An Open Letter to ECC President Gary Walter from a Gay Covenanter

 

Dear President Walter,

Andrew Freeman

As I’ve watched the unfolding developments in the Covenant Church’s struggle with the topic of LGBTQ inclusion, I have felt at various times anger, frustration, disappointment, hurt, and deep sadness. I grieve for our church not only as a gay man who cannot fully thrive under our current position, but also as a lifelong Covenanter who laments that the process we have followed in this conversation has strayed from the wisdom of our heritage and brought us to a place of such deep divide. I am writing this letter publicly, but welcome your private response and will hold our correspondence in confidence. I want to speak to you candidly, from one Covenanter to another, and there are a few things that I want you to know.

The first thing I want you to know is that I have been hurt by your words and your leadership. I have read and watched your remarks on this topic over the past year, and I want you to know how some of your words sound to the ears of one who is actually gay: they hurt.

When you describe my sexual orientation merely as an “attraction” that I must “navigate,” that hurts. It undermines the legitimacy of the love LGBTQ people feel for their partners. It reduces our relationships to an attraction and denies them any credible depth and meaning. And it suggests that our orientation is a burden rather than a gift. In short, it makes me feel that you haven’t taken the time to fully understand me or my life.

When you list my orientation at the end of a list of alleged sexual sins, right after adultery and pornography, that hurts. It is dehumanizing. It takes part of my identity and smacks a negative label on it. And when this is the context for your first mention of the existence of non-heterosexual individuals, it makes it difficult for me to receive anything that follows with a spirit of love and good intent.

When you cloak our denomination’s position on same-sex marriage under a broad discussion of “the issue of human sexuality” and say that our position is “a high challenge to all of us”, that actually hurts, too. It feels a little like saying “All Lives Matter” at a racial justice rally: Yes, it’s technically true, but it misses the point of naming the unequal burden placed on a particular minority group.

When my life is reduced to an “issue”, thus making me negatively one-dimensional, that hurts. Why must LGBTQ individuals always be spoken of in such contentious terms? Even within our stated position, can we not affirm that God has equipped LGBTQ individuals with significant gifts for ministry and that we have much to offer the church? We are not an issue, we are the Body of Christ.

In every correspondence that has come from your office in the past year, I’ve been lead to believe that LGBTQ individuals played little to no role in your discernment process. This hurts. It feels as if our stories and our voices are not important. It feels as if you are talking about us without a willingness to talk with us. It feels as if we are some sort of pariah or outcast you are afraid to come into contact with, a headache that you wish would go away.

I have been hurt by words you have spoken, and I have also been hurt by that which you have left unspoken. Over the years I’ve heard many unkind, even hateful, things said about LGBTQ people. While I have pretty thick skin, our youth and others across our church who struggle to accept their orientation or gender identity are extremely vulnerable. In an age where hate crimes and suicide and depression are significantly higher within the LGBTQ population, we need to be able to call homophobia what it is: sin. And the church should be leading the way in the opposition of hatred and violence in all of its forms. One of the ways the church is uniquely equipped to combat hatred is with our core message that ALL people are created in God’s image. Which is why our church’s silence in condemning homophobia hurts so much. If we aren’t part of the solution, we are part of the problem. Homophobia is sin, and our church is complicit.

Although your words and actions have been hurtful to me, the second thing I want you to know is that I forgive you. I know you are an honest and good man of deep and sincere faith. I don’t doubt that you have studied scripture carefully and have sought God’s guidance through these matters. I believe you have reached your position honestly, and that your intentions to love others are heartfelt. We may disagree, yet I trust that you are coming from a place of love. And even though our ideas of love differ, and that difference has caused much pain in my life, I forgive you.

The years I spent in the closet were dark years. I lived in fear of the judgment I would receive from the church. When I came out of the closet, I was surprised by the magnitude of the love and acceptance I received. The freedom I experienced allowed me to let go of my fear. I found a new sense of security, rooted in the knowledge that I am created and loved by God, gay and all. And that is part of the reason I am able to forgive you: I am able to forgive because of the affirmation I received from many in the wings of our church that spoke a love one cannot find within our current guidelines. Their ministry brought a healing grace into my life, and now it brings a threat to their ministerial standing. So I want you to know that I forgive you in spite of the church’s position, not because of it.

In a spirit of reconciliation, the third thing I want you to know is that I am committed to being your companion in this long and difficult journey. One of the most troubling aspects of the recently released guidelines for clergy and the accompanying resource on dissent was the suggestion that clergy who find themselves in ongoing dissent with the church have only two principled options: to yield to the church’s position, or to conclude their service with the church. Two options: yield, or leave. This sort of fork-in-the-road approach seems antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus, one who was consistently finding a “third way.” And it feels contrary to the Covenant I have known and loved, a church which has prided itself in finding a “via media” – a “middle way” – when faced with hard questions.

I believe that the Covenant Church is uniquely positioned in these contentious times. We can show there is a difference between hard and harsh conversations. Hard conversations are part of discipleship. They can lead to greater fidelity in our walk with God and in service. Hard conversations are entered to build up and make better. Harsh conversations are entered to win and destroy. They breed greater recalcitrance and polarization. One of our six affirmations is “the reality of freedom in Christ.” This means we focus on the evident biblical center of what unites us in Christ, not on peripheral matters not clear in Scripture. Within the boundaries of all of our other affirmations, we extend “space” to each other. The Covenant is not a self-contained echo chamber that only reinforces to each other a single voice or perspective. At our best, we speak into one another, not past each other. We want to live respectfully in the polishing cross-currents gained by wrestling with matters together biblically and with hope.

This is the Covenant Church at its best. It’s the Covenant I grew up with and served throughout much of my life. It’s the kind of Covenant Church I still believe in. And I hope that you still do, too, because I didn’t write that last paragraph – you did, in 2010. Your words tell me that in order for our church to navigate these troubled waters and find that middle way, we are going to need each other. And that is why I want you to know I am willing to have this hard conversation with you. I suspect many of my LGBTQ Covenant friends would similarly be willing to meet with you, if you would be willing to hear our stories. Will you have this hard conversation with us?

The final thing I want you to know is that I will pray for you and all who serve in Covenant leadership. I pray for your health and strength, and for wisdom and discernment to respond to the vast demands placed on you. I thank God for your commitment and dedication to this church and her mission. And I join you in praying for our dear church, that even in great tumult we may join together in common mission, for the sake of the gospel in the world, and for the flourishing of all God’s children.

Your faithful companion on the middle way,
Andrew Freeman

Cc:
Mark Novak, Executive Minister, Develop Leaders
Dick Lucco, Executive Director of Ministry Development
Andy Sebanc, Chair, Board of the Ordered Ministry
Will Davidson, Chair, Executive Board of the ECC 
Council of Superintendents
David Kersten, Dean, North Park Theological Seminary

 

MeandMom

Author’s note: Through much of last winter, my mother Bev regularly spoke of how she wished she could have an opportunity to speak with President Gary Walter. “I just want 10 minutes of his time,” she’d often say. She died from cancer on April 17th, far too soon, and before she had the opportunity to have that conversation with Gary. My mother devoted much of her life to serving the Covenant Church, and she was heartbroken by the pain and division she saw being caused by our inability to have this hard conversation. My mother loved everyone with a fearless love. She wasn’t afraid of hard conversations, and in fact knew how to ask the hard questions that brought people together and challenged them to examine themselves and then look beyond the current challenge to see the bigger picture. She was an exceptional leader, she was a “churchwoman” par excellence, she was a true Christian. More than anyone in my life, she was the prime example of what it means to be “a companion of all who fear the Lord.” I miss her and her voice every day, and humbly try to follow her example wherever I can. And so it is in that spirit, and in her memory, that I have written this letter.

  • Bob Freeman

    And a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, whom l love; with him l am well pleased.”

    • ACR

      You sir, have every right to be proud of Andrew, he was always an impressive soul from my perspective and he remains so.

  • Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom

    Andrew, You are a loving and beloved brother in Christ. Thank you for your Spirit and who you are. I pray every day that God will continue to heal our church and be present to our leadership, and people like you give me much hope. Blessings on you this day and every day forward. Peace, Michelle

  • Becki Trachsel Hesedahl

    I have been away from the Covenant for several years and this summer went back to my home church. It was coming home for me influenced by a wonderful woman who was a spiritual mentor to me for several years. I have many friends and family whom I love dearly and are gay or questioning. I was concerned about the Covenant position on this issue. A friend directed me to Mission Friends 4 Inclusion. Thank you Andrew for your beautiful letter. I will continue to follow and support your position. God has directed us to love and support each other and others in the world – no exceptions.

  • Krista Brumberg Stevens

    I hope every single Evangelical Covenant Church official reads this; it is heartfelt, respectful, inspiring, and beautiful. Your mom would be so proud; we are so proud to call you our friend.

  • Cheryl Larsen Lawing

    Andrew, thank you for this awesome letter. I’m no longer in the Covenant but the Lutheran Church still struggles to get right also. Your thoughts, experience, and love are inspiration to move forward as we endeavor to love as Jesus loved. I was at Bethany a million years ago, and remember your folks fondly. Peace to you all as you mourn your Mom’s passing and,simultaneously, celebrate the gift of her life! Thanks so much. Cheryl Larsen Lawing

  • Adam Nicholas Phillips

    Very thankful for you Andrew… you are a gift from God and a gift for the world. #inittogether

  • retpas

    So very well said, Andrew. I’m thrilled and uplifted. Again I think of your grandfather, William Freeman. He knew the heat of controversy in the earlier Covenant Church. He took positions detested by some of his colleagues. He stood behind Covenant leaders being pilloried because of positions they’d taken. He would have been proud of you (and your grandmother would have been worried and very sad for the hurt you experience). I am counting on your letter to have profound effect on the debate. Quite a few will dig heels further into the harsh words of the documents, many others inspired by the truth and spirit of your letter will rethink uncertain loyalties, and many of us will be encouraged to renew the struggle toward change. Thank you for effort, courage, and compassion you’ve invested in the letter. I’m eager to see the results.

    • george magnuson

      Andrew and Jim, I want to add my word of response to what Jim has written. I am fully confident that your grandfather Bill Freeman would be wonderfully proud of you in these days disappointment and hope. I interned with him at First Covenant Omaha a way back in about 1958-59. Pastor Freeman was a remarkably free, vital and intellectually courageous man. As you know, he was a progressive in his day and rose above the petty criticisms and controversies of the period in the Covenant Church. Although it was not his nature to be polemical not out spoken, he maintained an openness to new thinking and critical reflection in theology and biblical studies. I am taking opportunity to pay high tribute to him here as you have provided in you brave and right confession. What you have written here can call so many to examine conscience and possibly find their own voice so that the CC might find it impossible not to face up to these errors in theology, pastoral process, and exclusivity. These might well be a tipping point moment in the ECC. God grant you continued courage in the expression of your faithful conscience and loving spirit.

  • Barbara Nordlund

    I am so thankful for your voice, your heart, your thoughts, Andrew. My heart remains heavy for our church that continues to be exclusive when God’s heart is so much bigger.

  • Ann McEvoy

    thank-you for this amazing letter I hope that you have lite a flame that will begin to shed some light on this important topic. You mom was an amazing gifted woman and we miss her.

  • Darrell Tiénou-Gustafson

    This is an excellent piece: compassionate, articulate, faithful, Biblical, and very Covenant-y. Thank you so much for writing it and for being willing to speak truth gently but firmly to our church leaders. Very appreciated.

  • ACR

    Your piece should stop many that have given the issue little thought, in their tracks. I pray it does.

    • Joanne Berry Gailius

      I’ve been following Coming out Covenant and am so grateful that there is a group of Covenanters coming together to challenge our church’s stance on our LGBTQ family. A theologian friend recently said to me, “Isn’t it a sad time when our government is leading our churches in compassion?” Has there been any response to your letter? I truly believe our church will come to the place of full inclusion and apology, perhaps not in that order.

  • Brita Gotberg

    Beautiful words Andrew. Thank you.

  • Eva Sullivan-Knoff

    Andrew, this is beautifully expressed. Thank you for being vulnerable, for sharing your story, and for being willing to enter into this hard conversation. What you shared was Spirit filled and said in a spirit of love. We need to hear your voice and that of others from the LGBTQ community, as it has been missing. Thank you for modeling how to enter into this hard, but needed conversation. Your mom must be so proud of you and who you are. I greatly appreciate and respect you and am so grateful for your life, your witness, and your friendship. God bless you Andrew.

  • Cynthia Melander

    I watched Andrew grow in the church I have attended all my life. Being a life-long member of the Covenant church, I feel an intense loyalty. However, I also feel despair at the path I see the church taking, or not taking. I feel we are excluding some very valuable people, such an Andrew Freeman whom I have known since he was a child, as well as his wonderful family. I knew of a former member of our church who served in a prominent position. She left the church after a controversy developed after she came out as being gay. This was many years ago when attitudes were even less open than they are now. She wrote a letter to the congregation and I can quote part of it. She said, “Isn’t ironic that the church who loved me back into it, now knows all about me and sees fit to want me out.” I was devastated by that and just could not understand what was happening. I feel the same way about what is happening now. I thank God for Andrew and his wisdom and his courage in speaking out in the eloquent way he did. I pray that somehow healing within our church will take place, but I feel that can only happen if we become less exclusionary and more loving and welcoming — to everyone.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful letter Andrew. I too have been deeply troubled by this issue and how the Covenant Church has chosen to approach the discussion. When we first stumbled upon the Covenant, your family were among the first people we met. We arrived having been hurt by our previous church and found a place of love, acceptance and healing. I especially remember learning of the church covenants, in particular that we wouldn’t break fellowship over doctrinal issues. I told everyone I met about an amazing denomination called the Covenant and encouraged friends near and far to seek out a Covenant Church near them. Our children grew up and thrived at Camp Squanto and CHIC and we all attended family camp at Pilgrim Pines. Now reading all of this, I wonder, how do I invite a stranger, in need of a loving God and the message of grace and forgiveness to join me a church that may not accept them. We need your leadership to help move us forward and I am sure your mom is very proud of you.

  • Tyler Krumland

    Thank you so much for this Andrew. So articulate and thought provoking. So much of what you shared tugged at my heart as I can relate to the different pains and hurts you mentioned. I hope that one day the Covenant will be safe space. I have been saddened as my husband Stephen and I search for a church home that we’ve had to step away and distance ourselves from the ECC. From a history that has been so rich for me, where I came to know Christ, full of people I love! I pray that a chance is given for stories to be heard. Thank you for your dedication and commitment to be Christ and to live as your beautiful mother did. She lives on in you and is an inspiration, even to those not fortunate enough to meet her! Blessings.

  • Ken Lund

    This is a truly powerful and gracious letter. Thank you, Andrew.

  • rdhudgens

    Well done Andrew. Poignant and powerful.

    Also, I had not heard of your mother’s passing. Condolences my friend.

  • David Smith

    Someone will have to explain to me how the kingdom of God can grow by not listening. Is marginalizing people the fruit of the Spirit? Or is it a symptom of fear and the need for power and control? I am so grateful to you, Andrew, for writing this letter. It is the kind of personal truth that many people have never heard. I pray that more and more people will have the opportunity to hear the Spirit in your words.

  • pastordt

    This is beautifully said, heartfelt and much-needed. Thank you for leading the way, for inviting ‘hard conversations.’ I am praying that our leadership will open themselves to those conversations, despite their fear, despite their worries about the future. The movement of the Holy Spirit is not to be feared and that sweet Spirit often brings change to the church. We need to open ourselves to the very real possibility that this is one of those times. Thank you so very much.