Coming out United Methodist in spite of it all

My sister once told me this joke…

Once there was a mama polar bear, a daddy polar bear, and a baby polar bear who were taking a walk in their arctic neighborhood. Baby polar bear was walking along slowly, obviously pondering something. Mama polar bear asked him if something was wrong.

“Mom? Am I a polar bear?” he asked.

“Yes, son. You are a polar bear,” she said.

Baby polar bear shrugged and shuffled along, but still slowly and still pondering. When he fell behind again, Mama asked him again if there was a problem.

“Are you SURE I’m a polar bear?” Baby polar bear asked.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Mama said. “I’m a polar bear. Your father is a polar bear. You are definitely a polar bear.”

“Oh. Ok,” Baby polar bear said. But he was still perplexed.

Finally Daddy polar bear stopped and turned towards Baby polar bear. “Son, WHAT is the matter?” he asked.

“Daddy, I know Mama said I am, but… Are you absolutely sure I’m a polar bear?” Baby polar bear asked.

Daddy polar bear gave an exasperated sigh. “Son, yes. As your mother told you, I am a polar bear. She is a polar bear. There is no way you can be anything BUT a polar bear.” He paused. “Why are you so puzzled by this?” he asked.

“Because Daddy, I’m freezing my ass off out here!” Baby polar bear said.

Trust me. There’s a reason I typed all that out.

You see, I was born into a very, VERY United Methodist family. My dad, a diaconal minister (a consecrated lay position, not ordained) was the senior high youth minister at a large United Methodist Church in Houston, TX (large enough that each age group had their own paid minister…AND the church had paid ushers!). My mom’s father, also a diaconal minister who served as business administrator for a large United Methodist church in Winston-Salem, was pretty close to United Methodist royalty in the Western North Carolina conference. Her younger brother was an ordained elder in the Western North Caroline conference.

See? There was no way I was going to be anything BUT a United Methodist.

We moved to Tennessee, then North Carolina, all based around church jobs my dad had. When I was in 6th grade, I was confirmed. Honestly, part of me only went through with it because I didn’t want it to reflect badly on Daddy if I said I wasn’t sure. (In perspective? The main thing I remember is that John Wesley’s mother called him “a brand plucked from the burning” because someone saved him from the fire that struck the family home when he was a child, trapping him on an upper floor. MY senior year in high school, my dad got a national-level church job, so we moved back to Nashville and for the first time got to CHOOSE a church to attend. I was leaving for college in the fall, so I left most of the decision making to my parents and sister since I’d only be there for vacations. Still, I was comfortable with the church we chose – Belmont United Methodist.

In college, I didn’t really “do” formal church. I didn’t have a car, so my options were limited. I didn’t want to go to the Southern Baptist church which is where most of my friends with cars went. I didn’t want to go to the Presbyterian church, the closest within walking distance. Those denominations just aren’t for me. There was a tiny United Methodist church that was a little further away but still within walking distance. They could have had a great college outreach if they’d wanted to. They didn’t want to. I think I brought the median age to around 70. So my first couple of years, my religion came in the form of the Student Christian Association. And one Episcopal service a year on Ash Wednesday. I’d go to Belmont when I was home, but I never really felt like I fit. At some point during I think my junior year, I had a falling out with our college chaplain over a class I’d taken (long story short…I wasn’t ready for all the topics and felt no support when I admitted as much. Now I’d be fine, then not so much), so stuff pretty much stopped with me and religion at that point.

I didn’t end up getting the job I’d really planned on coming out of college, so I moved home to regroup and figure things out. I started going to Belmont regularly and even joined a Sunday School class for young adults as well as the choir. Eventually the class just stopped working for me – it was dividing into couples on one side and the few of us who were single on the other. So it became all choir all the time. And pretty soon that wasn’t enough. So with my parents’ blessing I began exploring other options and found the Episcopal Church – Christ Episcopal to be exact. It just felt right and it stretched me in all the right ways. On April 15, 1995, I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church. After that, I helped out with various educational things at church and eventually discerned a call into lay ministry centered around Christian Ed.

(Side note…please note what there’s been NO discussion of that would seem to play into a blog during Pride week with the words “Coming out” in the title. That mirrors my life. Honestly, my sexuality was a non-issue at this point. Basically I’d not dealt with it (I knew I crushed on girls…but I had enough strikes against me, I hid it) for so long I was pretty much asexual at this point. It’s coming. 🙂 Promise!)

Then, I found myself at Virginia Theological Seminary working towards a Masters in Theological Studies focusing on Christian Education. I learned a lot during that time both about religion (not necessarily faith…bit that’s another story) and about myself. I was in a relationship with a fellow student (male), and it just never worked on multiple levels, no matter how hard I tried to make it. I’d later find out the primary reason it didn’t work.

My first job out of seminary was in Raleigh, North Carolina in an Episcopal Church. It became clear there my major interest was youth ministry, and within a couple of years I was searching for a job that would allow me to focus on youth ministry. That led me to Waukegan, IL and the Diocese of Chicago. It’s there that I met K, who became a dear friend. We’d often go clubbing (with other friends as well) in Boys Town on Friday nights, and I’d crash at his place afterwards. It seemed like I’d get all contemplative about things after a couple of drinks (and yes, I mean 2…I’m a lightweight), and on a couple of occasions, a lesbian priest friend went with us, and I’d mysteriously end up in her car. Not as a set-up, but as a safe space to talk. I didn’t really talk that much at the time…I was only beginning to have inklings and wasn’t sure how to talk about it yet. I remember being ecstatic at Gene Robinson’s election and subsequent ordination as Bishop – though that led to my position being eliminated due to budget reasons as though we were in Chicagoland, there were some who witheld their pledge to protest.

And that led me back into the United Methodist Church to a church in Manassas, VA. Things seemed great with the interview, and they seemed to be off to a good start. But as I got more involved, it became clear that there was a very core group (read: core = financial pillar) that was EXTREMELY conservative. It became painfully obvious one night during Vacation Bible School when some of the kids used “gay” as an insult and I turned the lesson into a teaching point about acceptance (it was the Good Samaritan…it was DEFINITELY not a stretch) that led to a discussion the next day with the senior pastor where basically I was instructed to toe the party line. After that I sort of quit putting as much effort in, and by December I had handed in my resignation. It was NOT the right match for me on so many levels – not the least of which being that it made my stomach turn every time I had to walk across their “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors” welcome mats knowing that it was a total lie.

I took a break from church for a little while, but began to do some real soul searching as to why I felt SO compelled to make sure youth group was a safe space for all and to insist that “gay” was not an insult. And gradually things became clear. Growing up, all my legitimate crushes had been on females. I adapted and played straight because I had too many things against me already (I was a PK, we weren’t rich, I was fat, I was a band geek and an academic nerd) it was easier to play along. And eventually that led to me just shutting down the sexual part of me. But now it was becoming obvious, and I was taking small steps to come out to myself.

I found a fantastic Episcopal Church in the DuPont Circle area in DC and I joined a coming out support group in DC. In May 2005, my dad and I had fantastic conversations about the sexuality course he’d led at Belmont in potential preparation for them exploring becoming a reconciling congregation – but I didn’t disclose anything. In June 2005 I went to DC Pride and volunteered at the festival. In July 2005, I came out to a coworker at Starbucks and to all my friends on LiveJournal. In late July 2005 I talked to Daddy on the phone and he said not only that he’d been to a PFLAG meeting (he was friends with the co-presidents and after their help with the series he’d done at Belmont, he wanted to support them) but that there had also been a couple of guys who spoke about their doctoral work on the coming out process and families and that in many if not most cases, the family had some kind of clue…but he swears he wasn’t asking me anything. On August 8, 2005, I came out to my parents (and inadvertently my sister…I just didn’t want her to read it, which in essence she did) – to which they said “Ok.”

In June 2006, I moved up to NYC with the Teaching Fellows program. It took a while, but I finally found a church – Holy Apostles Episcopal. It was where I needed to be at that time. But over the past year or so, it’s become less so. I didn’t feel challenged. I didn’t feel I was growing the way I felt I needed to. I let running take over Sunday mornings. Until Easter, when I found myself sitting on my bed wanting more…wanting a community, but knowing it wasn’t at CHA and unclear where to go – turning to the Reconciling Ministries website and making a list.

On May 5, I went to the Church of the Village for the first time. But it felt like I was home right from the beginning. I’ve gone every Sunday since, and have gone through the Exploring Faith class, and everything just points me to the fact that I’m right where I need to be when I need to be. I’m home spiritually for sure.

Now don’t get me wrong. The United Methodist Church isn’t perfect (google Tom Ogletree for just a taste of the issues). It doesn’t have full equality yet. Groups like RMN and MIND are working for it, but we’re not there yet. Still, with all the imperfections and room to learn and grow that it has, it’s just become more and more obvious that this is where I need to be.

And so on this Pride Sunday, June 30, I will officially make a covenant with COTV and join as a member. Coming out United Methodist in spite of it all.

Because no matter what, being United Methodist is who I am deep in my core.

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