Just As I Am?

Marva Weigelt

Unless you have walked this road, you cannot possibly imagine. Yet I dare you to try.

When I was asked about contributing to this project, my initial instinct was a clear “no.” I’ve labored many years to get to a place of relative understanding with my family and have no wish to jeopardize or harm that hard-won harmony in any way.

I was delayed in recognizing this automatic reluctance as a deeply conditioned survival response, an instinct to shield others from uncomfortable truths and to protect my family’s image rather than considering broader implications.

There’s a greater reason to speak than simply to tell my own story. I happen to know firsthand that Nazarene youth still attempt to end their lives due to being met with judgment and condemnation instead of being embraced as rarer-than-usual expressions of Divine diversity. If my risk to be honest and vulnerable might potentially reduce future harm, I am willing.

As a cradle-roll Nazarene born to parents who met at Northwest Nazarene College, arriving while my dad was a student at Nazarene Theological Seminary, and growing up as a double PK—a pastor and theology professor’s kid—I was indelibly signed from birth with the signature Wesleyan-Holiness doctrine and spirit of the Church of the Nazarene in the 1960s and ‘70s. All four grandparents and two step-grandparents were Nazarenes, and my younger brother is a Nazarene pastor—a multi-generational legacy.

At 12, I took the Pastor’s Class and became a member of College Church of the Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho, although I was already deeply involved with church life, twice on Sunday and every Wednesday night, not to mention Vacation Bible School, youth choir, bell choir, Bible quizzing, and Caravans (I can still recite my Silver Moon Maiden pledge from first grade, which seems ironic in light of the fact it ended up being impossible for me to “live straight and true.”)

I was an earnest young Jesus-follower who was also innately curious and introspective, a spiritually minded and mystically hearted person, who struggled at times with puzzling contradiction and sometimes bewildering incongruence among belief, word and action. This included an emphasis on image management which was so clear an expectation that Sunday School teachers sometimes reminded me of my extra-big responsibility for setting a good example because of my father’s position, a caution which still echoes fifty-some years later, I must admit.

At about the time I joined the church, I began quietly noticing ways in which I was different from my family, a developmentally appropriate task at that age. In addition to natural variation in personality and temperament, gift and talent, perspective and interest, I began observing that my draw toward romantic attractions was also a point of dissimilarity. Although my affections felt deeply and sweetly natural to me, I became vaguely and then increasingly aware of my uniqueness in family, church, and community in an era with a notable scarcity of open conversation and supportive context on matters of human sexuality, especially within the church.

When I entered Northwest Nazarene College as a psychology major in 1976—with a desire to become a counselor in a large church because of my frustrations with existing support resources—I had no idea the one still-hidden difference that distinguished me from the majority of my classmates had been removed two years earlier from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Homosexuality” was no longer classified as a “sexual deviation” or disorder by the time I was 15.

Sadly, over twenty painful years elapsed before this good news reached my ears, and only then because a skilled therapist helped me understand from an objective standpoint that while I was suffering from a number of valid psychological maladies in response to stress and trauma, my sexual identity was a non-issue—a wholly natural expression of my selfhood.

To be clear, I did not feel innately distressed by my divergence from the norm, only discomfited by the obvious need to cloak my authentic self in exchange for belonging. For a variety of reasons which I would not understand for decades, I was suffering the effects of a complex response to childhood adversity.

Although some have misguidedly attributed my queerness to early trauma, I can say with deep certainty at 64, and as a mental health care provider, that my sexual identity was not a choice, a rebellion, or a response to losing my mom at age 3, but simply a natural part of my inborn genetics and brain wiring. This unfortunately became in turn a cause for further alienation, judgment and harm due to the Church of the Nazarene’s policy that I, simply by being myself, was an abomination against God.

Through some strange grace, I have always at a core level sensed myself to be a wonderfully made creation with a deep spiritual calling. Despite issues with depression, addiction, suicidal despair, and shame (well into my late 30s), these symptoms were not caused by my sexual identity, but to a significant extent by how misunderstood and rejected I felt in my most fundamental supporting milieu of family and church.

Once I accepted, understood and more fully became my truest self, the symptoms gradually abated, and as I asked my dad to consider in a pivotal dialogue, “If I am an abomination against God, explain to me how I have grown up to be the most peaceful person I know.”

I disaffiliated with the church in 1979, at the age of 20, and have now lived much more of my life outside than within its influence, which might make you wonder why my voice is here in this particular collection.

Activism on my own behalf is not a natural inclination, especially on this highly charged and controversial topic. With family and friends I have been inclined toward a gentle, incremental, and relational approach to fostering deeper understanding, but I felt a seismic shift when my young nephew began examining his relationship with the church in light of his own queerness, as did another extended family member with aspirations to ministry, after painful experiences with his family and a Nazarene college.

Suddenly, in a new light with the next generation, I feel a greater urgency as a queer elder to advocate more boldly for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and celebration at the denominational level, knowing from direct experience that continued discrimination causes untold harm to God’s beloved creations and to confused families uncomfortably forced to choose between love’s deepest, open-hearted knowing and what the Code of Conduct claims about their children.

As I close, it seems important to invite consideration of a significant qualitative difference I’ve repeatedly experienced. I automatically default to an instinctive wariness, self-consciousness, and self-censorship in the presence of people I know to be dedicated to upholding a denominational position which condemns and excludes me, despite their evident love and longing to be in unconditional and unburdened relationship with me.

By contrast, I experience comfort and freedom to bring my most authentic self into encounters with people who are unhindered in truly celebrating me just as I am. In particular, it has been enormously healing to provide peer support services to clergy from other Christian denominations who unstintingly accept and trust me as a confidante and spiritual equal.

In such a benevolently welcoming embrace, I feel historic hurt and confusion dissolving in the gentle solvent of Love, and in my mind and heart there is no question which quality of engagement most effectively sparks a holy Christ-light and kindles true spiritual kinship.

The Rest of the Story…

After preparing and sharing with trusted reviewers a draft of what you’ve just read, I curiously circled back to confront current and historical Code of Conduct statements and related documents. Without warning, the force of the condemnatory language swept me away under a tsunami of all-too-familiar toxic shame and grief and into what I recognize belatedly as an intense post-traumatic stress flashback. I wondered why I had ever been born or why I was still alive.

To confront the possibility that family members, childhood friends, and college classmates perceive me in so dim and slanted a light was horrifying at a gut level, and I realized as never before what a state of denial I’ve needed to maintain over the last half-century in order to hold onto my sense of self in the presence of those who embrace this distorted and damning view of my fundamental personhood.

Earlier in my life I responded to similarly overwhelming trauma responses with instinctive self-destructiveness, turning the external judgments inward, and thus exponentially deepening the harm, simply because I lacked adequate maturity, support and resources to do otherwise.

Even now, in my 60s, with all my years of therapy, my ongoing spiritual journey, and my mental health training and peer support practice experience, I struggled mightily this week to keep from drowning in despair that all this work has not been enough to protect me from a stunning loss of equilibrium and perspective.

As I reached for life-giving support and stabilization from some of the many understanding allies in my life, I felt overwhelming gratitude and a renewed determination to share my story, despite my deepened grief and heightened sense of caution.

While treading these troubled waters in the aftermath of my traumatic flashback, I felt the need to pause from the intensity of trying to find words. I found myself standing reflectively in front of my second-story window on a dismal mid-winter’s day, looking out for perspective at a small community in the heart of America which has unexpectedly helped me heal simply by seeing, loving, and celebrating me just as I am.

A favorite hymn came spontaneously to mind, and from deep within arose the urge to affirm aloud in song what I have proven to myself repeatedly in the face of trauma and adversity. Even when sorrows like sea billows roll, it is indeed well with my soul, despite what anyone else might assume.

Unless you have walked this or a similar road, you cannot possibly imagine, yet I dare you to try. I invite your compassionate curiosity. I challenge you to consider that despite the church’s historically dim and incomplete understanding of this issue, there is more to know about Divine creativity.

Imagine with me that when this mistaken assumption is corrected, suddenly we are free to stop wondering who’s at fault. I weep to think of the opening, pardoning, cleansing, and relief that might become possible for my beloved dad and me before he dies.

If you are still on the fence, I ask you to simply sense the quality of Love I offer. Somehow, against the odds, I managed to grow up without reliable mirrors to accurately and lovingly reflect my rare self back to me. I miraculously lived long enough to find havens of reason, grace, and acceptance where I was seen as a delightfully creative interpretation of what it means to be made in God’s image, instead of a perverse miscreation or wayward deviant.

After decades of mental, emotional and spiritual healing, I finally found my mission and ministry offering compassionate and non-judgmental listening to support others in finding their own path to wholeness. I wish I had some kind of count of how many times I’ve said, after an hour of holy, open-hearted listening, “I know why I was born.” That in itself is a miracle for someone who often felt like a mistake when seen through the eyes of those who believed what the church espoused. Divine grace abounds despite human obstacles and limits in understanding. I am living proof.

My calling from birth seems well-encapsulated in the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam—the repair of the world—at both the mystical and practical level, starting from peace within and rippling outward far beyond what I can see or measure, and although that calling has sometimes been far from clear to me in the midst of obscuring human judgment and alienation, from a very young age I have been graced with face to face glimpses of a higher truth, and in that I rest just as I am.

Marva Weigelt is a Certified Peer Specialist at Insight in Newton, Kansas. She is actively pursuing uncovery from beneath complicated layers of childhood grief and trauma while using her adversity-born ingenuity, healing, empathy and self-invention stories to inspire others. Marva is a persistent idealist who believes that grace, hope and transformation can totally knock your socks off at any age.

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