Branches of the Same Vine: Women, LGBTQ Christians, and my Dream for the Church

After two posts on LGBTQ stories, I had planned to take my series on stories and how they can be powerful agents of transformation in our lives in a different direction. However, since the ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in Alabama, events have put my church in the news and in hot water with our local Southern Baptist association. As a result, I have a little more to say on the way I have come to see my own story mirrored in the situation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

If you click over to the “About me” page of this blog, you’ll quickly see why I no longer fit into Southern Baptist churches where I was raised. I am progressive, feminist, and pro-equality and inclusion. I am anti-legalism and pro-individual freedom and responsibility. As a Ph.D. in language and literature in I am also rather competent at reading, studying, and reaching my own conclusions about issues of belief and practice. But when you get right down to it, the main issue is that I am a woman who refuses to be treated as anything less than an equal, adult, contributing, and responsible member of a congregation.

The Southern Baptist Convention has pretty well drawn a line in the sand against people like me. Decades ago the SBC voted to limit what I believe is a central tenet of the Baptist faith, priesthood of the believer, in a move that reflected a concentration of power at the top and less freedom of conscience and belief for those below. Since then, the SBC has sought to enforce more specific scriptural interpretations on its members (like when it doubled-down on eternal conscious torment in hell–something not mentioned in the original Baptist Faith and Message–in the wake of Rob Bell’s influential and scripturally based book Love Wins).

More to the point here, in recent decades the SBC has also put forth specific statements to try to limit the participation of women in higher church leadership. Interestingly, before the year 2000, the Baptist Faith and Message did not exclude women from the pastorate, but in that year it was amended to limit the role of pastor to men. Sure, individual churches have the autonomy to decide if they will ordain women as deacons or ministers, but that doesn’t make up for the sexism of an organization where female seminary students are trained to be pastors’ wives or to minister only to other women

One of the reasons that I do not consider myself a Southern Baptist anymore is this position on women. At some point it dawned on me that I had grown up watching women do what seemed to be the majority of the work in the church, yet be denied a place in church leadership. In the churches that I grew up in, there were no female pastors, no female deacons, no women called on to pray, no female ushers. (I still wonder what could be so gender specific about handing out church bulletins and passing the offering plate?)

Women are not spiritually, morally, or intellectually inferior to men. In Christ there is neither male nor female, and that should be reflected in our churches. “Biblical” arguments to the contrary are contradicted in the Bible by Paul himself, who names one woman, Phoebe, as a deacon (Romans 16.1), and another, Junia, as an apostle (Romans 16.7). Yep, an apostle – the highest designation in the early church.

It is my firm belief that women who are called and equipped should have equal opportunity to participate in the church at all levels, and I decided about ten years ago that I would not join another church that did not ordain women as deacons and support women’s right to share the pulpit and the pastorate. Women have too often been excluded from church leadership simply on the basis of their sex, regardless of their calling or talent. I won’t put up with that anymore.

I made this decision because in churches who refuse to do these things, women are second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. I would be a second class citizen. My opinions on women, if expressed, would be devalued and rejected. Excuses would be made for unequal treatment and opportunities, and the Bible would be used to prop them up. I would have to keep my head down and pretend to be someone I’m not in order to fit in. As a result, I would be disengaged, unfulfilled, underutilized, and probably bitter and suffering in my spiritual life.

As an educated and dedicated Christian, I deserve better than that. I deserve to have spiritual role models and mentors who fully respect me, and I deserve to have some who also look like me. Most of all, I deserve a church where ALL of me fits in. Where I can work on being transformed into the image of Christ, not into an antiquated image of womanhood masquerading as Christian life.

From my own story, I know what it is like to go to a church and to have to keep my head down. I know what it feels like to have to keep part of myself hidden away to avoid causing a stir and risking a reprimand.

From there, I can extrapolate and somewhat imagine what it must be like to be in a different and darker closet–one where to open the door means to risk much more than a simple reprimand or a reminder of one’s ‘place.’ Where simply being oneself entails a very real risk of being condemned and ostracized, and perhaps not only from one’s church, but from one’s home and family. Where it may even result in physical assault in the name of Christianity.

LGBTQ people have too often been excluded from the church on the basis of their identities rather than their beliefs, intentions, and actions. They have had to choose between hiding who they are and pretending to fit in, or being honest about their identities and then having to live outside of the church and the borders it has built to separate descriptors like “gay” and “Christian” or “gay” and “moral.” Unlike women, they haven’t even been granted second-class citizenship. They are foreigners, left outside of the borders drawn against them.

Despite some efforts to separate the two categories, there are LGBTQ Christians, and they deserve better. They deserve a chance to be in community with other Christians, and they deserve to be able to be themselves, without being labeled with preconceived notions about their moral and spiritual character.

Some Christians worry that inviting LGBTQ folks into the church without trying to “reform” them necessarily means we are watering down our moral standards. It doesn’t.

Inviting LGBTQ folks–just as they are–into the church, and into the sacrament of marriage, means inviting them to share in the moral ideals of the church and of Christian life. It means that the same moral standards can apply to all of us, whether gay or straight: self control, patience, love, commitment, faithfulness, and so on. We are all made in the image of God, and despite our differences, if we seek God we all have the capacity to reflect that image in our lives, our service, and our (different-sex or same-sex) relationships. 

Having the “right” genitalia is not an indication of spiritual superiority or leadership potential, just as having the “right” sexual orientation is not a guarantee of morality. On the flip side, having the “wrong” gender or sexual orientation is not a guarantee of spiritual inferiority or immorality. It’s time to leave aside those labels and value judgments and see how we as individuals can all be branches of the same Vine, producing good fruit and loving one another.

This is my dream for the church, for it to be a place where the only identities that matter are those of Jesus-follower and beloved child of God.

How I Found Gay Cuban Jesus and became an LGBTQ-Affirming Christian

When I was a senior in college (that is, 15 years ago now), I took a Hispanic literature and film class in which we watched the Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate. It was an uncomfortable experience for me.

I didn’t know what to expect from the film because as a fledgling reader of Spanish, I hadn’t made much headway with the short novel that the film is based on (The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man by Senel Paz). For starters, I was a little shocked and embarrassed by a brief but strong (and very hetero) sex scene at the beginning of the film, and I remember surreptitiously glancing around at my classmates, thinking, “Did I really just see that in class?”

What followed left me even more unsettled, but for different reasons: A gay man (Diego) makes a play for a young straight man (David), and through various twists and turns of the plot, the two of them develop a genuine friendship and respect for one another. At the end of the film, they share an emotional embrace as Diego prepares to leave the country because of the communist regime’s repression of intellectual freedom and persecution of LGBTQ people.Screenshot 2015-02-04 15.18.58

It has been 15 years, but I still remember how that embrace bothered me. Despite the bright Cuban sunshine streaming in through the window, the act seemed sinister and threatening. Worrisome. The big bad wolf had somehow managed to get friendly with little Red Riding Hood, and that wasn’t how the story was supposed to end.

I didn’t really understand the film, but I knew that it contradicted what I had been taught: that homosexuality is a sin and that it should not be normalized and promoted, much less embraced. The film got under my skin despite the fact that Diego’s initial ploy to seduce David does not succeed; as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, Strawberry and Chocolate “is not a movie about the seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind.” At the time, I guess I was not quite prepared for either possibility.

This all happened before the term “gay agenda” gained traction, and before a one’s stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage became such an important litmus test in certain circles for whether or not one is a “true” believer and practitioner of the Christian faith. In fact, the topic of homosexuality seemed distant and almost unreal as I grew up in rural south Georgia, far from the epicenters of the AIDS epidemic and blithely ignorant of any gay subtexts in the Queen songs that I learned from listening to the radio with my older brothers.

Homosexuality was a sin, but from my sheltered perspective it was a theoretical one, like making sacrifices to pagan gods . . . who did that? Not anyone that I knew! A year or two into college, I did have a bisexual friend (one of my best, in fact), but I was conveniently spared from having to confront the issue when she started dating a guy shortly after we met.

In this context, I wasn’t exactly homophobic, and I didn’t hate or gay-bash LGBTQ folks (that is, the two or three whom I knew at that point), but nevertheless, when I was suddenly confronted with having to think and write about gay men and their stories (we also read and watched Kiss of the Spider Woman), I was profoundly unsettled by the contradictions between what I believed and what I felt, and I was caught between the impulse to identify with the characters or to keep them at arm’s length as foreign and possibly dangerous others.

So, you could say that Diego was the first (albeit fictional) person to seriously challenge my beliefs on homosexuality and LGBTQ people, and that first time around, I couldn’t identify with him. I couldn’t accept that final embrace.

Several years later and quite a bit farther down the road of my Christian journey, I decided to rewatch Strawberry and Chocolate when I was choosing films for a Hispanic cultures class (mostly, I confess, because it was one of only two Cuban films that I had ever seen).

I was looking for relevant cultural content for my students, but what I found instead was Jesus.

Gay Cuban Jesus, to be precise.

That, and a change of heart.

As I rewatched (and then re-rewatched) Strawberry and Chocolate, I came not only to identify with Diego, but to love and respect him just as David, his young straight friend in the film, does. I learned to see his goodness and passion, and to see the evil of the regime that oppresses him and ultimately forces him to leave the country that he loves. I also noticed something that I think I completely missed the first time around: Diego’s identity in the film is not limited to that of gay man, or even that of passionate, oppressed intellectual.

Diego is also a creyente, a believer . . . one might even go so far as to call him a Christian. Not quite the same variety as most of us, for sure, but a believer nonetheless. When I first saw the film, I hadn’t known what to make of his odd relationship with the statue of his patron saint, or with the troubling and potentially sacrilegious statue of Jesus that is hidden under a sheet in his apartment, waiting to be shown at an art exhibition.

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The statue is a fairly standard representation of Jesus, but it is pierced in several places by the communist sickle, resulting in an image that I originally saw as a statement against Christ and Christianity on the part Diego’s artist friend, who is also gay. Oh boy, did I miss the point.

The statue is more likely a criticism of the communist regime that restricted religious practice and that spied on, discriminated against, and even persecuted people of faith . . . just like it spied on, discriminated against, and persecuted gay men like Diego.

Regardless of his love of Cuba and his desire to contribute to its betterment, Diego is pierced over and over by rejection and censorship. When he takes too firm of a stand for artistic freedom, his life, like the plan for the exhibition of the Jesus statue, is ruined. Diego, like the subversive statue of Christ, is forced to exist in hiding. When he objects, he loses his job and is blacklisted and forced into exile away from the country that he has loved so dearly . . . and that he still loves despite the rejection and persecution that he has suffered at its hands.

Kind of like Jesus, still loving the people who nailed him to a cross.

At one point in the film, Diego insists, “I am a part of this country, like it or not, and I have a right to work for its future! . . . Without me, you’re missing a piece!”

He was right . . . the Revolution lost something when it silenced his voice, when it ostracized him and forced him into exile.

How many LGBTQ people have been silenced or exiled by the church? What suffering have we caused, and what have we lost as a result?

How many times have Christians done the persecuting? How many times have we been the Romans with nails, the ideologues with sickles?

And how many times have we excused ourselves by talking about “sin” when none of us has the right to cast stones?

This is not a post about whether homosexual behavior is sinful or not (if you want to read more on that, check here, here, or here). This is a post, in part, about why “sin” isn’t the point.

The point is that people of faith–gay and straight and both and neither–are all part of the church. We all deserve the chance to be in community and to contribute to the future of our faith. We all lose when we exclude and ostracize others who want to be in community.

The point is also that LGBTQ people are just that, people, who have stories that we need to hear, respect, and find ourselves in. When I took a step back from my ideology and really listened to Diego’s story, I could no longer find it in myself to reject and condemn him. In the end, like David, I was seduced . . . not by “sin,” but by Diego’s quirky, passionate, flawed, and honest humanity. By the person behind the label.

Through Diego and David’s story, I understood how I was part of the regime–how I was the crucifier, not the crucified. I realized that I was on the wrong side.

I finally found the joy of that embrace, a joy which has been translated in my life from the fiction of a film to friendships that I treasure and people that I love.

Thank you for that, Diego. Thank you for being my gay Cuban Jesus.


This post is dedicated to my LGBTQ friends and students, and to the first same-sex couples being officially married in the state of Alabama today. Love wins!  


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On Brokenness: Sin, Human Struggle, and Sacred, Safe Spaces

A few days ago, one of my favorite online people, blogger and Moonshine Jesus Show host Mark Sandlin posted an article titled “Christianity has it wrong – You are not Broken.” Although I don’t I agree with the entirety of the post, I liked it and it set me on a course of thought that led to some interesting reflections.

I agree with Mark that as humans, we aren’t already “broken” or “sinful” right out of the gate as some traditions of belief have claimed. While Mark’s views in the article may cut us a little too much slack, I think they are preferable to doctrines of original sin and total depravity that condemn us from the moment that sperm meets egg (or even before, really), or that claim that without the direct influence of God, humans only have a tendency toward evil and sin.

In addition to doctrines like original sin, I suspect that Mark’s article is also a response to more progressive Christian voices who embrace the existence of “brokenness” in our lives and extol the value of being open and honest about it (Glennon Doyle Melton at Momastery comes to mind). One can debate whether talking about our human struggles in terms of “brokenness” is helpful or not, but essentially, I think this approach is less problematic because it doesn’t necessarily saddle us with automatic evil or spiritual unworthiness, and it potentially creates opportunities for healing and restoration.

I have long thought that human beings have an equal capacity for good and for evil. Mark writes that our flaws and our stumbles are simply part of the process of being human and that they do not make us sinful, unworthy, or broken. I agree that nothing we can do puts us beyond of the reach of God’s love, of regeneration and reconciliation, but I do think that there is a natural human tendency that often leads us to sin, and I think Mark touches on it when he writes that “We are so deeply invested in life that we can, at times, deny the larger good for the experience of the moment.”

Mark says that we are “self-invested” because of “love” . . . but love of what, exactly? I suspect that our capacity for evil stems from our love of self . . . more specifically, from our basic instinct for self-preservation. The need to preserve and protect ourselves (and, secondarily, the people and things that we love or value) is perhaps our prime motivation in life, and it can manifest itself in negative or positive ways.

Self-preservation often leads us to selfishness and to a quest for power, resources, and gratification at the expense of others. I have come to believe that this is at the root of a lot of what we call “sin.” It divides, hurts, and oppresses. It leads us to eye our neighbors with suspicion, to hoard resources when others are in need, and to exchange fairness and justice for the illusion of security and peace (I call them illusions because neither really exist in the absence of justice).

If humans have an innate tendency to evil and injustice, I think this is it. We all have the potential to be selfish and to ignore, exploit, oppress, or marginalize others in an attempt to guarantee our own security and status. We all have the potential to seek comfort and gratification to the point of excess.

And I think that giving in to those tendencies is what often leaves us with a feeling of brokenness and of separation both from God and from others.

Our culture perpetuates selfishness and excess, but God calls us to take a different path and follow our better natures. We all have that instinctual drive toward self-preservation, but God invites us to realize that our needs are best filled in community.

Our best attempts at self-preservation are attempts to guarantee the preservation of others: to promote equality, justice, acceptance, and love. We are all in that “inescapable network of mutuality” that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about; we do not stand alone as independent and unaffected individuals. We belong to each other, and at our best we realize that and we care for each other as ourselves, beginning with our immediate communities and extending out into our world.

If we take the time and effort to create authentic communities, we can serve and be served, and we can meet needs and have our needs met. We can release the anxiety that comes from trying to fulfill all of our needs on our own. We can tear away the veil of self-sufficient individualism and not be afraid to let others know that we have struggles, wounds, and broken places.

I agree with Mark that we are not inherently “broken,” and that Christian culture should not promote theology that leads people to feel unworthy or damaged, or that uses those ideas to control them through shame, guilt, and fear. However, many of us have circumstances in our lives that cause us to experience profound feelings of being wounded or broken: grief, anger, failure, addiction, abuse, anxiety, depression . . . the list goes on. Feeling broken may not be the same as being broken, but when one experiences it, there isn’t much appreciable difference.

Our individualistic “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” and “suck-it-up” culture often encourages us to hide our wounds and cover up our broken spots rather than seeking the support and help that we need. So while some Christian voices may get a little over-zealous in celebrating our “brokenness,” I think that they are still on to something positive. They are encouraging communities where there is less shame and fear of rejection, and where we can be vulnerable and share our weaknesses and struggles with each other. Safe, sacred spaces where we can find affirmation in spite of our imperfections and recover our sense of worth and wholeness . . . where we can remember that we are indeed beloved children of God.


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A Glorified Tramp Stamp and a Seat at the Table, or, Thoughts on Christian Unity

There has been a stir in the progressive Christian community recently about the label “progressive” and what it means, since there are some on both the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum who try to police the boundaries of what is progressive and what is Christian. Bloggers who are too liberal or agnostic in certain areas are chided or even attacked as not being Christian, while other bloggers are told that they are not progressive enough because they still hold to this or that belief associated with more conservative faith traditions.

As David Henson beautifully articulated last week, the gift of progressive Christianity is that it makes room at the table for people all along the spectrum of faith and doubt. However, policing from either side threatens to turn this diverse and inclusive community into another closed system that draws hard lines about who is in or out, who is Christian or not, and who gets a place at the table and a voice in the conversation.

This is worrisome for those of us who have come to progressive Christianity precisely because we have either been excluded (often painfully) from church communities or because we have naturally evolved away from fundamentalist systems of belief.

My own journey away from conservative evangelicalism began in college, and I consider myself lucky that when I was in grad school, I accidentally stumbled into a church where my spiritual evolution and growth were encouraged and accepted, rather than being kicked out of one because of that same process.

I have met enough recovering fundamentalists and evangelical rejects–folks who carry deep spiritual wounds from being ostracized by their church communities and even their own families–to be extremely grateful for my former church, Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, and my current one, Weatherly Heights Baptist Church (WHBC). I have had  experiences of being marginalized as a woman and of being excluded or even insulted because of my theology (I wrote about one of those experiences here), but I am fortunate to have a community where I belong.

I have been planning to write something about WHBC for the blog in part because in creating “Prone to wander . . . lured by grace,” I have further co-opted WHBC’s beautiful rose window. I am going to digress a moment to talk about that before I come back and tie this thing together.

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I think of the rose window, which symbolizes the presence of God in our sanctuary, as partially mine because back in 2013, I had an interpretation of it tattooed on my lower back, where I already had a dragonfly tattoo from about a dozen years earlier. Back when I decided to get that first tattoo, lower-back designs on women weren’t extremely common (at least not in my corner of the world) and had yet to earn the disparaging nickname “tramp stamp.” If I had anticipated that, I might have made a different choice!

But regardless of that, years later, after spending many contemplative moments of worship staring up at WHBC’s lovely window and finding God’s presence in the multi-colored beams of light pouring through the stained glass, I went under the needle again (with the fabulous Caroline at Blue Rose Tattoo) and emerged with what I joked to a friend was now a “glorified” tramp stamp.

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I love the combination of the tattoos because of the way they join together the parts of who I am. The dragonfly simultaneously represents my origins (envision south Georgia summer evenings with dozens of dragonflies zipping through the dusk in the wide yard of my childhood) and my transformative journey away from those origins and into independence, into the courage that it takes to discard the expectations of others and simply and unapologetically be oneself.

The rose window, just as it does in our sanctuary, symbolizes the presence of God, but more than that, it symbolizes my openness to divine love and light and my hope that that light also shines through me and into our world. It represents the constancy of God’s grace and my aspiration to an ever more illuminated spiritual life. It also reminds me that being a Jesus-follower requires sacrifices of my time, my body, and my resources. It reminds me that this is a beautiful but costly, and sometimes painful, journey.

And that brings me back to my community, my fellow travelers.

In 2007, when I left my beloved Broadus Memorial Baptist Church to follow my career to Alabama, I worried whether I could find another church that would support me and my journey, and where my contributions would be accepted and valued. I knew that after finding a real spiritual home, I would not be able to thrive in a community where I would have to keep my head down and my thoughts to myself for fear of being reprimanded or rejected.

When I browsed churches online, I was immediately drawn in by WHBC’s tagline: “An inclusive, discovering fellowship,” by the highly visible presence of female leadership in the church, and by the language of the vision statement: “heartfelt Biblical faith,” “intellectual integrity,” “social justice,” “genuinely care for one another,” and so on.

Over the last seven years or so, WHBC has more than lived up to that original impression. It has been a place where my evolving and at times even faltering faith has been affirmed, renewed, and expanded. It has been a place where I have found essential mentors and faithful friends. It has been a place, most importantly, where I have found a true sense of belonging.

And the most beautiful thing is that I don’t belong at WHBC simply because everyone else there is as progressive, intellectual, liberal, feminist, and tattooed as I am, because they aren’t. 

I belong because the WHBC community values unity over uniformity.

Because we scoot over our chairs to make room at the table for someone who is perhaps not entirely like ourselves.

Because we respect the faith journeys of others even when they don’t follow the same path as our own.

Because our ministers respect our individuality and recognize that we all come to faith in unique ways and bring valuable perspectives and talents to the table.

Because we genuinely love and care for each other and our larger community.

WHBC is my community, a place where I fit . . . glorified tramp stamp and all.

I thank God for my church, and I pray for those who have been rejected from communities and have subsequently left the faith and for those who can only find the acceptance of fellow Christians via the internet because the churches in their area have not welcomed them (or worse, have actively rejected them) because of any number of factors–from physical appearance to sexual orientation to theological nitpicking.

Here at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, my prayer is twofold. First, I pray that every person seeking an authentic spiritual community will find one where his or her whole person is welcomed and accepted, because when we belong, and when we are able to be true to ourselves and vulnerable to those around us, that is when true community and exists and true transformation is possible.

Second, I pray that both in churches and online, all Christians–most especially those who claim the label progressive–will step up to the task of making room at the table for everyone who desires a place there.

Let us all come to the table to break bread together.

Let us fill each other’s cups.

Let us not only say grace, but give and receive it freely.

There is more than enough to go around. 


*My thanks to our guest minister for today, Rev. Christie Ashton from Hope Presbyterian Church for providing some of the inspiration for this blog post, and my thanks and love to all of my BMBC and WHBC friends who may be reading along!  

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