First of all, I love you. I fell in love with you in third grade when my parents ventured out of my grandparents’ tiny but beloved Lutheran church that was filled mostly with people over the age of 60, the faint scent of flowery perfume and spicy shaving cream lingering long after the sanctuary emptied. I met you in the basement of a small, Methodist chapel nestled in the middle of the corn fields, listening to ancient stories read from thin pages. You gave me my best friends and Bible verses hidden in my heart and an understanding that the Gospel is meant to be shared.
In you, I found close-knit community, people always ready to listen to the ramblings of a ten-year-old girl dreaming of becoming a writer and changing the world. You grew as I did and you graduated me from spiritual milk to solid food the more mature I became. You planted within my heart a deep love for the orphan, the widow, the immigrant – and you gave me opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus. You took me out of America for the very first time to teach Vacation Bible School in the mountains of the Dominican Republic and to help build a school from the ground up in the desert of Mexico. You showed me love and taught me how to love. To you, I owe the basis of my theology, the development of my mind, the passion of my heart.
And then things got uncomfortable, for you and for me.
Theological shifts happen gradually, through questions and doubts and hoping the answers will miraculously be in next weeks’ sermon. Conviction is only recognized every so often, a twinge here, a heart-pang there, until it’s too strong to continue to be ignored. Change happens slowly at first, but is then realized in a split second.
Everything is always fine until suddenly it’s not.
I trusted you until suddenly I didn’t.
I believed you until suddenly I didn’t.
I loved you until suddenly I couldn’t.
All at once, Evangelicalism, you and I were no longer friends. I began to question the things you told me, but you didn’t want to give me the freedom to talk about it. I was worried about some of the things you were saying, but you reminded me that good girls are to be seen (in the serving line at the Spaghetti Fundraiser Dinner) and not heard (in serious theological discussions). I tried to build a longer table with you for my classmates who were poor, suicidal, addicted, broken, but you quietly suggested they didn’t dress right, look right, act right. The community I so valued in you ten years ago suddenly disappeared.
You’re really good at loving, serving, communing with those who you say are worthy. You’re not so great at talking to the people you aren’t sure about; the homeless veteran on the street, the kid living below the poverty line because a single mom waiting tables at the local diner doesn’t make much, the gay man disowned by his family, the woman addicted to painkillers, the teenage girl trying to reconcile her sexual orientation with what you’ve taught her about homosexuality in the Bible.
That was me, by the way.
I was the 16-year-old riddled with anxiety because who knew who would be the next to find out that she liked girls instead of boys? I was the girl who faithfully showed up at church every Sunday morning to teach Sunday school in the hour before service, the one who came to band rehearsals on Thursday evenings and led worship on Saturday nights, the one who went to the church Missions Committee meetings and gave talks about ending human trafficking in America and asked God to send her to Uganda to work with women coming out of prostitution.
That same girl sat in her car for 10 minutes every time she pulled into that parking lot, taking deep breaths and begging God to not let you find out she gently, softly kissed a girl under the stars last night. She cried tears of desperation, not to be relieved of the burden she carried, but simply to find someone who understood. All she needed was someone to stand up and say, “You are loved, you are worthy, you are created in the image of God. You are not wrong or disgusting or vile. This is where we’ve gotten it wrong before and we refuse to get it wrong again. Your love is valid and beautiful and I want to celebrate it with you.”
I continued to come to church, looking to the Jesus you preached to me about, and then shifting my gaze to you and I couldn’t see the similarities anymore. Where I used to see gentle guidance, I now saw harsh direction; where I used to see loving community, I now saw unfair exclusion; where I used to see family, I now only saw familiar-looking strangers. You preached about Sodom and Gomorrah, claiming homosexuality destroyed the cities; you said that the sexual immorality described in the Scriptures mostly refers to same-sex relations; you shouted from the pulpit about grace and love, but spoke quietly in the pastor’s office about the sin of loving someone of the same gender.
I felt ashamed and rejected by you because you didn’t know that, in the midst of that crowded room, among the good and faithful Christians whom you praised, I was trembling behind a forced smile, praying you didn’t see me exchange a knowing glance filled with fear with the blonde girl sitting beside me. Sometimes, those we most fear are not out there, but rather already in here – courageously showing up, hoping for love and connection and belonging.
You hurt me, Evangelicalism, and I tried to walk away from you, yet God lovingly chased me down and you persistently followed. I tried to find the parts of you I loved in Catholicism, in nondenominational churches, even in the Progressive churches I heard were corrupt, while leaving behind the parts of you I hated, but I discovered it’s impossible. You cannot be separated out, but you can be rethought and reconciled.
So now I’m back. I’m reworking your theology and rereading the stories of old I forgot and learning that Love still resides within you and your people. Won’t you come with me? Let’s build an expansive table big enough to give space and time and attention to all the people who are begging us to listen. Let’s break bread with the modern-day “least of these”. Let’s turn off our automatic responses to those who drink too much, eat too little, find solace in back-alley poison injected into veins with unclean needles, find their sanity in tiny white pills materialized from a psychiatrist’s prescription pad, and the ever-widening community of people who happen to fall in love with a person based on their soul, not their gender. The marginalized and oppressed have so much to give you, just as much as (if not more than) you have to give them.
Open your doors a little wider, Evangelicalism, and let me invest back into you.
BAILEY WELCH is a lesbian Christian who was raised a devout conservative Evangelical in rural Ohio, came out of the closet, questioned everything, was unsatisfied with the answers she was given, and left the Church for a period of time. As she walked away from the only way of life she had ever known, wrestling with her faith, she found that God lovingly chased her down and Evangelicalism never really let her go. Bailey is committed to seeking reconciliation between the LGBTQ community and the Evangelical Church through courageous conversations.
You can find her writing at baileyjowelch.com or follow her on Twitter @baileyjowelch.