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Rev. Alden Johnson: “A Grandfather Speaks”

“Grandpa, can I hold your hand?” asks my four-year old granddaughter as we walk on the sidewalk of South Street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. “Of course!” is my enthusiastic response. Soon her twin sister catches up to us and wants to hold my hand as well. Not much can make a grandparent happier that holding hands with his twin granddaughters. Of course, they know that at a street crossing, they must hold the hand of an adult. They’ve been taught that by their mothers.

“Their mothers” is not a typo. My granddaughters have two mothers. One is, of course, our daughter. They live in a neighborhood where a two-mom family doesn’t raise eyebrows. Their preschool has two-mom families, two-dad families, single-parent families, mom-and dad families. It’s just the way things are. The church that our daughter and her spouse attend has the same family diversity. The lead pastor is openly gay and lives with his same-gender partner. It is not an issue! A walk in the park reveals ethnic diversity and different family constellations. Could this be a fulfillment of the prayer we repeat Sunday after Sunday, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” I’m confident the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Yes, the word “spouse” was not a mistake either. Our daughter and her partner were united in marriage by a Presbyterian clergywoman who later made national news when she was reprimanded for performing another same-gender wedding. (Charges against her were recently dismissed.) It was a lovely ceremony with about 100 family members and friends gathered to celebrate the occasion. Incidentally there were eight ordained Covenant clergy at that wedding as well as several members from the congregation that I previously served.  Everyone from our family was in attendance and wonderfully supportive of the newly married couple. It was a great party!  It is legal in Massachusetts for same-gender couples to be married. Shouldn’t it be that way everywhere?

Well, we mean to do our part!  This past June my wife and I co-hosted a house party sponsored by Mainers United for Marriage. This is a coalition of groups banded together to support the ballot initiative this November to allow same-gender marriage in the State of Maine, which was defeated three years ago. We and many others hope and are working for its success this time.  We believe that folks are increasingly aware that being gay or lesbian is innate and not a choice and that no one should be denied a lifelong commitment through marriage.

The picture may be becoming clearer–not only am I a grandfather and a father but also an ordained Covenant pastor, a graduate of North Park Seminary (Class of 1964), and have served Covenant churches for almost 30 years. Furthermore, I am passionately committed to the notion that people, no matter what their God-given sexual identity, have the right to formalize Their love for another person through marriage. As for many, this stance and these convictions didn’t just happen. There are stories, events along the way, that helped to mold what I stand for now.

The religious stance in my childhood home was conservative and evangelical. We didn’t talk about sex and most certainly didn’t discuss alternative sexual identities. I have faint recollections of high school locker room comments about someone being “gay,” but I’m not sure I was aware of what that meant. Reflecting on my two years at North Park College(1956 – 58), I don’t recall thinking of classmates being lesbian or gay. However as time went on and my awareness progressed, I began to hear that some were. Later, with further thought and exposure, my rational response to the “gay issue” was one of openness and acceptance, although my visceral reaction to same-sex couples showing affection was discomfort.

Another “marker event” occurred in March, 1987. I had served the Covenant Congregational Church of Waltham, Massachusetts for 13 years. Two other churches, both American Baptist, and our church sponsored a Lenten Study Series entitled, “A Christian’s Look at Social Issues.”  I was the primary organizer. One session topic was “Alternative Life Styles—Homosexuality.”  Twenty five years later that doesn’t sound very dramatic, but if any readers can place themselves in that moment in time in a Covenant church along with two Baptist churches bringing in a resource person (an ordained Southern Baptist and PhD candidate at Boston University) to address this topic and lead a discussion, you realize that although it probably wasn’t quite “cutting edge,” it wasn’t far behind.

My exposure and comfort level were greatly enhanced in the early 1990’s as my wife worked in the graphic arts department of a nationally known magazine. Several co-workers were openly gay. Often at social gatherings with these folks we would be in the distinct minority as a straight couple.

Many of you have read Lynda McGraw’s poignant piece “My Beloved Brother” on Coming Out Covenant. I presided at her brother’s memorial service in the Covenant Congregational Church of Waltham in 1996. Mark had been in a confirmation class that I taught. His parents were close friends, so I had been aware of Mark being gay through many conversations with them. I knew that he had become ill and suffered beside them. I remember vividly gathering with Mark’s family and his partner, James, to plan the service. I wanted to be fully supportive. I hope that I was. It was a beautiful moment in the sanctuary of the Waltham church.

Because I’m a Covenant pastor, some will wonder how I can assume this open, affirming stance on LGBT issues. How can I disregard Scripture passages that seem to condemn homosexual behavior? My answer is neither profound nor unique. I simply ask, “How can we expect the biblical authors to have a positive approach to homosexuality without the evidence and insight we have now?” Why can we not label these verses as culturally tainted as are passages presuming that the earth is flat, slavery is acceptable, women must not speak in church  (certainly not with an uncovered head), divorced people must not be pastors, etc., etc.?  Peter Gomes’s The Good Book brought clarity to my thinking about these Biblical injunctions. He calls typical church views of homosexuality “the last prejudice.” I’m not sure I agree it’s the “last prejudice,” but it’s surely a prejudice the church should fight to eradicate. I’m absolutely convinced that, facing a choice of Scriptural interpretation, love of neighbor trumps everything.

Obviously I am very troubled by the current stance of our denomination, but I am confident that as our society progresses in understanding and affirmation, so the Covenant church will eventually grow. Other denominations have taken the lead and yes, have paid a price, but I suspect God cares more for people and principle than for impressive statistics!

In my 74 years, I’ve shed notions here and there and acquired new understandings along the way. I thank God and the people who have aided my growth. I intend to work and support to the best of my ability in my remaining years those principles that have become part and parcel of my being.  Of course, there will always be time to enjoy my beautiful granddaughters, watch them grow and become gracious women, and be thankful for their mothers who have given them life and, like all mothers, want all that is good for their children. That makes me as happy as my grandaughters wishing to hold my hand does now!

  • God bless you for your acceptance and love of your daughter and her family, and of all of us GLBT people trying to live our lives in a society which is often far less affirming. Your example is a bright light. Thanks for being that example, for opening your heart in this post, and for putting those convictions regarding equality and acceptance into action.

  • Stephanie Sjoblad

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  • John K. Larson

    I am a retired Covenant Minister. I am also a proud Uncle of one of the Moms that Alden mentions in his article. Their daughters have great loving and caring parents. My wife and I love this family very much and support them. I know the Covenant stance on such a marriage but pray that it goes way beyond that to helping minister to such couples and their families!

  • John K. Larson

    Thank you Alden for writing such a beautiful article. I also am a retired Covenant Minister as well as Uncle to the “other” mother. They are indeed loving and caring parents. i am proud of them. My wife and I love them and support them. The girls are growing too fact…yet get cuter every time we see them. I know the Covenant’s stance on this kind of marriage but wish it would go way beyond that to better ways to help minister to ALL singles, or couples and their families.

  • Charlotte Johnson

    Dear, dear Aldie – I knew you were on the ball when I was singing in the 8:30 choir you directed. Char

  • Brita Moon Gotberg

    Thank you!

  • In true conversation, could you clarify your use of the Lord’s prayer in your observations about homosexuality, especially as it relates to “fulfillment”?

  • Robin Keisling

    Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts and experiences, hopefully, it won’t take too much more time before the Covenant Church accepts all God’s children.

  • Al Kaufman

    A wonderful piece from a wonderful man. May your writings help others to believe that they, too, may have faith and love all people, regardless of sexual orientation (or anything else for that matter).

  • Nancy Strandine Barnes

    Thank you, Alden, for your warm, compassionate reflections. May the day come soon when all Christians will say, “Love of neighbor trumps everything!”

  • sarah brooks

    thank you

  • Jim Anderson

    Thank you for letting us share your deeply-held convictions and experiences. Annette and I were delighted and honored to be guests at the wedding of those two young women. How good that now their family includes two beautiful daughters and that they have become so vital a part of your life. They are truly blessed by you and Ginny having so completely accepted and affirmed them. It’s a beautiful example for all of us. Thank you for sharing.

  • Bob McNaughton

    Alden: your life journey is not unlike that of many of us, but you have told it winsomely. I too am a retired Covenant pastor, whose journey from “there” to “here” has taken a few years. I have been guided by a principle learned many years ago, and strengthened by North Park Theological Seminary: follow truth wherever it leads, no matter who says it. Love one another must always “trump everything.” My wife and I were also honored and delighted to attend the wedding celebration of your daughter and spouse. And I am pleased to know of the continued happy development of their life together, with their two children. Along with you and Ginny, we are all blessed by them.

  • Allan Waite

    Thank you, Rev. Johnson for your courage in saying what so many of us feel and know to be true. I have been at odds with the official stance on this issue, and I fear that secular America is now leading the way on issues of justice and tolerance. A sad state of affairs when the Christian church becomes known for myopia of the heart. Churches led the charge to end institutionalized slavery in this country, as well as the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s. Where is our relevance if we are not at the fore? Thank you again. Love wins.

  • Camilla Clare

    What a wonderful article. It breaks my heart that the wonderful churches that we grew up in are so slow to embrace the LGBT community. From earliest childhood we were told that God is Love, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we not welcome and love our LGBT family and friends?

  • Claire Nelson

    thanks for your encouraging words!

  • Lynda McGraw

    Alden,
    Thank you for writing and being open .. to the amazing notion that GOD is love. He commands us to show his love….. not parcel it out as we see fit. Yes, you were a postive and loving light in the oh so dark time of Mark’s death. It was a blessed memorial service in the sanctuary. It was an honor to Mark’s life and an honor to God’s love. Even after 16 years I find comfort in the fact that we all said good bye to Mark in God’s house confirming that he was loved by us and God. It is wonderful to hear of your grandaughters and the acceptance of their entire family. I do pray that the world and our Covenant denonmination can move towards the love that Jesus calls us to live.

  • Keith Robinson

    I echo the words written above: “Because I’m a Covenant pastor, some will wonder how I can assume this open, affirming stance on LGBT issues.” Number me among those who wonder.
    It is fascinating to discover where we are now that we are “enlightened.” The founders of the Covenant asked the question “where is it written.” in reference to scripture, not “where is it written” in reference to a medical journal, newspaper or blog.

    • Peter hawkinson

      Hi Keith, I have such good memories of our time together in school! Glad to see you are doing well up there in Minnesota. Actually, my read of Covenant History is that the Church was always making room for a statement like Alden’s, while at the same time engaging in ongoing discernment together. This is why our Churches were filled with people who read scripture together and disagreed on the basis of scripture on many issues deemed “non-essential”…from the sexuality paper, “the Covenant has always had a strong commitment both to careful bible study and to honest, respectful conversation among people who hold a diversity of views…” I think this historic stance, brave and laudable, was found in the concept of resolutions, which are “non-binding” discernments of the Church at any given time. As the paper says, it is intended for “Teaching and conversation.” Where I think we lost our strength to do this was when this particular paper was also deemed a “foundation for current policy and practice.” I appreciate your response, strong but respectful, and as one who feels differently, with a congregation split about 50/50, as we read scripture, I just long for fruitful discussion which brings understanding. i want us to be a Church where those who feel differently (even on the basis of scripture) about this sexuality issue are still covenanted together by the love of Jesus, still meet at the communion table, still do ministry together. We have no official congregational stance, except that we are covenant together by new Life in Christ. Just some of my rambling thoughts on what it means to be a Covenant Church.

  • Keith Robinson

    2007 report from the Board of ministry to the annual meeting on sexuality- an excerpt:
    In 1996 a resolution on human sexuality was adopted by the Covenant Annual Meeting. The core declaration of the resolution stated: God created people male and female, and provided for the marriage relationship in which two may become one. A publicly declared, legally binding marriage between one woman and one man is the one appropriate place for sexual intercourse. Heterosexual marriage, faithfulness within marriage, abstinence outside of marriage—these constitute the Christian standard. When we fall short, we are invited to repent, receive the forgiveness of God, and amend our lives.

    The observation here is that those who don’t see it this way are outside of the core beliefs of the Covenant.

  • Karl Hallsten

    Thanks Aldie for sharing your poignant story—Our paths were parallel for a while at NPC and North Park Seminary. One of my sons is gay and in a long term–8 year relationship–marriage is not a possiblity here in Arizona. Because of the teaching of the church–he was a graduate of Minnehaha Academy—coming out was a long slow process–Though I recognized the signs of his sexual identity when he was in high school we never had the conversation until years later when he was just into this present partnership–and I asked.
    I don’t think the church is all to blame but it must share some for supporting the dishonesty and distance in the relationship. I had long accepted homosexuality both in and out of the church–I found my first support and discussion in the United Church of Christ–which by the way pioneered openly gay clergy in 1972–It was also (its predecessor the first mainline denomination to ordain blacks, and women.
    I am active in PFLAG.
    In regards the Bible–You have to do major damage to the Biblical Record to deny the long term homosexual relationship between Jonathan and David recorded in I and II Samual. He wrote a Psalm and made all of Isreal sing the praises that Jonathans love for David was greater than that of any wormen. David had multiple wives and relationships–the only one he is chastised for was the relationship with Bathsheba and that because he took Uriahs property–adultery.—
    While perhaps not quite as clear–Ruth and Naomi’s story likewise raises strong indications of a life long committed relationship– Ruth’s plea and pledge–and in the end–“And the women called him, “Naomi’s child.”

    Good to hear your story and God richly bless you and your family.

    I rember my unter disappointment when I read about the Covenant, very hastily drawing a deep line in the sand. Great to hear that some are trying to build a bridge over—The Covenant has so much to offer.

  • Joanne Berry Gailius

    I very much appreciate your words of compassion. My personal challenge is how can I continue to support and attend a Covenant Church that is homophobic? When our lesbian friends come to visit, they aren’t truly welcomed with us on Sunday…..how do we respond? It’s living within that discomfort, knowing deeply in my heart that Jesus would open his arms and hold them, us, all in a big warm, welcoming, inclusive hug.

  • david condron

    Hello Reverend Johnson,
    I was guided in confirmation by you when you ministered at Haddam Neck Covenant Church in 1970. You were perceptive, patient and kind. I was an excitable and sensitive fellow, and though I was not fully aware at that time, I was having inklings that I was gay.
    Now years later, my Mom, Jane, continues to be an active member of HNCC. She continues to live in the house I grew up in; a house within a short walk of church. Over the last 12 years (having moved to NYC) I’ve visited every 6-8 weeks and I join Mom at HNCC services. I have always only felt love, respect and acceptance from church members in this congregation and consider a number to be my friends.
    Since college I’ve been an out gay man. I’ve come late to investigating where ECC stands on LGBT parishioners and clergy. I am deeply disturbed by the stance ECC has taken to actively exclude LGBT people. Though not a member, I’ve been a part of this church family since I was 4yo (and I’m now 59).
    I question what to do about my dismay. Perhaps stop attending. I have talked to the last two minusters one-on-one. I am reminded that all my life I’ve known that for me, and others like me, the personal is the political. My years of civil rights, gay rights and HIV/AIDS activism kicks up; however, I also know this isn’t the place. These are kind and loving people and many, if not most, of these people would be dismayed by this stance by the church.
    Yet the disservice I do to myself and others by attending in silent collusion rankles. But for now this is what I do.
    I continue to be baffled by the citing of random scripture that casts gays as automatically sin-filled due to our sexuality. Accordingly scripture can be used to condone wife-beating: one odd example of a number where literal interpretation of scripture is just plain wrong.
    Alden (weird to call you by your first name because I knew you as a teen-ager. Ha!), I appreciate your reflections on your own grasp of this situation. I am unsure of my own follow-through. I will pray with the knowingness that God loves me.
    I wm grateful for your spiritual guidance,
    Dave Condron
    P.S. the chuch’s confirmation gift was a Bible. Your personal gift to me was the book JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL!!! I thanked you then and now. You saw me.