You said you’d come and share all my sorrows,
you said you’d be there for all my tomorrows;
I came so close to sending you away,
but just like you promised, you came here to stay;
I just had to pray
And Jesus said, “Come to the water, stand by my side,
I know you are thirsty, you won’t be denied;
I saw every teardrop when in darkness you cried,
And I strove to remind you that for those tears I died.”
-“For Those Tears I Died” by Marsha Stevens-Pino
My visit to St. Louis to take part in the Rolling the Stone Away Conference was in itself a gift, but being lovingly surprised by the Spirit is an over-the-top experience of grace. I got my own taste of a divine reminder of how sacred my life is as a queer child of God, and it was pretty sweet!
I knew in fifth grade that I was different from the other boys–I was attracted to them! In the same year, as I was figuring out my gay identity as a child, I responded to the call to ordained ministry during a youth camp hosted by home church, Knox United Methodist Church in Manila, Philippines. Those years were marked by struggle, confusion, and tears rooted in my doubt about being called by God to full-time ministry.
I asked, “Why would God call me to be a pastor in a church that would not have me as a gay man? Where is God all this time I am in the closet?”
For years, I didn’t have any answer to those questions. I was ordained with those questions hanging above my head. I remember long nights filled with tears, fear, and uncertainty about my future as a gay United Methodist clergyperson.
One source of solace was music. My favorite hymn was What a Friend We Have in Jesus because Jesus was the only one who knew my secret. I felt a deep sense of spiritual violence and harm from my own faith community, and only Jesus saw my tears.
An equally favorite song was one sung in almost every youth camp and many other church services I attended: For Those Tears I Died (the first stanza and refrain are above). Imagine singing that song as a closeted LGBTQ person of faith. The words resonated and my heart sang it like my pained queer life depended on its truth. I simply claimed it as Jesus’ special lullaby and the love song that embraced me while I crouched hidden, immobilized by the fear of being found out.
I survived because of these songs of grace–even as the question of God’s presence in my closet still hung over me.
Fast-forward to my trip to St. Louis in November 2017. Rushing to make it in time for an evening plenary, I found a seat in the back of the hall. As the music began to play, I took a deep breath and settled into my own spiritual zone, ready to be blessed. The emcee then asked us to sing a familiar song–yes, you guessed right, it was For Those Tears I Died! I got so excited and told my seatmate that this was a song from my youth–a song from my closet.
Then, the surprise came. The emcee asked the person who wrote and composed that song to lead us in singing–Marsha Stevens-Pino, a United Methodist from Tennessee and a lesbian! She was there!
Like the days of old, I sang the song with tears in my eyes, but this time with tears of joy, for God finally answered my questions as a young, closeted, gay man.
No wonder the words from this song spoke to me. Marsha, like me, is a queer saint reaching out for amazing grace to quell our doubts whether we were loved or not, whether we belonged or not, whether we mattered or not.
Through the hopelessness and uncertainty of my closet, God was with me with a song of affirmation and grace.
As The United Methodist Church waits, wrestles, and discerns about how to be in ministry with the LGBTQ community, there are queer persons in our communities and our pews. Many of them nameless and hidden, but whose lives are no less sacred, and whose every teardrop Jesus knows. Know this, Church, however you decide on the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, the Spirit continues and will continue to channel grace through our lives, just like Marsha, a lesbian United Methodist whose gift of music has touched the lives of many–queer or not.
While The UMC seeks to forge a way forward, we already know that we–LGBTQ people of faith–through our gifts, callings, and lives, are the way forward.