HOME IS THE PLACE WHERE, WHEN YOU HAVE TO GO THERE, THEY HAVE TO TAKE YOU IN ― ROBERT FROST
Like many queer people, I’ve had a messy and often painful relationship with the institutional church. Yet in my 33 years of life, I’ve come to believe that even messy and painful does not mean irredeemable. Last week, while attending the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, a whole lot of redemption happened. I’m still working to find the words to describe just what happened, but I’d like to share some of my processing.
From the time I became aware of my sexuality at age 9 until age 19/20 when I finally “came out,” I used most of my mental, spiritual, and emotional energy trying to beat my identity into submission. I participated in prayer groups and used my time to pray for change, squeezing the hands of those next to me so hard that they lost circulation for those few minutes. I cried in closets on my knees asking God to fix me. Despite early encounters with pornography and self-gratification, I joined an online community of people dealing with “same sex attraction” or SSA for short. In this community we could not write words like gay, sex, porn, or masturbation, without altering or abbreviating them. By limiting how honest we could be about our sexualities, we created a culture of hyper-shamed-sexuality.
Freshman year of college, I allowed my LiveJournal site to be a space where I wrote very transparently about my struggle with sexuality. I didn’t have much of a filter, and I refused to sugar-coat what was happening.
It was that next summer when my relationship with the church took a turn. For the longest time, I told people that my Baptist church kicked me out. In reality, they simply refused to let me serve in any ministerial capacity at the church, particularly around children. No one ever said, “You aren’t welcome here. Leave.” But they may as well have. Still, even in that conversation, I remember vividly the first experience of my mom coming to my side, sticking up for me while still wrestling with her own sense of shame and guilt for having a gay son. She loved me best she knew how, and she does a damn good job. It took me another decade to learn to appreciate her as a mom, but now I wouldn’t trade her for the world.
Skip ahead a few years. I was already in seminary. Frankie and I had just married. And it was time to meet with my District Committee on Ministry from the United Methodist Church, a denomination that is still being ripped apart by the issue of human sexuality. I knew the UMC’s stance, and still I chose to enter the process. When the DCoM members told me I should leave out all references to my husband, I became stoic and flat-faced. I knew quickly that this was not the place for me, not my home, despite how fiercely I love John Wesley as a theologian.
I left the church again. Not because anyone told me to, but because I simply had to. I’d spent too much time and energy fighting a war between my love for Jesus and my love for men, and I knew that continuing to wage that war would end in my destruction. This is why I have the words “beloved” and “enough” tattooed on my wrists, perpetual reminders that I am God’s child, and that God didn’t create me as a living, breathing catch-22.
Chaplaincy seemed to be the safest bet for me. I love spiritual care. I’m comfortable around hospitals, sickness, and death. And being a chaplain engages my own desire for self-reflection and self-awareness. The best care comes from providers who are deeply aware of their own stories and rooted in their own faith traditions. That’s who I want to be. But I still wasn’t whole.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE OPEN THEIR HEARTS?
THEY GET BETTER. ― HARUKI MURAKAMI
I had no intentions of going back to church, not yet at least. I’d get my endorsement from another organization. I’d play it safe. Amy, my CPE residency supervisor, called BS and said I needed to go back to church, be a part of a community, let myself be loved and welcomed, and let my call to ministry be affirmed by a community of people who were diving into the deep end with me. So I went to Plymouth UCC, and my journey with my current denomination started.
Last week in Baltimore, over the course of 6 days (fitting number one might say), the UCC went from being my denomination to my home.
I’d been wrestling with how to integrate my denominational heritage as a Baptist and as a Methodist into my present denomination. I’d struggled to find the connection between personal devotion, striving for holiness, and working for social justice. During Synod, God put person after person into my path to tell me I was not just a refugee from denominations who never fully accepted me. God threw conversation after conversation before me where I could hear stories of why doing justice work is important to these people of faith, and how it deepens their personal relationships with God, Jesus, and the Spirit. God handed me these moments of hugs, tears, laughter, beautiful transparency, and genuine vulnerability, as if She were asking “Will you let this be your home? Will you let these people be your family? Will you let me take your fear, apprehension, grief, anger, and transform them into something bigger, stronger, and beautiful?”
Moment after moment, my YES became louder, stronger, and more resolved. I did not go to Synod with many expectations. I certainly did not anticipate the Spirit opening me up in the ways she did. Nor did I anticipate the overwhelming experience of being loved and welcomed that came my way. But this is who God is, and this is how She works.
YOU OWE IT TO ALL OF US TO GET ON WITH WHAT YOU’RE GOOD AT. ― W.H. AUDEN
I finally made the connection between personal devotion, striving towards holiness, and engaging in social justice. I finally embraced the UCC not just as a refugee camp but as the place where God has led and called me to serve and to be in community, as my home. But one last thing happened while at Synod, and it is perhaps the most exciting, scariest piece of all.
I heard, or more accurately I let myself hear, God calling me to be more than a chaplain. I heard God call me to be a pastor. I heard Her tell me through one encounter after another, “This is my body. These are my children. I need you to love them the way I love them. I need you to serve them, to care for them, to journey alongside them as you both seek my face and embody my heart. I know you’re scared, and still hurting and grieving, but I’m here. I never left, and I never will. I will give you all you need to do this thing. It’s who you are, and it’s what I made you for.”
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
— Jeremiah 1:4-10
This is where I am right now. The pragmatics and logistics will take some time, and of course I will need to have a job in the meantime. But I refuse to run any longer. I refuse to let my past experiences of shame, of exclusion, of self-loathing, and of so many other pains define me one second more. I defy the lies telling me I’m unworthy, unloveable, irredeemable. I know I will make mistakes. I am not and will not be perfect. But dammit, I will try, and I will work.
I’m home, and no one can ever take home away from you.
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MICHAEL OVERMAN is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible.
As he says, “Running from God is easy… running back to God is anything but.” He tried parish ministry. Too hot. He tried the nonprofit sector. Too cold. He finally tried hospital chaplaincy. Just right.
Michael currently lives in Vancouver, WA, and he loves chocolate, wine, and scifi.
Check out more of Michael’s writing at www.findingthebalance.net.