Here I Am
By Canon Mike Orr, Canon for Communications & Evangelism, The Episcopal Church in Colorado
The other day, I heard from a friend―rather, the partner of a longtime friend. I didn’t know him well, but I liked and admired him. He came to the point right away, admitting to his pain and anger toward the Church. Why me? He knew I was a churchgoer, a person of faith―a person who would listen. He’d grown up in rural South Dakota and had attended church regularly from childhood through early adulthood. He did all the right things: went to church camps, led small groups, played the organ, and served in church leadership. He lived a life expected of him: married, had children, and later divorced. Eventually, he courageously confronted his sexuality and came out to his family and community as gay.
Then his church turned their back on him and pushed him out. He’s held on to his grief and anger toward his former church, and toward God, ever since.
He knew I’d relate to his story because I’ve shared bits and pieces, over the years, about my own faith journey and my story. I also grew up attending church, went to church camp, led small groups, “struggled” with my sexuality, and spent long, painful years in reparative therapy. My relationship with God could have been characterized as tirelessly serving God with my gifts and skills and doing good works, hoping God would overlook me as an abomination and could somehow pity me enough to love me. For eight years, I worked at a nondenominational megachurch where I played the part I was supposed to play, complete with a fake, shiny, plastic persona where I buried my authentic self. Of course, I feared opening up in any genuine way to anyone. This tragically twisted understanding of God and myself turned me into a wreck. God didn’t give up on me though. I sought out a therapist who told me, “I don’t believe God doesn’t love you…all of you. I believe you are perfectly and wonderfully made…all of you.” A ray of light entered my shadowed world. Carrying that hope, I sought out resources that painted God in a much different light…that explored a theological understanding of God and God’s wholeness in an entirely new way. A God of grace. A God of love. A God who beautifully and wonderfully made each of us.
My friend expressed grief and pain during our conversation. I responded with accounts of hope and Jesus and love and sexuality and how they were life-giving to me, and I hoped they would be for him as well. A few days later, I listened to a podcast about evangelism that prompted me to recall this recent encounter. That moment, that conversation, WAS evangelism. Not the “E” word we have often come to dread in the church. In this conversation, I’d earned the trust through sharing my own stories over time, to hear the story of a fellow human being who needed to share his pain and look for a glimpse of hope; that same ray of light that had been extended to me years previously by someone who had earned my trust enough to share my own pain and grief. And this is the space where I trust the Holy Spirit to work. Work that can pry open the hardest of hearts, calm the worst storms, and comfort those who feel unlovable.
Often we think evangelism is a big corporate churchwide initiative of shouting that “God is Love!” whether it be on our church signs, from street corners on our Easter banners, through church initiatives to “invite a friend to church,” in participation in secular community events where we can sneakily slip that message in, or by posting an encouraging sermon from a church leader or service on our church Facebook pages. God certainly can work through those initiatives to communicate, but in my own experience, evangelism is a deeply rooted work of personal storytelling, sharing, loving, and listening. Getting real and sharing our lives and faith authentically. Evangelism is a work of saying “Here I am” when presented with the opportunity to show love or answer a call to talk about who Jesus is to us personally; to share that Good News we hold in our hearts and on our lips.
Across the world, Pride celebrations are held in the summer months. It is a time where LGBTQIA people feel a sense of community and draw from that strength of being in community. It is a time for celebrating families and communities of intention, where hope, love, and even God can be found. If you feel called, I encourage you to listen to peoples’ stories in the diverse LGBTQIA community. It may open a conversation where you can understand the grief and pain of someone who has walked a challenging faith journey, been abandoned by family members, or feels estranged from God. It may be a time for you to extend grace and be the face of Jesus they never knew existed.
This may also be a time where you feel called to explore the Bible in a new way and hear from others who’ve wrestled with the complexity of pastoral, personal, scriptural, and prophetic theology in the context of moving from fear to love; from conditional to unconditional. I commend to you a few books that have helped both myself and my friends and family members grow in our understanding of God’s Love:
This Far by Grace: A Bishop’s Journey Through Questions of Homosexuality, by J. Neil Alexander
Unclobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality, by Martin Colby
Letter to my Congregation, by Ken Wilson
Additionally, the Episcopal Church in Colorado has a treasure trove of formation resources, mentors and coaches, and opportunities to learn about how you can support LGBTQIA persons in your churches and greater communities online at https://episcopalcolorado.org/welcoming-and-inclusion/.
Let’s listen for God’s call together. Let’s be open to listening to one another and welcoming others who are “beautifully and wonderfully made.” Let’s seek and serve Christ in all persons together, loving our neighbors as ourselves. God is at work. Perhaps you will be the ray of light that someone needs. Maybe you will be the Jesus someone never knew existed.