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The Slow Miracle of Transformation

by: Mary Lou Wallner


It was a Friday night, February 28, 1997. The phone range late in the evening. My husband, Bob, answered. I heard him say, "Hi, George," in a friendly voice. George is my ex-husband, the father of my two daughters. Suddenly Bob sat down and made a strange sound, as though the wind had been knocked out of him. I knew something was terribly wrong.

Bob hung up the phone. As he returned to the couch, I followed him with my eyes, my heart in my throat. My mind knew what had happened, but my heart refused to take it in.

"It's Anna, isn't it?" My next question was more like a statement. "She's dead, isn't she?" Bob nodded as I closed my eyes and moaned, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no." I thought that if I didn't open them, it would not be true.

"Did she commit suicide?" Bob nodded again and told me I could call George back for details when I was ready. How could I ever be ready to find out how my beautiful, bright, 29-year-old daughter chose to exit this life?

The next week would be a painful blur of calling family and friends, driving the five hundred miles to the town where Anna had lived and died, planning the ceremony, and then enduring the most excruciating experience of my life--Anna's funeral. During the long drive down, I kept rehashing the pivotal moment twelve years earlier when Anna had written us to explain that she was a lesbian. She told us that she had fought long and hard to fit in, and had finally accepted that she was attracted to women, not men.

My reaction could not have been worse. I told her that I believed homosexuality to be spiritually and morally wrong, the Bible told us this in black and white. "For reasons I do not quite fathom," I wrote, "I have a harder time dealing with that issue than almost anything in the world. I will continue to love you, but I will always hate that, and will pray every day that you change your mind and attitude." Like others in my church, I had been taught that homosexuality was the sin above all sins.

Raised in a conservative, rules-oriented Christian home, I had accepted Christ as my Savior at the age of ten. Anna had done the same at age five. Although I never doubted her salvation, I couldn't accept her homosexuality. I made meager attempts to "love her" while "hating the sin," but it was not enough.

What followed were years of stormy encounters. Anna asked me to read Now That You Know, and I wanted her to read Out of Egypt: Leaving Lesbianism Behind. Although I did read her book, I gave it no credence and did not seek to learn more. I was ashamed and couldn't talk with anyone because I believed Anna's lesbian orientation was my fault. Anna's father and I were divorced when she was not quite ten, and I remarried two years later. It's no secret that my own pain was so deep that I neglected Anna and my other daughter.

After years of this friction, Anna wrote to ask me to get out of her life. She said that my intolerant, shaming words had done colossal damage to her soul. I sought advice from friends and family members and finally decided to give her the space she asked for.

I will always wonder what would have happened if I had grabbed my toothbrush and car keys and drive those five hundred miles to assure her that I loved her. But I did not. Now I never could.

The viewing and funeral were horrific. In the coffin, Anna looked made-up and impossibly cold. Her friends came--mostly gays and lesbians, holding hands and looking sad, cold, and hard. I had no used for them and was relieved that the cold, rainy weather gave me an excuse to leave the cemetery without speaking.

After Anna's death, I struggled to understand why this had happened to her and to me. As the weeks passed, I grew more and more depressed and developed a lot of physical symptoms. All I could think about was following Anna with my own suicide. I knew it was time to get help.

I began to read everything I could get my hands on about grief, grace, suicide, and even about homosexuality. As someone who had grown up in a very legalistic environment, I knew I needed to learn something about grace--God's grace. I kept hearing it preached, but I felt nothing.

In the midst of this searching, a friend recommended Mel White's autobiography, Stranger At the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. Mel is a well-known Christian writer and teacher. In this book, he describes his decades of struggle with his sexual identity and the efforts he and his wife, Lyla, made to keep their marriage intact. Lyla writes in the introduction to the book, "After all those decades of trying, we discovered that no one can choose or change his or her sexual orientation. Reading this story will help you understand the homosexuals in your own life."

When I finally finished the book, I was even more confused and sad. Had the most destructive action in my life been that I had not loved Anna unconditionally--as a gay person and a gay Christian? Was it possible that her lesbianism was not a choice, and that she was simply living as the child that God created her to be?

I needed some answers. I searched out an e-mail address for Mel White and told him Anna's story, sharing how his book had made me take a hard look at my beliefs on homosexuality. He wrote back with words of extreme compassion for the pain Anna had suffered and the grief I was now experiencing.

A couple of months later, Mel called to tell us of Soulforce, an organization of people from a variety of faith traditions, committed to ending religious policies of exclusion and discrimination against God's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children. Mel asked us to join Soulforce when it went to Lynchburg, Virginia, to meet with Jerry Falwell and ask him to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric. He wanted me to "tell my story."

I thought to myself, "What story? About not loving my daughter unconditionally? No way!" I declined.

But Mel persisted until I was forced to be brutally honest. I told him that I still considered homosexual activity to be sinful, and that I had no desire to be known as a gay activist. "You can be the bridge between Jerry and us, " he countered. Mel isn't someone to be turned down easily.

I agreed to pray about the decision and sought counsel from others I trusted. Finally, I agreed to go.

I had only five minutes to tell my story. As I spoke of Anna's tragic death, I saw people in the audience openly weeping. I struggled to keep my own tears under control.

I was astounded at the number of people who came up afterward: "You just told my story--I just haven't gotten as far as the suicide part yet." Or "I wish you could talk to me Mom or Dad. Maybe they would try to understand me better." My heart was breaking.

That Lynchburg weekend, October, 1999, was the beginning of an amazing journey. There we met wonderful gay people who were Christian. At the time, I believed "gay Christian" was an oxymoron, but their compassion, friendliness, and concern overwhelmed me.

Inexplicably, I felt understood in a way that I hadn't since Anna's death. Anna's suicide had felt like the ultimate rejection of me. I knew instinctively that the Christians around me understood the intense pain of rejection.

Returning home, I contacted Mel to thank him for a truly amazing weekend. He wrote back and admonished me: "Do your homework."

One woman, whom I had met in Lynchburg, began e-mailing me on a regular basis. Dotti Berry, a beautiful, compassionate, and openly gay Christian, supported Bob and me, but also challenged us to read Daniel Helminiak's What The Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, and Roberta Kreider's From Wounded Hearts: Faith Stories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People and Those Who Love Them. She asked us to go into the Soulforce website and read what evangelical theologian Lew Smedes had written about the subject. And she encourage us to write to Peggy Campolo, wife of evangelist Tony Campolo, about her journey in becoming an advocate for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.

We read voraciously, and began to study the Scriptures--especially the "clobber passages" as they are called--the passages commonly cited to condemn homosexuality. And we prayed, "God, if we've been blinded by legalistic rules, show us the way. If celibacy is the only choice for the homosexual, show us that as well. But in whatever you show us, please teach us to love all your children, including gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons."

Bob and I attend Willow Creek Community Church, a large, evangelical, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church with more than three hundred ministries. Just recently the congregation had decided to start a ministry called A Safe Place, geared to those struggling with their sexual identity and same-sex attraction. I became part of the start-up group. Their approach had two options--become heterosexual or be celibate for the rest of your life. Yet they also supported my trip to Lynchburg and wanted to be a place where strugglers were loved and accepted.

It became impossible for me to accept that these two options were the only paths open to gays and lesbians who wanted to join our church. The witness of "openly gay Christians" like Dotti was powerful and full of integrity. One day, I answered the phone and a voice on the other end of the line said, "My partner and I are participating members at Willow Creek."

"Really!" I exclaimed. "That's terrific!" My reaction took both of us by surprise. But I had begun to notice that whenever I spoke to or about gay Christians, I got excited and my voice grew louder. I had a passion!

My husband and I met the couple for church and dinner--and loved them instantly. They are in their mid-sixties, and at Willow Creek they are in the closet. "Even my closet has closets," confessed one. As I listened to her, a deep sadness overwhelmed me. Where was the place for gay Christians to become the full human beings God created them to be?

Eventually, we hosted a special, confidential meeting with the minister and elder overseeing A Safe Place at which some of our closest friends shared their stories as gay Christians. Those who attended were deeply touched by these stories. Will it make any difference in the direction of the church's ministry? That remains to be seen. God is working with all of us.

Two years after Anna's death, Bob and I took a month-long "sabbatical." We holed up in a tiny cabin on Bull Shoals Lake in Arkansas to begin healing and reconnecting with God. One day, as I explored the rocky shore of the lake, I found myself picking my way through loose, slippery rocks, trying to avoid falling in. But the way just go more treacherous. I began to panic, afraid to turn around because I knew what I had just encountered, but also frightened to press on into the unfamiliar. I prayed for help.

Unable to move forward or backward, I began to consider the possibility of scaling the cliff before me--a forty-five-degree angle. Unsure how far it was to the top, I was not even certain I could make it without falling.

That scary climb parallels my journey over the rocky ground toward a new understanding of homosexuality. I couldn't return to the "safe" solutions the church had give me. Those would simply keep me stuck in legalism and shaky scriptural interpretation. Nor could I follow those who acknowledge that sexual orientation is not a choice, but they claim that celibacy is the only honorable way to live before God. I had reached a stalemate!

The only answer was to go up--but that could mean a whole new set of beliefs! It would be so much safer to stay where I way. Though I had come to believe homosexuality is not a choice, was I really ready to "buck the establishment"--the evangelical community that was our home--and insist that monogamous, gay relationships are celebrated by God? Could I change my beliefs? Did I want to? Where was God leading?

What would my family and friends think? Would they be angry Would I lose them? I began to understand a faint shadow of the fears LGBT persons have in coming out of the closet. I, too, have lost friends and angered family members. Through all of it, I have felt the hand of God on my life, directing me.

Slowly and ever so carefully, as I have allowed God to begin working in my heart, God opened me to the rich blessings of the gay Christians in our lives. I am being transformed.

In the years since Anna's death, I have done tremendous soul searching to figure out what role I played in it, wrestling with who I am and how I treated my own daughter. No matter what happens in my life, the pain and tragedy of Anna's suicide have left an indelible mark.

If you had suggested to me on the day I lost Anna that I would ever begin to heal from this tragedy, I would have told you that was impossible. If you had dared to tell me that anything good could come from her death, I would have written you off. But I have come to see the truth in Paul's amazing conviction, "For we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to God's purpose" (Rom. 8:28).

Through God's grace and mercy, I am healing. Losing Anna has dramatically changed my thinking and opened my heart to a community of God's children for whom I previously had no use. It has brought me face to face with an untruth I had been taught by the church all my life. God has given me the amazing gift of opening my eyes to the fullness of God's community, and freed me from the legalism that bound me.

At times, it still feels like I am climbing that steep hillside in Arkansas. I am not sure if I will reach the top--or how I will land--but I feel God with me, every step of the way.

Article printed in THE OTHER SIDE magazine, March/April 2001
Copyright © 2002 by the author
All Rights Reserved


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