenario, but others fear that moving the kids out of sight to military bases would be even worse. It is hard to know what to do.
One thing I do know: we must fight normalizing this, and we must fight against the creation of one more mass incarceration institution reliant on bodies for income.
Part of me wonders if we are too late… has all of this already been happening, and already been established for years under our very noses? At the same time, looking at the numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, I can see that income for both Southwest Key and BCFS has skyrocketed, doubling the amount of money they were receiving from the government last year. One can hope, that with the right amount of attention and pressure, we can prevent these and other organizations from being willing accomplices to the administration. One can hope, that we can discourage them from making this a normal part of their expected budget. One can hope, that we can prevent this from becoming business as usual.
I have been struggling with what is our religious responsibility in this from the start. Throughout time when cruelty was enacted upon the vulnerable, there were religious leaders who collaborated and benefitted, and religious leaders who resisted in both public and private ways. When does the time come when we must choose? Where is the line that cannot be crossed? When does the moment come when we must risk it all?
These are questions that many of us have the luxury of asking, because we are not amongst the directly impacted community. Yet, I have heard the voice of a mother who expressed her shock that we were not jumping in our cars and storming the gates of Tornillo.
I have struggled with trying to be professional, trying to be collegial, trying to be respectful. I have held my tongue while watching different religious leaders make different choices.
That mother’s outrage at our complacency strips my soul bare.
Reading representatives from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention defending BCFS from critique, I know that Baptist Children and Family Services is not merely Baptist in name. They are claimed by the Southern Baptists, connected to the Southern Baptists. I wonder what my Baptists friends can do.
In seeking to examine our own practice, I have discussed with other pastors in Tucson how what we do with shelters here is different, and how to keep it that way. Most importantly, we do not hold children in confinement. We offer hospitality, welcome, food, clothing, and the freedom to leave at any time. There are not armed guards or fences, military helicopters or snipers on the roof as I saw on at least one occasion during my time at Tornillo. We work hard to communicate about consent and let guests know they are free to do as they choose and go where they choose. We are not funded by the government, we are supported by the church and you. We do not sign non-disclosure agreements, and as you see, have no problem using any knowledge we have to publicly critique the system. I believe those are important distinctions to maintain.
We must remain vigilant. The way things begin may not be how they end. You may start out setting up a few tents as a temporary shelter for separated kids, and end up running a tent city for thousands of unaccompanied minors.
How closely can the church cooperate with the government in serving immigrants before we have gone too far and become an accomplice to abuse? Where is the line? How much can we tolerate in order to maintain access to the vulnerable, without becoming desensitized to their suffering?
We must examine ourselves. Constantly. We must fight complacency.
"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)