The holiday season begins next week with Thanksgiving followed by Christmas and New Year. For too many of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ), the holidays can feel more like Good Friday than Christmas Day. We feel spiritually homeless in our own families who were taught by the church that LGBTQ people are somehow outside of God’s perfect plan. Going home for the holidays can feel spiritually violent as we are bringing the sacredness of our capacity to love and/or gender identity and expression into places that should be nurturing, only to experience discomfort, disdain or even outright rejection.
The religious news cycle this week bubbled with the trial, conviction and sentencing of United Methodist pastor Rev. Frank Schaefer for officiating at the same-gender wedding of his son Tim. When the dust finally settles, this will be a story about what it means to be family in America. This is not just a story about the Schaefer family, but a story about the families of each of the clergy jurors that voted to convict a father for simply loving his own son. The clergy jurors are returning home to turkey, stuffing and dressing with their own extended families, and to pulpits where their influence shapes families who may have LGBTQ children in their midst. Their verdict shaped not only the outcome of this trial, but sent a message to millions that LGBTQ people are not worthy to be fully celebrated in the United Methodist Church and in other communities of faith.
Because of the love and courage of Rev. Frank Schaefer, Tim can return home for the holidays with his whole self and the person he loves. Tim shared his own family coming out journey with the prosecution at his dad’s sentencing hearing, captured on Reconciling Ministries Network’s Facebook page.
“First heard hateful LGBT speech at Annual Conference. Prayed God to make me normal. Cried myself to sleep.”
“Didn’t want to bring shame to family church. I thought killing myself would spare my family & church pain.”
Tears in court room as Tim Schaefer talks about contemplating suicide because of the shame the #UMC communicated to him.
“Before today I had positive memory of this camp. Learned about God’s love. Today is being used for very different purpose.”
Prosecution: “Tell us about being divorced.”
Tim: “Actually, I am married.”
Prosecution: “No further questions.”
When Tim was 16, Rev. Frank Schaefer received an anonymous call from a woman to let him know that his son was gay and contemplating suicide. A Washington Post article provides backstory on that moment in the life of the Schaefer family:
Schaefer and his wife asked their son point-blank.
“What sticks in my mind, he was so upset not that I was gay, but that I had planned to wait to leave the house before saying anything,” said Tim Schaefer, who lives in Massachusetts…
“My wife and I lost it in tears. We hugged him. We told him we loved him so much,” the pastor said separately in a phone interview. “To me, this was definitely the proof — he did not choose this.”
Rev. Frank Schaefer could have avoided the trial if he agreed to not perform another same-gender marriage. Three of his four children are gay and as a father and a pastor, he could not withhold his ministry to them anymore. In the Schaefer family, the spiritual abuse they experience at church is banished from their home.
Too many of us in the LGBTQ community don’t have a family like the Schaefers and spend the holidays away from our families to guard our emotional well-being, or spend time with our families and leave the sacredness of our capacity to love and/or gender identity and expression at the door. More Light Presbyterians hopes to build a movement that removes the transphobia and homophobia that creates this harm, but we also want to be a family to those who need to form a family of choice among us.
As we journey into the season of Advent and wait for the Christ child who was born in a world with no room for him, how can we be intentional this holiday season to create a space where those out of place are not spiritually homeless again? The holiday season is often the time when the walls of heteronormativity are raised the highest as families cocoon together for the holidays. As MLP movement author Donna Riley wrote recently in a post about her experience of exile in the PC(USA): “I then realized it wasn’t the coolness of reserved New Englanders but rather the heteronormativity of a ‘welcoming’ congregation that had me locked in solitary, even as I served in leadership. This congregation simply had no room for an unpartnered queer person without children.”
How do we look past the privilege often invisible in heteronormativity and the busyness of the holidays and seek out those for whom there is no room? Are you sure that all LGBTQ people in your community of faith have a place to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner? As Thomas Merton once wrote in a beautiful poem about Advent, Christ mysteriously hides himself in those for whom here is no room.
Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
but because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
his place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed and exterminated,
with those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in the world.
He is mysteriously present in those
for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
It is in these that he hides himself,
for whom there is no room.
This season as we wait for the Christ child to appear among us, we also are invited to look around to see who might be squirming with discomfort at the table, or who is loitering outside the door not ready to enter, or who feels like they must hide part of their lives to find sanctuary in our midst.