Sometime a little after my late wife, Katharine, passed, I wrote a poem about two dear couples who opened their lives to me in one of my darkest and most desperate moments.
Here is my poem:
Deep in the winter wood
Of our lives
So dark and cold
Lies a hidden haven few know
Where broken, hurting souls
Once scattered by the winds of change
Find solace and are there made whole.
Outwardly it appears no prize
Its darkened walls like rocky cave
Its guardians so warm and welcome
To those gathered in
They need never fear the gathering chill
But those who come with threat
Fear and fright
The glare of justice flames
A bright fire in their eyes at first threat
Their flash of teeth, their clash of claws,
“None shall pass, nor bring
Any harm to our dwelling”
These mother bears will not let one
Not even one of their dear one fall aside
Not without a fight
It is in such a home, a haven
I found myself
When the shadow fell so dark upon the valley of my soul
It is among such ones, so full of Mother Bear, that Sacred Spirit,
And her roaring love
I woke trembling with my broken soul
The warmth of who you are
Surrounded me there
Knitting together so much of my soul
Know, dear ones, wherever life carries you
In my heart you will always have a home,
A haven of your own.
I want to tell you about the two couples that inspired this poem.
One couple are neighbors of mine from church. I met them first through the local farmer’s market here in Carborro. I had gone there just to do as I often like to do on a lazy Saturday morning and explore the different local produce, taste locally grown cheeses, meet new people. An outspoken confident woman, just a few years younger than me, stood there with a clipboard in hand, getting signatures to help with some initiative related to the rights of women. If I remember correctly she was representing a domestic violence awareness group while also protecting women’s right to reproductive choice.
I chose to engage her about her request and found a deeply southern lady, who loved the drawl and downhome cooking of my own south-land, who was also deeply engaged in social justice, and a committed Christian. She and her wife I found to my surprise attended the church I did in Chapel Hill. Somehow out of the conversation I was invited to their home for dinner and drinks and later to their very memorable queer Easter brunch.
These two phenomenal ladies live within walking distance of my apartment and truly blew me away in the days after the loss of my late wife. They hosted a gathering mere days later in which they invited many of our mutual friends to come and toast Katharine’s memory, telling stories over her life over delicious craft beer.
And knowing I had not been home since walking in to find her dead, these dear women offered to let me stay at their home. They took me in and then gave me permission to come over any time, even in the dead of night, if things became too difficult. That offer I only took up on them once – on Thanksgiving night, when the reality that she was not coming back hit me so hard I felt I was falling a part inside. But the fact they had taken me in and made this offer gave me the courage to return home and begin to embrace my life again.
The other couple this poem I am writing is about lived a short drive away from here. They are country as the day is long. Their drawl is deep. One is a soldier, the other going through school and otherwise a stay at home mom with their adorable son whom my late wife had the honor of dedicating to the Lord for them in an old church in which we served. These two tell me how one of them (the one as lily white as me) had to deal with prejudice not just that she was marrying a woman in her home state of Alabama from family and once neighbors, but – nearly as shocking – that she fell in love with a woman of color. Ultimately her family learned to embrace her soldier wife. Having their son together, the son whom my late wife christened, seemed to have helped.
Well, these two had already been a part of my life when Katharine passed. Yet they showed up, unbidden, in my home just shortly afterwards. One sat with me, having me play in my near catatonic state with their adorable little boy, while the other took over my kitchen. In such a shock from what happened, my home looked like a tornado hit it. She cleaned my kitchen top to bottom, so it sparkled. Suddenly I had one space that was roomy, safe, and open – one space that did not feel like chaos and falling apart. And she cooked spaghetti. So much spaghetti. I had spaghetti in my freezer for weeks.
These two also had me over to their house at every major holiday that fall and winter, treating me like family, making sure I knew that I was not alone. Making sure I knew that no matter where I went, their small town country house was a home for me.
What I experienced from both of these couples was the embrace of family which went beyond the bonds of blood, to that of lived experience, love and heartache, joy and pain. This is something which the queer community does and does well, does in ways that have taught me as a straight person so much.
I still remember when I first began to see and experience this building of family out of love and friendship.
I had left the denomination I had been raised in and ordained in, where most of my closest friends were, and where almost all of my family worshipped. I had done so with my name run through the ground in disgrace. I did so at cost of a paying job, uncertain where my paycheck would come or what my future in ministry would be. Why? Because through a series of relationships with queer people, I had become convinced that God is no respecter of persons, and that God judges not by the outward appearance of gender – whether one’s gender or the gender of those they love – but by people’s hearts. And the church and tradition in which I was serving had dropped a gauntlet on my life and ministry, requiring me to choose that value of my conscience or them. And ultimately I knew I could not honestly say I was serving God anymore if I gave into the call of my tradition to commit acts of discrimination and spiritual abuse against queer people, women, and those who are transgender.
To many in my life this was the ultimate act of shame. I had so many once seeming friends depart from my life, with loud proclamations of how wrong I was. “You are abandoning your faith and Christianity. You are leading people astray. You are turning your back on God”.
And my own family became strained in their relationship to me. I still remember, having begun to attend the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination founded by a queer man for queer people, having a family member ask me: “So you go to a gay church. What do you do there? I keep imagining really gay things happening at church. “
That was a well-meaning person trying to be supportive. Of course, the “gay” things this church I attended engaged in were prayer, Bible study, worshipping God, taking communion, and serving their neighbor. You know, nothing but what Christians have always done in every age and time. Since Jesus. But that comment showed how much that was said and done by family and former friends was alienating.
I was amazed, though, to find Jesus’ words to be true for me: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)
Since that choice to risk losing friends, family, and support to stand with queer people, women, and other minorities often cast off unceremoniously from the church, I have again and again found people like these two dear couples who embraced me as family, welcoming me into their lives.
I will always a dear man who was a leader in the Metropolitan Community Church in San Bernardino, who I am going to call Donald. He was a young man who served as a deacon, full of energy and passion. You knew who he was as soon as you walked into the church, because you could hear him singing out, leading the songs of worship, lively praise songs and psalms set to music. I can remember for some reason him calling everybody to clap their hands and Spirit dance the first Sunday I visited that little store-front church to a song based on the Biblical verse that says sorrow dries up your bones but joy, laughter, and praise is good medicine. I still feel the love he showed me and others at that church every time I sang the version of the Holy, Holy, Holy, he would invite us to sing before communion most Sundays:
“Santo, Santo, Santo.
¡Mi corazón te adora!
Mi corazón te sabe decir
¡Santo eres Señor!
Holy, holy, holy.
My heart, my heart adores you!
My heart is glad to say, the words:
You are holy, Lord!”
At that time, it was hard to feel close to family and friends, and this lively Latino man, embraced me as friend and brother. He made a point to listen with understanding to the story of my pain and heartache. He had me over to his home in southern California. We met for lunch and talked about our respective struggles. I remember telling him once, “what my own brother can’t be right now because he cannot understand or accept what I’m going through, you are doing”.
Again and again, I found this gift of community, of friendship, of family not of blood, in the queer community.
While in southern California, I remember a retired Catholic priest who had come out as queer and at times led independent sacramentalist churches, which held to the traditions of the Roman Catholic church in terms of worship yet made space for women leaders and queer people to be fully embraced, tell me how he understood it.
He said that we are born into families of blood, which may or may not know how to embrace us in the fullness of who we are. That is the call of family – to fully accept and embrace their children and each other exactly as God made them. Yet too often families are ruled by their own dreams and expectations for themselves and their children or siblings futures, dreams and expectations which that person as God has created them may not fit into.
Yet when we find ourselves cut off from this, the grace of God is present in that if we have eyes to see and ears to hear we can experience the grace of God guiding us to forge new families, families of choice, built around those who embrace us and whom we embrace, that are based on fully accepting and embracing each other as God made us to be, as who we are in our deepest selves.
Though we can have both groups overlap, with families of blood also joining this circle of families of choice, ultimately this does not always happen. Often when it does, as it has begun to do with certain family members for me years later, usually we first go through a time that the family of choice must be separate while we and our families of origins go through our own journeys to come to peace with who we are, and learn to walk in grace together.
Ultimately for many people our families of choice are where we experience the deepest connection, deepest acceptance, and are freed to grow into our best selves. Those alternative families can become the places in which we learn the inner strength and ability to find our own voice that are necessary to do the work to heal the brokenness in our relationships with our families of origin.
For me, I now am able to embrace the gifts both circles of family in my life bring, but like many of my queer friends who taught me that when long-time friend and family do not understand me there is grace at work in my world and in my life which can open up new connections, families of grace and choice that fully embrace who I am, which helped me find the support I needed to grow into my own to the point I could again engage in the holy work of healing and repairing the breaches in my life that existed from where my old friendships and my family of origin did not know how to fully embrace the depth of who I am.
I think, too, learning about how grace can draw us into these new ways of being family guided my own later ministry.
I fought hard during my times as a pastor to defend families that were not the conventional, one man and one woman headed nuclear families. I sought to speak out for the power of these alternative ways of being family to be life-giving, holy, and good.
Also I worked for years to help plant and develop churches both as new church starts or as old churches going through renewal which developed the feel of families. Wide deep families of grace and choice in which people experiencing being outcast of the families where they found their roots could find new support, love, and strength. I smile as I think of the folks whose experience of such community through the churches I helped found and helped reinvigorate really had new lives launched, flowing from their best selves, out of their short-lived experience of such alternative families of grace.
I think the examples I began with show how I continue to live out this queer value I learned at the hands of such faithful LGBTQ folk in my life by fostering intentional, gracious, friendships and plugging into communities in which both I and others can be fully embraced for who we are.
Even in my often very one on one work now as a chaplain and spiritual counselor, I feel I draw on this modeling of such community of welcome, for the heart of my work now is to practice unconditional acceptance, support, and grace while also helping people explore deep truths that may challenge them out of old patterns. Engaging with them as if I am drawing them into the same radical acceptance, challenging love, and connection with a web of relationships wider than me and them, is in fact the way in which this work happens and they are strengthened, encouraged, or renewed by my care – even if I am the only representation of this wider network, this deep web of life.
That deep web of life, as a Christian, has a name. In older translations of Jesus’ words, it gets called “the Kingdom of God”, an alternative society that draws all of creation including every person from all walks of life into a community of deep compassion, connection, where life is shared with all its resources in ways that promote peace, wholeness, and full life. Yet translations of those same words which realize the deep irony of using masculine terms for a God beyond our categories of gender, or language of benevolent tyrants like kings for a community in which all are equal, with no one lording it over another person, tend to find other names – the reign of God, the realm of God, or (most telling in this context) the kin-dom of God.
Kin-dom of God works, doesn’t it? Jesus proclaims an alternative family of sorts, where all people of all classes, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and backgrounds are drawn together with all creation into a deep grace. This grace draws us all into a kinship not of blood, but of deep acceptance of who we are at heart, in our best selves. This grace also embraces all of our so-called flaws, failures, and imperfections so that we know we are embraced as perfectly imperfect people. This grace calls us out of our fears to shine into becoming our best selves.
It is this kin-dom I bring within me, deep in my heart, even into the one on one encounters as I provide spiritual counsel in my work in homes, retirement homes, and assisted living facilities. I invite and welcome folks to find their place more fully in the web of relationships all around them that knowing this all-embracing grace in the center of their lives will awaken them to see.
This call to alternative family, to kin-dom of God, is I think a powerful word God is whispering out to all who will listen through the witness of queer people of faith in our lives and communities. Let us hear it, and learn to embrace such love, living it out to each other.
Your progressive redneck preacher,