A Transformative Gift of Inclusion
It was almost exactly seven years ago that I moved into my very first apartment in the near-south side Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport. I was a graduate student at Roosevelt University, and had begun the semester in September. Out of sheer coincidence (or Divine Providence) my best friend’s parents had moved to a suburb of Chicago and let me stay with them for a few months until I found my footing.
After finally pulling together the resources I had, I was able to find an amazing first place and truly start my life as an independent man. I didn’t have to worry about staying out late, or not cleaning my room, or even necessarily having pants on all the time. It was awesome.
Moving out and starting my life in this way meant that I was finally free to explore the city and my sexuality. Up until then, I had grown up in a Southern Baptist home that led me to believe that something was wrong with me for being gay. And that shame and fear kept me “in the closet” and unable to experience a full, rich life. Almost immediately I dove into the “gay scene” head-first. It was fun!
As I began to explore this side of my life and enjoy what it had to offer, there was still a part of me that missed the sense of community that I got from being part of a church. Although the church had hurt me in so many ways in the past, there were also some good experiences I shared there, too: service trips, youth choir, friends, support during difficult times–these memories flooded back to me whenever I felt like I was losing my way. And even though a church had failed me, I don’t ever believe that God had failed me.
After long consideration, I decided I would give this “church thing” another go. However, I wasn’t going to go back to a place that was going to hurt me. I was not going to retreat back into the closet. I wanted to go to a church that accepted me, no, celebrated me, for being the lovingly created, diverse, and complete individual that God created me to be.
At the time I was working a part-time job as a retail salesperson at the Gap, and I had a coworker that I worked with who I knew was going to seminary to become a pastor. The fact that she was a woman and a liberal, Christian pastor was almost too much for my Southern-Baptist-upbringing-mind to comprehend. I sat down with her one day during a mutual lunch break and started asking questions about her faith. She was gracious and I even felt her hurt with me when I told her about the pain of my past experience. I confessed to her that I missed church and that I wanted to go back, but wasn’t even sure where to start. Maybe there was a place for me somewhere in the city?
My friend promised that she would give me resources to help me find a new church to attend. A few days later, when we had a shift together, she produced a piece of notebook paper–a LIST–of places and resources for me to consider. It was her gift to me. It was God’s gift to me.It was with this list firmly in hand that I began my church and faith journey anew. In earnest. In spirit and in truth. With my whole self.
I still have this list with me to this day, and whenever I move, I reflect and look back at this token, this gift of transformation in my life, and I am grateful. It’s through this list that I found my first place of worship in Chicago, an Episcopal Church named St. Paul & The Redeemer. It’s where I found Reconciling Ministries Network, which then led me to the United Methodist Church both in Chicago and later on here in New York City. Through these churches I have been able to reclaim my faith and experience the true love of God in my life–the one that loves me for who I am, not in spite of who I am. And being given this gift, how do I respond? By giving of my time, abilities, and resources back to the communities that have changed my life for the better.
Our theme for our Stewardship Campaign this year is “Gifts That Transform.” When I think about a transformative gift in my life, I think about this simple piece of paper, this list, that has changed everything for me. It was something small, but it meant so much more than that and it has made a giant impact in my life and the lives of others. This was a gift that was rooted in the spirit of inclusivity, which is one of the seven points of a fully engaged Church of the Village member.
And it’s with this gift in mind that I consider how I am going to give back to my church. It means giving of my time, abilities, and financial resources to support the kin-dom work we are doing in our community. It means making an intentional commitment to taking care of the church as best as I can. It means getting involved, going to activities that support our belief in inclusion, such as the workshop meeting on the future of an inclusive church. And finally, it means to put my money where my mouth is and giving of my financial resources. It’s these gifts that I pass along in gratitude for the many gifts I’ve received along the way.
As we continue through this season where we are reminded to be thankful for the many things we have been blessed with in our lives, let us take time to remember those gifts and find ways to respond that may transform others.