Monday, September 7, 2009

Welcoming Home for Service Gay and Lesbian People Living in Committeed Same-gender Relationships

Much has been written already on the decision by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in churchwide assembly in Minneapolis in August to open the rostered ministries of the church to gay and lesbian people living in committed same-gender relationships. I rejoice with the acceptance of and decisions relating to the new ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality.

My comments here are on the challenge to the church to welcome home those many, many gay and lesbian people--pastors and those on other rosters--who have had to leave their service in the church because they were forced to chose between such service and living in faithful, loving relationships. Others left before ordination or consecration. Some never entered seminary. This "welcome home" may not be as simple as some might think. There was pain and attempts to heal, to find a place, in other church bodies that did welcome their service. There were/are many who served, fearing for years that their relationships might be discovered. There are those who serve in places in the ELCA that had courage to accept their service even though they were open about their same-gender relationships. And, surely I am not mentioning all of the situations. All of the stories. We must listen to the stories.

I cannot say, "I know how you feel," because I don't, for I am heterosexual. I don't know the pain of that rejection and I don't know the mixture of feelings now that the vote has been passed. I do know that I cannot presume to know or presume that all will return quickly or easily.

I can relate here some of my own history which at least makes the point that words of welcome in resolutions are not all that is needed.

Years ago with my own deaconess community, women who married and had children were told they were no longer a deaconess. "You have now gone on to motherhood..."

Then, through much work, through the opening of eyes, through women gaining some control over their own destiny, the board changed the rules. Now such women were once again a deaconess. A simple resolution. Simple words.

At that time I was attending a class with Dr. Letty Russell at Yale Divinity School. I chose to do research on the women who received these words. What would they say? What would they think? How would they feel. And WHERE were they?

Finding the women was a challenging and incomplete task. But those to whom I wrote responded. Many were thankful. Many had been serving anyway. But I also received some haunting responses: "I don't know what the words mean." Now, of course, they knew what the words meant. They were simply words, "You are a deaconess." But many, including myself, had gotten on with their lives. They had built new identities, new relationships, and were serving in a variety of places, some beyond the Lutheran church.

We were invited back. And we invited more back. And more, and more. Each year at annual conference, a woman or two would come who had not been there for a few...or many...years. That is over thirty-five years ago now. Still, to this day, there will be a woman at annual conference who says, "I haven't been here for a long time, but now I'm back." We have women who are still being rediscovered, sought out, and loved back into community. Others we have not seen, and no doubt never will.
"Welcome home!" Those are good words. Important words. Challenging words...for us all. Resolutions passed. The work of loving acceptance begins.