I knew God’s love first. There, in rural Illinois, among the high branches of trees, the breeze whispering through the last of the fall leaves, I would lie on the floor of the woods by our house, the cool ground shaded and blanketed with leaves, and look up.
The ground held me and supported me. The sun winked through the branches. The world was a mosaic of light. I breathed.
And in the trees, too. The maple out front and the few stocky trees that lined our long gravel driveway. I’d clamber to their pinnacles and just sit, staring out over the corn and soybean fields, over the ribbons of road that meandered through the farmland, down to what I was told was an abandoned railway station.
I was surrounded by abandoned things—discards that became my imagination’s treasures. The abandoned railroad tracks by our house that gave us a straight shot into an even deeper wood and rusted railroad nails that I hefted in my small hand. A hunting stand high in a tree, most of the wooden steps of its ladder either rotted or missing. Sheets of corrugated metal at the entrance to our woods—parts of a small structure that, in my siblings’ and my minds, could’ve once been so many things—an old shed, a playhouse, someone’s home.
But we were not abandoned out in those quiet woods. We built forts and played in the big, muddy ditch that scratched down its center. I watched, and I listened. And when I was saddest, I always ran to the woods, tears streaming down my face, until the pain subsided, until my crying stopped.
In those moments, in that quiet, I heard something. I felt something.
I knew the world was made of more than what my eyes saw. And I knew, at the heart of whatever that was, was love.
When I came out as queer at 27, I was fortunate. I’d almost completed a graduate certificate in gender studies, which gave me the theoretical words and concepts through which I could understand myself and describe my experiences. But more importantly, the God I’d met in the woods of my childhood had not abandoned me.
I’d left the plains of Illinois in middle school and traded them in for the rolling hills and tall pines of the North Carolina Piedmont. By grad school, I was living in South Carolina—in the buckle of the Bible Belt. But I’d also lived in New Orleans in my mid-20s, where I’d attended an LGBTQ-affirming United Methodist church that also threw open its doors for the homeless and downtrodden. I’d met plenty of ministers who were friends of the queer community. And in South Carolina, in grad school, I frequently attended a reconciling Lutheran church, and I had a feeling the campus minister at the Methodist group I went to would support me and my burgeoning understanding of my identity.
And he did. It was 2011, though, and the South, and our ministry was made of students from many walks of life. Like many United Methodist groups, we welcomed a range of ideas and identities to the table—a plurality of thought not always seen in other denominations. We had grad students from Angola and South Korea, atheists and agnostics who came because they loved the community we created, and 18-year-old freshmen from tiny towns that dotted the South Carolina countryside.
Those were the ones the pastor was worried about.
I was dating a woman in our ministry. She was a grad student and one of my best friends—and now my first girlfriend.
When I came out to my minister, he was as loving and supportive as I’d expected him to be. We’d already known each other for seven years. I’d gone to the campus ministry as an undergrad and had even interned for him for a year. He was my mentor and a friend.
He had one request, though—one I know he would rethink today, or undo if he could: “I think it’s best if you’d keep this quiet among the group,” he said. “You know, we have all these young kids from rural South Carolina, and I don’t know how they’d handle it.”
I don’t know why I accepted these terms. Now, at 35, I would not. (Though, perhaps that isn’t true. I admit, within the last two years, when my family requested I pretend my partner is my friend at family events “for the sake of the kids,” I capitulated. And church is a kind of family, too.) Still, I was new to coming out and accepted what I got. The bar was so low—I wasn’t rejected, my parents didn’t disown me—I felt I should be grateful.
My girlfriend and I kept our secret, telling our close friends and some other grad students at the church but “protecting” those younguns. When we went on church retreats together, I’d watch the young undergrad couples—girl-boy, girl-boy—and my chest would tighten.
If our pastor was truly accepting of us, what made their love more worthy to be shown in public? And while we were mindful of the young, rural straight kids who might be shocked by our liberality, what of the young, rural gay Methodist kids who would struggle to find spiritual homes on our campus?
Who was it that our minister was truly protecting? And who—besides us—was being harmed in the process?
I found God in the woods. I also found God in the world—in a friend’s smile, the sense of the divine that enveloped us as we acted in service to others, in the hospitality of strangers, in silence and noise. Eventually, I left South Carolina after years of working as an advocate for anti-violence efforts and LGBTQ rights. I got on planes. I went to far-off places.
Still, God was there.
I didn’t know where I was going. I peeled back the layers of who I was, became deeply aware of the elements of life that were far beyond my control. Gained a better grasp of global economic injustices, the effects of colonialism, and the interconnectedness of the world and our souls.
I once described how I experienced travel to a woman I was dating, and she said, “Do you think that, for you, travel is like ‘going into the woods’ again?”
Yes, I thought. Staring at treetops, staring out airplane windows. Watching the sun crest over the Himalayas at the World Peace Pagoda in Pokhara, Nepal. Slurping down a bowl eel soup that was lovingly prepared by my Korean homestay mother. While at a Buddhist temple outside of Fukuoka, touching the wings of brightly colored origami birds at a memorial to those who died at Nagasaki—birds made by children’s hands….
But more than these, the kindness of strangers. The Irish woman who gave me a ride into Limerick after she saw me waiting in the rain at a bus stop, unaware that the buses weren’t running that day. The Korean taxi driver who, after touring my friend and me around Jeju Island all day, invited us to his house and made us spicy ramen noodles topped with American cheese. The gray-haired Japanese woman in Tokyo who found me lost and wandering, looking for my hostel in Tokyo’s Koreatown, and rode her bicycle back and forth through the neighborhood’s winding streets until she located it, until she knew I’d found my way.
In the woods, God was silence and wind, sun and clouds, the breath of the trees. In the world, God was in each face, each rocky outcropping of the mountains, each shared meal, each moment of trust and connection.
I saw God’s love everywhere, and I couldn’t help but believe.
The summer before I came out, I lived in New York City. I was interning at the United Methodist Seminar Program—a community education program that introduced visiting groups to intersecting social justice issues through the lens of the church and the city’s inhabitants. We taught visiting groups about poverty, homelessness, the global effects of consumerism, environmental issues, immigrants’ experiences—and what the church could do to begin to address those issues.
I stayed with a Methodist minister and his wife at their parsonage in Harlem. They opened their doors to me, and in return, I did a few hours of work per week for their church.
They were kind to me and, indeed, welcoming. But with my short hair and button-up shirts, it quickly became clear what the minister thought of me.
I was questioning, certainly, but I’d always been a tomboy and had never dated a woman. That summer, I remember Googling many things, though—”Kinsey Scale” and “am I bisexual?” It was a silly path toward self-knowledge.
And yet, it was like the world already knew what I did not.
On a mission trip with that Methodist campus ministry in 2008, my friend Joe came bounding up to me in the dining hall at the children’s home where we were staying in Peru.
“I defended you,” he declared loudly. “People were saying you’re a lesbian, and I defended you.”
At the time, I was in a serious relationship with a man in New Orleans. I didn’t know what to say. I knew being labeled a lesbian wasn’t something I needed to be “defended” from, but at the same time, I had a boyfriend, and I’d never dated women. My hair was long, and after finally deciding I enjoyed makeup and jewelry—to an extent—I thought my tomboy days were behind me.
I was trying so hard to do my “womanness” right after so many years of feeling like I was failing at it, and I’d thought I’d finally leveled up in some way. So what was it about me? Did they see something I couldn’t?
By the time I went to New York City in 2011, my womanness was clearly all wrong. After reading Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity in grad school, I’d finally given myself permission to return to some of my tomboy ways—a space I’d always felt more comfortable in anyway. After my boyfriend from New Orleans and I broke up in 2009, I cut off my hair. I stopped wearing makeup. The dangly earrings I’d bought when I lived in South Korea for a year after undergrad had begun to disappear, too.
I was not out, but I wasn’t really in anything, either.
That minister in NYC must’ve known something, though. I returned from dinner with a friend one evening to find him in the church with some other members. I don’t remember what brought it up—perhaps news of the recent legalization of same-gender marriage in New York State—but I do remember his pointed remark about the United Methodist Book of Discipline (the document that governs the UMC and its clergy).
“Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” he quoted firmly, as if the Book of Discipline were God’s word and not man’s.
I was a fly on the wall, but I felt like the remark was aimed at me. And if I doubted whether that was the case, throughout my stay, he made a few more pointed remarks on homosexuality that made it clear where he stood—and what he thought of me.
Was he warning me away from the precipice? Did he see what I didn’t yet—those parts of myself I’d so long denied?
I went to my first Pride march that summer—down in NYC’s Greenwich Village. I stood at the edges of the crowd, not yet sure of my place in it. But marriage equality had just come to the state, and the city’s queer population was ablaze with joy. I watched the bright faces, the waving rainbow flags, the beautiful diversity of the festival’s celebrants.
If there were open hearts and open doors, they were there. Among that crowd, I didn’t have to pretend to be anything other than what I was.
I clapped and cheered as the floats rolled by. I felt like I was on a precipice, yes, but perhaps it was just a doorway. Perhaps I was already on the other side. Perhaps I only had to let the scales fall from my eyes.
But what I knew already was that no matter what that minister or the United Methodist Church said, no matter where I ended up landing on that spectrum of sexuality, I was loved and held by God. The woods had taught me as much, as had my minister in New Orleans and the LGBTQ Christians I’d met along my journey.
One body, many parts. One rainbow, many colors.
Humans’ blindness could not take away God’s love.
I consider myself lucky. Many I know have experienced worse at the hands of the church and people who call themselves Christians: A son exiled from his family in the name of God. “It would’ve been better if you’d told us you’d murdered somebody,” his father had said. A child sent to conversion therapy on a mere suspicion—before they’d even come out to themselves. A minister’s ordination revoked for being her authentic self. A lesbian forced into her uncle’s prayer circle—the laying on of hands to banish the woman’s demon of homosexuality.
And I am fortunate to have found so much love and support: A Lutheran church in SC that threw open its arms to the LGBTQ community at a time when few were doing so in the state. Hearing “lesbian,” “gay,” and “transgender” mentioned from the pulpit not in condemnation but as beloved children of God. My own Methodist campus minister growing in his advocacy for the LGBTQ community and recognizing and speaking out about the social justice issues that surround queer and trans communities.
The minister from New Orleans who cried at the injustices that LGBTQ communities faced, who loved the rumpled, alcohol-soaked stragglers who somehow still managed to make it to church as much as those dressed in their Sunday best. Who didn’t miss a beat in her sermons when a homeless church member started snoring in the pews.
Through these and other experiences, I realized what open hearts, open minds, and open doors could truly look like.
It is not enough to not hate LGBTQ people, to tolerate us in your pews, to accept us as your organists and musicians—and yet demand that we leave our whole selves at the door. To grow squeamish when we talk about our partners. To say you love the sinner but hate the sin.
Because you only love half of us, or three quarters. You love the parts you want to love. The rest, at your best, you turn a blind eye to as you might an alcoholic’s indiscretion or a friend’s bad temper.
But Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t work for the U.S. military, and it certainly doesn’t work in church communities where we are called to love, to be honest, and to bring our whole selves to break bread together.
No, it is not enough to not hate us. If we are to be the type of people and communities Christ has called us to be, to stand against injustice, to love and love fully, tolerance is not enough.
I’m tired of the low bar. I will not beg for your table scraps—beam gratitude that you accept my humanity enough to let me in the room, let me curl up like a dog under the table.
I know I’m a beloved child of God not in spite of my queerness but because of it. I know I bring holy gifts to use in service to God’s people and that those gifts have only been strengthened by queerness rather than diminished by it. I know I have a greater capacity to love and to better understand life at the margins (though that is an ongoing journey) because of my experiences of marginalization—and that those experiences only deepen my capacity to serve the body of Christ and all God’s beloved children, which is the whole world.
My queerness has made me a better human and a better Christian.
So I will not beg for scraps in your banquet hall. There is a narrow path that leads to the neighbor’s house. I will follow it, and though a stranger, they will invite me in. The room will be filled with sinners and prostitutes, drunkards and homeless folks, and others who have been rejected. They won’t ask me to leave who I am at the door; it will be apparent that they know we are all beloved in God’s eyes. They will treat me as if I am beloved. They will wash my feet, and I will wash the feet of the guest next to me. The door will remain open for all who want to join, for though the neighbor has little, it is enough, and it never seems to run out. The light of this home will shine into the street, beckoning for the stranger to come in, to rest, to share together in love. There is a place at the table. There is enough for all of you.
I learned in the woods that God’s love is infinite. In that unstructured space—unbound by humanity’s limited vision—I was free to be myself and found that I was loved and accepted just as I was. As I am. In the sun’s steady light, in the gentle arms of the earth beneath me, I was cradled by God.
There would be no going back. No matter what men and their man-made institutions told me.
I have a place at the table, and so do you. I am a beloved child of God, and so are you. And no matter who you are or whom you love, God loves you.