The first group of people I came out to was my knitting and spinning group. They are just what you would expect from a secular group that meets at the local senior center—a group of elderly women and men who enjoy knitting, crocheting and spinning wool into yarn. Most of them were in their seventh or eighth decade of life. They enjoyed vigorous debates about ranking their favorite types of animal fiber (mine are yak, silk, camel and washable wool) as well as the relative merits of cable stitches versus bobbles. (Cables are much, much more interesting!) At 35, I was the youngest member of the group by decades. But for me, the most important characteristic they all shared was that none of them attended the Church of the Nazarene.
The Church of the Nazarene has a long history of pursuing holiness of heart and life. This pursuit manifests itself in many ways, but always encourages one to get closer to God through knowing oneself better and therefore knowing what God desires of us. Belonging to the community of faith is very important to the Nazarene tradition, and as church members we even sing regularly about how happy we are to be part of the family of God.
Being Nazarene is in my blood. I remember as a small child sitting in the pews of our tiny church as my mother and grandmother tried to control my fidgeting, a church that was almost within spitting distance of an older Nazarene church my great grandparents had attended. When I was eleven, the Church of the Nazarene saved my life. Literally. A wise Sunday School teacher realized that the questions I was asking about salvation, death and heaven indicated something more than just the usual tween curiosity on the finer points of basic theology. She told my mother she was concerned about my mental health and worried that I might be suicidal. She was correct, and her timely intervention kept me from killing myself.
No matter which individual church body I attended, these people were my tribe. They surrounded me with support through some of the most difficult times in my life—poverty, my lifelong struggles with mental health, moving to four different states in the span of two years—and I knew I could count on them to love me for who I was. Within limits.
I realized that the Nazarene community would be very displeased if they knew my deepest secret. I, a thirty-something mother of two small children who had been married for a decade, was attracted to women. The more I pursued understanding the will of God in my life and understanding myself better, the more obvious this fact became. And that understanding has allowed me to better understand my status as a beloved daughter of God who pursues holiness in her life and spiritual practices.
Whether this revelation made me qualify as a lesbian woman or as a bisexual person mattered far less to me than the certain knowledge that my church community would react badly to it. Over the next five years, they proved this beyond a shadow of a doubt. My husband’s co-lead pastor sat me down and tried to talk me out of my newfound self-knowledge by explaining that I was faithfully married to a man and therefore could not possibly be attracted to women.
Even worse, a common reaction was embodied by a dear friend, a lifelong Nazarene. When I came out to her, she responded with stunned silence, followed by exclaiming “I’m sorry you feel that way!” She then explained that she did not know what to say. I told her that I was hoping for a response that was some variation on the theme that we would be able to continue our two decades of friendship. I sincerely hoped she would eventually be able to acknowledge that this was not some sudden change in who I was as a person so much as a gradual revelation of a part of my personality that I had previously kept hidden.
“I’m not sure I can do that!” she stammered. We have not spoken since, as though my knowledge of myself somehow impacted her personal pursuit of holiness.
Unfortunately, the same denomination that saved my life has also crushed large parts of my personhood as I have struggled to belong to it. The same people who embodied God’s love to me throughout my battles with depression, suicidality and a few nervous breakdowns have been the vessel for some of the most hateful, ugly words about God that I have ever heard. They have told me that my salvation is endangered by the very fabric of my existence. That the person I am at my deepest core is “depraved,” “immoral,” “sinful by nature,” and in the words of more than one church-goer, “just plain wrong!” They have wielded the Bible like a weapon—tirelessly aimed at the most sensitive parts of my being—so often that I find very little joy in reading it.
And my knitting group? They interrupted their debate on the merits of acrylic yarn versus wool yarn (acrylic yarn is fantastic for baby items!) to voice unanimous acceptance of my announcement. Several of them gave me bear hugs and one exclaimed “I’m so happy you found the courage to tell us who you are!”
If only I could find that same love and support in the family of God.
Naomi Mackey is a psychiatric nurse who graduated from Northwest Nazarene University. In her free time she loves to work with yarn in all its many forms. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children.