Posted December 31, 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.
Yesterday I introduced Where She Is readers to Susan Shopland, chairperson of the Gay Christian Network Board of Directors. Susan will be presenting a short talk during the weconnect Women’s Retreat, and will be presenting a workshop with son Ben and husband Mark later in the GCN conference.
Susan and I corresponded via email, and I loved her answers to my questions. I’m thrilled to share them with my readers. This is the first post of two. I refer to her story frequently in my questions, so I urge you to read her story here prior to reading the interview. It’s a great story. My questions are in bold, her answers are in normal type.
In your story you said, “My passion is to reach the many other parents of LGBT youth who still struggle to find their way in churches that tell them . . . loving God means rejecting their children.” This is beautiful and I’d hug you right now if we were sitting together! This is such important work.
Here’s what I’d like to know. What does this work look like? What do you say to parents in this situation? How do you even find them? How do you reach the hearts of the ones you do find? How do you slip through the wall created by years of knowing only misrepresentations of LGBT people and selective presentations of what the Bible “says?”
For a long time what this work “looked like” was waiting. Waiting and preparing. I was reading and collecting resources and getting mentored by wonderful folks on the Gay Christian Network [ed. – the GCN website offers many different online discussion forums], and waiting. I kept thinking, “When will God give me an opportunity to use all of this?” And I was impatient. But I also thought, “Maybe God knows I’m not ready yet.”
Eventually I had the opportunity to co-present a workshop with my son at the 2011 Orlando GCN conference about the coming out process. I was so nervous before the workshop. But once Ben and I began to share our story, standing side by side, I just relaxed. It was such a joy to stand with him, and so moving to experience how people responded to us and shared their own family stories.
After that, it seemed as if things took off at warp speed. I was invited to serve on the Gay Christian Network’s Board of Directors, I began seeing family members of LGBT folks in my practice (this just happened, I didn’t advertise or do anything to bring them in), Samantha Hasty-Zander invited me to join in planning the weconnect Women’s Retreat, my husband and I started meeting with our pastor and associate pastor to advocate for some kind of forum for discussing attitudes toward LGBT folks, and suddenly, here I am serving as Board Chair of the Gay Christian Network!
What do I say to parents? I tell them to keep on loving their child. I talk about the Family Acceptance Project and the statistics on the harmful effects of parental rejection on LGBT kids. I tell them that even the parent who says, “I don’t understand and I don’t know what I think about this, but I know I love you!” is immunizing their child against the risk of suicide. I tell them about the Lead with Love film, which encourages parents to express their pain away from their child and “do good before they feel good.”
I share my story, and I share my son. We’ve been invited to speak to our adult Sunday School class at our former Presbyterian Church (USA) church (to about 70 people) and tomorrow we will speak to the adult Sunday School class at the PC(USA) church we are now attending. We’ve spoken at my son’s church, which is a fully welcoming PC(USA) congregation. And we’ve spoken to university social work and criminology classes. What people tell us at these events is that it isn’t just the content of our message that has an impact, but the way we relate to each other as we share our story. People tell us that they see our love and respect for each other, and it becomes a living example of what we are advocating.
For the most part, these opportunities have come to us (we haven’t gone looking for them).
You are more active in the cause of LGBT equality than any other Christian mom I know. I wondered, in reading your story, if it was because you lived part of your life outside the norm, and thus knew first-hand what it is to be “other” or as you say, “different.” Does your experience of “difference” make you more empathetic?
Yes, I think so. This is something I have only recently begun to reflect on. Lately I have been thinking about my story in a “big picture” way instead of looking at it just in terms of the time period since Ben came out to me.
I am deeply grateful for my own experience of being “other.” It cannot compare to the experience of someone who is LGBT, but I know what it is like to try to “fly under the radar,” keeping silent so people won’t notice the way I speak, trying to avoid the inevitable ignorant questions when people found out I had lived in Egypt: “Did you live in a pyramid? Did you ride a camel to school? Did you like it over there?”
I am also deeply grateful for a father (also my pastor for many years) whose own willingness to question and to admit that he didn’t have all the answers taught me that faith did not require being sure about everything, that God is always bigger than the boxes of understanding we create.
I had a vivid dream a couple of years ago after a friend at church came out to me:
I am in Pittsburgh with R. and we are looking for one of the churches my father served when he was in the Bethlehem Parish. The city is full of tall buildings and I know it will be difficult to find one small church. There is also a logical part of me that wonders why we are searching in Pittsburgh, so far from where my father served – how could Dad possibly have traveled that far from where the other churches were located? We are on one of those impossibly steep streets in Pittsburgh and, looking over a bluff, we see a parking lot below. It is darker than the rest of the city because the bluff shelters it from all the city lights. We descend to the parking lot and make our way across it. I am looking down at the ground to be sure of my steps in the dark. For a moment I look up and out at the skyline – and there is the church steeple, rising up against a velvet sky full of stars. It is so beautiful that I catch my breath and reach for R.’s hand. “Look!” I exclaim. “Doesn’t it take your breath away?” My father’s church – the one where I learned that faith does not require me to stop thinking or questioning; the one where the bottom line was loving God and loving your neighbor and everything else was secondary; the one where it was okay to express doubts and ask questions; where different points of view were welcomed and respected – is still standing, still beautiful, still pointing to heaven. It just wasn’t where I expected it to be. But I can find it again, with my gay Christian brothers and sisters.
Your church, the one you had been active in for decades, recently voted to split from the Presbyterian Church (USA) because, at least in part, of PC (USA)’s recent decision to allow LGBT clergy. You and your husband were active in the effort to prevent this split but were not successful, even after mailing a letter about your family’s experience to over 400 other members. Clearly, a majority of the congregation was unable to move into a place of love and acceptance for LGBT people.
Do you think anything could have happened to change their minds? Anything? In retrospect, is there something you wish had been done that wasn’t? What do you think is at the root of the opposition to allowing LGBT people equality in the church?
You write: “Clearly, a majority of the congregation . . . .” Actually, I am not sure of this at all.
I think a large number of people just felt they had to vote the way the pastor clearly wanted them to vote. Some never even knew what the issues were; they just knew how they were “supposed” to vote. Others fell for misinformation about the PC (USA): that the denomination no longer acknowledges the lordship of Christ or the authority of scripture. They believed the leadership when they said it “wasn’t about homosexuality.”
There were a few for whom homosexuality really was the issue, who truly believed the Bible was irrefutably clear on the question. (Of course, they were also people who wore clothing of mixed fabrics and accepted the reality of divorce and remarriage, but they didn’t see the inconsistency of their selective interpretation of scripture.)
The real problem at our church was that it had become a church in which it was not acceptable to have a different point of view than the leadership, and there was no forum for discussion or learning about alternative points of view. In the one place where such discussion was encouraged (the adult Sunday School class I mentioned earlier), when Ben and I were invited to share our story, a lot of people responded very positively. One woman, who had served the children’s ministry for years, said, “I’ve been so ignorant. Our whole church needs to be educated.” Another, after hearing our son, said, “I can’t believe this is the kind of person our church considers unfit for ordination.” And probably 40 or more people in that class of 70 read Justin Lee’s book, Torn, either at our recommendation or the recommendation of others who had heard about it from us.
To answer your questions, I don’t think we could have done any more than we did. And there were a lot of wonderful people joining us in the effort. We’ve made some truly lifelong friends among those who joined us in trying to push back against the move to leave the denomination. I think the leadership of the church was the source of the problem; a pastor who was committed to unity (rather than conformity) would have shepherded the church in a very different direction.
Some time ago I read an interview of someone who lobbies on behalf of Bread for the World. The interviewer asked if she thought her efforts on behalf of hungry people had been successful. She thought a moment and then replied by paraphrasing a quote from Mother Teresa, “I don’t believe God has called me to be successful. I believe God has called me to be faithful.” That statement sustained me throughout the “discernment” process and sustains me now. I believe we were faithful, and I have to trust God for the outcome. (Isaiah 49:4).
What is the root of the opposition? For some people, it seems to be fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of being wrong, fear of asking questions, fear of questioning one aspect of their belief system because then who knows what else might not hold up to scrutiny?
My husband compares his experience to one of those jigsaw puzzles where the pieces are so similar that they can be put together incorrectly; you know something isn’t right, so you take out a piece, then another, and another – who knows how far you will have to undo what you have done before you can put it back together again? For us, that process is worth it because the original puzzle picture wasn’t adequate; the one we are putting together now is so much richer and more complete. But I think there are a lot of Christians who just can’t take that risk.
For other people, I am discovering, it’s just ignorance. In a church like we attended, LGBT people (understandably) aren’t out. And no one talks about “it.” So there is no opportunity to learn, no opportunity to get accurate information, no role models, no way to refute stereotypes.
I once heard Bishop Gene Robinson thank an audience for “creating confusion” in our churches. The audience laughed, and he said, “I’m serious: when people with a rigid point of view encounter someone like you who has a different experience or point of view, it creates confusion. And I consider that ‘holy confusion,’ ‘holy chaos,’ because it opens the possibility of a new point of view.” I have been pleasantly surprised at times by people who just had never heard anything like what I was saying and who were genuinely interested in becoming better educated.
One of my GCN mentors introduced me to Anthony Venn-Brown’s scale of attitudes toward homosexuality, which has 7 points: hatred – dislike – discomfort – tolerance – acceptance – affirmation – advocacy. If our efforts at our former church moved anyone along that scale, even just one step, it was worth the struggle.
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 – Introduction to GCN Board Chairperson Susan Shopland
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