Pastor Amy's Blog Homepage
Hester Prynne and I have something in common. Hester, the main character of Nathanial Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, was forced to wear a scarlet A on her chest, a sign of her sins and of her tarnished reputation. I don’t wear a scarlet A, but I have joked in the past few years, while I was attending seminary and looking for a job in the Mennonite church, that I wore a scarlet GMC, a sign of my association with Germantown Mennonite church, the congregation I began attending in 1996, and have been pastoring since 2010.
I didn’t come to Germantown intending to be an ally, or to make any kind of political or theological stand. I came to Germantown Mennonite because I was angry and hurting, and needed a safe place to be. I wasn’t convinced that there was such a church, but I thought I’d give Germantown Mennonite a try, and see if I could stand to be there.
In 1996, my mom died of cancer at the age of 45. Her four year battle with cancer was my introduction to adulthood. Crises like this should not have to happen to a young adult—it really messes with one’s sense of identity, relationship to God and to the church.
When my mom was dying, I was asking “why is this happening” and the response from my home congregation and other Christians was one of utter certainty—“She didn’t have enough faith”, “Everything happens for a reason”, “God needed her in heaven.”
Seminarians, in case you haven’t learned this lesson yet, NEVER say these things to people that are dealing with tragedy and life altering experiences. You risk being punched in the face, or worse, you risk people never coming to church again.
Those responses from my ever certain church community did not work for me, and I was very happy to leave my home and move to Philadelphia. And when I arrived, I went looking for a church in Philadelphia that could handle me and my vast baggage.
I visited Germantown in June of 1996, and I had never been to a service like this before. There were no answers from the pulpit. There were questions, there was real feeling, real sharing. There was no veneer of social propriety—it was raw at Germantown Mennonite. This church embodied all that I was feeling. I felt safe to bring my questions and anger there.
When I started attending GMC, the congregation was in the process of being removed from their conference and—as a result—the denomination, because they were welcoming queer folks into membership. The end of that relationship was imminent, but people were still pretty hopeful that allies would stand up against the conservative wing of the church. I didn’t know much about the struggle when I started attending the church—and if I’m really honest with myself—I didn’t care. What I cared about was that I was finally in a safe space to be angry, to ask questions, and to cry. I didn’t have to worry about judgment from the congregation, because my questions were their questions.
Soon after I arrived, the congregation was indeed removed from the conference. By secret ballot—which was not in keeping with their polity. Conference ministers came down to share the official news with us. And because after a year with them, I was so bonded to the congregation, I could not stay away from this meeting. My friends—gay and straight—were hurting, and would be devastated by this news. I had to be there with them.
I went to this meeting, and cried tears of anger with my gay brothers. I watched with disbelief as Ken, a gay man in the congregation, insisted that these conference ministers finish what they started, and walk him out of the church. I watched as our pastor, a straight ally, demanded the same. If the conference was removing this congregation from fellowship, they would have to do it with more than words. They would have to show us what it meant. They would need to understand themselves what it meant to remove us from the body of Christ.
Being in that meeting on that terrible night bonded me forever to the people of Germantown Mennonite Church. You can’t hear the news of the vote, watch your queer and allied friends get walked out of the church and not be moved. You can’t cry with people in their pain, and not have an emotional connection to them.
After we heard the news, and the conference ministers left, we sat together, then did what Mennonites do—we sang. We turned to “My Life Flows On”, and ironic and poignant choice for the occasion.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging
If love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
I never would have imagined that night as a 23 year old woman, sitting in that room, singing and crying with my sisters and brothers from Germantown, that I would end up in seminary, called to pastoral ministry.
But it was the folks, and especially the gay men, from the congregation that said to me, many times, “Why aren’t you in seminary?” and “You know you are called, right?” They recognized in me the call to the ministry that I couldn’t—or rather didn’t want to—see. It was the people of GMC that gave me my letters, sent me out to seminary, and told me to wear them with pride.
When I entered seminary, it didn’t occur to me that it would be that difficult to find a job in the denomination. Even though Germantown was no longer a member of the Mennonite Church USA, we still considered ourselves Mennonite. I still consider myself Mennonite. But others within the denomination began to name for me the difficulty I would experience. One pastor I met said to me blatantly, “How in the hell do you ever expect to get a job in the Mennonite church with GMC on your resume?”
I could feel the scarlet GMC burning on my chest for the first time. I knew there was truth in what he said. My spirit was crushed. Could I get a job? Was I just throwing away money on this seminary degree I’d never be able to use?
This question gave me great anxiety. I’ll admit it was tempting to try to cover up the scarlet GMC, to hide where I came from, to downplay the people that nurtured me to new faith. But I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t hide where I’d come from, even though I was advised by folks in the denomination to do so. This congregation was my community, my family, and because of the bonds we had and the gift they were to me, I couldn’t hide my status—I am an ally.
My status does come at a cost. Before interviewing at Germantown, I interviewed for a job at a little Mennonite church just outside of Philadelphia. One of the reasons I didn’t get it is because they were worried I’d bring the queers with me. If they couldn’t handle the scarlet GMC, they were not ready for me to be their pastor.
By God’s grace I was called to Germantown Mennonite, as the pastor. I pastor at one of the few Mennonite congregations that can, at this point, handle my scarlet letters. I pastor the congregation that gave me the scarlet letters.
There is a cost to being an ally. There is a cost to associating with a congregation that had the audacity to baptize and welcome queer folks into membership, and that ordained a gay man (a graduate of Princeton, and former leader of BGLASS, I might add). It will limit your opportunities in ministry. It may cause you some discomfort, some awkward conversations with search committees.
But, when I look at what Randy Spaulding and John Linscheid have dealt with in their lives—coming out as pastors, losing their credentials, being shamed and condemned—I think a few awkward conversations, and some limited opportunities are well worth it. It is the least I can do, to say thank you.
As followers in the way of Jesus, we cannot forget that the path before us will not be easy. The things we choose to stand for will alienate us, and often times, they will put us at odds with our denomination. But we are not followers of the Presbyterians, or the Mennonite or the Espiscopals, or whatever denomination with which you align. We are followers of Jesus, who calls us to the margins, who calls us to remember, who calls us stand with our brothers and sisters, no matter what the cost.
This scarlet GMC, the label I’ve been given as an ally, comes at a cost. But, my friends, the benefit far outweighs the cost. The gift I’ve been given at Germantown Mennonite has saved me, given me hope, and has shown me the way of Jesus, a way I couldn’t see anywhere else.
Like Hester Prynne, I lovingly embroider my scarlet letters, embellish them with the beauty that has been shared with me in my congregation. I could choose, like the minister in the Scarlet Letter—Arthur Dimmsdale—to be silent about my associations. But, we know what happened to Dimmsdale. That kind of denial and silence can only result in death.
As resurrection people, we know the joy that comes in our true selves being fully in the light. Let us live this Easter season, fully in the light, our true selves and our true allegiances known before all. Let us live in the light, queer and allies together, no matter what the cost.
What can I do?