Our Story: Eva Sullivan-Knoff

Eva Sullivan-Knoff and Family

With my family’s permission, I would like to share our story. It is one that changed my and our family’s life. A couple of years ago our younger son came to my husband, John and I, and told us he was gay.  We have always intentionally sought to love and support our sons, and we told him we did still, but we still didn’t want what he told us to be true. We wondered if he really knew yet. Maybe he will change his mind in a few years, and realize he really wasn’t gay, that it was just part of his developmental confusion. I spoke with a therapist who told me, she’d known a few teens that discovered later they really weren’t gay. So I told my son, you know, why don’t you pray and live with it for awhile, and see if you still feel that it rings true.  I genuinely meant that, but we were also afraid. We didn’t want this to be his reality. We didn’t want it to be ours either. We had had different dreams. It had felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us. I think as human beings we don’t deal with things unless we have to. Unless an issue affects us, we’d just as soon ignore it, especially if it is controversial. Though a few friends had told me before they were gay, I didn’t really deal with it on a deeper level, until my son told us.

I didn’t want to deal with this. What I heard growing up in the church was that it was a sin. Since those few friends told me they were gay, and they are people I love and respect, and whose faith journey and faith in God I trust, I have been confused. What do I do with this? And though I listened and supported my friends on one level, I am sure I failed them on another because I didn’t understand on the level they needed me to. I wasn’t sure how to understand it, beyond friendship.

I knew with our son telling us I had to deal with this now on a deeper level, though I didn’t want to. What do I do with this? What do I do with what I had previously understood? I talked with people I loved and respected and I prayed much.  I began to read, but I was also afraid. I am a Covenant minister. I knew the stand the denomination, in which I grew up, took on this issue, and which I have supported. What will they say to me, if they hear I have a son who is gay? This is the church I love. This is the denomination that has been a part of my life in deeply significant ways. This is the church I serve. I am not pleased to say that I was filled with fear. However, this was also my son who I love dearly.  This was personal, and not just another theological issue to discuss and debate.

I wanted my son to feel free to talk about it, but where it was safe. I wasn’t sure church would be a safe place for him to talk about it or for me.  I was also still trying to work it out within myself. (We were at different churches). So I asked him if he could talk with his friends but just not talk about it at church.  It is deeply humbling to admit that now, for I realized how wrong it was. At the time, I didn’t understand. I was in denial and struggling to understand, but I hurt my son.  I then told him to tell those who would be supportive him. I have to say he has amazing friends, and I am so grateful to them for their wonderful support of him, for I know it is not everyone’s story.  I must also say, that we have amazing friends who have also been a wonderful source of support, as parents need it too.

Well, I continued to pray, seeking God from the depths of my being. As I prayed, trying to figure things out, I felt the Lord tell me, to just love and accept my son. That was the turning point for me, when I was able to let go and just focus on that. My son mattered more.

He went to a Christian conference. He was listening to the speaker challenge teens to take off their masks. He was texting me from where he sat. He told me he couldn’t live behind masks anymore. He needed to be free to be who he was.  I told him, yes, (finally) he did. He needed to be free. He worried about me, and I told him not to. It didn’t matter. What mattered most was him, and he took his mask off.

When he came home, I asked him if I had made him carry my stuff. He was quiet with tears in his eyes, and my heart broke. I told him I was more sorry than I could ever say, and my son forgave me. I also told him, if he would rather, I would leave the pastorate, because he mattered more.

This is our story. It is not a pretty one. It is filled with pain, but also with grace, God’s grace and my son’s grace. I so wish I had done it better, but I was changed by it and I learned through it. John and I have two wonderful, amazing sons. One is straight and one is gay. We could not love them more or be more proud of who they are. The way will certainly not be easy, but my son’s words ring in my heart. “Mom, if God made me this way, why wouldn’t it be okay?”

Since then, others have shared their story with me of being gay or lesbian, and this time I have listened more deeply. I have compassion now for those in this place, because I have learned of the inner trauma and the depths of pain they go through. I understand it is not something they choose, why would they? It is too hard. I have heard people say that they asked God to remove this from them, and it didn’t happen. I have heard the news stories about kids who commit suicide because there was no one to love and support them, or because they were bullied. I have also learned that most of the teens living in the street here have been kicked out of the house, because their parents found out they were gay. All of these things break my heart.

A friend of mine who is a lesbian told me that parents have their own coming out process. I guess this is part of mine. I am still reading and learning, and have much more to understand. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. There are those who are much farther down this path than I am. And I wonder, is it possible for those in the Covenant church to gather around the table together to study, to pray, and to listen deeply to each other and to God without reacting? Can we commit to approach scripture without bias or presumptions and truly study what it says together slowly?

The Marin Foundation is seeking to do that, to bring people together to listen and learn together. Maybe we can learn from what they are doing.

There is also a book by Jack Rogers worth reading, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. I like it because he is a Biblical scholar who comes from an evangelical background.  In the Covenant we are evangelical, who care about where it is written. Maybe we can look at these things together.

Humbly,

Eva Sullivan-Knoff

  • Philip Brockett

    Eva, thank you for sharing your story and contributing to this website. God Bless
    Philip Brockett

  • Paul Hedberg

    Andrew, Eva….thank yoou so much for your honesty and courage. When I think about all the talk in our nation around the idea of civil discourse, I believe this is one where we need to not only have civil disourse in the church but compassionate discourse. I hope we can learn to do that well, and be a model this for others. The Covenant church is a place and people who I would hope could do this. Thanks for sharing. I would also highly recommend Jack Rogers book. It was very very helpful to me as I explored this issue biblically and theologically.

  • Jen Zerby

    You are courageous and inspiring, my dear friend. Journeying through this life alongside you has been a rare gift to me–one for which I am deeply grateful. May we all learn from your life of truth and may Christ’s grace, love and freedom reign in your family. You are a gift–to our denomination, to the Church at large, and to all of us who are blessed enough to call you friend.

  • Dawn Langjahr

    Eva, your angst and pain are evident in your writing…the friend of yours who expressed that her parents had a ‘coming out process’ as well was wise. We know that’s the road you are walking on. Overall and shining above any issue; theological or otherwise, is your absolute LOVE for your family. That is what pleases God and assures us that you are on the right track here! Your boys are so very fortunate to have such wonderful, loving parents; you would indeed lay down your life for your sons. That is so touching to me.
    Love you very much

  • I am amazed by these entries, Eva, Andrew, and Phil – and the lives that you each give witness to. I feel challenged to hold onto both humility and hope after reading. My deepest thanks to you and to God, that I get to travel this journey of ‘being the church’ with each of you!

  • Peter Hawkinson

    Eva,

    I am so blessed by your story, and by your open spirit, struggling to love, seeking understanding. My heart aches for the need in our Churches, and even more so in our “Church”, the Covenant, to read and study, listen to our stories with love, and pray together, really together as those who share life in Christ together. I continue to pray for you and your family as you bear witness to the grace of Jesus.

    • Eva Sullivan-Knoff

      Peter thank you. Your words touch me and my family.

      And thank you to all who posted your support and love. It means so much.
      May we continue this journey together, coming alongside those who have been excluded, and affirming them in the name of the One who loves us all.
      In Christ,
      Eva

  • Eva,

    Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your family’s story. It is powerful and needs to be heard.

  • Marla Parker

    Eva, what an honor it has been to read the story of your son, of you and your family.
    As always I have been blessed to know you and call you friend and sister in Christ.

    with love for you all, Marla.

  • Debra Harlow

    Eva, when I read this I found myself crying mother tears. Not because your sons realization about his sexual identity makes him any less precious to the God who created him, but because of the journey he now finds himself on; and the pain and hardship it will bring to him. May we all as God’s creations treat each other with the love and grace our Christ has shown us as we journey this life’s path together.

  • chad mcdaniel

    “And I wonder, is it possible for those in the Covenant church to gather around the table together to study, to pray, and to listen deeply to each other and to God without reacting? Can we commit to approach scripture without bias or presumptions and truly study what it says together slowly?”

    those my be the most important questions for those of us in ministry. i specifically like how you said we need to do this “slowly” and without “reacting.” thank you for sharing Eva! God bless you and your family!

    • Eva Sullivan-Knoff

      Thanks Chad. I think one of the most important and hardest things we do is listen, listen to God and to each other. I hope this helps us to do that.
      Thanks again.
      Eva

  • Eva and family! Courage … guts … raw pain. We need to hear from more Covenant pastors/families that find themselves in your shoes. Martin Marty says that The Church (including the Covenant Church) will never deal with this subject until the same percentage of pastors/families, as in the general population, come out … as you have done. This is a giant step! Call on my any time for emotional and/or spiritual support!

  • Brian

    Thank you so much for sharing! I walked a very similar path that your son has, thank you for recognizing the difficult journey. With the unconditional love you found your son’s journey just got a lot less lonely. Thank you!

    There was a great movie on Lifetime awhile back called “Prayers for Bobby” with Sigourney Weaver, look it up, very powerful!

    • Eva Sullivan-Knoff

      Thanks Brian. My husband and I saw that when it came out. It broke our hearts. I think everyone should watch it. It is very powerful.
      Blessings,
      Eva

  • Jeannie

    Eva–

    What wise, compassionate, and grace-filled words you have shared. Thank you.

  • Linda McAllister

    Eva, your deep love for your wonderful sons is the underlying theme in your writing, and your heartfelt struggle is a fruit of that love. Thank you for your honest sharing. I agree, I too don’t like to face controversial subjects until they hit close to home. Your family is blessed to be an place of openness and acceptance instead of being a place to hide. Blessings to you, John, Andrew and Benj on your journey. Love you!!

  • Nancy Gordon

    Eva,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story and your pain and your love and your hope. You are such a gift to us. And these stories need to be told and heard. Thanks for once again being a pioneer!

  • ilsabe oconnell

    Thank you, Eva — much love to you and your family, who are all wonderful!

  • Merryann Phillips

    Bless your heart, Eva. Thank you for sharing your story. Hugs and prayers headed your way.

  • Paul Bengtson

    Dear Eva, Your story is powerful, yet tender…painful, yet liberating…deeply personal…yet refreshingly public. Cheryl and I love all the men in your life…all three of them! We are so thankful to be a part of the love and support family that stand with you all as we, together, pray and listen to one another in this journey. The love and acceptance of loved ones, while having respectfully different views of behaviors, has been a growing edge in our family in many relationships…yet God has brought peace and mutual love that transcends the differences.

    We honor you for sharing your story and we know God’s grace will lead you in each chapter of that story. Love you all, Paul

  • Herb Freedholm

    Dear Eva and Family,
    I was deeply moved by your story and by the pilgrimage of your son and so many others who have been marginalized both in our society and more tragically by the church. You have my deepest respect and love for your openness, honesty, and grace in both telling the story and walking with your son. I long for the day when instead of spending our time sorting out the guilty from the good, instead of pouring over Scripture to discern who is out and who is in, we can welcome all who bear in their hearts the image of God regardless of race or gender or class or sexual orientation. You are deeply in my thoughts and prayers!

    • Eva Sullivan-Knoff

      Thank you Herb. This means much. We say yes and amen.
      Peace to you our brother,
      Eva

  • Terry Cathcart

    Thank you Eva for sharing your story with us. Like so many others, Sue and I were impressed and encouraged by your family’s vulnerability and love. Could this be how God’s Covenant Churches become intentional about slowly and tenderly addressing the “mom, if God made me this way, why wouldn’t it be okay” statement/question? Terry Cathcart

  • Melinda Hunter

    Eva and John: I’ve known you both for years, first at seminary and in CPE at McNeal, then at Douglas Park and after that our paths didn’t cross much. I worked for the Cook County Government with DUI’s, and Eva, you pursued ministry. I admired your persistance in that. I gave up fighting to be recognized as a “woman in ministry,” and God led me to a place to serve.

    I am touched and awed by your courage in telling your story. It is a story of faith and love; of anger and fear. The last time I saw your boys was when they were very little and watching the Lion King in pajamas at your first house. Thank you so much, Eva and John for your honesty. With Love, Melinda Hunter

  • Lynne Sheaff

    This explains a lot to me about your most recent career move. (or maybe not!) Thank you all, Sullivan-Knoffs, for helping us all grow and understand God’s mysterious ways.

  • Eva

    I’ve had a few people ask me in the last few days if I resigned at my church because I was afraid what would happen if my church found out my son was gay. I didn’t leave because I was afraid. I left for different reasons, one of which was to honor him. I love him and am proud of him and I couldn’t stay knowing if it was known, he wouldn’t be accepted. God loves and accepts him and I do too, and I do it openly.

  • Marti Hindaileh

    Dear Eva,
    Thank you from the depths of my heart for your honesty and willingness to share this journey. We all need to hear truth spoken without shame or fear. Know this: when I see Benj, I see a dear young man who models Christ in his actions. His gift of friendship to Kaitlin during her time of recovery, countless days spent sitting on the floor next to her bed watching movies, sharing meals, and talking – that is Christ in action. Benj saw Kaitlin’s struggle to lay still for the healing she needed. His sitting on the floor so she could see his face and talk WITH him was the gift Kaitlin needed to stay still and get through her healing process. I love Benj and his servant heart. I love you too my friend. Much love and prayers are with you and yours – you are all dear to the Hindailehs!

    • Eva

      Thank you Marti. That means more than I can say.
      Know we love you guys too.

  • Linda Forbes

    Eva I can’t tell what a gift it is for you to share this story. I spent my whole last semester in seminary studying the issue because I didn’t think we as a denomination where addressing the issue. It was a tough work but meaningful as I spoke with a few gay Covenanters who were brave enough to share. This site is such a breath of fresh air as we work together to love each other and God. Having a gay family member and knowing many homosexuals has helped me learn to be accepting and, I hope, sensitive to others. I will hold you and your family in prayer as you journey this road. Love to you and Benjamin. I have and will always have a tender place in my heart for both your kids and for you and John. I have many resources if you are ever interested- though they are pre-2001. The ELCA worked hard at discerning the issue and did a video piece that “argued” both interpretations of scription. It’s on VHS but if you want to borrow it let me know. Blessings friend.