When I was eight years old, I remember a preacher standing in the pulpit pointing his finger at my mother, shaking his finger at her, and preaching that anyone who missed church to take care of the sick was going to hell. My Mother had missed church for over two months to take care of her sister-in-law, who was dying from cancer, and this was her first Sunday back at church. My Mother was so upset that she never went back to that church again.
That was only the first of many such bad church experiences mother and I would suffer over the next 33 years while searching for a church where we could worship God, serve God, and feel accepted. My parents separated in 1974 while I was still in my teens. My parents had been married for 30 years and my mother, who was disabled, was in her late fifties. I am sure my mother never, ever thought she would be divorced. Because of my parents’ divorce, for over ten years from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, mother and I were unwelcome in the church where we were members. We were unable to attend any other church in the small town where we lived because of the attitude of the church and church members toward people who were separated and divorced. Due to my work schedule (I worked 75 hours a week to support my mother and myself) and mother’s health, we were unable to commute to a nearby city to attend church. I can remember crying many times on Sunday morning because I wanted to go to church but could not. I recall telling mother one Sunday morning that “America is a free country, but we cannot go to church. It’s just not fair. Something is very wrong.”
As my mother’s health continued to decline, it must have broken her heart and upset her greatly that we could not attend church. During those ten plus years, it was our constant hope and prayer that one day we would be able to move out of that small town, live where we could attend church, worship God, and serve God. My mother died in January 1986. In September 1986, I was finally able to move to a larger city and joined a church in the same denomination in which I grew up. I thought I would have a more positive church experience than what we had endured in the small town where we had lived but that was not meant to be.
I found myself working for an atheist and devil worshiper. After they discovered I was a Christian, I was subjected to hassle and harassment on a daily basis; however, management would not do anything about it. I was in tears when I called the church where I was a member. I did not state why I needed to see a pastor but was told the pastors did not meet with or counsel church members. This was a large church with several ministers on staff. I could have been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a short time to live or had a death in my immediate family but the bottom line was they did not care. The church where I was a member in good standing refused to help me cope during that crisis!
After much prayer and struggling, I finally left the denomination in which I grew up. It was the most difficult decision I ever had to make in my life but I just did not feel I had a choice. I came to realize I was unwelcome and unwanted in that denomination and would never be welcome or wanted. Regardless how good a life I lived, even if I obeyed all the legalist rules about what I could and could not do, I would be unwelcome, unwanted, and unaccepted.
I grew up Southern Baptist and was baptized at the age of seven. Everyone in my family generation as far back as I can remember was Southern Baptist. I was the first in my family generation to break with the Southern Baptist denomination and join a mainline Protestant denomination. If I had not left the Southern Baptist denomination, I believe I would be dead and in hell today because of the lack of love, care, and concern exhibited by church members at the last several churches where mother and I were members. When I left the Southern Baptist denomination, I did not think I would ever go to church ever again. Because of the way my mother and I had been treated, I had reached the conclusion that Christians were a bunch of hypocrites who left their religion behind at the church on Sundays.
While mistreatment and abuse can happen in any church of any denomination, the terrible experiences my mother and I had were in Southern Baptist churches. I also know, realize, and understand that many people can and do find a place to serve God and worship God in Southern Baptist churches and do not have the horrible experiences that my mother and I had. After the many terrible experiences mother and I had in the Southern Baptist churches, sometimes it amazes me that I am still a Christian.
While I was not aware of it at the time, I have since learned that the horrible treatment mother and I endured in the churches had names. My mother and I were the victims of intolerance [of divorce], “hate the sin [of divorce], love the sinner”, discrimination, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and a very narrow definition of Christianity. These attitudes kept mother and me out of the church for over ten years-years during which we desperately needed a caring Christian community and Christian friends.
When I was growing up, I always had to worry about my salvation-whether I was going to heaven or hell. I would see bumper stickers asking, “Are you saved?” My thoughts were always “I hope so. I certainly want to be.” It was only after I left the Southern Baptist denomination that I started to feel sure of my salvation. During the entire 41 years that I was in Southern Baptist churches, I never heard about God’s unconditional love. Since leaving the Southern Baptist denomination, I have met many truly wonderful Christians-Lutherans, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian, and others-that have greatly blessed my life, helped me grow as a Christian, and be sure of my salvation. For the first time in my life, I learned about God’s unconditional love for everyone. I am now a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA). I am very thankful that God helped me survive the horrible experiences I endured in Southern Baptist churches and rescued me from the Southern Baptist denomination.
The way mother and I were treated by the Southern Baptist church is the primary reason I am very actively involved in gay ministries-I know only too well what it feels like to be excluded from churches through no fault of my own. I am co-chair of the Lutherans Concerned chapter in my state. I am also a member of Dignity, Affirmation, and Integrity and serve on an AIDS Care Team. While I love Lutheran theology, and I am very happy at the Lutheran church where I am a member, I also visit our local Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) church as often as possible.
When I was growing up, my mother’s best friend and co-worker had two sons who were gay. I never heard my mother say a harsh, judgmental or condemning word about her friend’s sons. When my mother discussed her friend’s sons, it was always with an attitude of care, concern, compassion, and a sense of trying to understand. When I moved to a larger city in 1986 and started attending large Baptist churches, I heard gay bashing from the pulpits and could not believe what I was hearing. I specifically remember one pastor gay bashing a professor, even calling his name from the pulpit! I was horrified that a minister would conduct himself in such a manner. I did not know the professor at that time but later took a class with him. I discovered the professor was one of the finest people I had ever met and consequently, became interested in gay and lesbian issues.
I know personally the horrible pain that churches and church members are capable of inflicting on people. I also have friends who have endured horrendous experiences in the various churches and denominations in which they grew up. Churches and their members are capable of mistreating and causing severe pain to non-church members, Christians of other denominations, and non-Christians. The mistreatment and abuse are inflicted on people, even other Christians, in the name of God and “love the sinner, hate the sin” [whatever the perceived sin might be]. Many of the actions and comments from people who profess Christianity are unthinkable and unconscionable. For those toward whom the actions and comments are directed, it certainly does not feel like Christian love, care, or concern at all-much more like Christian hate-hate in the name of God. It is almost unbelievable the hate, mistreatment, and abuse that some churches and Christians have directed toward and inflicted on others-especially other Christians. Yet the experiences are very real and the pain extremely deep resulting in wounded hearts and wounded souls for those on the receiving end of the mistreatment and abuse.
Mistreating church members and non-members is a very poor reflection on the Christians themselves and the churches and denominations with which they are associated and represent. Often, when Christians attempt to “point out a person’s sin” [whatever the sin may be] and “convert” a person, the result is that the person is very deeply wounded, driven away from the church, and very often away from God. When people have been deeply hurt by a church, and by people who call themselves Christian, it can be very difficult for them to ever attend any church again.
Since leaving the Southern Baptist denomination in 1995, I have read and studied the Bible more than at anytime in my life. I have spent a great deal of time researching, reading, and studying about other denominations, their policies, theology, positions on social issues, etc. Because I am not lesbian, I have had to do a tremendous amount of reading, studying, and research regarding gay and lesbian issues and focused specifically on churches and homosexuality. I have learned that churches of all denominations are capable of inflicting tremendous hurt and pain on church members and non-members for a variety of reasons-homosexuality, divorce, childlessness, not giving enough, or any number of other reasons that someone does not fit their narrow definition of Christianity. This is especially true in the more fundamentalist type churches. When any church excludes any person or group of people for whatever reason, the church ceases to be a church and starts to closely resemble an exclusive country club where if one does not meet certain criteria they are unwelcome.
I believe Jesus Christ died for everyone. I do not think any church, or group, or anyone in a church, has the right to turn anyone out of a church, make people feel unwelcome in a church, or close the church doors to anyone for any reason. After the horrible mistreatment to which mother and I were subjected, I believe that God’s house should be open to everyone and that no one for any reason should be excluded from God’s house. Unless a person has been horribly mistreated by a church, it is difficult to understand the extreme hurt and pain that churches, which are made up of church members, can cause. Although I have been a Lutheran since 1996, there are many times that the pain and memories of what happened to mother and me in the Southern Baptist churches are so great that it is very difficult to get dressed for church on Sunday mornings. In Southern Baptist churches women were expected to wear dresses, skirts, and suits to church on Sunday mornings-not pants. Even now when dressing for church, if I try to put on a dress or skirt it just triggers so many bad memories of how mother and I were treated in the past that I generally wear pants to church on Sunday. Fortunately, in the Lutheran church where I am a member, it is not frowned upon for women to wear pants to worship.
I have grown, matured, and developed significantly since leaving the Southern Baptist church. I have learned more about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, denominations, religions, and myself than I ever thought possible. I sometimes wonder why I had to endure some of the horrible experiences I have had. When thinking and reflecting about the experiences, it helps me understand the pain, hurt, anger, frustration, and rejection many other people feel about churches and religion. I can certainly understand that some people have had their hearts and souls so wounded that it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for them to even think about attending church.
If perhaps churches exhibited a greater respect for diversity among Christians, more love, more care, and more concern-instead of judgmental attitudes and treatment-people would not be subjected to the kinds of attitudes and treatment to which my mother and I were. I do not want anyone else to ever have the horrible experiences mother and I had. Others might turn completely away from God altogether and never give another church or denomination a chance. Whereas, because of my Christian mother, I was willing to keep searching until I found a place where I could worship and serve God-an opportunity, right, and privilege which I had been denied in the past.
America is probably the most civilized country on the face of the earth-a country founded on the basis of religious freedom, liberty, and justice for all. Yet as we approach the end of the twentieth century, there are many who have had their hearts and souls wounded by religion, who feel unwelcome, unwanted, and unaccepted in churches throughout this country. This is a sad commentary on the state of religion, especially Christianity, in this country as embark upon a new century.