“So...do people from Kentucky wear shoes?” I sat there, slack-jawed, trying to comprehend the words that had just come out of her mouth. I had recently moved to Nashville for college, and this was a big change for a girl from rural Kentucky. My new classmate was obviously curious.
“I mean, I know you own shoes,” she said. “But do you wear them if you don’t have to? I’ve heard that going barefoot is just the way it is there.”
On that day, I first understood the power and influence of stereotypes.
I was “shoe-less” because I was from Appalachia. I prayed she never found out about my sexual orientation. There were another set of stereotypes reserved for that label, and something told me it wouldn’t go over so well at a Christian university.
One decade later, I’m still in Nashville. You might ask why a bona fide lesbian would choose to stay in a region that’s not exactly celebrated for diversity and equality. There’s just no denying it—this city is a part of me. I have a hopeless affinity for its quaint, southern charm and small-town feel.
But the biggest reason I stay?
It’s because I am witnessing an awakening—an upsurge of LGBT advocacy within the Christian community.
This new movement is slowly eradicating those all too familiar stereotypes regarding religion and southern culture in general—and people like Rev. Dr. Pamela Hawkins are making it possible.
I first met Pam on the sidewalk in front of her United Methodist church building. My partner and I had mustered enough courage to attend a class on homosexuality and Christianity, based off the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So.
We weren’t entirely sure what to expect. What if it was a trap? What if they intended to lure us in under the guise of acceptance, and then tell us God had a better plan for our lives? This was Nashville, after all—one of the many buckles of the Bible Belt. Was I hoping for too much?
Pam greeted us warmly and showed us the way into the classroom.
As we sat in this new place surrounded by new people, our fears were immediately abated.
The atmosphere was warm and inviting, and the ground rules were laid out in the very beginning: “No one has to agree, but everyone must be treated with respect.”
Pam cultivated an environment for life-giving discussion on a topic that is all too often silenced. By sharing stories, fears, ideas, and theologies, we became a tight-knit group of seekers, made up of people I still consider dear friends today. Pam became not only a teacher, but also a confidante, spiritual mentor, and friend. We still get together at the Crow’s Nest, a local dive, where we discuss philosophy, theology, and life.
As a pastor, Pam is quite cognizant of the tensions that sometimes arise between the religious and LGBT communities. Through her love and compassion, she has become an ambassador to those who are searching for a place of belonging. She first realized the need for reconciliation while working as a youth pastor years ago.
“For a reason I cannot be sure of, a few LGBT youth sought me out to talk about their questions about sexual orientation and gender identity,” says Pam.
“I felt so honored, but so ill-prepared for those conversations, but I knew right away in my heart and soul that these gifted young followers of Jesus were fully loved by God.”
Once you meet Pam, it’s not difficult to understand why so many people feel safe confiding in her. She exudes genuine kindness and warmth, her eyes gently gleam with compassion. Despite her multiple degrees (including a Master’s of Divinity and a Doctorate of Ministry), she insists that she is no more spiritual than anyone else. Perhaps it is precisely that humble disposition that sets her apart. People who bestow such immense blessings are rarely able to see the impact of their actions.
If you attend Pam’s congregation on a Sunday morning, you will hear an opening message that goes something like this: “We’re glad you are here today. No matter where you’re from, no matter your beliefs, no matter your doubts, no matter what you feel and don’t feel today, and no matter who you love...you are welcome here.”
I’ll never forget the first time I heard those words. Simple as they were, for me, they carried such profound meaning. Like an estranged daughter, I felt as though I was coming home.
I had indeed found a place where I was loved exactly as I am, not in spite of it, but even because of it.
Many LGBT Christians do not have a place a worship where they can feel comfortable being themselves. What’s worse, many LGBT’s who desperately want to experience fellowship are, instead, rejected or turned away.
We need straight Christian allies who are willing to have tough conversations—people who are ready to help others explore Biblical texts in a fresh, more authentic way.
Just like my curious college classmate, everyone makes assumptions. In the same way that conservative Christians believe gays are depraved, some LGBT individuals assume that all religious people are bigoted. However, as the movement for LGBT equality gains momentum, hundreds of mainline Protestant and Evangelical congregations are stepping forward to voice their support for LGBT inclusion.
Even so, there are a lot of stereotypes to undo; religion’s abhorrent history left quite a wake.
Pam brought a welcome change into my life—one that I desperately needed. Before meeting her, I had spent nearly a decade trying my darnedest to become straight. The twenty years prior to that were spent subconsciously fighting my instincts. I tried to “pray away the gay.” I negotiated with God—even promised to be the first Protestant nun! All of this, of course, to no avail.
I know many Christians have struggled desperately (as I have) with accepting their sexuality. I asked Pam to share her advice for those who are trying to reconcile their spiritual life with their sexual orientation or gender identity. Here is her response:
First, I would advise someone who is struggling to find a person who will listen to them about this struggle. I would urge them to trust their heart and to find a way to be heard—a pastor, a spiritual friend, a counselor, someone who will listen and take time...because this struggle deserves time. And I would do all I can to remind them of God's love for them, and that God is with them in the struggle and longs for them to know they are fully loved. This may sound very trite and simplistic—but for me, it is one of the most complicated claims for us to live into, especially if we have not heard it very often. I would ask them, if they are willing, to share their story with me so that I can hear it in all of its darkness and light. So many times we edit our stories of the most essential, life-giving parts because someone implied or told us that it was not a good enough story. But it is our story, it is your story, and it is God's story with us.
Indeed, it is our story. With help from people like Pam, love is truly conquering the darkness.
When fear or rejection rears its ugly head, may we be reminded that times and hearts are changing.
There will be a day when LGBT discrimination is unheard of, even in our religious institutions.
I wish every single one of you could meet Pam. If you’re ever in Nashville, join us at the Crow’s Nest for some drinks, burgers, and conversation. I’ll be sure to wear my shoes.
Photo via flickr user Adam Fagen