I have learned that however people identify themselves, the most important thing I can do is love them.
I was a missionary. One of my missionary friends once joked that in the Church of the Nazarene, “Even God wants to be one!” She was referring to the place of honor we held in the denomination. I had served in five countries in Latin America for more than twenty years. Three of these were war-torn countries. We received homage from those in the United States for serving in such places.
On furlough, every fifth year, I worked on a Master of Divinity degree at Nazarene Theological Seminary. This took three furloughs. The knowledge I gained enhanced my ministry greatly, and was life-changing in many ways. During the last year of my studies, I did an internship as a chaplain in a large hospital in Kansas City.
There was a referral to see an older gentleman, Dean, who was scheduled for a heart procedure. When I walked into his room, he was lying on the bed. Gary, a younger man, hovered beside him. When I introduced myself, Gary immediately exclaimed, “Oh, we are so glad to see you! Our pastor is out of town and we wanted someone to pray with us. Dean is having heart surgery. We know God is in control. We were both born again several years before we met and have trusted God completely. Frankly, now, we are scared.”
Gary’s anxiety and worry were apparent in both his speech and demeanor. Dean, lying quietly, looked exhausted and concerned. Clearly, they needed support.
As Gary talked and I observed their body language toward one another, it became quite apparent that they were a couple. They were obviously devoted to each other and talking about a relationship with God in language with which I was very comfortable. Simply put, they were using my God language. I was very conscious of their need of pastoral support. I was also aware of experiencing some strange internal upheaval that I later was able to identify as “cognitive dissonance”.
My mind was telling me all the things I had been taught, especially in the church. Homosexuality is sin. These two men could not possibly be Christians. Meanwhile, my heart was saying, “These are good men who are very sincere in their faith.” And my body was responding viscerally: rapid heartbeat, a churning in my stomach. As a heterosexual woman, it felt impossible to understand them. Spiritually, I felt beyond confused.
I was saved in the Church of the Nazarene at fourteen and experienced entire sanctification a couple of years later. A graduate of Southern Nazarene University, I would soon graduate from NTS. I had thorough theological training. As a devoted Nazarene missionary, I had taught theology to pastors-in-training throughout Latin America. How was it possible that a gay couple was testifying to being born again and expressing a deep dependence upon God. This could not be!
In spite of my internal upheaval, my responsibility was to provide pastoral support. I had prayer with them. They were grateful and appreciative. When I followed up the next day, I learned the procedure had gone well and they were praising God.
Following both of these encounters, I did a lot of processing with my chaplaincy supervisor. I had been thrown into what felt like an outlandish, impossible world that I had never experienced. It was traumatic, emotionally and spiritually.
To my knowledge, I had never consciously known a gay person, let alone a gay person who claimed to be Christian. Because studies show around 10 percent of the world population is gay, it is highly unlikely that I had really never known a gay person. With deep reflection, I identified several individuals I had known during my life who probably were homosexual, though not openly so.
At that point in time, I had no idea how closely queerness would affect me and my family. All I knew was something within me was shifting.
Today, as I reflect upon my experience, I have deep sense of gratitude for Dean and Gary, and to God for leading me to them. It began an awakening within me. The scales over my eyes were softening and loosening. I was beginning to see that all people are created in the divine image, not just ones who are like me. It opened me to the possibility of recognizing that all are loved by God. None are inferior or malformed or deficient.
Over the next several months it seemed I encountered gay people wherever I went. I became aware of co-workers, patients, and others who were gay. I found myself observing, wondering, and struggling with what I was discovering. The cognitive dissonance did not just disappear. Instead, it lessened more and more as I began to connect with others.
I also began pondering the innate differences that are present in all humans. Some are born with blond hair, others with black or red or brown, some straight, some curly. One man might be a gifted musician, another an excellent mechanic. Some children are petite and slender while others are stocky and sturdy. One woman is extroverted and outgoing. Another is quiet and introverted.
One innate difference that really struck me was handedness. There are five children in my family of origin. All are right-handed except me. I was born left-handed like my mother. When she went to school, she was forced to write with her right hand. She was punished when she did not. All of her life she had almost illegible handwriting, but diligently used her right hand. She did everything else with her left hand.
When I went to school, I was allowed to use my left hand but had to turn my paper the same direction as the right-handed kids. This forced my hand into an awkward position. So to this day, it looks like I am writing upside down. Others in my generation do the same thing.
I have learned that in ancient times, left-handedness was considered evil and unclean. Early Catholicism said left-handed people were of the devil. In some countries it was actually declared illegal. At the very least, people considered it to be abnormal and inferior. Fortunately, today, handedness is not the issue it once was, at least in the United States. My youngest grandson is showing signs of being left-handed, and no one views it as odd or wrong.
I was one of the estimated 10% of the population worldwide that is born left-handed. I began to ponder whether it is possible that some people are born gay or transgender or some of the other gender variations. If that is the case, how could I condemn them anymore than I could condemn myself or others for being born left-handed? As it was wrong to force my mother to unnaturally use her right hand and thus, hinder her throughout her life, was it wrong for me to insist that all other humans have the same gender expression and sexual orientation that I do?
A case in point is a young man I know. He appeared to be a girl when he was born and his mother started raising him as such. As a toddler, before he had the words, he would point to the clothes he wanted to wear…always the boyish ones. When he got old enough to help shop, he wanted to buy everything in the boys’ section. He played only with what many would consider to be masculine toys. He was homeschooled the first two grades. When he went to third grade and the kids would line up after recess, he always got in the boys’ line. He wore a hoody all the time and kept it pulled up over his head to hide his hair. He seemed to be sad much of the time.
When he was about 15, he finally came out. He was really a transgender man. His mom was not surprised. I was not surprised. He was immediately embraced and lovingly supported. He got the counseling and medical assistance he needed and began transitioning. Now, seven years later, he is who he was born to be: a bright, happy, growing young man. About 40% of young people like him who do not have familial support end up committing suicide. I would have been broken-hearted if this young man, incidentally my grandson, had become part of this horrific statistic.
Not surprisingly, the change in me, along with other changes I was experiencing, led me to explore whether I could, in good conscience, remain within the Church of the Nazarene. I no longer believed it was right to expect someone to change to become what someone else wants them to be. I could no longer buy into the concept, “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” Real love is about embracing people as they are, created in the divine image. I knew I certainly could not continue to serve as a missionary, teaching and preaching concepts I could no longer embrace.
The scales had fallen from my eyes and I could not put them back on.
Ultimately, I became part of a congregation that is affirming of all people. I felt grief that I could not remain in the church that had nurtured, sustained me, and provided a place of service for so many years. It breaks my heart to recognize that had I been born a lesbian or transgender woman, I never would have gotten that amazing love and support.
Some years later, my youngest daughter was finally able to embrace who she is, recognizing her sexual identity as a lesbian. I am eternally grateful I was at a place in my own spirituality where there was no question about acceptance and support. She knew that and told me without fear. She needed me to be on her side and she knew I was.
I saw her transformed from a young woman who was becoming more and more silent and withdrawn into one who blossomed and grew into the fullness of who she was born to be. It was an amazing experience. She and her partner, later wife, tried for several years to remain within the Church of the Nazarene. Their pastor did all he could to be supportive within the constraints of the church. Ultimately they, too, had to leave.
As I conclude this portion of my story, I want to say the alternative to not loving and accepting those with gender identities different from our own is death. For some, it is literal death. The suicide rate is astronomical in the LGBTQ+ community. Sometimes it is the death of relationship with the church that has been deeply wounding and rejecting. Sometimes it is the death of human relationships. I have seen families split apart because one sibling cannot accept her lesbian sister, or because parents refuse to allow their son into their home because he is gay. Fortunately, for many, it is not death of a relationship with the Divine.
Today, I have good friends of every sexual orientation, people just like me who love and live and want the same things out of life that I do. I have learned that however people identify themselves, the most important thing I can do is love them. Love means accepting who they are. I have learned that deep spirituality, whether in Christianity or in other forms, has nothing to do with sexual orientation.
I remain deeply grateful to Gary and Dean, who started me on this journey. I am also grateful for the amazing LGBTQ+ friends I have made across the years who have deeply enriched my life. Loving acceptance truly pays off.
. For privacy reasons, names are fictitious.
Rev. Sheila Mee, MDiv, DMin, formerly Sheila Hudson, is a graduate of Southern Nazarene University (formerly Bethany Nazarene College) and Nazarene Theological Seminary. She holds a Doctor of Ministry from the University of Creation Spirituality. She was a Nazarene missionary for 25 years, serving in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico. The latter half of her ministry she served as a chaplain at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska.