Finding Place in this Church [UPDATED]

Andrew Freeman

Several months ago, I received the latest issue of The Covenant Companion, which contained the cover story, “Our Place in the Covenant.” In anticipation of the denomination’s 125th Annual Meeting, the Companion featured several short stories and testimonies from Covenanters of varying backgrounds on how they have come to find a place in this church. In that same issue was a letter to the editor by my friend and fellow blogger, Ralph Sturdy. Ralph pointed out what he referred to as a “sad commentary”: that support for parents and friends of gay and lesbian children in Covenant churches has been relegated to a back-page classified ad for a confidential email. “Are they being asked to hide behind a veil of secrecy and shame?” Ralph asked. “Are we saying to our gay and lesbian children, many baptized in Covenant churches, that there is no place in the Covenant for them?” (emphasis mine)

Here, in the same issue about finding place in this church, an issue that celebrates belonging and Covenant identity, was a letter about quiet marginalization. Here was a letter raising a voice for those whose place in the church has, ever so subtly, been moved to the borders, to the fringes. The sad irony wasn’t lost on me, because it was and remains a dichotomy I have been forced to wrestle with every day of my life. And so, I felt compelled to write and submit to the Companion the following response:

I read with great joy the stories shared in the recent “Finding Place in This Church” series. Joy: for the unique and exciting ways in which God has led persons to find welcome and inclusion in this family of faith called the Covenant. There is great joy in belonging! I have known this joy much of my life, having been born, baptized, and confirmed in a Covenant church. I grew in my faith and discipleship through summers at Covenant camp, and later grew in my intellect and character through studies at North Park – college and seminary. As a Covenant pastor, it is my great joy to celebrate our unity as the Body of Christ each time I am privileged to preside at the Lord’s Table.

Much of my formation can be attributed to the nurturing care of Covenant churches. And yet, rich as my Covenant heritage may be, my place in this church appears questionable. In this church, I have been baptized, confirmed, spiritually formed, theologically educated, and called. I am all of these things… and I am also gay. My voice is one of an isolated minority, left to struggle in silence, deeply committed to this church, yet plagued by the seemingly unanswered question: “IS there place for us in this church?”

They never printed the letter, of course. They never even acknowledged having received it. There was no response at all. But this wasn’t a shock. It’s hard enough for us to talk about the reality of LGBT persons within our congregations, let alone among our clergy. Though the lack of response may not have been a surprise, it left that deep and urgent question still lingering: “is there place for us in this church?” I ask that question every day, torn between my sincere hopes and my sobering reality checks.

This site has been created as a space for those who continue to grapple with that very question. This is a space for sharing stories and experiences, both as LGBT and LGBT-affirming Covenanters. This is a space for those who hold to the conviction of our Covenant forebears who insisted, “how can we turn away from the Table those who Christ has already made welcome?” This is a space for those who pray, long for, and are eager to begin working to create a church where all are truly welcome and where all can find a place. If Christ has already made room for us at his Table, must there not, then, be a place for us in his Church? May it be so: even here, even now.

[UPDATE 1/20/11: I’ve just spoken with a friend from the Covenant Companion. It seems that somehow, although I have record of sending the letter to the correct email address, it never came through to anyone in their office. It was an honest miscommunication. I want to be clear that the purpose of my original post, and this overall blog, is not to lambaste the Companion or any of its staff and portray them as a barrier to denominational conversation. The fact that my letter wasn’t printed, regardless of the reason, is actually a minor detail in the overall story. Let’s not allow one little mishap to distract us from the larger, and far more important, dialogue that requires our thoughtful and humble attention as we move forward.]

  • Katherine

    Thank you for your patience and your compassion for the church. May it be worthy of the love that you and other LGBT Covenanters show it!

  • Karen

    Is there place for us in this church? Us is every person and every person is a child of God. I don’t understand how anyone could respond “no” to that question. Andrew, loving this blog…and we love you, too.

  • Emily

    I’m currently taking membership classes at a Covenant church. The Covenant’s exclusive position toward the GLBT community made my final decision not to join a Covenant church. I can’t belong to a congregation or denomination where we can’t all belong.

  • Thank you for this, Andrew. Desipte going to North Park and Minnehaha, I never became a member of the Covenant, largely because of its stance on sexuality. This changed when I (fairly recently) joined ResCov, a community I love. Now that I’m officially a part of the ECC, I hope to work for change from within. I’m so grateful that you’ve provided this forum.

  • Andrew, thank you for your courage…

  • Guylla

    Andrew, I am blown away by your courage. I hope and pray that you can feel welcomed in the ECC soon.

  • Paul Hedberg

    Andrew, I have immense respect for you and the courage you exhibit. I’m saddened that it takes courage in our church for some to express honestly who they are. You state that you are gay but as you eloquently share, you are so much more. When I think of you, I think mostly about how gifted you are. We cannot afford as a church to lose your gifts. Thank you for what you have written. I’m sorry so many of us are not ready to listen because that listening may challenge us to change, because of our love for you and what you bring to the common table and the Communion table. Blessings.

  • Jack Woodin

    Andrew I have always been pleased and proud to have been your friend and played a small part in your growing up in the Covenant. Today, my cup runneth over! I have never been more proud of you than now for your wonderful courage and honesty through these writings. You and I talked months ago about this and I pray today that this movement that has begun with my dear friends like you Phil and Ralph will continue to grow and flourish with the love of Christ! You know you have strong foot soldiers in us and others in CT who will stand with you and hold up those arms when they grow tired. We love you!

  • Brian

    Thank you for your strength and conviction. I too was raised in the covenant church, I too attended North Park and I too am gay. I remained very active in the church until I was told by the pastor himself that it would be better if I was not apart of the congregation because by being there I was “letting satan get his foot in the door of the church”. I have not set foot in the church since and most likely will never again return. This is not the God I worship and learned about.

    • Cathy

      Brian, you are a beloved child of God and nobody, no matter what they say, can take that from you.

  • Rev. Leah Klug

    Andrew, thank you for sharing your story, and for your courage. Please let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to walk alongside you on your journey. This may not mean much coming from someone you’ve never met, but I am so proud of you and your determination to serve God and God’s people. Please know that God sets God’s own table, and all are welcome. I pray that the ECC would realize they are not whole unless this is true in our churches. You are in our prayers!

  • Radical Inclusion–That is the life that I want to be known for!

    • Jeannie

      Amen 🙂

  • For a very long time I thought I was about the only Covenant Pastor who wanted to see the Covenant become “open and affirming”. Not because of Rev. Phil Brockett or me … you see, we have nothing to lose, but because of Andrew and his courage, do I feel hope! God bless you, my brother. It is because of your prophetic courage that I have hope!

    For those of you who have written so far in support of lesbian and gay people’s place in the church … keep “going for it”. For Brain, whose note, not only brought tears, but deep despair … I say: Do not let your former pastor be the last word to you. He/she was telling you a lie that she/he had no God-given right to do! Both you and I are loved equally by God … who himself … gave himself … to be the end of the lie that any local pastor can decide who is on God’s or Satan’s side. You Brian, are a magnificent creation of the Creator. Believe it! It’s true … and I love you!

  • Polly

    Wow, you are wonderful, and brave and well-spoken. It was not so long ago that those of us working for inclusion and affirmation of GLBT within the Covenant felt that we needed to meet secretly, but with determination and faith. At times, our discussions seemed hopeless and filled with despair as we heard the stories of those who had been turned away by “Christians” and Covenant churches. Today, I read your blog and I am filled with not only compassion and pride, but hope. Thank you.

  • Luke Johnson

    Andrew,
    I am encouraged and humbled by your courage. This is a conversation that seems to be one that our church needs to have (with a good dose of listening) and if there is anyway that I can help facilitate from the offices I roam, please let me know.

  • Peter Kersten

    Andrew –

    Thank you!

    Peter Kersten

  • Aaron

    Andrew,
    I support you and all others who are struggling to find love and support in the one place that they shouldn’t have to be scared to find it. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I will never be able to be a member of a church/denomination that doesn’t welcome and affirm ALL who come through their doors. It truly saddens me to think about the damage done to people’s lives by hurtful words/actions from those in positions of authority in organized religion.

  • Andrew,

    Deeply impacted by your genuine words and faithful devotion. God’s blessings on you and your continued ministry.

    Peace,
    Johnny

  • Marta Johnson

    Andrew,

    Thank you for sharing these words. The courage you bring and grace you extend are both humbling and inspiring.

    It is my strong belief that the church can only fully reflect the true character and love of God if all people within the church are able to each offer their individual gifts and talents in service of the whole. Thank you for the gifts you bring.

  • Becky Poor

    Andrew, I too am deeply moved by your courageous and compassionate honesty! How brave you are to share your story in hopes that people in the Covenant Church will enter into open dialogue about how homosexuality fits with our biblical understanding of the Gospel, and our commitment to lovingly welcome all believers in Jesus Christ. This is a difficult subject, one I admit that I have neglected because I’ve wanted to avoid conflict in the church. But at what cost do we avoid conflict and conversation? More and more it seems that the cost of avoidance is too high. How can the church remain silent when people harm themselves as they wrestle with shame-filled questions of identity, or when people walk away from the church, and even more importantly turn away from God, feeling unwelcomed and unloved? In our silence and avoidance, are we failing to share the Good News of Jesus Christ?

    As you’ve shared your story, I also think, how can the Covenant Church lose talented pastors who’ve clearly been gifted by God? Over the past eleven years I’ve had the joy of seeing your God-given gifts blossom. Andrew, you are a gifted musician, a thoughtful theologian, a powerful preacher, and a compassionate pastor! Anyone who knows you can’t deny your commitment to the Covenant Church, your deep love of Jesus Christ, and your genuine heart for God’s people. I know it is your deep love for God and your true care others that has given you the courage to speak out. I see God at work in your life Andrew, and I can’t sit back in silence either. Thank you for encouraging us to enter into honest, faithful and loving dialogue about this issue. Might our conversations be guided by the Holy Spirit, grounded in the Word of God, and covered with the love of Christ.

  • Jason Charneski

    Dear Andrew, Phil, and Members and Friends of the Evangelical Covenant Church,

    I left the Covenant nearly ten years ago to accept a call to serve as the musician for an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church Christ, that being Center Church in Hartford. Not being able to be honest about my sexual orientation was one of the reasons I chose to leave. I always felt that I needed to keep an impenetrable facade around me. That certainly is no longer the case.

    I am reminded of two things as you all begin a conversation (a grass-roots movement, perhaps?) on the larger topic of including LGBT persons in the Covenant. The first is that many churches, at the local level and at the denominational level, have walked this road already. They are there to help you with resources, history, and encouragement.

    The second relates to LGBT persons who are ordained or serve a church at some ministerial level. I heard a sermon preached in National Cathedral on Labor Day weekend of 2003. The preacher, the dean of St. Alban’s School, explored the tension within the Episcopal Church surrounding the election of The Very Rev. Gene Robinson to the bishopric of the Diocese of New Hampshire. The preacher commented that the real issue for that denomination was not that Bishop Robinson was gay; rather, it was that he was “openly gay;” meaning that he was not lying about who God made him to be. How can a closeted pastor have honest relationships with those whom he or she shepherds? Beyond that, what good comes of wasting time and energy in trying to appear to be something that you are not? People see right through dishonesty. As Biff and Big Daddy say oh-so eloquently in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “I smell mendacity.”

    As people came to know the real Jesus (was he ever dishonest?), their minds and hearts were transformed (well, except maybe for the rich, young man who chose not to give up his possesions and become a disciple). Doesn’t the same happen to us in our relationships with Jesus…and one another?

    So, Covenanters, allow yourselves to walk this path. James Russell Lowell says it so well in his great hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation: “…new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.” It seems to be that the Holy Spirit is knocking at your door. Open it.

  • Jack Woodin

    I find myself bursting with pride and tears to read so many of the comments on this page. I am moved by the heartfelt words of love and encouragement offered to those who have been bold enough to share. As a person who has loved numerous gay friends and family members over the years, I have always without hesitation welcomed these people into my life and home, as well as the lives of my children. We have spoken often openly with our kids on the subject and taught them to love and accept without judgment. Sadly, the one place I have not invited these loved ones into my life is church. Being raised in the Catholic tradition, I found the Covenant through my wife over 25 years ago, and my life has been transformed! Oh how I have learned about the love of Christ and his plan for our lives in this place, and I have shared my joy with so many people over these years. Jesus Christ and his church have become the center of my life, family and friendships, and I am so thankful. The reason I have not offered that same invitation to my gay friends is that I have known that they would not find the same love and acceptance there that I did.

    I pray that this discussion will only be the beginning. I am so proud to see so many from my congregation as well as pastors boldly speaking here. I have always sensed your goodness and this is just such a blessng and encouragement for our family. Phil I have always said that no matter how many churches and ministers enter my life I will always have only one “pastor” and that is you. Andrew I couldn’t be prouder if you were my own kid! Becky you give so freely to my kids in your ministry and we are blessed by you. Jason, thank you for your words. If only you could have shared your pain with us when you served our church we would have been there to love and support you. Howard you have become a dear friend in our lives and we so respect you for the difficult role you play in this discussion.

    May God speak loudly to those who read these messages and overwhelm hearts with love and compassion. The God that I have come to know, love and serve through the Covenant is big enough and bold enough to love everyone!

  • Robin Nilson

    Thank you, Pastor Freeman for your words to us. You have become another prophetic voice in our Covenant History, and in our world. thank you, thank you for modeling vulnerability, authenticity and generosity. We are all searching for the person we were created by God to be, and praying for God’s grace to actually live out God’s call upon our lives. May you feel the Spirits guidance in your ministry!

  • Matt B

    Andrew (and Phil)
    Thank you for starting this blog, and for your honesty. This is a difficult subject; one that I have wrestled with for years. When I joined the Covenant Church, the same Covenant Church that you grew up in, Andrew, I made sure that my pastor knew I was gay. I could not join a Church that excluded gay men and women. Even though I kept my sexuality somewhat quiet, as did my friends in the Church who knew, a select few found a ways to marginalize me and make me, if fact, a second class Covenantor. How can we help others like us, and help bring all men and women to God, if we ourselves are put to the back?
    I would like to think that my experience has not shaken my faith in God. I still seek a Spirit-filled Church and am grateful for my many friends within the Church. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that my experience in our little Church in the center of CT hasn’t shaken my faith in other Christians. I find I have trouble believing others when they say their church is open and accepting. (Really Brother, prove it!) And I am troubled by the fact that I don’t believe other Christians. (If you can’t trust your Brothers and Sisters in Christ, who can you trust?)
    I know no one is perfect (me first of all), we all make mistakes, we all sin and fall short of God’s glory. But I do hope I live to see the day when the Christian Church realizes just that: We are ALL sinners, we ALL fall short of God’s glory, and Jesus came to earth to save ALL sinner.

    Brothers, I don’t know where the road I’m on will lead me. I do hope I get to see you again before this life is through, but if not I know we will meet again all the same.

  • Ellen Perkins Simpson

    Andrew, I don’t know you but am nevertheless awed by your courage. I have the honor of knowing Phil and Becky as they have served on the board of directors of The Friendship Center where I am Executive Director. Just yesterday we exchanged hugs at our Annual Meeting. I love so many members of the Covenant Church in Berlin. I pray for you as you begin a discussion that won’t be easy for many. But I know your church to be a church of extraordinary grace and sharing. Your conversations may be sprinkled with tears but God will be with you in the journey because you are so open to God’s presence in your lives. Because of this, you have given abundantly, more than any other faith community, to the children of God the Friendship Center serves.

    As a member of an Open and Affirming UCC Church, if I can ever be of service to you in your conversations, or just in a private conversation, I would be honored.

  • Jim Anderson

    Andrew: When I saw in Robin’s post the words “Pastor Freeman” I was immediately sent back 33+ years to when I heard those words daily at First Covenant Church in Omaha. Your grandfather, the Pastor Freeman I knew then, would be very proud of you. He was a progressive, in words and actions, ahead of his times in many ways in the Covenant Church, and truly an inclusive person. I’m quite sure he would have been “open and affirming” had he been here now. He stood among great Covenant leaders of his time, people who would be surprised and sorrowful that we might be “closed and discouraging” to anyone. I’m confident Pastor William Freeman would have loved you very much and supported you wholly. You have a good heritage.

  • Jim

    Having been out of circulation for awhile, I’d begun an informal survey of some friends, participants of a below an ECC radar movement, those who had put effort into the movement and some whose church affiliation was at stake. All, yes all so far said in one way or another: “I’m tired. I’ve found a welcoming church home elsewhere. I don’t need the frustration. I don’t see any hope for LGBTs in the ECC.” Paul is right. We can’t afford to lose you. We can’t afford to lose those losing hope whom I’ve met recently. Thank you Andrew! Maybe hope for LGBTs within the ECC is not so remote.

  • Lorian

    Andrew, in light of your update, do you have any information as to whether the Companion will be publishing your letter (assuming you re-sent and they received it)?

  • Lorian

    Incidentally, just a short introduction of myself:

    I am a North Park graduate. I was raised in the Assembly of God (fundamentalist pentecostal), and became an Episcopalian during my years at North Park, though I attended Covenant churches quite a bit during those years. I am now a member of an Open and Affirming congregation within the United Church of Christ. I am a very open lesbian, married (in California) to my partner of 20 years. We are parents to our twin 9-year-old daughters, Ruth and Rose.

  • Wjmacp

    I’m new to this blog and have enjoyed it immensely.  But I never searched this far back into the archives to read all of this.  But my brother Bill told me to search out this story. 

    I grew up in the Covenant in the Attleboro, Mass. church.  I did it all: Sunday School, Confirmation, VBS, Youth Groups, etc.  But I left it when I came out in college almost 40 years ago.  I am now an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ.  All of these stories have been so meaningful to me because I left the church when I came out.  But I’m still a Covenanter in some way because what I learned as a child has stayed with me and informs my ministry to this day.

    So thank you, Andrew, and to your father for writing more recently.  If I have the details “straight,” I know your parents – and knew your maternal grandparents.  Tack sa mycket.  (Forgive the spelling if I’m wrong.)