Queer folk have long been pushed away from a seat at the table in the Nazarene Church. Isn’t it time we start building a better table?
I have long labored and lamented over this paper, groaning under the effort as it came to be born in this world. It is a creation that has fought hard to be here, clawed its way through doubt and shame, and has come out a little worse for the wear. And, I suppose, like most creations, it comes to the world flawed and wanting for love. And so. Here we stand. Together. You and me. (I hope) hand in hand as we gaze down at this little piece of work that represents a conversation just as fragile and vulnerable to hurt as another sort of newborn creation. Let us treat it (and one another) most tenderly.
When I was a kid, I did all those things that a young girl is meant to do—watched the latest Disney Channel Original Movies, took part in hair braiding trains, gossiped about the latest boy crushes—but I was never a “girly” sort of girl. Even at a young age, I felt like an imposter, somehow. And I knew, from a young age, that my sense of belonging relied upon my ability to perform. And, so, I performed. I hoped, I prayed that this was somehow youthful error, that perhaps I was a late bloomer of sorts and that, with age, those feelings I was meant to have for boys, those girly clothes, and ways of being that I was meant to enjoy would come along. But bloom I did not. While girls were turning into women around me, I grew up like a dandelion—a weed, peculiar and pretty in its own ways, but decidedly out of place in the garden. Neither did I fit in with the boys. When I would try to tag along when the youth group guys would go off to chop wood with their axes or build the fire, they’d look at me like a sort of hanger-on, confused as to why I wanted to be in their group, while the other girls were hanging out inside, cooking the meals and chatting away. Now, this is not to say that all guys enjoy outdoorsy stuff or that all girls are lovers of housework (ha!). But if you grew up in a church like mine, certain gender stereotypes were reinforced, whether explicitly or otherwise, and I tended to fit into a decidedly masculine category.
Or, more accurately, I didn’t fit. My sort of awkwardness was never the endearing type, and I bumbled my way through those teenage years more haphazardly than most. I had this foreboding sense that something was “off” about me, different in that unspoken way. Because, while there are many topics kept “hush-hush” in the church, being gay is one of the biggest. There’s no roadmap for someone experiencing struggles or questions around their sexuality. No God to turn to when (according to the church) the God that they’ve been taught to love hates homosexuality. And, while church and church camps were the very places that I began to believe in love (and in my own lovability), there was this new love growing up inside of me that I could never speak of. One I hated. One that threatened my very place in the community. And so, I learned to turn that hate inward. While I will not go into the particulars, the story of my reckoning with myself is not one unfamiliar for many within the queer community. Years of rejection and isolation from our formational communities have often been the source of behaviors harmful to ourselves, as we try to cope with new realities of being unwanted, by God, by good Church folk, by our families. It is a way of living and being that teaches us that we are unworthy of being loved. Unworthy of a place to belong. Unworthy of being invited to a place at the table.
It’s funny. I’ve often prided myself on being a somewhat “mild” gay—what with my fondness for gentle television like Little House on the Prairie and Full House, my embarrassingly early bedtime, and my equally embarrassing catchphrases like “oh my Lanta” and “bad Larry.” I’ve often tried to settle the nerves of those around me who might reject me by saying, “Oh no, I’m not that kind of gay. I’m like the least offensive queer.” And, while it’s always delivered with a tilted head and a crooked smile, it reveals a deeper feeling of this need to apologize for myself and my kin who identify in the LGBTQIA+ community. I think I felt, in some way, that I could (and should) “make up” for my queerness by being mild-mannered and gently tempered. But the truth was, so very many of my Nazarene family had already disowned me, sometimes before they’d even met me. This, again, is not an unfamiliar tale. So many of us, disowned by our own families, face(d) a double rejection from the family of God, leading precious many to leave the faith altogether.
As I imagine many readers might know, the Nazarene Manual’s official stance on human sexuality reads in this way:
“The Church of the Nazarene believes that every man or woman should be treated with dignity, grace, and holy love, whatever their sexual orientation (emphasis added). However, we continue to firmly hold the position that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful and is contrary to the scriptures.”
While the stance offers a perhaps hopeful look into the posture with which one is to receive an individual (“whatever their sexual orientation”), the gap between the theoretical and lived practice is a devastating one. So often, queer folk are not only not invited to the table; they are effectively banned from it, with a posture that expresses, rather than holy love, a message of “you are not welcome here,” and “you do not and will not ever belong.” So often, the message is that “you need to get your junk together, then we can talk.” So, we try to crawl up underneath that metaphorical table, to gather from those comfortably seated the crumbs of love and acceptance and abundance, but there is never enough. When shame forces you from the table, you are left with two choices, to remain in famine, or to build a new table. Now this explanation of mine is not meant to be an indictment that raises up shame, but rather one that extinguishes it—in the bodies of those who have done harm and in the bodies of those who have been the victims or recipients of harm. It is meant, rather, to be an invitation into something new. Something we can co-create. So, if you will allow, let us imagine together a new table.
Perhaps, before we go there though, let me say this. For many who have walked with me, they will notice my step into a new sort of season, as I’ve decided to live within the doctrinal expectations of the Nazarene faith. This choice comes with great sacrifice—of personal identity and potential for intimate love. The cost of one living outside of one’s authentic self is a steep one. And it is my belief that the communities that I find myself in are disadvantaged, as they rarely get to meet the gentler, more earnest parts of myself that are more deeply revealed when I am living into the whole of my being. I do not take this step lightly. I do feel as if there is something profoundly dear and worth fighting for in our shared Nazarene tradition. I wish to remain here, to find a home here, if you will have me. And so I find myself willing to enter the gaps of the in-between, of not knowing quite what it is that God has for me, but hoping that, in my commitments to living the life expected of me, I might find a way to belong. Please hear me when I name—this is not prescriptive. Or, I do not expect another human to make the same decisions, to the denial of their self, uniquely and wonderfully made as they are.
But, dear church, what I am asking—humbly—is that you meet my kin and me here, in the gaps created within the broken spaces of our theology. Where the seats of the table are left unfilled, cold, and deserted, because there are those for whom welcome is not promised. Or for whom the meal being offered is laced with the poison of conditional love, that those who are craving to receive it must mend something within themselves before they are deemed worthy of a place at the table. We need a different sort of table altogether. We need, you and I, to build something new. It is not work we can do alone. I do not believe that we are meant to do it alone, estranged from one another. When there is no more room, we build a bigger table; we snuggle up our chairs closer together and gather up more chairs around. We grab our tools, hoist up our trousers, and we get to work.
Let me say it in a different sort of way. I have joked and named myself to be an inoffensive queer. But oh, what a bland and boring table it would be with all of us “inoffensives” gathered up around it. Drowning in our own politeness and respectability. The problem is not with “offensiveness,” but rather that queer folk have been told, for far too long, that they must conform themselves to some unfair, unjust standard of “normalcy” just to be invited to sit at the table. What did our early church look like? Give me color. Give me expression and flamboyancy, give me troublemakers and peacemakers, give me holy rollers and grungy outcasts, give me the meek and the bold, give me the incarcerated and sick, the healing and the hurting. Show me the “least” of these, and I will show you my Jesus. What a table that would be.
This last portion of the essay has called for a biographic of sorts for the author. The author for this piece would prefer to remain in anonymity and asks that you honor that hope. If you are a human who knows “Rose” in the world, please tenderly hold that wish for privacy in more public spaces, and allow the author’s words, rather than lists of achievements and personality indicators, to speak for themselves.