Posted December 30, 2013 by Marg Herder
This post is part of my series on the 2014 Gay Christian Network conference. EEWC-Christian Feminism Today is partnering with GCN to present GCN’s 2014 weconnect Women’s Retreat. Complete information on the conference can be found here. My introduction to the conference and the weconnect Women’s Retreat can be found here.
In talking to the coordinator of the 2014 weconnect Women’s Retreat, Samantha Hasty-Zander, I found out that a significant percentage of the women who will be attending the retreat are mothers of LGBT children. I was excited to hear this. I interact with many people who identify as LGBT but my opportunities to interact with Christian parents of LGBT children are limited. I asked Samantha if she knew of a “mom” I could interview for Where She Is. Turns out that the current chair of the Gay Christian Network Board of Directors, Susan Shopland, is one of the “mama bears” (I find it delightful that this how Susan refers to the moms)!
Susan is scheduled to be one of the retreat speakers, and she will be co-presenting a workshop with her son Ben and husband Mark during the main GCN conference. Susan was kind enough to share her story with me and answer some questions I posed.
Usually, when I’m introducing someone to my Where She Is readers, I’ll write a short piece about them from the information they provide. But in this case I’m going to do something different. I’m going to let Susan tell her own story, because I really like it just the way she told it.
I was born in Egypt, the daughter and grand-daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. My father was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, now known as PC(USA) and, after returning to the U.S. when I was fourteen, he served several small churches in a yoked parish along the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania. The exposure to other cultures and religious views (my father focused on building bridges of understanding between Moslems and Christians in Egypt) and the culture shock of transition from the insulated world of a mission boarding school to the world of American public high school (in an area where many of my peers had never been outside the state of Pennsylvania much less outside the country) were my earliest experiences of “difference.”
I attended Bethany College in West Virginia, and it was during my college years that I finally realized the people around me couldn’t tell I was “different” just by looking at me or listening to me speak. My college years were an opportunity to grow into myself without primarily identifying as an “mk” (mission kid) or “pk” (preacher’s kid). I had thought I wanted to be a writer, but college introduced me to psychology and the fascinating study of real people. Rather than choose between majoring in English or psychology, I created an interdisciplinary major and graduated with a B.A. in Literature and Psychology. I had no idea what to do with that major; it just made sense to me that stories about people and the study of people informed and enhanced each other.
Shortly after college, I married my husband (of 36 years now). We had dreamed of mission service but school loans were prohibitive, so we joined the Peace Corps and set off for Botswana, Africa. My husband taught science and I did a variety of things until I settled on starting a typing school in the village for girls who had dropped out of high school and had no other options. The project was successful enough that the Peace Corps decided to bring in a volunteer specifically to replace me when we left. We served in Botswana from 1977 through 1980.
My husband already had a graduate degree before we served in the Peace Corps, so we decided it was “my turn” for school when we returned. I settled on a Master’s program in Clinical Psychology because it allowed me to have an assistantship with a professor who had co-authored a book on poetry therapy and that seemed like a natural extension of my B.A. degree. We settled in Indiana, Pennsylvania, so I could attend the university there, and my husband eventually got a permanent teaching position in a high school nearby – so we never left! We raised our children, Bethany (30) and Ben (27), here, became active in a Presbyterian church in town, took in a refugee family from Botswana, and cared for several additional children who landed in our care as an outgrowth of our involvement with that refugee family. Meanwhile, I had tried my hand at clinical work and decided to continue my education, ultimately getting a doctorate in Clinical Psychology in 1995. I taught part-time at the university until my private practice took off; I have now been in private practice for about 16 years.
Despite my education and my exposure to LGBT experience via professional contacts and clients in my practice, I didn’t have any inkling that my son was gay until he came out to me when he graduated from high school. Our “coming out” story was the reversal of the usual scenario in conservative Christian homes: he was convinced God would heal him and did not want me to tell him it was okay to be gay. That was devastating for me. Not only was I afraid for him, for his own well-being and for the reactions of his Christian support system, I was filled with remorse about raising him in a church that had taught him to reject a part of himself. It took an additional four years of struggle before he concluded that God was not going to change him and that he must accept himself as God accepted him, a gay Christian man.
If someone had offered me a pill guaranteed to make my son straight back then, I would have given it to him – especially knowing that was what he wanted at that time. Looking back from where I am now, it horrifies me to admit that. In the 8-plus years since that initial “coming out,” our family has grown so much.
Now I celebrate having a gay son, and consider it one of the greatest blessings of my life. His journey to a more authentic existence has been the catalyst for my own journey toward greater authenticity. It has forced me to confront my own deceitfulness in living a compartmentalized existence (my “church” self who never spoke up about “controversial” subjects, my “work” self who never spoke up about faith), and continually inspires me to work at bringing my whole self into all arenas of my life. In the process, my own faith has been re-energized – surely my connection to the God who created me becomes more accessible when I am actively becoming the person I was created to be!
The opportunity to co-present workshops for families on the coming out process at the last two GCN conferences (and the one coming up in January) is one of the highlights of my life. I love standing with my son and sharing our story together! And at the conference in January, my husband is taking time off from teaching so he can join us in leading the workshop.
The most recent challenge on that journey has been a vote seeking dismissal from the PC (USA) in the church we have attended for 31 years, the church where we raised our children and the church where my son learned to reject his sexual orientation. Under the current leadership of that church, after an intensely divisive “discernment” process, two thirds of the congregation voted to leave the PC(USA). The language of justification for this departure included concerns about the PC(USA) abandoning basic tenets of belief (the lordship of Jesus, the authority of scripture, etc.) but we know from two years’ worth of conversation with our pastor that the tipping point for him was the change in ordination standards (to allow the ordination of openly LGBT folks). My husband and I took an active role in fighting against the move to leave the PC(USA) (including mailing a letter about our family experience to 423 households in the congregation) but since the vote, we are worshipping elsewhere.
Our daughter Bethany and her husband Colin had their first child, Nolin, two years ago. I am so thankful to be in a position to share with my grandson the things I wish I had known to share with my son. I am also grateful that he is being raised in an environment in which he gets to interact with all different kinds of families. His world is already a different world than the one my son grew up in. And doing my part to make this world even more inclusive for him and his generation is another motive that drives me!
My son invited me to join GCN in 2010, and I was overwhelmed with the grace, love, and acceptance I received in that community. Serving on the Board and participating in the planning for the weconnect retreat have been privileged opportunities to try to make a difference. My passion is to reach the many other parents of LGBT youth who still struggle to find their way in churches that tell them, directly or indirectly, that loving God means rejecting their children.
Harnessing the power of the “mama bears” truly has the potential to accelerate the pace of change in the churches, which, in my opinion, are the last great obstacle to a truly inclusive society.
Related Content on Where She Is:
And There Was Singing (Sunday)
Rachel Held Evans’ Presentation Summary (Saturday)
We are Broken (Friday)
There Will be Some Tears (Thursday)
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 1
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 2
weconnect – Introduction to Featured Speaker Reverend Audrey Connor
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 1
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 2
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 3
Introduction to the Gay Christian Network’s weconnect Women’s Retreat