When I first set foot on my college’s campus, almost ten years ago, I had no intention of sticking with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination that had raised me. In the months before my departure for college, my little home church had been rocked by abuse in its youth group, the offense — and the church’s position on it — upending the notion that church had anything to do with integrity or trust or love.

Those first days at school, I found myself in the chaplain’s office, wrestling with questions, more or less begging her to justify the church’s presence in my life. She invited me to the Sunday evening vespers service in the college chapel, where each service ended with three verses of the hymn “All Praise to Thee,” set to Tallis’ canon. The chaplain strumming on the guitar, we sat in a dimly lit circle and sang:

All praise to Thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, lord of all,
Beneath Thine own almighty wings.

In her office with me, the chaplain, a Presbyterian minister, listened to my questions and lamented the injustice of the church at large. She wondered back about another chaplain on campus, a lesbian candidate for ministry waiting for the church to open its arms to her. It was the first time I’d heard someone pour the alphabet soups of LGBT communities and Presbyterian churches into one soup pot, and my heart burst open with recognition.

That first year in that vespers circle, we sang hymns I’d never heard, discussed theology I’d never known, practiced community in ways I’d never experienced. We walked a labyrinth, made pancakes with the Baha’i group on campus, shared meals with the Muslim Student Association, explored organizations like Covenant Network and More Light Presbyterians. We resurrected the campus’s ecumenical, progressive Protestant group and knitted together a community of faith built on trust and hope and faith. In that vespers circle, the PC(USA) held more possibility than I had ever imagined, and more light, and gradually I came to hold in my own heart the knowledge that faith and love and sexuality do not preclude one another.

In our vespers circle, we sang:

O may my soul on Thee repose,
And may sweet sleep mine eyelids close,
Sleep that shall me more vigorous make
To serve my God when I awake.

Our vespers circle was small, but for me it was revolutionary. As a young adult member I questioned where I belonged, questioned, too, my sexual identity. Much later, when I was working at a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia and with the Presbyterian campus ministry at the University of Delaware, I heard the Tallis canon sung with these words instead:

Go with us Lord and guide the way
In this and every coming day
That in Your Spirit strong and true
Our lives may be a gift to you.

Campus ministries are unique among communities of faith: their members come from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of pains and hopes shaped by the churches of their childhoods, and most of them are poised to enter adulthood for the first time. The turnover is swift and frequent but the relationships made in those communities are life-giving, and lifelong.

I had been ready to leave the Presbyterian Church even before I knew that I was a lesbian, but it was the faith and witness and grace of Presbyterian campus chaplains who made space for me to wonder and to wander, who made it possible for me, finally, to call this church home, despite my questions, despite coming to understand my deepest self at precisely the same moment I came to know the wider struggle of LGBT people in the church.

These ministries have the amazing capacity to nurture our most deeply personal questions and our mostly deeply held truths, so that we may still sing:

All praise to Thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, lord of all,
Beneath Thine own almighty wings.

Hillary Mohaupt serves on the MLP Editorial Board. She has a decade of experience in communications work with cultural, religious and educational organizations. She has served on the coordinating committee of the National Network of Presbyterian College Women and the churchwide coordinating team of Presbyterian Women, with whom she has held educational trips to Switzerland and France. She is currently an MFA candidate in the fiction writing program at Pacific University in Oregon; she also holds a Master’s in History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware, and a BA in history from Macalester College. An Illinois native, she lives in Philadelphia with her partner and their cat. She is a ruling elder at Hanover Church in Wilmington, Delaware.

5 Comments, RSS

  • Madeleine Mysko

    The second time I read this inspiring post, I had the beautiful vesper hymn playing in the background (thanks to the link!) Lovely, comforting. Thank you, Hillary.

  • Evelyn Carpenter

    This is beautifully written and so you!
    I miss you dearly as my office mate.
    Keep your amazing mind producing such lovely articles.

  • Merris Hollingsworth

    Hilary, I loved reading this beautiful statement about your journey. It is a wonderful testament to the Spirit working through college ministries to lead you forward. I’m grateful for all the ways you offer your gifts to the church.

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