One woman’s story of the pursuit of unconditional love, community, and authenticity.
I grew up in a family where two truths were woven into the core of my being: love was something given to everyone, and we were Nazarene.
My very earliest memories include a ridiculous excitement for the Sunday school lessons that incorporated flannelgraphs, my mom teaching me that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world,” and the overwhelming sense that everyone at church was my family. To be fair, I am from a very small Oregon coast town, and I am, in fact, related to a ridiculously high percentage of the folks who live there. But the connections that existed within that community fostered a belief that within the walls of the church, we were all loved, plain and simple.
And it was with that basic foundation of love and the Nazarene church that I charged into the world, fairly confident I was a “normal” child. I come from some seriously strong genes, and I looked and acted just like everyone else around me. I was a poster child for OldenKamp cloning—we all learned the same Bible verses, got the same hugs from all the church grandmas.
When I was five, we left the family dairy farm in Oregon, and settled into Mangum Hall, a freshman boys’ dormitory on the campus of Northwest Nazarene College. This, of course, was drastically different from what I had known before. But I could still happily play with my Barbies and my Legos, so by all definitions me, and my little life, were still normal. I just now had a few hundred siblings at my disposal. It certainly didn’t occur to me that not everyone my age commandeered the lobby television and forced 18- and 19-year-old boys to watch Sesame Street. I didn’t question it at all. Though the “walls” looked very different living on the college campus, the powerful sense of a loving community where I was undoubtedly accepted without question prevailed. There was a great deal of love here amongst my Nazarene family.
But as I began to knock on the door of adolescence, my perception of normal began to change. We moved from dorm life to an actual house, and I started to notice little ways that I just didn’t quite fit in. I now had neighborhood kids to compare myself to, and I was starting to realize not everything was steeped in a simple love. Growing up, I tried hard to be the good little church girl—memorizing Bible verses, and clinging to the happiness I felt as a beloved child of God. But as I got older, I found myself developing a hard-core determination for lying in bed on a Sunday morning, willing myself to ignore the desperate cries from my bladder, eyes glued to the clock. I knew that if the clock reached 9:30 and no one had moved in the house, we in no way had enough time to eat, shower and make it to church on time.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like church. It was that I HATED dresses. I knew, as a girl, I was supposed to love dresses, and, more importantly, I was most definitely supposed to wear them to church. Every Sunday school lesson handout showed boys in ties and girls in ruffly dresses. But I hated everything about that: the tights, the shiny shoes, the pink ribbons, having to sit properly. And I definitely noticed the looks when I didn’t conform to the dress rule. This was my first sign that my “normal” might not actually match everyone else’s. Girls just didn’t wear pants to church. That wasn’t proper, and I saw the looks between the grandmas who had once hugged me so tightly. Good church girls dressed the part.
Joining the youth group in high school was a double-edged sword: full of an overwhelming desire to hold so tightly to the love and acceptance I’d been raised in, but finding that at odds with who I was becoming. I could be me, or I could be a part of the church group; but more and more, I was discovering I couldn’t be both. I started cramming little secrets of myself away where no one would see them. Hiding myself in a closet, if you will.
I experienced gnarly waves of self-doubt and judgment. Everyone in youth group was only jamming out to Christian music. I still preferred Michael Jackson to Michael W. Smith and Steve Miller to Stephen Curtis Chapman. I couldn’t just toss them. So I hid them—literally, behind Point of Grace and Newsboys. And figuratively, in my increasingly crowded closet.
Things only worsened when I discovered I had opinions. FemiNazi, liberal, and the dreaded “Democrat” became names flung at me. As I learned what I stood for, I came to understand those ideas may be directly opposite of people around me. I took those beliefs and shoved them in the closet too.
When I once again returned to the campus of NNC for my own college experience, I found myself one of the few who didn’t date, and didn’t leave with a ring on my finger. When my friends were finding husbands, I was shoving my insecurities deeper into my figurative closet. No one needed to know my desperate fear of being alone, or that exactly none of the boys on campus seemed a good fit. I continued to hide the things about myself that would make others uncomfortable, that would keep me from that church love connection.
I fought, desperately, to conform. I deeply craved to be the model person I felt like I was somehow supposed to be. I got married to a long-haired hippie boy I convinced myself was “the one”. And then I found myself putting our issues in my closet too.
“It’s okay you can’t picture yourself having kids with him…”
“It’s okay that this just doesn’t feel right, you’re married…”
I was absolutely still that little girl in the awkward dresses looking for those open armed hugs, but I was standing in front of a closet full of hidden truths. I could belong if I just did all the right things.
In the depths of my marriage’s worst moments, I called my parents. My dad gave me words of wisdom I have carried in my heart ever since. He simply explained that it was better to be on my own than in a bad relationship, and better to be true to who I was than compromise who I was supposed to be.
For the first time in my adult life, I took a hard look at who I was, who I was supposed to be, and at all the fabulous things hanging in my emotional closet. When I went to shove “divorced” in with all the rest, it just didn’t quite fit. Instead, things started tumbling out all over.
I started doing things that defined me and began to feel that familiar sense of love. That acceptance I’d been wrapped in as a small child was starting to return. I slowly began to free myself from the deep obsession with other people’s thoughts about me. I found a small Nazarene church that met in a junior high gym and practiced Christ’s love. I even registered as a Democrat. But there was more in the closet.
I had to admit I was gay.
So I leaned into love—the simple love I’d been taught from the beginning. I found love for my real self. I gave myself the grace I’d heard preached from the pulpit. I was, and am, still a beloved child of God. I felt myself flourishing, and I found joy in ways I hadn’t in years.
And then I fell in love.
I met Louise, the incredible woman who would become my wife, mother to the amazing child who would become my step-daughter, and without hesitation, invited them to church with me. I wanted nothing more than for them both to feel the sense of community and family that still ran through my core. That Christ-like love was as intrinsically a part of me as anything else. I wanted my daughter to grow up knowing just how loved she was; I wanted her to have the same structure of loving God, our neighbors, and serving them through that love. I was beyond excited to share a larger sense of family with my partner, to experience and practice the intentional, unconditional love of Christ in a way that felt so completely authentic for the first time in my life.
In the beginning, it was a palpable realization of the church family I’d long craved. As the years went by, we offered ourselves openly, plugged in and became members. We helped with set-up and tear-down, and we helped with construction when the church finally found a permanent home. We saw our kiddo be loved on and find her own gang of hug-giving church grandmas. We served communion, tithed, and collected offerings, and were the welcoming faces greeting folks Sunday mornings. I no longer hid under the covers, waiting for it to be too late to make it on time—I was now the one making sure my entire little family was up and ready to be wrapped in Christ’s love. When the call was put out for Sunday school teachers, I was incredibly happy to step up, and cherished the time spent loving the smallest members of our church family. It was everything about the Nazarene church I love so deeply.
Around the same time, Louise and I were finally able to legally recognize our relationship, and we announced our engagement. It was with this public shift, this out loud declaration of our true selves, that we started to experience cracks in the love we’d be experiencing in the church. Unlike the other couples in the congregation, our upcoming union wasn’t announced. As we made plans for our wedding, it was explained to us that none of our pastoral staff would be able to conduct our ceremony. And in another heart-breaking blow, I was asked to take a break from teaching Sunday school while the church board considered me.
Suddenly, a single aspect of the person I had grown to be was the only thing that could define me within the church. The hurt, the removal of love, was beyond devastating. My value as a member of the church was being weighed purely on the nature of my sexuality, a part of the person I am just like my eye color or height. I looked around at my fellow congregation members and tried to understand why one part of me, a child created in the image of God, could be so offensive. It didn’t impact how I loved others. It did not impact how I served God. Yet somehow, it directly impacted how I could be loved.
I began to see the church family I’d loved so deeply crumble around me, and leave my little family unit very separated from our church community. I wasn’t different at all; it was merely the way in which my church family could see me that had changed.
The sense of loss and grief I’ve felt in the years since this split has been deep and painful. I miss my church, and it is a sadness I still carry. I have loved the Nazarene church since I was born; it is a beautiful and mission-minded church founded on loving its community.
I have loved my church family with a sense of unconditional patience and hope; I still do. I pray for the day that Christ’s love as shared by countless Nazarene preachers and illustrated in the beautiful Bible passages that shaped my Christianity and my faith will be allowed to rise above politics and policy. Let unconditional love be practiced not with an “I love you, but…” sort of mentality, but rather with the open arms Jesus showed the least of any of us.
Mindy OldenKamp grew up in the Nazarene church, and continues to actively pursue and practice unconditional love. She is co-founder of a local non-profit providing a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth in her hometown of Nampa, Idaho, where she lives with her wife, Louise, and daughter, Cale.