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Rev. Mieke Vandersall Headshot

Silence = Death in the Church

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As the old term says so aptly, "Silence = Death," and as a preacher and a pastor, I know this to be true.

As a religious person I know personally the silence that is incubated by religious communities and the destruction that it creates. I, for one, want to break that silence. That's why I want to tell you about a secret that we have had in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for many years. Sadly, it came about because many of us have been only able to speak from a place of silence, from the edges of the story. For some, this secret has provided joy in refuge and for others the fact we still need a refuge reminds us how important this secret has been to keep. It is time, however, that I begin speaking more openly about it. I give thanks to God that while I still can't tell you everything, we've come to the point as a church where I can talk openly about how this secret has helped people. I tell you about this secret with the hopes that you might be able to give voice to some of yours.

Eight years ago, years before our denomination allowed for the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and often transgender people (LGBT), there were LGBT Presbyterians who were pursing ordination anyway. Because we needed each other, we started meeting at a private annual summer retreat. We have come exactly as we are and over these years have created a safe place -- free from judgment and fear -- where we could pray, share stories, be a community and gain both support and strength. For many, this has been the only place all year where we can find freedom and acceptance.

My friend and colleague, The Rev. Eily Marlow, and I began this retreat as a response to a call from our hearts. As two out lesbians pursuing ordained ministry, having been ordained before the restrictions on it were removed, we knew how lonely the journey to ordained ministry can be for LGBT individuals. We knew what it felt like to be guinea pigs, without necessarily feeling it was our call to be so, and we knew that we didn't want anyone to feel as alone and isolated as we did during their process. We knew it didn't have to be so.

Through Presbyterian Welcome, the organization in New York City that I direct, and with the support of many organizations and congregations, our annual retreat was born. It has been a powerful and transformative experience for so many ever since. As one participant put it, after the close of their very first retreat:

This retreat was so healing. It was so important to see some part of the church reaching out to nurture me and affirm me as a child of God. We celebrated communion at our closing worship service. For the first time in my life the Eucharist had meaning to me. I know the theological understanding of this sacrament, but this was the first time I really experienced it.

The retreat this past July, in rural Georgia, was the first we've held since all restrictions to ordination were removed in 2011. We were able to rejoice in the opening that has been created for us to serve God and the denomination we love with honesty and transparency.

Over the years I have found that most of the retreat participants have resisted being labeled as "gay pastors" -- our identity and sense of call is so much greater than this. Most just want to be a pastor who happens to be gay (or transgender). After eight years, the individuals who attend are awakening to the truth that there is some reason that God is calling us lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people -- just as we are -- to serve Christ in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Our stories intersect with the stories of the prophets and our Guide and Savior Jesus. We are beginning to see our stories not as hindrances to our ministry but assets. Our stories place us in a special position to minister and care for LGBT members in the radically inclusive and accepting ways that we have learned from Jesus. So maybe, even though we don't want to be known as "gay pastors" -- God has called us as such for some blessed reason.

Perhaps one reason is to help those who oppose the acceptance and celebration that we believe Jesus called for to see the true impact of their words and actions. After all, their words and actions are the biggest reason why, to this day, our retreat is held in secret -- out of necessity. We need to protect those who are unable to be open about the fullness of who they are, whether it's because they want to maintain custody of their children or because they have no other potential employment outside of the church or because they think they will lose any relationship with their family or because they so badly want to serve this church that they don't think they can stand losing that opportunity if they are honest about how God has created them. For some, living openly and honestly as who they are and who God made them -- even in a church with no official barriers to ordination for qualified LGBT individuals -- is just too huge a risk.

At the same time, as our community of retreat participants has grown year after year, we're seeing fewer and fewer who join us from behind a closet door. A shift continues to happen as we see more and more LGBT members claim the power and authority God has placed in us so long ago. What excites me the most in all of this is the growing understanding of God's grace -- that there really is enough love to go around.

Our biblical foundation and history gives us a bit of perspective that we aren't first and we won't be the last. Jesus' story, the one who lives and dwells with us in our rejection and transforms that into hope and freedom, gives us hope. A day will come when the fear and hurt that LGBT people face in the church fades, and the church speaks boldly to the rest of the world condemning silence and secrets. I pray for the day that there will be no more need to keep secrets or live in silence.

For our silence and secrets kill us. Until that day that I pray for, we'll continue to make a safe space possible for the future leaders of our church to come together, share their stories and take one more step on the journey God has planned for them -- and for us all.