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LGBTQIA+ leaders in PC(USA) reflect on coming out, history and the church

We asked several church leaders to reflect on National Coming Out Day, LGBTQIA+ History Month

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Mercedes Mehling via Unsplash

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — With LGBTQIA+ History Month and National Coming Out Day Oct. 11, October has a lot of significance in the LGBTQIA+ community.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a place in that history, as one of the few denominations and churches that welcomes people in the LGBTQIA+ community. Along with ordaining ministers of word and sacrament, ruling elders and deacons, the denomination also recognizes same sex marriages and permits ministers of word and sacrament to perform them. But even with affirming church policy, people in the queer community still face challenges in the PC(USA), which has a long history of exclusion, and full inclusion remains elusive.

With these celebrations upon us, Presbyterian News Service asked a few church leaders who are in the LGBTQIA+ community questions on this month’s observances and the church.

Q: What do National Coming Out Day and LGBTQIA+ History Month mean to you?

Annanda Barclay, Pastor, Mission Bay Community Church, San Francisco: National Coming Out Day and LGBTQIA+ history month to me are national efforts to recognize our full humanity, in response to the historical failure to see queer people as fully human and fully divine.

Bertram Johnson, Chaplain, Union Theological Seminary, New York: The importance of National Coming Out Day and LGBTQIA+ History Month are undeniable, and I believe the two events should be celebrated daily. Each day should present opportunities for queer people to live our lives, love those we love, share our stories, and embrace our identities as wholly beloved children of God without fear or threat.

Coming out is so much more than a statement of sexuality. It’s also a spiritual practice, an affirmation, and a blessing. It’s seeing our whole selves as being made in the image of God and knowing there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love and grace. This year I’m humbled that I have a chance to claim my truth, voice and space as an out, gay, African American PC(USA) pastor. I also want to honor the queer Black saints before me who served in silence and secrecy so that I can do so boldly today. I would not be here had it not been for their strength and sacrifice.

Phillip Morgan, Director of Music at Central Presbyterian Church, Louisville: Coming out as LGBTQIA+ remains a challenge for many in this country, especially those tied to certain religious communities, and a national day helps to give those that need it the strength required to make a declaration of who God has created them to be. It also offers a real opportunity for those religious institutions that are welcoming and affirming to be a resource and a place of love for those facing new and unknown paths.

Phillip Morgan

Likewise, LGBTQIA+ History month can allow us to evaluate structures and systems that have been, and in some cases still are, harmful to LGBTQIA+ communities and face our role in the history of committing those sins against our siblings and discerning what shall be our role in the reparative actions we take in the future.

Slats Toole, a freelance writer in Minneapolis: My relationship with National Coming Out Day has changed a lot throughout my life. When I was younger, it was a deeply important day to me, a day of celebration and revelation. But particularly since I began coming out as non-binary, it almost feels like every day is a day I have to come out; I am constantly having to come out and assert who I am in a way that’s frankly exhausting. (I do love watching people have the courage to come out for the first time on National Coming Out Day, though! It seems to be a day where people are predisposed to take those announcements more graciously.)

LGBTQIA+ History Month, though, becomes more and more important to me as I move forward in life. A lot of our history has been erased or buried, and the lack of history is used as an excuse to dismiss who we are. “Oh, this is just some newfangled made-up thing!” But studying our history helps us realize that we are part of a long and glorious line of unique and vibrant bearers of God’s image.

Q: How has the PC(USA) affirmed you in the church?

Barclay: The PC(USA) has affirmed me in the church by my eventual ordination and the continued support of my call. It has also supported me through my LGBTQIA+ elders who stayed, determined to see the church reflect God’s kin-dom. The testimony of their lives, their presence, their resilience, their wisdom, tears, and relentless love created room for the whole of me. They held space so I could be, and in adaptive ways they still create this container of love, safety, opportunities, and mentorship. With palms wide open they encourage me to do the same.

Johnson: I don’t know any LGBTQIA+ person in our denomination who has had a smooth or easy road with the Church. We have all suffered in some fashion. The fact that we still have to question if an individual congregation or church leader will genuinely welcome and affirm our gifts is a sign that our legacy of exclusion and sin is still with us. The reality that queer people choose to be here is a testament to the fact that God still performs miracles and that each of us love the Church enough to suffer with it in its growth and reformation.

The Rev. Bertram Johnson

That being said, I finished seminary in 1996 and there were years after graduation when I left the ordination process because I didn’t see the possibility of growing in love for myself as a newly out queer child of God and living into the polity of the Church.  By grace, I was blessed by friends in the denomination who recognized God’s call upon me when I couldn’t see it clearly for myself. They questioned, challenged, and encouraged me to return to my vocation, and to trust that God would never leave me alone.

Since that time, I’ve been blessed to serve the PC(USA) in local congregations and on a national level. I continue to get asked to serve in a variety of ways. Even this interview is an unexpected affirmation that my being here does matter, and that God is not done with me yet.

Morgan: Born and raised a Baptist, my church welcomed only my talents that might be used for their gain but did not affirm the person I was. Because of this as a young man my coming out was also tied to a vow to never expose myself to that hurt again through church work. But sometimes our work is a calling not a choice and the PC(USA) has for nearly a decade been a place where I can freely share my gifts and ministry while also being loved and applauded as fully me. I am blessed to serve a congregation that, literally since 1988, the year I was born, has made that public commitment to LGBTQIA+ children of God as a More Light congregation.

Toole: One of the most beautiful moments I’ve had in the church was my renaming liturgy at the Breaking Bread worshiping community in Princeton, New Jersey. As I began to transition to a name that felt more right for me than the name that I was given at birth, awakening to a clearer sense of who God made me to be, I started to long for some kind of ritual to mark that change. I was hesitant to voice this longing, having spent my entire life being told that my identity did not have a place within the church. At the same time, looking at the Directory for Worship, I saw this paragraph: “In the lives of believers and in congregational life there are special occasions of awakening, renewal, or commitment; these are appropriately celebrated through the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. People should be encouraged to share these decisive moments and stirrings of the Spirit with the session, so that they may be acknowledged and affirmed in public worship.” (W-4.0205)

Slats Toole

When I mentioned this to my pastors, Revs. Andrew and Len Scales, they were immediately onboard, and together we crafted a liturgy and service where this Reaffirmation of Baptism surrounding my new name was framed as a witness of God’s transforming love in this world. It wasn’t until I was in that room, filled with a cloud of witnesses who cared for me and affirmed me, that I realized how much I needed this experience as a part of healing from the trauma the church had caused me.

Q: What can the PC(USA) do better?

Barclay: The PC(USA) can have the flamboyant audacity to embody its beliefs far beyond panel discussions and book clubs. To recognize itself as queer too, not just a space for queers. As Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous, not just a seat at the table where we are finally welcome. We’ve been welcome, and the church has been late to arrive at the table that speaks and knows all our names without shame or indifference. Gods table has always already been a table for all. The PC(USA) can understand its economic impact on those it has historically marginalized, and pay those it has literally indebted in its discrimination starting with the categories of seminary education, ordination, lack of access to medical care, benefits, and denominational grants, the stealing of Indigenous land, boarding schools, slave labor, and continued gentrification; doing all this knowing payments are not relationships, but an introduction of good faith acts on the Jesus it claims to follow.

The Rev. Annanda Barclay

May the church ask this question: “Who do queer people and queer people of color say we are?” and have the sincerity of self and neighborly love to listen to the voices and align itself accordingly.

Johnson: Our theology, our churches, and resources have been used as tools to negate, exclude, and strip queer people of their rightful and sacred place in the family of God. It is the responsibility of the PC(USA) and all its worshiping bodies to repent and seek repair for the wrongs we have done, the lies we have supported, and spirits we have broken.

Queer and trans youth continue to endure spiritual, emotional, and physical violence born out of our theological maleficence. Transgender and gender non-conforming women of color are murdered at rates that reveal our complacency and condemnation.

Every worshiping community and every member of our denomination can do something to help make us look and love like the community Jesus came to make real. I encourage everyone who reads this to ask, “What does God require of me?” and then do what you can to help LGBTQIA+ people know they are seen, welcomed, and blessed by you and by the God whom we claim is loving and just.

Morgan: Realize that there is still work to do and the issues around justice for queer people go beyond ordination.

Toole: While the changes to polity made in recent years are deeply important, there’s still a lot of work to do on the ground. I’ve experienced many churches who believe we have reached equity because of the changes made on paper, or who think adopting a welcoming statement or joining an affirming organization is what it means to be an ally. While those are all good and important things, they don’t actually mean that the culture has changed yet. I have been yelled at for being in the “wrong” restroom when presented with only binary gender options at churches. I have sat in pews while the liturgy celebrates men and women and does not acknowledge any of us who fit somewhere outside of those boxes. I have been looked at as if I have three heads when I state my pronouns. All of these experiences have been at churches that claim to be affirming of my identity.

There is no shortcut to doing the work, having difficult conversations, educating yourselves and each other so that you’re more ready to actually do the work of welcome.

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