I live in a context where it has sometimes been easier to come out as a lesbian than as a Christian. This is not a reality foreign to "progressives" who hold Christian faith; it is one, however, that I have been consistently working against throughout my close to 10 years of ordained ministry. Once you are ordained this reality only heightens. Imagine secular gatherings, from airplanes to cocktail parties. The first thing out of people's mouth is often: "What do you do?" to which I have found many creative responses, depending on my mood and how much I want to talk (or really listen). They range from "I am a pastor" to "I am an activist for LGBT people" and everywhere in between. Neither tells the whole story. However, both are true, both often shut down conversation, and both often elicit long stories from my interrogators about the value of LGBT people and religion both. Suffice it to say, in these conversations I am reminded again quite quickly of why I have been gun shy about my Christian identity for so long.
Therefore, much of my pastoring life has been on the defensive, justifying to others both inside and outside of the church, and at times to myself, how I can be a Christian, a pastor and a lesbian, and why these identities are inseparable for me. I work with people, many of whom are curious about what a life of faith might look like and attempt to put language on what faith has been for me and how Scripture can be a place of liberation, not death-dealing oppression as many of us have experienced. The most recent incarnation of this call has been in the new worshiping community I have begun called Not So Churchy.
At one cocktail party in the summer of 2012 I had the opportunity to meet British Director Amanda Bluglass. She was visiting for the week from rural Devon, England. She was electric with energy and creativity and I knew instantly I wanted to be her friend. But then invariably the question came: "What do you do?" I had the energy that night to go into it, and so I did: "I am a pastor to LGBTQ individuals who are pursuing ordained ministry. I work as a pastor to the church at large, committing myself to changing homophobic policies that the Presbyterian Church has held onto for many years. I marry same-sex couples as well as straight couples after month of premarital counseling, and I do this with joy. I do this against the policies of the Church that I am a member of and love, because the Gospel calls me to respond to my vows I took upon ordination in this way. I do all this because I believe that the Presbyterian Church, and the church at large can be a place of healing for the world and this is my little contribution towards that."
One inquisitive look led to question after question and by the end of the night Amanda was basically signed up to begin the project we now call our independent documentary film, "Out of Order." One little miracle led to another and we picked up videographers Julie Mack and Christy Pessagno on the road. We refined the story again and again as Amanda, Julie and Christy met the other subjects of the film, brave and beautiful LGBTQ individuals who are pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church, those I have mentored and loved with my whole heart.
Slowly, in this process, I awkwardly, and at the beginning, fearfully, showed Amanda, Julie and Christy my world. I did not expect the fear of judgment I had as I opened up the doors to the retreat I co-founded years ago for LGBT folk seeking to be pastors, and as I welcomed them into our Not So Churchy community. I anticipated that they would think we were crazy or irrelevant, or not radical enough, or ridiculous for devoting our life to this. Or course some might say that was my own judgment of myself projected onto them, but still.
Through this process of filmmaking, of taking these three strangers only about six months ago through the most personal and precious parts of my life, they have taught me that indeed I do have a story to tell. Not only is it a story to tell, which others seem to be interested in as well, but it is critical that this story is told. Somehow in telling my own story, and for me in being as out and proud of my Christian story as I am of my gay story, it allows others to find their stories too. In that finding, in that telling, I believe we find God, and Jesus at work. After all, Jesus was all about listening to and telling stories. So here is where the Spirit blows us to places unexpected and sacred.
It is time for us to tell the next part of this story. Over the last several months I have, in some Spirit-driven way, found myself in conversations with those who I have worked directly against over the past decades, those who might call themselves "traditionalists," or "conservatives." In my conversations and growing relationships with them I have found my heart being opened to theirs. I have begun to acknowledge their own story which needs telling. I even like them. It is a long story how this has happened, and one that others need to see.
This essay is a part of a series by LGBT-identified Presbyterian ministers and candidates, reflecting on their role and life in the church. All authors are involved in a documentary entitled 'Out of Order,' which is currently in production. In 2010, the Presbyterian Church (USA) dropped all barriers to ordination for its ministry candidates. Even despite the recent policy changes, LGBT Presbyterians still find barriers within the church. In 2012, the church body failed to change its policy to support marriage equality.
Follow Rev. Mieke Vandersall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/preswelcome