Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tell Your Story

I shared lunch last week with a classmate from Duke Divinity School and his wife. Josh and I started seminary at the same time and were in a small-group like class from day one. We both love Duke, the church, and the way Duke prepared us to serve the church. Naturally, our conversation turned to what's happening at Duke now.

"Do you know about the controversy that surfaced during orientation week?" Josh asked.

I have read articles about what happened as well as a few blogs on the subject. I'm aware that students questioned where the school stands on LGBT equality, that the dean reportedly responded by quoting the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, and that students, faculty and staff staged a protest of support as Fall Convocation was beginning.

I've thought about writing this blog entry several times in the weeks since as I have one central piece of advice to LGBT students at Duke Divinity School.

Please tell your story.

When I saw the pictures accompanying the article in the local newspaper, I sought to examine who showed up that day. Who are the faculty who donned a rainbow stole and stood in solidarity with LGBT students?

I then wondered if I would have been amongst them. Would I have stood with gay and lesbian students who feel deeply called by God and led to study at Duke Divinity School?

I'm not entirely comfortable with my answer as I realize I would not have been amongst those faculty and staff when I first started to serve as Director of Admissions at the Divinity School. I may not have stood there in my first, second or third years on staff, in fact. But I know I would have been there in my fourth year as we welcomed a new group of students because I would have heard your story by that time.

It was while serving on the staff at Duke that I first heard the fullness of one's story who was seeking to reconcile his identity as a gay man who was deeply called to ordination in the United Methodist Church. I'll never forget the first time I met this person. He was a junior at a well-respected United Methodist college in the South. He had been to General Conference a time or two, was well-known and beloved by faculty and peers. Everyone knew he would be a pastor, if not a bishop some day. He had gifts with the capacity to bear fruit and make a big difference. He came to the table for lunch not as one who was discerning whether to go to seminary but rather discerning which seminary to attend. I was grateful and proud when he sent his deposit, securing his place in our incoming class.

He arrived on campus and started to naturally use his gifts of leadership. He got involved in student government. He excelled in the classroom. He won the hearts of pastors and congregations with whom he served in summer field education placements. And then he came to see me one afternoon.

While I cannot recall how the conversation started, I can still picture the snot and tears running down both of our faces at the end, tangible signs that result from hearts that are broken.

He was accepting the fullness of his identity as a gay man.

I was accepting the fullness of our church's inability to continue to embrace his gifts, his passion, and his call to be a pastor in our denomination. It was heartbreaking in every possible way. And it's no wonder that this person not only stepped away from the ordination process but has stepped fully away from our church today.

I can't blame him.

It's a decision I'm tempted with on a regular basis as I seek to reconcile what it means to be a vocal advocate of our church's need to change until we fully ordain LGBT people without asking them to stay in the closet of their congregation. It's a decision I am tempted with on a regular basis as I support marriage equality - not only in the District of Columbia but also inside the walls of our United Methodist Church.

But I would never be at this place without his story. I would not be an outspoken advocate for change and equality had it not been for a student who told me the fullness of his story.

There are many things I love about the theology of the United Methodist Church. Prevenient grace stands at the forefront of my gratitude list. I'm equally grateful for the way we do theology when we say that our faith was revealed in scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified through personal experience and confirmed by reason. My personal experience with gay students at Duke who told me their faithful stories of God's call on their life and their deep desire to respond is the lens through which I read scripture. It was students who told their story, and not an exegetical course, that taught me how to read six or eight passages of scripture that deal with homosexuality. It was students who told their story that enabled me to see most clearly God at work - shaping my theology and my sense of call in powerful ways.

I used to say the same thing every time I hosted a group of prospective students for a full-day visit at the Divinity School, "Just as God has called you to ministry, God will also call you to the seminary that is right for you." I would then ask students to pay attention to how they felt throughout the day. "If you leave with more anxiety than peace, then please pay attention to that and visit additional seminaries. If you leave with a sense of excitement and peace, then please pay attention to that and complete your application to Duke."

I continue to believe these words are true. LGBT students and advocates at Duke Divinity School - please don't question your decision to come to Duke. I would not trade my seminary education for anything and would choose Duke again in a heartbeat. I firmly believe it provided the most faithful foundation to lead a congregation today. But please also don't refrain from telling your story - the fullness of your story. Your story is part of my transformation. Your story is the reason I seek to faithfully advocate for and embody change today.

3 comments:

Peter S said...

Powerful witness, Donna. Thank you.

Jerry Roberson said...

No matter one's circumstances .... no matter the topic .... we should all learn to tell our story. The power of "testimony" can change lives (both of the teller and of the hearer). Not until we all learn to tell our stories .... and listen to stories of others .... can we be in full community with one another as people of faith.

And yes, I've noticed it's been a while since you last blogged, Donna. ;-)

Paul Roberts Abernathy said...

Donna, thank you. I've joined your blog as a follower today due to my love for you and deepened respect for you every time I read one of your FB posts. And I thank you for this blog post. Your transparent honesty, your breadth of integrity, and your wisdom enveloped by your compassion inspire me.