Category Archives: Community

Their freedom was never ours to give away.

On Monday, July 22, at 9:00 am, the Tucson Board of Supervisors will meet to decide whether to approve a plan negotiated between the Catholic Bishop and the Pima County Administrator, a decision made unilaterally and without consulting the greater faith community, to remove families from church buildings and deliver them to the County Juvenile Jail under the care of Catholic Community Services. http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

Recently processed asylum seeking families are the responsibility of the religious community to welcome, not to contain. It is our responsibility to celebrate their freedom, not to limit it. It is our responsibility to approach them in solidarity, to honor their dignity, intelligence, courage, and self agency – not to pity their vulnerability and take pleasure in trumpeting their gratefulness for our charity. 

Their freedom was never ours to control, to contain, to transfer. Bishop Weisenburger, their freedom was never yours to give away. 

They have risked their lives in the pursuit of this fragile, precious freedom they pursue. Every inch of it is priceless. Every inch of it was paid for in blood and sweat and tears. Every inch of it demands our respect, summons our acknowledgement, and compels our honoring. 

How many inches of it will we choose to compromise to satisfy our pride, to avoid the financial cost and physical toll of welcoming them, while still maintaining the control and the credit? 

Something very insidious has crept into the conversation we are having in Tucson about how to best offer hospitality to asylum seekers. A very important nuance: these families are not being transferred to our custody. They have been released and were supposed to be given a ride to the vicinity of a loving space where they would be offered hospitality, if they chose to accept it. They could then choose whether to enter the many sites of hospitality scattered around the city, and receive our offering of “Bienvenidos,” or they could choose not to. As hospitality sites, we were only ever supposed to be an option for courageous families with self-agency. They were ours to embrace, not contain. 

This is something different. Driving families to a far part of Tucson, into an institutionalized government building, this feels more like a transfer of custody than an offer of welcome. Whatever the conditions they will find inside, it will not change the reality of where they are. They will be being transferred from one detention center to another, we will have intercepted their confidence that they have reached freedom for a tiny bit longer. 

This is not a matter of diminishing the incredible beauty of the sacred work that Casa Alitas has done for the past several years, or questioning its tradition of intentional and compassionate hospitality. We have a responsibility to examine the situation at hand, and how decisions have been made, and what the consequences may be for our community in the short term, and for communities in which this model may be replicated in the long term. 

This deal struck between the Catholic Church and the Government, would give the Catholic Church full control, using this deeper level of partnership with Border Patrol to force all other religious communities engaged in hosting to be under the control of Catholic Community Services. No longer would there be spaces independent of them, whose numbers did not count in the numbers they could claim of people hosted through their work.

This impulse, directed in part by the desire of Border Patrol to have a central location where all processing will take place, is also one where government figures will inevitably have easier access than in the local congregations who have been determined to protect the freedom of these families upon their release.

It feels as if we are forgetting that we are not the ones processing these families out of custody. Our intake forms are not their pathway to release. They were only supposed to be a way of gathering information about their travel plans so that we could help them get safely to their destination. They were never supposed to be used to pursue media attention and wrack up numbers about how many we have served in order gain notoriety, control, and funding. 

This is not supposed to be about us. Not supposed to be about what “we think is best.” Not supposed to be about the public image we can curate. This work is best done without people knowing the exact location. This work is best done by those directly impacted folxs in our community who understand and can empathize with our guests – exactly the type of people who will be unable to participate anymore if we put this in a detention facility, because they themselves are undocumented, or triggered by incarceration spaces, or vulnerable. 

I have been offering hospitality to asylum seekers alongside such leaders since 2014, first in the Greyhound bus station in Houston, Texas, and now through the shelters of Tucson. Yet, that ability to offer empathy is not my expertise but theirs.

Rather, while some people are experts on the inside of jails, I am an expert on the outside of jails. I have likely spent around 1000 hours in the past few years observing the trauma incurred on the human spirit when you deliver them to institutionalized detention areas. Sitting in vigil in front of the Waller County Jail for the first three months after the death of Sandra Bland, I became an expert on the tears of visiting family members, and the dehumanizing way guards changing shifts talked about those inside. Sitting in vigil in front of the Tornillo detention camp for the first couple weeks it was open, I became an expert on the look of terror on children’s faces as they were driven inside.

I know that Pima County & CCS will work to make this look as good as possible at the start. I know how media can be used to selectively paint the picture we want. I know the children and parents who are taken into the Pima County Juvenile Jail will make the most of it. They will still offer up the gratefulness that paternalism thrives upon, because it will be better than the dog cages and the ice boxes and even the street. 

But this was never our only option, and they will not believe you if you tell them they are free. This will be a half-way house, a step down unit, a space where those with power have made the choice to slide their freedom back an inch or two. This will be the institutional embodiment of the ankle monitors that it pains us so much to see them wearing – a diminishing of the distance between them and the places and people who caused their trauma. A reminder. A place where servants of the State have more access to knowledge about their whereabouts and movement than in the churches that prioritize guarding their privacy and freedom.

The Church in America – excluding those parts like the AME Church built through the liberation of people of color themselves – has always been good at these negotiations.

Powerful arms of the Christian institution have always been so good at determining what is best for others. We found ways to argue that the way we treated enslaved people was kinder than others and, therefore, “Christian slave-holding.” We found ways to feel fully confident that the kidnapping of Indigenous children to hold in schools was what was best for them because it would help them assimilate. We have always known best how others should be clothed, and housed, and fed, and contained.

I have heard all these arguments before. I have heard all these questions before. That this is better than the other options – that we have strategically been barred from exploring or knowing exist. That we must trust those making the decisions, despite the secretive and problematic way they reach their decisions. We should “just trust them” many of the people of San Antonio said when Baptist Children & Family Services was running Tornillo, while their headquarters were based in the San Antonio community. How easy it was for us to take to the streets and pass judgement – and how difficult it was for them. How easy it is now for them to see the error of our ways – and how difficult for us. We can be so farsighted – it is so easy to see clearly what is true and just from a distance, but it becomes so murky close up when we know the people. 

It makes one question whether freedom and self-agency and dignity has been the priority of the institutional culture making this decision. There is a wide divide between charity and solidarity. How much are we resisting our desire for the gratitude of vulnerable people? How much are we fighting the inherent temptations of white supremacist culture to believe that we know best, that we do best, that we are best?

The narrative being offered up by some is that if we do not “contain” these families upon their release then they will take to a life of crime, GOP Board of Supervisors Member Ally Miller even saying that these families would present a threat to our community safety. How is it that this decision satisfies a longing some have to “lock them up”? Where is it that we are sliding towards in the erosion of our ethics and the fatigue of our compassion?

It was never our job to contain them. It was always our responsibility to love them, to treat them as equals, to honor their courage and dignity, and their right to make decisions for themselves.  

Cooking sopa de pollo in the kitchen themselves. Walking out to go up the street and get a Dr. Pepper themselves. Kicking a ball in the free and unfettered and unfenced air. Debating about whether to postpone bedtime in order to finish the movie. These are the precious things people start to do when they feel free. These are the precious things we stand to lose. These are the actions that replenish the spirit, that are the food of freedom helping it to grow strong.

Their freedom from our custody may be fresh, even newborn. Yet, it is theirs.

Their freedom was never ours to give away. Never ours to control. Never ours to exchange.

 

Voice your concern about #nochildjailshelter at http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

Stand With Us Now: An Appeal to My Generation

“Well, we’ll have retired by that time anyway,” they laughed. I remember the first time older clergymen joked with me about the predicted inevitable decline of our denomination, and the reality that it would not be their problem. It would be ours – my generation’s problem – and in that moment, in their joke, it would be mine. We were being handed a tattered kite, that had been held by many other hands, and told to make it fly. We gave it everything we had. 

They were using humor to cope with the reality that we have been facing since we began our paths as pastors. Yet, there is a truth behind every joke, and that truth is that they did know they would retire before the hardest days came, and they were relieved. I do not think they could have known the weight they were placing on our shoulders. They could not understand, because they did not have our experience of starting out in serving the church during a time when it was no longer the center of culture, amidst a generation that was often more likely to flee away from the church than towards it. 

A few months before I graduated from seminary and joined the ranks of my generation of clergy, “The Crisis of Younger Clergy,” by Dr. Lovett Weems and Dr. Ann Michel, was published. The book raised the alarm about the dramatic decrease of young clergy numbers, and increase of congregants’ ages. In a later interview, Weems called for a realignment of priorities, saying, “I am afraid that if we do not, when the death tsunami, as I call it, washes over the United Methodist Church between 2018 and 2050, it could very well wipe out the United Methodist witness in vast portions of some states.”

This is the pressure cooker into which the earliest members of my generation entered ministry. This is the pressure cooker that the generation above us – we love you Gen Xers – as well as young laity in leadership, were already navigating. 

We have carried this heavy burden for the past decade. We have committed time to cohort programs like the Lewis Fellows. We have worked at Lilly Funded programs like Duke Youth Academy and Youth Theological Initiative, to try to invest in younger members of our generation. We have done extra trainings, and given our own time and money to earning DMins. We have worked hand in hand with young laity to plant churches and to make new places for new people. We have built communities and networks to support innovation, like UMC Lead. We have watched as the General Conference poured millions of dollars into helping more of us answer our calls.

This pressure, and the attention that came with it, sometimes made our beloved Gen Xers feel passed over, and our cherished Baby Boomers forgotten. 

The pressure weighed on us. It cost some of us our health. It cost some of us our marriages. It cost all of us dearly. The weight of extra labor fell even heavier on young women and people of color, and heaviest on young leaders who were both.

Each year, on the day the young clergy statistics came out, I would scan them, always finding my Conference near the bottom, rotating places with a couple other Conferences for lowest percentage of clergy under 35. I clung to “The Crisis of Younger Clergy” because it was one of the few things that provided direction and understanding. I began charting trends, and mapping out the locations of young clergy in the Conference so that I could show people where there were colleagues they could reach out to for support. I wanted people to have hope and feel less alone and continue to be able to stand together.

When I was commissioned, I sat down with my new District Superintendent, the same man who had baptized me, and I told him, “These are my priorities: First, God. Second, my generation’s relationship with God. Third, the United Methodist Church. Fourth, this Conference. Fifth, this District. If any of the latter three conflict with my ability to be faithful to the first two, I will choose the first two.” I kept my word. 

What does this commitment look like now? I cannot easily ignore the effect that our violence towards LGBTQIA folxs like myself is taking on my generation on the margins of this church. Neither can I easily ignore the struggle of those deeply entwined within this church, with whom I have struggled in the trenches under all this pressure as “young leaders,” spread out over the four Jurisdictions and seven Conferences where I have worked and lived. 

At this moment, as the intersectional energy of UMForward goes back out across the nation, and so many are turning their attention towards Kansas City and what will happen at UMNext, I cannot help but think about the fact that it is possible that the majority of the room will more closely resemble those approaching retirement than those entering ministry. 

I have to ask myself, what is true? 

We have been told our whole careers that this problem was ours to solve.

We have been told that we have to stop the death of this denomination. 

Yet, now as it lies here on life support, and the family is deciding whether to pull the plug, only a minority of us will be allowed in the room. 

What do we make of that? Why were we so necessary before, when death seemed nigh, but less necessary when it is on the doorstep knocking. Might our presence in some way hinder the adequately financed exit that some of our colleagues have so long teased us they would be making before the end came. Might circumstances be different now that those pensions and retirement are not looking quite so secure. 

Those young & youngish people who enter the UMNext space do so with the weight of a generation held on the shoulders of only a few. We all know the labored, cautious walk of those made to feel like tokens, whether for their age, race or ethnicity, gender or orientation. Simultaneously they bear the burden of representing the many who are not in the room, while also knowing how easily they can be replaced – exactly because of how many are in waiting outside the room. 

Perhaps, in this moment, we can be kind to one another, my beloved generation. Perhaps we can remind those that enter as the few that we have your back. We are praying for you. So be bold. Speak up as if you have nothing to lose, because the time for caution has long since passed. The ladders some once wished to climb lead to nothing but questions and chaos. Go to the spaces you are called, but stand with us. Stand with us, here on this solid ground, your feet firmly planted, rooted, grounded. As you make choices and speak words, do nothing out of fear, beloveds. Do everything out of courage, for perfect love casts out all fear… and love is the work that has been given to us. 

All our lives, all our careers, we have been told that someday, we would be the only ones left standing. Do not let the anxiety of this moment make you forget that now. We will someday soon be the only ones left standing – so make your decisions in such a manner that you will not be standing alone. Stand with us now, so that we can still be here to stand with you in the near coming future – wherever that ground may be. Nothing is worth more than us – than the community – than the people.

You know that our generation will not stay with us if we build a church with no understanding of intersectionality, still laden with white supremacy and patriarchy, continuing to allow violence against LGBTQIA folxs like myself for the sake of “unity.” 

I have spent the past several years placing my life and body between weapons of destruction – both literal and figurative – and those they seek to harm. I ask you now, will you be just as uncompromising in your solidarity?  Will you refuse to allow structures to continue to be constructed that permit harm and spiritual violence against myself and other members of the LGBTQIA community? Will you continue to work to dismantle the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy that do violence to people of color, Black and Indigenous leaders, and women?

Stand with us now, dear friends, so that in the time to come we can still be here to stand with you.

 

You can play with me

“You can play with me,” a little voice said to me from the other side of the slide. It was my first day at a new school, and when recess came, I had fled to conceal myself under the big metal slide on the far edge of the playground. Turning my head, I looked up to see another girl, tiny like myself, with a hand of friendship reached out in sincerity. Slowly, I crawled out from under the slide and took her hand. For the next twelve years that we went to school together, I would never forget the way that Becky made me feel in that moment. Included. Worthy. Interesting. Loved.

Over the past week, I’ve found myself wanting to say the same thing that Becky said to me to some many hundreds of United Methodists: “You can play with me.” 

In the weeks since the Special Called Session of General Conference, I know that I have not been the only one hiding under the slide, feeling as if the whole world is chatting on the swings without me. We can’t really see or hear to know for sure whether that feeling is real or just our imagination. Perhaps everyone has found a corner of the playground to hide in themselves, or perhaps they are all twirling and talking together on the tire swing, spinning until they feel like they are going to throw up. Secrets are held close, and no amount of craning our necks will give us a clear view. 

Gatherings were announced for May, one open to the public, and one by invitation only; each offering a space to discuss how we would move forward, what would come next. The public gathering invited anyone who wanted to come to join the conversation. The selective gathering encouraged people to nominate others or nominate themselves if they wanted to be chosen. 

At first the reaction and condemnation of the selective talks was swift on social media, people said things like “we’ve tried this before” and “the time has passed for cis-het white men to be steering the ship.” As time passed, though, people became curious. They poked their heads out. Those that hadn’t had much interest in playing kickball found themselves wondering, “Will I be picked for the team?” Wondering whether they would be called special, chosen, leader, worthy, wise. Gradually, rigid resistance gave way to the expectant awaiting that fell over the crowd. 

In a moment when so many of us were feeling cast out, what a comfort it would be for somebody, anybody, to draw us into community, to help us feel less impotent. 

I was chatting on the phone with a friend on my way home from work when she went to check her email. “Maybe there will be one for me,” she said hopefully, like Charlie Bucket opening another chocolate bar, hoping to find that one last Golden Ticket to gain entry to Willy Wonka’s tour of delights. “Oh.” I heard the pain in her voice. The sound of one already excluded, being excluded still. It turned my heart inside out. 

All I could think in that moment, all that I’ve been able think in every moment since, were Becky’s words: “You can play with me.” 

I wanted to say it to her and I wanted to say it to you… and to be honest, it did not even start last week, I’ve wanted to say it every day since February 26th. 

I want to be on your team. The guys who have declared themselves team captains did not pick me either, friend. But that does not mean that we can’t play. I want to climb out from under my slide and pick dandelions with you. I want to join the crowd throwing the dodgeball up against the big stone wall. I want to take turns timing each other on the monkey bars, and spin in circles until we fall down laughing in the grass.

I want to play with you. I want you on my team.

I think you are so special, and worthy, and interesting, and wise. I think you are a leader who we cannot do this without. I am just such a big fan of yours, and I am sorry that I have not told you that enough. You amaze me every day when I see the brave and creative things you are doing passing through my newsfeed. 

Friend, I know that I can’t offer you a field to play on, or the newest toys, but I have a feeling that we can make do. That is when we have always had the most fun anyway. Running through the woods. Using our imaginations instead of our search engines. Creating toys out of sticks and rubber bands and dreams. That is when we have created the most beautiful things. When resources were low, but love was high. When power was lacking, but creativity was abundant. When we did not have the answers, but we had faith that God would give them. 

Friend, I do not know what comes next, and it has been so hard for me to pull myself out from under this slide. But now that I’m out here, standing in the warmth of the sun, I find my heart overflowing with the words that someone once said to me: You can play with me. You are not alone. You are fun, and wise, and incredible, and good. You are brave, and strong, and creative, and kind. You are simply fantastic, and I just can’t wait to see what holy mischief we can cook up together. 

Come on, let’s go adventuring, friend. You can play with me.

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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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.

 

We don’t live on crumbs anymore.

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. 

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Amy K. Lamb

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.

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Butterfly at Amy’s burial

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.”

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Aunt Ana and I

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.

Crumbs.

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. 

We don’t live on crumbs anymore. 

We are worth so much more than that.

You are worth so much more than that. 

Knit Together in Love

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)