Over the course of our friendship, Amy and I have discovered that we are in many ways mirror images of each other – very similar in some ways, and yet such complete opposites in others that it is faintly ridiculous and evidence of God’s presence in our lives that we are friends at all. Given this, it was fitting that we each independently discovered “Coming Out Covenant” simultaneously. She found it because of her lifelong affiliation with the denomination. I found it because of my work as a professional activist fighting on behalf of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community who specializes in outreach to conservatives and people of faith. Together we celebrated its existence, and speculated as to what this conversation could mean for the Evangelical Covenant Church that we both love.
It wasn’t until one day as Amy – further proving her mettle as a true friend – was helping me move that she told me she’d been waiting impatiently for my contribution to the site. I will never forget the look on her face when I told her I wasn’t planning on writing one, that I didn’t feel I could. You see, this is a website for people who consider themselves to be a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church – and I didn’t, not really. Not yet.
She was flabbergasted, appalled, affronted – I still don’t entirely know what to call it. The idea that after a year of attending an ECC church plant, after more than half a decade of closely tracking the denomination’s movements through her and online, after becoming so invested in Coming Out Covenant’s existence (well above and beyond the norm for my work), that I could still feel like it wasn’t my place to join this conversation was a revelation to us both of the gap that still exists, heartbreakingly, between us – two friends and sisters in Christ, one of whom is gay.
Suffice it to say, she wasn’t having it.
Amy is a gentle soul, and it’s not often that she demands anything of me, but in this, she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Admittedly, it is strange for me not to want to dive into the conversation about respect for LGBT people within the ECC. Gay rights activism has in many ways defined my adult life – it is my profession, my hobby, my passion, some have even said my calling. But here, in this church, I have always left that fight outside the door. Where everywhere else in my life I know that God calls me to pursue justice, at church… I just don’t, and the same God who compels me to speak truth to the world is starting to ask me why I deny him in his own house.
Despite that, I might have held my peace a little longer – fear is a powerful force, and silence becomes a habit even for an activist – but then Amy decided that she was going to take this step to tell her story as an ally, coming out in a very real way and taking some real risks in the name of our friendship – and I couldn’t let her do that alone.
Amy shared a bit of my story – how when we met, I was deeply wounded by and fearful of Christianity; how through our friendship, that started to change; how, after dialogue, study, and prayer, I finally found myself in a place where I could hear the voice of God speaking with love rather than rejection. All of which speaks to why I am a Christian today, and none of which answers why I should want to count myself a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church. After all, I can be a Christian in any denomination, or none. Indeed, I have been privileged to worship with nondenominational evangelicals and Episcopalians, in a historically black Catholic church and in gay churches. I have found “church” in the comment box of a website, in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, and alone with my guitar on a Friday night.
At its heart, the question of why I feel such a bond with the ECC boils down to this –when I came to know who God really was, it was through a Covenant lens presented by a daughter of the Evangelical Covenant Church. When I was born again that stormy night, the ECC was, in a very real way, like Mary, the human “parent” in the spiritual equation. I didn’t have any more choice in that than I did in the identity of my biological parents, nor could I change that heritage if I tried. Family is funny that way.
Amy was the one who taught me that the God I feared, who I had always believed had rejected and hated me, was in truth the father to the prodigal son, running to welcome him home. She showed me that the same God knew suffering, knew compassion, knew sacrifice. The same God opened doors that were shut, simply because we knocked. She taught me that even though I was gay, I could still pray to that God and be heard – that lightning wouldn’t strike me dead because I walked into a church, that it could be a place where I felt safe, where I belonged. It is a story as old as the Old Testament. Strangers become friends, become family, until finally one finds herself compelled to say, despite barriers of culture and any other obstacle, “your people will be my people and your God my God.”
Ultimately, that’s what it’s about – being family to one another. Amy and I, we’re not guests in each other’s homes. Over the years I’ve helped her move from house to house; called her at ungodly hours when I needed advice or just a friendly ear; her beautiful daughter is growing up knowing me as “Auntie Casey” (though I suspect she thinks of me as Bottle Dispenser #3). When Amy and her husband were married, I was the one she asked to read scripture at the wedding – and should I ever be so blessed as to find a partner, I plan on asking her to do the same. I have no doubt that she’ll say yes.
When Amy and I first started our studies together, she told me that God wanted me to be part of his family, that if I believed, I would have the right to call myself his beloved daughter. The family of God she was inviting me to be a part of was eternal, a reflection of God’s perfect and unconditional love. When the day came that I did believe, she responded accordingly – more than just friends, we were now sisters in Christ, and so she treated me like family. I think she always assumed that her church would find a way to do the same.
Unfortunately, like far too many gay people, I learned a long time ago that the love of any human family can be conditional, that family bonds can be broken, and sometimes your home is not your home. I was seventeen when I came home to find the locks on my front door changed. I spent a year sleeping on my best friend’s floor. It was a long time before my mother and I managed to completely reconcile our relationship, and in the end my forgiveness to her came on her deathbed. My sister and I still barely speak. It is a truth that is rarely spoken, but families are fragile things.
That’s why it broke my heart to watch Amy realize that while we may be family, when it comes to being a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church there’s a part of me that always feels like I’m back on that front porch, staring hopelessly at a door that just won’t open for me. I hated seeing her realize that her beloved church is in reality a broken family, and will remain so as long as it demands that God’s gay and lesbian children either deny who they were created to be, or “amend” that which cannot be amended.
In writing this piece, I’ve been forced to finally confront the question of how long I’m willing to wait for that to change. Every gay person has been faced, at some point in their life, with the decision of how much is too much. We have all had friends, sometimes family members, who we had to walk away from for the sake of our own mental, emotional or spiritual well-being. The fact is, I fought my orientation for years because I thought God wanted me to, to the point where I developed a habit of self-injury that I still struggle with. I have worked too hard and God has done too much to heal me of that self-loathing for me to allow any church to put me back in that place. Still, in many ways the Covenant is a good church, and a good fit for me. Their commitment to justice is real, their allegiance to scripture is honest – they sincerely strive to love God and neighbor. Overall, the position they have taken to date on sexuality is well-reasoned and intended to be compassionate. These are not people who are insensitive to the loss inflicted upon a gay person who strives to abide by the church’s demand of celibacy, or the pain that comes from the church’s disapproval of their loving partnerships. They are not trying to be cruel.
Indeed, one of the many reasons why I value the ECC is that it strives to walk the middle of the road, avoiding conflict where possible on matters which are not central to the faith. However, I cannot escape the reality that any church which demands that a person leave a part of their heart at the door is committing an injustice. A church which makes people feel that they have to change that which cannot be changed is building a wall between God and his children. A church which would deprive itself of the gifts and leadership of its gay and lesbian members weakens its ability to spread the gospel to a world in need of that message. However civil the tone or gentle the language, at the end of the day, the Covenant’s position condemning the love which exists between two people of the same sex is toxic, and it is vital that people speak up against it, in the same civil, respectful but resolute tones. Having written this, I know that I can’t stay much longer within these walls silently.
But if I don’t yet feel wholly welcome within the Evangelical Covenant Church, I’m not leaving either – not yet. A church is more than its statement of beliefs, its official policies. A church is the people in it and the love they share. While the ECC’s policies are not loving to the gay people within its walls, at least one person in the ECC has shown me what Christian love is time and time again. Amy has shown me what is beautiful in this little corner of God’s church, and made me believe in it as a good place, as something that I want to be a part of – a family worth fighting for. That she has come to the point where she can call herself an ally is because of her affiliation with this church, not in spite of it. I hope that someday soon the policies of this church reflect the hearts of its people. Until then, I wait and hope for the chance to come home.
We are one in the Spirit,
We are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit,
We are one in the Lord,
And I pray that all unity may one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
By our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
Amy and Casey both attend The Riverside Covenant Church, a church plant in Washington, D.C. Be sure to read Amy’s story in our previous post, here.