Blessed by the beauty of our Sabbath, August 21st, 2016, my daughter and I entered the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. As this was the culmination of a spiritual journey begun almost three years ago, we felt the presence of God, graced with awe and gratitude, anticipating the miracle unfolding in the hour to come. This story began on November 15, 2013, as Liz Grim and Hannah Polk joined hands in matrimony in the welcoming city of New York, forced to marry in a courthouse far from their homes in South Carolina and Georgia, unable to wed in the church of Hannah’s grandfather or even to marry at all legally in either state.
Almost immediately after moving from S.C. to the Atlanta area, Liz and Hannah, as many other young couples, began in earnest their search for a church home. Discussing in depth their shared mission and agreeing on the type of church and worship that would be mutually satisfying, they began eagerly considering and visiting available congregations, beginning with a list of known “safe havens,” gathered by retired Bishop Charlene Kammerer. Liz described it this way in one letter sent to a local pastor: “I have researched endlessly for a place that would fit us and allow us to grow in our relationship with God, right next to others with the same mission.”
After worshiping at five or six different places, frustration set in because nowhere they entered felt like home. Some were very far away, some were openly non-accepting, some, very accepting but a place where their very otherness defined their presence. They debated.
Do we go where it’s most convenient, where we enjoy the traditional sanctuary, music and worship, and let them discover that we are married? Or do we reach out in advance to seek out their invitation, knowing we are a lesbian couple?
No matter what, Liz was determined that her wife and expected son would not be met with rejection and pain. In April just before General Conference of the United Methodist Church, Liz and Hannah sent a plea to all North Georgia United Methodist delegates who would be voting on the petitions finally to “Open hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” to ALL.
In that letter they conveyed the urgency of their quest: “The last thing we want is to make others uncomfortable. We don’t want to be the token gay couple; we don’t want to be identified just by a label when our family is so much more. We don’t want to drive miles and miles from home to worship at another church or another denomination because that is the only church family who welcomes us. We want to find a church home where we can grow closer to God and to other families in our community. We really are just like any other family wanting the best for ourselves and our son.”
But Liz and Hannah, along with family and friends who had supported and encouraged them in their search, were losing faith, becoming frustrated, feeling blocked at every turn, ready to give up. For the one church, right down the street, that had everything they sought in a church home, they were afraid to try.
They had researched it, knowing the senior pastor was supportive, but were worried the congregation might not be prepared to welcome their newly-expanded family into their community.
They had heard conflicting accounts of others in their plight who had not felt at home. Could this church have changed this much in such a short time? One obstacle they had heard indicated that this church was “traditional,” but traditional worship was what they sought.
Did “traditional” mean they weren’t welcome?
But true to God’s work in this world, I awoke in the middle of the night, beckoned by a Voice: “Hattie, don’t give up.” When Charles and I were in active ministry for 40 years, we reached out to new-comers in the community. We didn’t wait for them to find us. Why wouldn’t this same approach work today? I eagerly called Bishop Kammerer the next day, asking her to reach out to Dr. Sam Matthews, senior pastor at FUMC Marietta. On her way to General Conference herself, she gladly obliged. We forwarded to him their letter sent to all General Conference delegates to give him helpful background. In short, Pastor Matthews visited, invited them to church, and assured them they would be welcome. He had, indeed, just the Sunday before, received into membership a gay couple and their child. After three or four weeks attending, Hannah and Liz had found their church home, welcomed, comfortable, and ready to thrive and grow in The UMC congregation nearest their home. And now we were there, all 30 family members and friends, from as far away as Ohio, North and South Carolina, filling three front row pews, ready to witness the completion of this circle, ending their search for a church home but beginning their spiritual journey for the rest of their lives.
As Dr. Matthews entered the sanctuary, he greeted the gathering, accepted the water carefully preserved from my visit to the Holy Land, from the River Jordan, then asked to spend a moment with Graham. Never had we seen such a gesture by a minister ready to baptize an infant. For this minister knew that this 5-month-old boy was the rightful center of this sacred celebration of joining the family of Christ. Graham listened patiently, giving Pastor Matthews one of his endearing smiles. Graham Michael Polk had now been given his Christian name, surrounded and supported by those who promised to nurture him in his new home.
The service centered on the theme “One Faith, Many Voices,” as we celebrated our African-American heritage in fellowship. How appropriate this message was to reflect the importance of this day as Hannah and Liz joined this church at the end of the service. For the message of the sermon to those of us there to share in this moment was as clear as it was to the congregation. At First United Methodist Church in Marietta, with Dr. Sam Matthews as senior pastor, The UMC motto is reality, and all God’s children are welcome and celebrated.
Our search has ended for this couple, and our faith has been renewed that God’s hand is still alive, working wonders in The UMC today.
At the small café as we feasted in fellowship to celebrate this wonderful day, Liz got up to say, “Throughout our little family’s journey, we have felt nothing but unconditional love and unwavering support from all of you. Thank you. We know that everyone in this room prayed about, thought about, worked for and fought for this day a long time. I was starting to think we would never find a church, but we did, and it seems perfect for us, and it’s right down the street from our home. We are excited for our future here. Thanks for celebrating Graham’s baptism with us.” In response, Dr. Matthews stood up to reply: “I am just as happy that you found this church family as I am that our church found you.” Hannah, Liz and Graham will be in the perfect place to “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” to others. Liz’s parting statement was to “keep on for more couples like us.” Not everyone like Hannah and Liz should have to have a grandmother who knows a bishop who knows the preacher to get such a blessing as a welcome like this.
We still have much work to do.
- The Circle is Complete: The End of One Journey, the Beginning of Another - October 19, 2016