Ordained in Community: A Tale of Exile and Coming Home
In less than two weeks, on Sunday, March 22nd—or April 12th if we need a snow date (please, God, in your warm-hearted mercy don’t force us to use the snow date!)—the United Church of Christ will ordain and authorize me for Christian ministry on its behalf. I am overjoyed and thankful for the privilege and opportunity.
Yet I’ve been having trouble putting together my ordination liturgy. Every time I sit down to choose its hymns, to select its readings, to compose its prayers, my mind wanders. I find it difficult to focus. Suddenly, the laundry calls. The cats demand my attention. The bathroom mirror needs to be cleaned.
This past Sunday, I decided that the car really needed to be taken out for a drive, because it had not been used in over a week, and we all know that cars shouldn’t sit idle for long periods of time. So really, I was doing the car a favor when I hopped in and headed north on I-295 before exiting onto historic Route 1, which meanders up the Maine coast.
As I rolled into Freeport, I turned on the radio. The very first song that came across the airwaves proved a bit unnerving, as Diddy-Dirty Money and Skylar Grey rapped about “Coming Home.”
Home. No matter where I am these days, it pervades my consciousness. I find myself remembering the physical places that have sheltered me, as I re-visit them in my imagination. The house I grew up in. The ranch my grandparents built when they sold their dairy farm and retired. The bungalow that my partner and I purchased together as naïve first-time homeowners. (That house will always hold a special place in my heart. Back in the days before landmark Supreme Court decisions about marriage equality, back in the days before same-sex marriage was sanctioned by even a single state, the deed to that bungalow was the only legal document that offered any sort of hint that we were a family.)
Today, I hang my hat in an extended Cape, thankful to be illuminated by amazing morning sunlight and warmth in the midst of winter and all sorts of love. No wonder home is so often on my mind.
Leaving home. Returning home. Even as the words conjure up images of physical houses, they resonate on a deeper, more emotional level. Recently, BEARINGS has featured two pieces by Kelly Baker, including one entitled “Not Quite Home.” Together, the essays follow Kelly as she returns, after many years and with much trepidation, to the faith community that nurtured her as a young adult. They chronicle the questions that arise in the visit’s aftermath, as Kelly both appreciates the warm welcome she received and simultaneously wonders whether that church, or any church, will ever feel like home again.
I’ve been there. I’ve wondered that.
I left the church in my early twenties. At the time, the long-distance relationship that I shared with my first girlfriend was slowly dissolving. During our years together, we had kept our relationship completely shrouded—the emotional claustrophobia was stifling—and I was too terrified to crack open the closet door and emerge all by myself. Although part of me understood that we needed to head our separate ways, I was afraid to let the relationship go.
Heartbroken and grief-stricken, I longed for spiritual balm and desperately needed community, but I was terrified to reach out to others. During college, I had encountered street-corner preachers who visited campus to rail against “non-traditional” gender roles and the education of women. I had heard negative whispers about classmates who were rumored to be gay. I had subconsciously absorbed the harsh condemnations of people like Anita Bryant and Pat Buchanan, who blamed societal woes on people like me.
Thus, at 23, I withdrew from the world and moved down into myself, even as I managed to maintain a façade of normalcy. I had boxed myself into an isolated corner, and my fears of judgment and condemnation prevented me from cutting the ropes and liberating myself from the ring.
And then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. The denomination of my youth—the faith community that had nurtured me from infancy, that had offered me leadership opportunities in high school and college, that had encouraged my earliest call to ministry—betrayed me.
Like many mainline Protestant sects, the denomination had been grappling with issues related to human sexuality for several years. Around the time I graduated from college, a remarkable (or at least, it seemed that way to me) denominational report emerged. It depicted committed same-sex relationships with compassion and promoted fuller inclusion for gays and lesbians in the church. For a little while, that report gave me hope . . . until a backlash ensued. Perhaps predictably, the document garnered harsh condemnation. Tempers flared. Death threats were issued. In an effort to provide a cooling-off period—and to prevent further rancor and division—denominational leaders decided to delay taking action on any of the report’s findings for five years. In the meantime, they promised to study matters pertaining to human sexuality and LGBTQ concerns more fully.
I did not want to be “studied.” I just wanted to be loved.
Frustrated and angry, I walked away from the church. I left my religious home and set off into self-imposed exile. I do not know that I would make the same decision today, almost twenty years later. (And in all likelihood, I wouldn’t have to. My childhood denomination proved capable of institutional change. It is now fully inclusive.) But at that particular moment in my coming-out process, I needed to leave in order to protect my own spiritual health. I already lived with enough anxiety, and I knew that I could not stay in an institution that seemed so conflicted about me.
So I went out and wandered, for several long years. During that time, my faith in institutional Christianity was shaken, but my relationship with God—which, despite being a push-and-pull affair, has always proven expansive enough to encompass my anger and doubts—endured.
Now here I am, about to be ordained. In all honesty, I am experiencing conflicted emotions. As I compose the liturgy for My Big Day, I re-encounter the old ghosts that haunted me in my twenties. Back then, I nursed my anger toward religion, because doing so allowed me to avoid experiencing my heartbreak; while sadness made me feel vulnerable, anger allowed me to feel powerful and strong. Only now, when I am safely anchored in a faith community that fully accepts me, does my long-delayed grief come bubbling up. Unbidden tears fill my eyes. As I practice avoidance by setting aside my ordination liturgy and picking up a toilet brush, I wonder: Given all of that pain, how in the world have I gotten here?
And then I remember all of my spiritual homes . . . all of the faith communities that took me in and nurtured me, once I stopped giving others the power to cast me out of God’s household and grew bold enough to re-approach. There was the local congregation that dared to embrace my partner and me, regardless of what the denomination’s book of discipline said. There was the predominantly African-American church that invited us in and held us close. There was the UCC parish where I completed my pastoral internship; there, for the first time, I felt safe enough to recount my spiritual journey from the pulpit. And, always, there was the congregation of my childhood, beckoning me back for visits and greeting me with a smile. (So much for some people’s assertion that Christianity is implicitly and automatically anti-gay. It’s long past time to flush that idea out of our systems.)
On March 22nd, I will say my ordination vows before family, friends, colleagues, and my home congregation. I will promise to “regard all people with equal love and concern,” to “undertake to minister impartially to the needs of all,” to show “Christian love to people of other faiths and people of no faith.” Then, in the most intimate moment of the service, God’s people—clergy and lay alike—will collectively lay their hands upon me and ask God to “bless and sanctify” me before they “ordain me to the ministry of the church.”
Surrounded by my people, I will become something new.
It will be an emotional day, I am sure. And it will only take place due to the generosity of the good people of State Street Church. (In the United Church of Christ, the path to ordination starts at the level of the local congregation.) Over the past few years, my State Street friends have supported me and loved me . . . and they’ve done even more than that. They have said, “We not only claim you as one of our own, but we trust you enough to send you out into the world, so that you can minister on our behalf.”
Being sent out. Being exiled. Both situations make one leave home and head into the world. But my life’s journey has taught me that being sent out with the blessing and support of a loving community is very different than launching into the wilderness of self-imposed exile.
As I drove through Freeport this past Sunday, listening to Diddy-Dirty Money and Skylar Grey recount their narrative of “Coming Home,” I heard a story about my relationship with institutionalized religion and the church:
It’s what made me, saved me, drove me crazy
Drove me away then embraced me
Forgave me for all of my shortcomings
Welcome to my homecoming
Certainly, my religious journey has included being driven away, as well as being embraced. And a week from Sunday, I will be fully blessed—with all of my shortcomings—by State Street Church, the Cumberland Association of the Maine Conference, UCC, and The BTS Center, which has graced me with the opportunity to serve as its associate director. As those three institutions covenant with one another, and with me, to support my ministry, they will do more than endorse me. They will welcome me home.
Perhaps that’s what 21st-century ministry is all about.