Around this time eight years ago, I was at a camp in the Rocky Mountains for a purity retreat hosted by my church. Between free time when we were allowed to go in the 80-person hot tub (with church approved swimsuits, of course), play in the game room or take walks around the campus, we met with small groups separated by sex and age, and participated in worship services where our youth pastor relayed the dangers of sexual impurity.
At one small group session, where I was accompanied by two other girls my age and our leader, Betsy, we were asked, "Have you ever struggled with homosexuality?" This wasn't the first time we were asked this question and it certainly wasn't the last. I answered no, as I had always done. Betsy told us that it was okay to admit to it because she had many female friends who experienced "impure thoughts" and had worked through it and were married to men now. I recall feeling a sense of relief in the moment, but didn't want to discover what the repercussions of admitting my "struggle" to the group (or even to myself) would have been.
As I look back at all the purity retreats I attended and this one in particular, I become increasingly aware of the ways purity rhetoric is a violent means of controlling women. But beyond that, I am able to see that my coming out as a lesbian is a triumph against this alienating and pervasive rhetoric.
Flash forward to today, I was holding onto this anniversary of sorts as Carol Wise and I embarked on our journey to Oak Park, IL for the BMC’s 40th anniversary celebration. While I hold a lot of resentment and grief toward the evangelical church I grew up in, I was not dwelling on that as we drove toward Illinois. Instead, I felt a profound sense of gratitude: that Martin Rock founded BMC about 20 years before I was even born, that there were people working for my liberation before I even knew who they were and finally, that I was here today, claiming my identity and working toward creating a more just and free church for lgbtq people.
The progression I've experienced over the last eight years is nothing less than a miracle to me. I held on, let go, learned to listen to my body, and emerged and continue to emerge from the violence that permeated my life eight years ago. As I listened to the stories of old-time BMCers, previous volunteers and those new to our community, I felt this miracle move among us.
One particularly salient moment was the joyful and abundant communion we shared together on the last day. As we toasted those who came before us and those we wanted to remember, I was struck by Jeanne Clark naming her late wife and the grief and joy that flowed between all of us, even those who don't know her story. I introduced myself to Jeanne earlier in the weekend, telling her that I had watched the oral history footage of her story filmed by Amy Short. After I thanked her for sharing her story, she set her song booklet on a table, opened it to In the Midst of New Dimensions and took a picture of it with her phone, telling me, "This was the hymn I came out to, when I decided to stop faking it."
Today I am particularly grateful for Jeanne's story and her witness during communion. As a child, communion didn't carry any salience for me. Had I stayed at the evangelical church I grew up in, I would probably continue to feel detached from communion. But in the new sacred spaces I sought and carved out for myself since leaving the church, communion or Eucharist is becoming a site of nourishment and learning to listen to my body. I felt this deeply at the worship service on the last day of the celebrations. As we passed the bread, fruit and grape juice around to each other and anointed each other with oil, I heard Jeanne say, "There's plenty to eat! I've never seen a communion table with plenty to eat!"
That moment, where we could eat and drink to fullness, felt to me like all the times I had taken communion previously were culminating into a single moment. All the time I had spent opening myself to a new reality was rewarded in the communion we shared together. Previous rituals, where I was learning to listen to my body, only allowed me to catch glimpses of what it is to be full. This communion allowed me to experience the breadth and width of fullness. Everything I had been working towards after I left the church: abundance, love, fullness, sanctity was realized as I broke bread with my fellow lgbtq siblings. There is something holy that happens when the marginalized are prioritized, when listening is central to ritual, when bravery and moral imperative drive a community to hold each other in light of our deepest traumas.
And as I think about the weekend I spent at the purity retreat, fearful of what it is that makes me full, human, and abundant, I overflow with gratitude: that I made it here, to this point, where I am living into a reality I thought would consign me to hell eight years ago.