As children, we all wanted to hear a story before going to bed. Hearing the words read to us in our mother or father’s soothing voice was just what we needed to drift off to sleep. Dr. Richard Rossiter hopes his story is one that will wake us from our slumber, and guide us instead to a life fully awake in the glory and presence of God.
“Jacob was wrestling with his story and God in Bethel,” Rossiter said during a recent interview with Whosoever as he visited Atlanta. “We, too, in reflecting on and telling our stories wake up out of our sleep and we can eventually get to the place where we can say as Jacob did, ‘Surely the Lord is in the place,’ [Genesis 28:16] which means my life, ‘and I didn’t know it.’ Jacob came to the realization, as did I, that’s part of the power of what happens when we tell our story.”
He recounts his journey of coming out in his new book Out With a Passion: A United Methodist Pastor’s Quest for Authenticity. The book is slim at 121 pages, but the raw emotion Rossiter packs into the journal entries that comprise the book makes it almost impossible, emotionally, to quickly read.
Usually, before interviews I like to have completed the book by the author whom I will interview. I found it impossible to do that this time. I’m still only halfway through the book because of the powerful emotions Rossiter’s words evoked in me. My issue is not coming out, but the emotions, and search for becoming an authentic person that he expresses in the book struck a deep chord within me regarding the issues I am dealing with on those deep emotional levels.
Rossiter says I’m not alone in my feelings. One woman, recently diagnosed with breast cancer contacted Rossiter after reading his book. “What was so powerful for her is that she was doing her grieving process along with mine,” he explained. “She called to thank me for helping her access her grief. I’ve had others who have told me they’ve had to set the book down and I’ve encouraged them to do that. Don’t go places that your soul is not ready for. You want to be in control of that.”
Stories have power and Rossiter realizes that. “Our stories contain the very essence of our souls. God has given us a self to use, create and develop for the goodness of the world. By doing that we become whole, guided and all God intends us to be. By telling our stories our sense of self increases and the power of our own souls increase as we hear ourselves tell it.”
Rossiter found telling his story personally cathartic, but he also had an audience in mind for the book. Mainly, he hopes to speak to clergy in mainline denominations who are struggling to integrate their spirituality and sexuality.
His story is also a good read for anyone struggling with the process of coming out. The specifics surrounding his struggle as a clergy in the church may not ring true for some. However, most of the basic stages he goes through are common enough for those also on the hard road to coming out that they will immediately identify with the pain, self-doubt, and fear that Rossiter endures.
“I thought I would offer my story as one sojourner’s way of saying this is an authentic journey,” Rossiter said. “If my story can be helpful to your story or to seeing how faithful God is to journey alongside of us at every moment, then I will have done something good.”
The struggle Rossiter had with the Methodist church is an important part of the story, even if the reader is not personally involved in the leadership of the mainstream church. His fight for integrity within a system that, for the most part, refuses to recognize the whole life experience and desires of the homosexual Christian is another important step on the road to full acceptance within the church.
Rossiter spent about two years in the church as an openly gay minister, or “self-avowed” as the church terms it. He was not practicing, as the church defines practicing, and was making a valiant attempt to remain within the tradition while trying to be as open and honest with himself as possible. As Rossiter and his now-partner began to develop their relationship, the tension began, leading to a pivotal moment that forced Rossiter to relinquish his Methodist credentials.
Rossiter was contacted by a parishoner who made, what he called, “a request I could not honor.” Word had spread that his partner was coming to visit, and this congregation member made it clear they didn’t want him staying with Rossiter at the parsonage. The request made Rossiter angry.
“That was the turning point. I realized I had to let go of this. It was not worth it. I trusted on God at that point like I never had before in my life. I was giving up everything,” he emphasized. “I realized I had literally sold my soul to the institution. I grieved that and what I had given up in the process. I thought I would leave pastoral ministry forever since I didn’t know anywhere I could serve openly and honestly.”
The anger was soon replaced by fear over many things including finances and what leaving the Methodist church meant for his career as a minister. But, Rossiter knew it was God’s call to walk away from the church.
“I felt a freedom of having let go of that,” he smiled. “It didn’t matter what I’d done or who I did it with, they couldn’t touch me, they couldn’t enter my life. By relinquishing [my credentials] I set the boundaries. I took control again and the institution no longer had control over me. It was a powerful, freeing day.”
God has taken care of Rossiter in his time of need. He reaffirmed his credentials with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches and now does consulting work with churches and is in private practice in spiritual direction ministry. He also recently accepted the pulpit at an MCC near Chicago.
Rossiter’s story is a hard one to read, but his journey from brokenness and doubt to fullness and truth in God, is one that should not be ignored. His story is powerful, and by telling it he hopes to share the healing power of trying to live an authentic life with God.
“I laid myself out pretty raw,” he said. “I knew that in doing that it would serve as a tool for healing. That authenticity seemed important for me to share. Anyone, gay, straight, bi, or transgender can connect with this book on some level if they’re willing to live an authentic life and allow God to be part of that.”
To begin living that authentic life, we first must wake from our slumber. Out With A Passion is an excellent wake up call.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.