“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Still Waiting for Repeal in the Evangelical Covenant Church

Andrew Freeman

Note: This blog was created for people to share their stories. Until now, I have mostly refrained from sharing details of my own. This is one part of my journey.  

Just over nine months ago, I sat on the piano bench in a church sanctuary, one eye on my music and the other on the screen of my smartphone. It was a Saturday morning, we were rehearsing for the upcoming Sunday School Christmas program, and between songs I was checking my newsfeed. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had finally come to a vote, and I watched anxiously as the results came in. When repeal passed the Senate, I kept my excitement to myself, picked up my phone, and updated my Facebook status: “well, the U.S. Military is now officially on its way to being a more open and welcoming place than the Church.”

My sarcasm had some personal bitterness mixed in. You see, I was serving as a closeted gay associate pastor to this Covenant congregation. With the recent disclosure of my sexual orientation to denominational leadership, my future in Covenant ministry was feeling in jeopardy. I only had a few more weeks left at the local church, just a few more weeks of hiding at work. I had come out to essentially all of my friends (except those who were related to congregants) and to my entire family. The last vestige of the closet was at work, around the people with whom I was supposed to have formed authentic and meaningful relationships. Yet these relationships were limited by fear – of hurt and division. I loved the people I was serving, but worried they might not love me if they really, truly knew me. I hid to avoid causing pain for all of us, but the silence was slowly killing me. I was tired and miserable and ready – anxious, even – to be free.

That’s why the news of DADT’s repeal stirred up some mixed emotions in me. On the one hand, it was certainly an historic moment in the LGBT rights movement in our country. And my heart rejoiced with those soldiers who would soon be freed from closets of secrecy and shame, finally able to serve with honesty and dignity. Yet at the same time, this news only drew further attention to the reality that the church is lagging far behind. I was angered by the revelation that I could now, theoretically, openly serve in one of the last places on earth I would want to serve – the US Military, while the one place I most wanted to serve, the place that has been my home, my family, my source of identity, the place I had practically pledged my life to – the Covenant Church, no longer seemed to want me. Months later, when publicly sharing my story, I quipped, “Ironically, I’m a pacifist, and yet as an openly gay man I now have a better shot at firing a gun in the U.S. Military than preaching the peace of Christ every week in a Covenant Church.” I want you to know how deeply it pains me to say such a thing.

Fast-forward to the present. As of last Tuesday, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is no more. Once faceless gay soldiers now appear on TV, names and faces fully visible. The veil has been lifted. A young man films the phone call to his father in which he comes out, and the video goes viral on YouTube. One can’t help but feel moved by these stories and celebrate the progress this represents for our country. Yet still I ask: what progress have we made in the church?

I chose to disclose my sexual orientation to leaders in the church after deciding that the closet was not a healthy or sustainable place for me to live. In response, I have been told two things: 1 – sexual orientation alone does not disqualify a candidate from ordination in the Covenant Church, and 2 – there are gay and lesbian Covenant pastors who, living in accordance with the ethical guidelines for ministers, have been ordained. So, in essence, I am not alone and I can technically still seek ordination. Good news in theory, perhaps, but not so in reality.

When I asked to speak with these other LGBT Covenant clergy for solidarity and support, no names were given to me. Apparently, they are all still in the closet. I suggested that my name and contact information could be given to any closeted clergy who might contact me in confidence. One year later, I haven’t heard from a single person. Not one. I’ve been told that I’m not alone, but my only company is anonymous. In reality, this is not a safe church for ministers to be honest about who they are, and so I continue to stand alone.  One can be closeted, gay, and ordained in this church, but what about those who feel called to live in the light on the other side of the closet door? Turns out, there are costs to “telling,” but those details are for another post.

I made the decision to come out fully aware of the consequences it might have on my call to serve the Covenant church. I felt as if I had been forced to choose between my call and my integrity. I had to choose integrity. Yet this is not a choice the Church should require its ministers to make: one’s call and integrity should always be interwoven. I do not question the integrity of the lives of those who have chosen to remain in the closet. I do, however, question when that choice cannot be freely made from a place of safety, personal preference, and prayerful discernment, but is rather driven by the pragmatics of church policies and politics. Choices driven by fear seldom turn out to be life-giving.

It may not be an official, explicitly written policy, but the cultural realities I’ve described here essentially form our church’s own version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Not only is it unfair and unjust, it is also unbiblical. Ours is a God of revelation, who favors truth-telling. So I want to give others out there a space to safely tell the truth, even now. That’s largely why we created this blog, but for those who can’t yet risk such public exposure I’ve set up a private and confidential email: andrew@comingoutcovenant.com – write to me! I’d love to hear from you and walk this often-lonesome journey with you. Your story is sacred, and I will treat it as such – receiving it with respect, holding it in confidence. If the military can move past the days of serving in secrecy, isn’t about time the Church did, too?

Lynda McGraw: “My Beloved Brother”

Ralph Sturdy opened the doors of conversation in the Covenant Companion, and now this blog and Facebook page. I think now I can take a stand with others… Thank you.

There have been SO many times I have written this letter in my head and, more importantly, in my heart.  I was a coward. For years I thought it was to protect my brother’s memory, and other times I thought the Covenant was not ready. What if the door was slammed shut tightly and it was I who forced the issue? I did not want to hear the talk – it was my beloved brother that would be left out.  My dear friends have known my struggle. What if I put it out there and the church dismisses it, dismisses him, dismisses me?  After the line is drawn in the sand, what then? Can I straddle it?  I brag that the Covenant is very inclusive –  women ordained for the the pulpit? – infant baptism or dedication – praise songs or traditional hymns?  We are a modern church.  But alas the gay issue has been a very sticky subject – and an oh so personal one for me.

So here it is: my brother Mark was gay.  He was a wonderful, caring man who loved God.  Yes, you do hear the past tense.  He died in 1996 under the shroud of guilt and shame of AIDS.  He kept the secret that he was gay from his extended family, many of his friends, and for some time even me.  He was afraid that we would leave him out there– all by himself.  He had been told that he was not worthy of God’s love or even ours.  He did not dare bring his friends or his life into the shadows, let alone the limelight.  He attended functions alone for fear of being known.  Family weddings he was stag,  badgered by many “When are you going to get a nice girl and settle down?” I cannot tell you from how many people he hid who he really was, even from me his dear sister – his best bud.  For a while I was kept in the dark.   He worried what I might say.  I cannot tell you how that breaks my heart.

But he did have good reason to hide. One of our “Christian” relatives showed up at his door spouting the idea of “change your ways or Hell will welcome you on the other side.”  Mark did eventually share with me all of who he was and there is NO WAY I could say he was trash. He was Mark, the man who loved cats and a good book, who brought Christmas gifts to a friend’s kids when her husband walked out, and who stepped up as a class act in many situations. My husband and I visited with him and his partner, James, and my children carry his name as a badge of honor.  Do not get the idea that he was all alone, but the church did not welcome him or at least he did not trust it to open its arms. Neither did I trust the church.  I played my cards close – ever so close to the vest.  I could not take the chance that he would be left out in the cold.

Time went on and he became sick. Along with the illness came the “you deserve it – God’s curse.”  I held his secret of identity and health, and our family hunkered down together.  I said nothing at church: no requests for healing or understanding. I dared not.  Instead I sat in the pew, silent and steely.  Our pastor called when his obituary appeared in the paper, but I did not share much.  I am not sure if I was ashamed for him, for me, or for the church in general.

As years went by I could share in our writing group about the loss of him, but not all of who he was. I was raw and I felt I could not deal with anyone who would question his value.  I even worried about how my children would be treated and warned them that they may not want to share too much in school or church because some people might not understand.  Someone might disparage their uncle  of whom I spoke so lovingly, and they would not know what to do.

There have been several instances where I have met people at Camp Squanto or Pilgrim Pines and they ask about Mark.  I respond with his passing, but am afraid to say of what – because the assumption is that since he was gay he was a lost soul.  I am still protecting him even now. No one should think poorly of my brother. Maybe I have not given many the chance to step forward and show inclusion.  That has been much too frightening. If it is a bad reaction then I might have to walk away from my church.  What then?  A line drawn in the sand: Mark or my church?  Mark trumps.

So, there you have it.  My beloved brother was gay and he loved God and God loved him.  His memorial service was held in a Covenant church with a carefully invited crowd:  his partner of 10 years, James, his parents, his brother, me, and the trusted friends of all of us.  How sad it is that many feel the shame or fear to be themselves.

I “mark” a January day – yes, his name resonates with the verb – to state boldly that all of us are God’s people.  We need to welcome all believers and stop closing the door.  It is a cold  Sunday when I place flowers on the altar at the front of the sanctuary to mark his birthday and then death a week later on an oh so cold lonely January night.

I so hope the conversation begins,  understanding ensues and the doors fly open.  What would Jesus do?  He was and is with all who believe,  rich – poor, male – female, and I do believe gay and straight.

P.S. Editor’s note. Mark’s life story inspired the 1992 movie, “Doing Time on Maple Drive.” Check it out! 

Anonymous: “It Gets Better”

This author was part the Covenant Church since birth, attended Covenant Bible College, North Park College and Seminary, and has done ministry in Covenant Churches. She no longer attends a Covenant church, but is writing anonymously out of respect for her family who does, and in order to avoid hearing comments that cause emotional pain from people in a church she has loved.

I had a dream a few years before I came out. In it I looked pregnant. In the dream, some people were telling me I was carrying a tumor and it needed to be cut out and destroyed. Others were telling me that I was carrying a baby and something precious to be born that was a part of me.

This dream was the start of my coming out process. For years I had been saying to myself “it’s a tumor, I have to kill it”. However, the more I tried to kill it through therapy and workshops to heal gay people, the more ill I became emotionally and mentally and spiritually. When you are not truly yourself, your relationships with God and others are not real. It felt yucky and fake to even think of dating men who I never felt attracted to. Everything about me felt fake because of the effort I had to expend to look straight. This tension manifested itself in suicidal thoughts and some unhealthy self harm, because despite years and years of trying, I was unable be straight. After my dream I realized that I was slowly psychologically aborting myself to be who the church said I was supposed to be.

After I had this dream, I reached out for help to someone who saw this as a baby and not a tumor. I did this because for me, it was either come out or die. I decided then that I would rather be alive and all of myself than living a life of self hate.

Coming out was not easy. My family still avoids talking about it to their fellow Covenanters even though they need support. I know they are not the only family with a gay child who are struggling.

In spite of the risk and how hard it was to come out, since then I have not had one suicidal thought. I no longer spend all my emotional energy trying to kill a part of myself. I also have found my relationships with God and others are more honest and real. I found Covenanters, some whom I didn’t expect, surprise me with their love for me even after they knew. There are amazing Covenant people at all levels of the church who get it, and who care for me even though I no longer have the option to minister in the Covenant Church.

After coming out I met my wife. A seminary classmate of mine married us. We now attend an Episcopal church which announces our anniversary right along with those of straight couples from the pulpit. We have found a place to minister and a church that accepts us just as we are. I do miss the Covenant Church. I also know God continues to do great ministry through Covenant people. I thank God for the Covenant who was used by God to bring my grandparents, my parents, and me to faith in Jesus. And that faith is what I take with me to the larger body of believers. It is my hope that one day the Covenant will be a church that sees no difference between my marriage and that of others. But for now I go where I am called by God.

And for anyone out there who is in the place that I was, hearing people say you need to get healed or change, etc., I want you to hear that it does get better. There are amazing Christian communities who will someday announce your wedding anniversary from the pulpit or put it in the bulletin with everyone else’s. You are worth keeping and if it takes leaving the Covenant to be healthy, know that God is not bound by one church. There are an ever- increasing number of churches who would love for you to join them and to minister and serve God with them. Although for now I have left the Covenant, the Covenant Church and the ministry of key people in it is something I take with me.