To my friends and family in the American Baptist Churches, USA,
I have been a proud member of American Baptist churches for my entire life. I am the daughter and granddaughter (twice!) of American Baptist pastors, my sister-in-law is ordained by an ABC association, and my husband and I eagerly seek out ABC congregations when we move to a new location. In a time when many of our peers are swapping a hymnal and Bible for a cup of coffee and the New York Times, we are the increasingly rare young family that identifies Sunday morning in a local congregation as both the priority and high point of our week. I am there because I experience what I understand as God in the midst of all of you, and I am there because I believe in what I have long understood us to stand for: freedom.
Respecting this commitment to freedom and drawing on its power to unite people of vastly different backgrounds and views, I am joining my State of Formation peers in calling for us to be communities of welcome and affirmation for people who are gay, lesb... I believe we can be a beacon of light in what the public is just now coming to understand as an often despairing time of self-discovery and awareness in a world where bullying, hatred, intolerance, and fear are more common than we might have imagined. I believe this because I have witnessed and been part of such welcome.
I contemplated writing a letter about Walter Shurden’s “The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms,” but any attempt on my part to look at the issue of homosexuality and gender identity through the beautiful lenses of Bible freedom, soul freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom would come up lacking, and would potentially bypass what I believe is the core reason for my invitation: Jesus’ commandment to love, and our response to the greater-than-we-can-imagine grace, mercy, and love of God. We who have known a love that is unconditional—a love that meets us, indeed welcomes us, where we are and as we were created to be—surely must see the value in offering that love to people who most need to receive it.
From my experience, and from my heart, I offer this modern-day story of one community that decided to be the hands and feet of Christ:
For me, the Kingdom of God is an American Baptist congregation that gathers in a church building adjacent to the commuter rail in a mill-town that has seen brighter days. When we were members there, the wise, seasoned pastor had learned to pause in the midst of his pastoral prayer for the windows and walls to shake as the train went rumbling by. He was gentle, yet firm, in chiding the congregation for lingering over conversation in the foyer after the organ prelude had begun. He offered thoughtful sermons week after week, and sometimes revealed his own transformation in discovering what it means to love as Jesus loved, a transformation that included continuous dialogue with God through prayer, study, and meditation, and a personal turning point at the surprise coming out of a pastor mentor. It was his experience, and it has been mine, that God teaches us through our encounters with people, whether we’re prepared for the lesson or not.
The congregation was small—75 or so in worship each Sunday—so it was easy to notice newcomers. At some point in our tenure there, a middle-aged man began attending the church, occasionally bringing his teenage son with him. I’ll call the visitor “David.” David initially stayed on the fringes of the small sanctuary, consistently sitting in the front left corner where few but the pastor could make actual eye contact with him. We were surprised when the pastor sent a letter to “those who consistently attend worship services” (rather than the full membership), and that the letter was about David. You see, David was born in the body of a man, but had believed since early childhood that he had the soul, spirit, and identity of a woman, and, with the support of our pastor and hopefully with the support of our church, he was going to become “Deborah” in our midst. The pastor shared with us his initial conversations with David, and the pain he felt as David described being derided by and ousted from the church he had long called home. That David had even walked through the doors to risk joining another congregation was a miracle, and when he asked the pastor for his support, our wise, “hands and feet of Christ” pastor said, “I have no idea how we’re going to do this, but I know that we are.” Our pastor’s letter was accompanied by a letter from David, who wrote with painstaking detail and clarity about the agony he had experienced in a body in which he could not be himself, and the steps he would be taking to rediscover himself as herself in a new body. With a crash course in what it means to be “transgender,” this community that will likely never wave a rainbow flag from the belfry embarked on a journey of pure love.
Deborah arrived in church a few weeks later, with long hair, hose and heels, and make-up that accentuated the shine of joy on her cheeks. Peach was a favorite color, and she dressed as though we were a church in the south—all frills and lace. She still brought her son from time to time, and she stayed safe in that front left pew, but she seemed to linger in her greetings. She seemed, quite literally, more comfortable in her own skin. Members of that congregation, from the young to the very old, went out of their way to say, “Good morning, we’re glad to see you, Deborah.” Though most had little comprehension of what on earth was happening in her life and how on earth we had arrived at this place, we gave our best welcome, and she stayed. I’m still not certain if we were Christ for her, or she for us, but I know I have never felt more convinced of the relevance of the church—of being the Church—before or since.
While I am not Deborah, and cannot reliably tell her tale, my faith was deepened beyond measure a few years later when she told her story one evening to the Women’s Fellowship. After describing a harrowing passage through life to emergence and relief as her true self, she spoke of the Sunday, maybe two-three weeks into living as Deborah, when one of the “white-haired ladies” (my words, not hers!) approached her and said, “Now Deborah, a group of us is working to revive the Women’s Fellowship. I have no idea if you’d be interested in something like this, but we wanted you to feel especially invited to join our new steering committee.” With tears streaming down the face of every woman in that room, there were no other words to say. There is no sermon, no prayer, and no slogan that can substitute for a story of authentic welcome. After a moment of sacred silence, one woman commented that her husband was envious he couldn’t come for the talk, another asked Deborah about her nail polish color, and someone reminded those in attendance about the coffee and cake down in fellowship hall. We were simply a community of women, sharing with one another the truth of our lives, and the joy that it is to share life’s journey with a community that welcomes us as we are.
It is my prayer that every one of our congregations will be visited by the people God intends for us to love. When a woman introduces her wife, or a man his husband-to-be; when a teenager confesses during youth group that she wonders just who it is she is attracted to; and yes, when a man becomes a new creation—a woman—right there in our midst, may we say without hesitation, “Welcome.” May our welcome be so authentic and unwavering that it conveys the God we profess; may it be enough to light the path for those who are weary and heavy-laden. Let us be the hands and feet of Christ.
With gratitude for the privilege of being a member of the American Baptist family, Jennifer