Stories have the power to change the world … they inspire us, teach us, connect us. This is the fourth installment in the “Stories That Change The World” series.
This is Marlene Lund’s story. She told her story at a “Story Night” at her church as part of an ongoing conversation they are having about gender, sexuality and marriage.
A wise former pastor once said, when talking about how we can share with others the reality of God’s presence in our lives, that we should ask questions and tell stories. When we tell our personal stories, rather than try to argue with scripture, we are sharing ourselves, being vulnerable as we open ourselves to possible judgment and misunderstanding. We are also stepping out from behind the protective curtain of certain Bible passages, or of the societal script for “how things are”, and asking for others to listen with open hearts and a willingness to look at old things in new ways. We want to be KNOWN and still loved. We hope our stories will plant a seed of understanding and acceptance. In such a spirit, I want to share the story of my walk with God on the issue of gender, sexuality, marriage and leadership.
I was raised in a conservative Christian family. My father was a Baptist minister, and then my parents joined Wycliffe Bible Translators when I was six years old, and I grew up as a missionaries’ kid in Brazil. Throughout my growing up, without being conscious of it, I was building a wall of separation between myself and those whom I had been taught not to “mix” with, those who would tempt me to turn away from my walk with God. By the time I was a young adult, my wall was sturdily built, and I felt safe behind it, secure in my knowledge that God’s truth would shield me from straying from the Path, helping me to not put my foot on the slippery slope of doctrinal wavering. One group firmly on the other side of my wall were members of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community (or LGBT), mainly because at the time, to my knowledge, I didn’t know anyone who was from that community and could easily view them merely as “those sinners over there”.
God started challenging my views of LGBT people 40 years ago, when I began to notice that more and more men were entering the nursing profession, and many of them were gay. My co-workers increasingly included people I had been taught were living lives that were sinful on a level beyond my ability to comprehend. I had been taught to not associate with sinners of that caliber, lest I be contaminated by their sin, and drawn away from God. But how could I do that in the workplace, where we each depended so closely on one another to care for our patients? These men became friends, colleagues, people whom I saw caring with great tenderness for hurting, frightened patients. These people were not monsters, they were nurses, called to show compassion and skill in tending vulnerable people. And one brick in my wall of rejection fell to the ground.
Fast forward a few years. We were now living on the East Coast, attending a wonderful Presbyterian church in Red Bank, New Jersey. I sang in the choir and loved our choir director/church organist, Gary, who was a man full of passion for worship and church music. One morning I received a call from a friend that Gary had been murdered. And that was how the church discovered that he was gay. Because of the teaching and position of the church, he had to lead a double life, closely closeted in the community that loved him, and occasionally going to gay bars to help feed his natural need for physical intimacy. One man Gary had brought home with him one night stabbed him to death in the doorway of his apartment. I remember being deeply shocked at learning this truth about my friend, but not for the reasons I would have expected. I was not filled with disgust, but deep grief that this man who loved our church, and was so loved by it, could not be his true self with us, out of fear of rejection, and the realization that our love of his “celibate” side was not enough to help him feel whole. I struggled with the question that would not let me sleep: if I had known before he died that Gary was gay, would I still have loved him and welcomed him into my home? The answer was a resounding “yes”! Gary was a child of God, who loved to bring the congregation to the throne of God every Sunday through his musical gifts, who loved his church family and sought community, and whom I fully expect to see again one day in Heaven; but he was also a very lonely child of God, told by his church that he was damaged, could not meet his desire for intimate relationship and still serve God in the way God had gifted him to do. Several more bricks fell from my wall of separation.
Fast forward another 15 years. Our daughters were in school in Colorado, and rumors began spreading among some of the Christian moms in my prayer group that some of the teachers at school were gay. There was fear expressed that these teachers might turn out to be pedophiles or try to “recruit” our kids into “the gay lifestyle”. Some moms felt we should mount a protest with the school district and demand that these teachers be removed. This didn’t sit right with me, so I sought wisdom through prayer. I spent some time learning about what makes a person gay and the incidence of pedophilia within the LGBT community, which I learned is much lower than in the heterosexual community. The particular teachers in question were dedicated educators, gifted at sharing knowledge in a way that kept the kids engaged in learning. They also taught my girls valuable life lessons of acceptance of those who are different, of compassion, and of standing up for those who are more vulnerable. I could see no down side to my daughters being educated by these gifted, committed teachers, and I helped to discourage the other moms from taking vigilante action against respected members of the school community. By now, the hole appearing in my wall of learned misinformation was getting big enough to poke my head through.
A few more years passed, and several of our daughter’s friends were beginning to realize that their attractions weren’t like those of most of the other kids. One by one, these friends “came out” at school as gay, lesbian or bi-sexual. I knew these kids, and I knew many of their parents. I drove them home in my van after play rehearsals and listened in on their conversations. I liked these kids. I heard them say, “How could being gay be a choice? How could anyone believe I would choose to be “that kid” at school, to be bullied in the locker room and called “fag” in the halls? I would never choose this! It’s just who I am.”
And then, one evening, our 16-year old daughter came into the family room and tearfully said, “Mom, Dad, I have something I need to tell you.” My brain was racing through the card file of possible teenage disasters I should be prepared for, trying to guess what could be so serious. I thought maybe she was going to tell us she was failing a class, or she got in trouble for something at school, or maybe even that she was pregnant, even though, to my knowledge, she hadn’t had a boyfriend since third grade. I never expected to hear the next sentence: “I’m bi-sexual.” I had definitely not seen that one coming! As Sonja continued to talk, she shared that she was also very surprised by this realization. She is a young person who is passionate about issues of social justice, and she had helped to found the Gay-Straight Alliance club at her high school; but at the time, she thought she was doing so as a straight ally, not as a member of the LGBTQ community. She was taken by surprise when she realized she was feeling attractions to girls that were the same as attractions she had felt for boys in the past (although I will insert here that we had noticed that every boy she had gotten a “crush” on in middle school and high school eventually came out as gay). She is a young woman whose relationship to God is very important to her, so before she came to us, she spent time in prayer and study, asking God to reveal to her the truth about herself, and to help her accept herself as God had made her. This was part of the story she shared with us that evening. As my mind continued to spin while listening to her, a voice speaking above the background noise said, “Whatever you say in the next few seconds will be remembered for the rest of your daughter’s life.” I assured her of my love, I told her I was very surprised, and I told her it was going to take me some time to process this information and try to figure out how to reconcile my understanding of scripture with my complete love and acceptance of my daughter. Sonja is a great researcher, so she had a ready list for me of books, videos, websites and bloggers to check out to get me started. I began a 2 ½ year journey of study and learning, seeking to understand what my position as a Christian should be on this issue. Should I be praying for my daughter to try and change who she is or encourage her to live a life of celibacy, as a way to continue to try and shepherd this gift God had given me in my precious child? Or was there a different story that God wanted me to hear? I wanted to be open to whichever message God was sending me.
I started with science, seeking to understand the biological and psychological components of sexual orientation and gender identity. What I learned was that sexual orientation and gender identity are definitely not a choice, and are not changeable in the overwhelming majority of cases. From there, I began to read books that dealt with the prohibitive passages in the Bible and how to understand them. I talked with trusted mentors, including a pastor friend who still holds a traditional position on marriage and recommended some books that supported that position. Each time I picked up a new book, I prayed, asking God to help me see truth where there was truth to see, and to have the discernment to overlook my personal desires to be affirming without reservations of my daughter, but to also be able to see that which was not God’s desire for me to adopt. I examined the scriptural position on lifetime celibacy, seeking to understand the difference between a spiritual gift or calling, and a condition imposed by others on an individual. After over two years of study, I had a moment of clarity one day, when I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and certainty, as if a voice was speaking to me, that who Sonja is and whoever she falls in love with one day and eventually marries is perfectly OK. She has not turned her back on God, and God loves and affirms her as God made her. She walks daily in the tension of living in two separate communities, the LGBTQ community and the church, who frequently are at war with each other, claiming with pride her identity as a queer person of faith.
That was the day the wall collapsed completely, and I began to see that God was calling me onto a new path in an unexpected area of service and ministry. I felt led to do something with all the knowledge and insight I had gained through my study, but I didn’t know exactly what form that would take. I started by volunteering at a safe house for LGBTQ teens in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle, cooking dinners for kids who came there for support and food, in all colors and all expressions of gender and sexuality. I learned to ask about preferred pronouns when meeting someone new, to see the person behind the costume, to be sensitive to how I engaged in conversation and asked questions. I also enjoyed feeding hungry teenagers who were drawn to the dining room by the smell of baking brownies and stayed to chat. I met a wonderful group of gay men from a local Episcopal church who also cared for these teens, many of whom had been kicked out of their homes by religious parents when they “came out”, following Jesus’s call to care for “the least of these”. I began to really seek to see these kids with the eyes of Jesus, and my heart melted.
When we moved to the Bay area about three years ago, I wanted to continue to serve in a similar capacity, but no doors were opening that felt like a good fit for me. We joined this church, because we saw on the website that First Pres was in a “period of discernment” on the issues facing the PCUSA regarding sexuality and ordination, and we felt that maybe our voices could contribute to the conversation. I kept reminding God that I was available for service, but for over a year, nothing opened up. Then, about 1 ½ years ago, within a matter of a month, a series of events took place that were evidence to me of an unmistakable call to serve God in the area of supporting our LGBTQ kids by supporting the parents of those kids. God brought people across my path in very unusual ways, each saying almost the same thing: would you consider working with other parents and helping them on this journey of loving and supporting their kids? I am now involved with several private Facebook groups for Christian moms of LGBTQ kids from all over the world, helping each other deal with the crisis of a child coming out, the pain of rejection by family, friends and church communities when these moms stand with and support their children, and the deepening of their faith as they see a new aspect of God that they had been blinded to as they sat in their comfortable pews, unchallenged by the reality of having a gay child. I was called to become involved with the local chapter of PFLAG, a secular support group for parents and families of LGBTQ individuals, and am now a co-chair of that chapter. I was also called (literally across the church parking lot by Debbie Whaley) to help form and facilitate a support group here at First Pres for Christian parents of LGBTQ kids. We have been meeting monthly on the church campus, under the guidance of Kristen Gustavson, for a little over a year now.
I have heard many Christian moms say that having a gay child is the best gift God has given them, because through their child (or even gay children) they have learned so much more about God’s love and how to see the world through the eyes of Jesus. I have to say that my experience goes even beyond that. I have been called by God into a ministry because of my daughter, who now identifies as “queer”, who has taught me to love more openly, to remember that Jesus showed by example how we are to treat and include the “other” in our midst, who taught me to dig deeper into Bible passages that seem on the surface to say one thing, but on closer inspection are not so clear as we once thought, and who continues to challenge me to be honest in my pursuit of understanding this issue. I would never have expected to be on this particular journey, but God has taught me so much as I walk this path and leave that crumbled wall behind.