When I first moved to Springfield, Missouri I remember how claustrophobic I was. There were trees everywhere, and buildings – so many buildings. It was a four hour drive and a world away from the wide open skies and empty luxury of rural, southcentral Kansas. It took me more than a year to adjust to that place where I didn’t quite seem to belong.
In retrospect I think the confinement also had to do with the first religious communities that invited me in. They were filled with exceptional people who had questionable theology, that kind of fundamental faith that left little room for all the questions I had.
I discovered that it’s nearly impossible to find authentic personal space and relationships when whole parts of the self have to be hidden. At first I hid the faith questions and all the other things. In Springfield at first, I was trapped, given the false choice between having faith and coming out.
Thank goodness for the many encounters through which we are saved: religious studies departments, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a coach who, to this day, understands her vocation as empowering women.
I don’t often think about the first coming out years. It was a long, sometimes silent, painful process. To hold onto certain people, certain values, I had to let others go. I’m sure it hurt them too. It’s hard to dive very deep into all of that now. I’ve taken so many steps from where I used to be, and it’s hard to imagine those who haven’t taken any steps.
But they’re still there as we know from the recent vote that narrowly repealed an ordinance protecting LGBT persons. They still believe in those false choices, no doubt. But sometimes I wonder what they think about me now, an ordained minister, married to another woman. I wonder how they process my colleagues the women and men (lots of them Disciples of Christ) who led the No Repeal campaign in the name of the same God as theirs. Or is a different God? I’m not sure – we seem so far apart.
The other month I was back in Springfield to speak as part of the Faith and Life Matters lecture series. I talked about vocation and what I’ve learned from basketball and life, and part of the story, no surprise, is the integration of my sexuality and my faith. The hardest coming out is coming out to the past. It’s much easier when people judge you right from the beginning, so to tangle up my ministry and sexuality with being a former Lady Bear (basketball player) in a visibly conservative town, well, that was the scariest thing I’ve done in a while.
I was practicing my talk in the mirror and flashed into my college self. One year we played a preseason basketball game against Athletes in Action, a team of Christians who use sports as a platform to give their testimonies of faith. After the game, a woman shared her story of living a sinful homosexual lifestyle and how she was saved to follow Christ. Afterwards I pushed her a bit – I knew freedom was coming for me, but she was headed in the other direction. I still remember her name. I still wonder: what would it have meant if the Athletes in Action woman’s story had broken the other way? What if she hadn’t been forced into that false choice: faith or freedom?
Right before my talk last month, as I was shaking off that horrible feeling you get when you want to run right back into the closet, I remembered how you never know how people will hear what you say. I’ve preached enough to know that much. Right before I spoke, I thought about how my college self would have heard my message. I thought about how the way time and space work themselves around, the life I could save might be my own.
I occupy spaces of such luxurious freedom now that it’s easy to forget about those rigid, claustrophobic spaces that still exist around Springfield, and probably here too.I wish I could tell them, and I wish they could believe: it doesn’t have to be like that, you know.