October 11 is an important day for me. Twenty years ago on October 11, I told another person I was gay for the first time in my life. I didn’t know the significance of the date at the time, that is, National Coming Out Day. For the past twenty seven years, that has been a day when the coming out process is celebrated, resources are made available to those who are questioning, and LGBTQ people are urged to let others know who they are and that they are and proud. This is my twentieth anniversary.

But for me, this wasn’t something that I just decided to do on that day.

This followed years of struggle and months of contemplation and seeking the acceptance of God, counseling from United Methodist pastors and Episcopal priests, chaplains at the local AIDS clinic where I volunteered, and books and Bible study. During the summer of 1995, I was alone in church one Sunday morning. Well, alone in that the rest of my family was not there. I was in a fragile state that morning, and our Bishop was speaking. I really don’t remember any details of his sermon, but I do remember that what I got from it is that you cannot lie to God, that God knows our every secret. I was reminded of Psalm 139.

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.”

How could I hide from God?

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’ womb.”

My attraction toward men? God, you made me this way!

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful.”

God, you made me in a wonderful way!

I also remember having the greatest peace I have ever experienced come over me, as the spirit of God comforted me after I acknowledged what I had been trying to hide from God.

At that moment, I understood that I would be OK, but that I had to admit that I had been lying to my family, and to God, about who I was.

A few months later, on October 11, 1995, after acknowledging that I could be gay and be Christian, I came out.

In those 20 years, I have become a much stronger person, and much stronger Christian. It’s not always easy being gay and Christian. First of all, 20 years ago I did not know of any local affirming United Methodist Churches. Conventional wisdom at the time was that you could not be gay and Christian, and that mantra is still repeated by some today.

But eventually I felt I had found a church home when, after being asked to come to Discovery United Methodist Church to help in reaching out to the gay community, my husband Bobby and I finally visited and later joined as a couple. Our pastor at the time was supportive of us as a couple and under her leadership we began a small group which eventually became The Hospitality Group, a Reconciling Community.

We began as a book study of “Adam’s Gift”, by Jimmy Creech, a United Methodist pastor who was defrocked for performing unions between same sex couples. At the conclusion of the study, the author was invited to come and speak, and the room was packed with people from our church and from across the city. Our group, composed primarily of straight people at the time, and still so, is made up of people in the church and from beyond who want to see the church, and the denomination, become a truly welcoming place of worship for everyone, and by people who are interested in learning more about how homosexuality can be reconciled with scripture. We deal with these issues every week in our studies, sometimes using a book to study, sometimes using outside speakers and leaders, but always staying true to the word of God and in prayer. The group is four years old this month.

The entire month of October is celebrated as LGBT History Month, and significant events or people that are important to the movement are recognized.

Bobby’s and my Holy Ceremony where Bishop Melvin Talbert came to Birmingham and solemnized and publicly acclaimed our union took place two years ago this month. That historic event in The United Methodist Church was meant, among other things, to start conversations around the North Alabama Conference and the Global UMC about LGBT people in the church and marriage equality in the church. But those conversations are being stymied.

In fact, from the very beginning, our pastor (a different supportive pastor than the one our group formed under) was told by our district superintendent at the time, that she could not minister to Bobby and me, and that she better not be within 100 miles of our wedding.

This month the Hospitality Group will be submitting four petitions to the General Conference in 2016. Again, this will be historic for our church in that it will be the first time a resolution from members of this church have been considered at General Conference, as far as I know. The gist of these petitions are: A Resolution for Reducing Harm for LGBTQ Children and Youth – having to do with bullying, self-harm and homelessness for youth, and similar to the resolution passed in our Annual Conference this year; Ending Discrimination Against Homosexual Clergy – currently candidates in same-sex relationships are automatically disqualified from serving; Equality in Christian Marriage – currently same-sex couples are prevented from marrying in the church, pastors are prevented from performing this act of ministry, and church buildings cannot be used for same-sex weddings; and Removing The Condemnatory Language On Homosexuality From The Book of Discipline.

The LGBT people in this movement love our churches. We love the people in our churches. That is why we stay.

In spite of official UMC policy which would seem to drive us away (and in many cases is effective in doing so), we stay, like Paul and Silas who were stripped and beaten and flogged and imprisoned for sharing their faith. Who, after the walls of the prison crumbled around them, responded to the bewildered jailer who was in charge of their secure imprisonment, “We are all still here.” They could have escaped. They could have run to a place of safety. But they stayed and continued to share their story. And eventually, they were welcomed and fed by the very people who had jailed them.

We stay. And we look forward to the day that we are fully welcomed into the church that wants to keep us imprisoned in the closet of partial acceptance.

Joe Openshaw

Joe Openshaw is a retired veterinarian, having opened the first feline practice in the state of Alabama. In his retirement, he has become an advocate for LGBTQ equality, and is a past chairperson of Equality Alabama. Joe believes that in order to bring change to the south, the faith community must be engaged in the conversation. He is a member of Discovery United Methodist Church in Hoover, Alabama, where he is the founder and co-leader of The Hospitality Group, a Reconciling Group with RMN, and co-founder of Reconciling Methodists of the North Alabama Conference.
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