A Love Letter to Eastern Pennsylvania

Silence.
That is what lay between my aunt and I for years after I answered the call to ministry. I knew that it was because the idea had been planted in her mind that I condemned her, because she was a lesbian and I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church. The distance hurt both of us, but I did not know how to fix it. The pain of potential rejection blinded this pioneer of women in the film industry to the fact that I too was in a career that was difficult for women. Meanwhile, the pain of what felt like her rejection likewise incapacitated me from communicating to her how I really felt.

That is until she lay dying of cancer.

When the cancer attacked her body, it was not the first time that it had come knocking, but it would be the last. I found myself driving across the state of Pennsylvania as often as I could to visit her. My congregation in Lancaster was incredibly supportive and prayed persistently for her and for me. The loving families of the church made sure I knew that I was not alone.

The ice began to break when I visited her in July, before I went to spend a few weeks in South Africa. I remember sitting in her garden while she still had strength; taking a walk at night to look out over Mount Washington as she told me her story; and getting scolded by her partner Ana for letting her exert too much energy – but really there was no stopping her, there never was.

On my last visit, after returning from South Africa, I visited her in the hospital daily, bringing her a different gift each day. A large blue beaded bracelet that hung loosely from what had once been her muscular forearm. A lamb made out of beads – like her name, Amy K. Lamb. On the last day, I brought her a rainbow pin, made of beads at a hospice near Durban, South Africa. I had purchased three, and began handing them around. One for my aunt, one for her partner, and one more for them to give to a friend. “No,” she said, handing it back to me. “This one is yours.”

Of course it was.

And that’s when I knew- that she understood. That she knew that I did love her and did accept her and did support her.

That was the last time I saw her.

She insisted that I be the only one to lead her funeral. Not everyone understood why, but I did. It did not have anything to do with family politics or favoritism. Suddenly there was so much to say to me, but no time left to say it. It was the only way she had left of communicating something huge that we no longer had the luxury of time to tell one another.

She wanted me to know that she understood how hard what I am doing is. That she supported me. That she trusted me to do the right thing.

So I climbed up in the pulpit of my friend Sue Hutchin’s church in Pittsburgh, and I addressed the largest crowd I had ever stood in front of, there to honor their beloved Amy. And I told her story, every beautiful bit of it.

Silence between us had returned in her physical absence, but it was a comforting silence rather than the silence of distance. It was a silence that spoke everything that needed to be said.

A few weeks ago, sitting in an Internet cafe in Guatemala, I saw with Methogeeky excitement that the Resolutions for Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference had been posted online.

I downloaded the Resolutions to my iPad, and took them back home to pore over them word by word, next to the smoke-billowing chimney of the roof where I lived. I learned about cross-racial appointments, about the persecuted church, and a lot about the proper kitchen and bathroom amenities for parsonages (and I mean a lot… thank you Jim).

But I also read some resolutions that I knew were the kinds of things that had made my aunt feel apprehensive of me. That made her eye me warily for so many years of my early twenties, fearing she was being judged. What I read there in Guatemala gave me fair warning of the day of painful discourse that lay ahead of us in a couple of weeks.

That day has come.
And I can’t be there at the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference.
And I hate that I can’t walk this path with you all today, and I hate that I cannot explain why right now; but please believe that my reasons are compelling and that I love you and I am praying for you.

These conversations that we will be having at Annual Conferences all over the country concern me greatly. They concern me because this does not really have to do with faithfulness to the Discipline. I grew up immersed in “church talk” and picked up an awareness of what the Discipline said at an early age without even reading it yet. Even then, growing up in a church that did not allow women in the pulpit, I knew that there were people and congregations that disrespected the Discipline. There are ways that people flaunt Methodist rules or expectations on a weekly basis with few repercussions: from chargeable offenses (like those that support rebaptisms, either leading them themselves or having others do so in order to technically protect themselves); to disregard for process and authority (like those who take on the stole of an elder before having been given the authority to do so); to major Disciplinary infractions (like those congregations who refuse to accept a female minister despite the United Methodist Church’s stance).

We do not have global trauma over any of those acts of disobedience.

This is not really about the Discipline. What this really has to do with is not the passion to enforce church law, but the fear of the real inclusivity of LGBTQ persons that our Book of Discipline claims we prioritize in ¶140.

What this is really about is whether a person is LGBTQ when they seek the blessing of the church on their commitment to being in a monogamous covenant relationship.

But shouldn’t that be what we are all about? I am frankly exhausted, completely exhausted, by the prevalence of other forms of sexuality in our culture – by the constant depictions or rape, adultery, and casual sexuality on television that fills my newsfeed with exuberant commentary from friends, and draws some into addiction to it and even violent acts.

In light of all that, the fact that there are still people – of any gender or orientation – that choose to go against that culture of jumping from person to person and commit themselves to a monogamous, God-oriented covenant offers me so much encouragement and helps me feel less alone in my own lifestyle choice to be celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage.

During school, I felt more comforted and inspired in that lifestyle choice by the presence of integrity-filled, monogamy-seeking gay and lesbian leaders, than I felt by the presence of confused heterosexuals “spreading their wild oats” without any shame about when and where.

I understand that the Book of Discipline is not in full agreement with me, but I think that it could be some day. And I know that the people who are pointing to the Book of Discipline as the final word in their argument, are the same ones who would also have the courage to disobey it if they disagreed strongly enough. I trust their integrity that far. The churches that rebaptize adults and reject female pastors already do disobey the Discipline for their conscience’s sake.

Just as with the scriptures, we have learned to appeal to the things we agree with and ignore those that we do not.

That has never been an option for me, and is not now; I struggle with scripture, and wrestle with the Spirit until I find the blessing in it. Yet, I do believe there are different ways of seeing and understanding scripture. Until the day when those who oppose women in the pulpit also refuse to eat shrimp cocktails and insist women cover their heads, I am going to assume that we are probably on the same page about the authority of scripture more than they realize. Until the day when those who oppose two men standing together at the altar also insist on stoning their teenage victims of rape, then I am going to conclude that our method of reading scripture is similar. We may just have different opinions about which passages to read in context.

There are many of us. Bible-believing, Orthodox Christians. People who proclaim the actual, physical life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God made flesh in human form. Begotten not made. Of the Virgin born. In whom all things were created, things on heaven and on earth.

And who BECAUSE of that – not IN SPITE of that – are encouraged that in this time of confusion and division, there are people who still want to enter into monogamous covenants in pursuit of the glory of God. People. Not gay people. Not straight people. Just people. We are all, in the end, just people. Children of God. Called to love one another. So, let’s act like it.

I do not believe that I have to speak the script of any particular group. I know I’m not Progressive enough for some, and certainly not Conservative enough for others. But what I do know is that I am honest and I am not alone.

If we rip this body called the Church apart, and pull it to two opposing extremes, I may not fit completely comfortably into either (although I do know where I will land); and I am not alone.

Why? Because my faith has nuance and depth, along with orthodoxy; and I am not alone.

Because I can look to Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and Howard Thurman as my teachers, as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and I am not alone.

I have served rural congregations and urban congregations; and every single place where I have gone, in every single country, the families of those “Family Churches” knew and loved people who were LGBTQ and were looking for the space to love them and support them. And they are not alone.

My aunt may have left me long before her time, but she left me with a silence full of her love and support; and I know that I am by no means alone.

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3 thoughts on “A Love Letter to Eastern Pennsylvania”

  1. Hannah – Thank you for this post. The image of “a silence full of love” has some staying power with me. One thought … as for being a “Bible-believing Orthodox Christian …”, with your brief litany of creedal statements … You words are not the first ones I’ve read as people look to offer some credentials that might convince those who disagree with them of their integrity – and by association, the integrity of their convictions. I see some other debates on the horizon – if ever we get beyond the current nasty stuff preventing us from embracing a posture (theology?) of full equality and inclusivity; and those debates will focus on what it means to be “orthodox”. I suspect that your love for your aunt and your full acceptance of her would be in play regardless of how “orthodox” your positions were on the Virgin Birth or other litmus test points of theology. Blessings to you – this is a powerful piece you have written.

  2. Hannah… thanks. I’m just getting to read this, post-Conference… It’s well-written, moving, and helpful… among other good things :-). You’re right, you are not alone…. Thanks.

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