One year ago, my family was loading our car to make the 1,200-mile drive from Baton Rouge, LA, up the Mississippi River to the Twin Cities in Minnesota. My husband, a university professor, was doing a sabbatical semester, and our young daughters and I moved with him for the six-month stay.

We had amazing experiences living in Minneapolis, but perhaps the most important was our experience at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church and with other Reconciling Congregations in the cities. Every UMC we visited had Reconciling designation, and we experienced a new kind of welcome. The congregations were truly welcoming and inclusive, and not only to cisgender, straight couples with kids like us. From worship to play groups and Vacation Bible School, we could feel the difference made by intentional inclusivity and radical hospitality.

The Difference

I grew up in rural Oklahoma, and I was fortunate to attend a small United Methodist Church led by a phenomenal female pastor during my formative years. Because my town was too small to sustain multiple kid programs, I often attended other churches during the week. At one of these meetings, the teachers used an illustration with an eraser that is etched in my memory. The gist was that their church doctrine was the stencil, like the eraser, and any deviation or trying to “draw” a church freehand, such as by having women leaders, was sinful. Those people were damned to hell. As a child, I correctly understood that to mean, “YOU are going to hell.”

I was able to walk out of that church and maintain my faith surrounded by people who lived into the truth that God calls women to be pastors and leaders too. That wound was deep though, and I can only imagine the pain of hearing the message “YOU are going to hell” from your church as an LGBTQ+ person without the support of truth tellers. Reconciling congregations and communities tell that truth – that God calls and loves people all people, including YOU – and I experienced that first-hand at Hennepin, where we worshipped most of our six months.

Hennepin is especially intentional with its language choices, shifting from male pronouns and “Father” to gender-neutral God in most cases, including in the Lord’s Prayer. I always cry at baptisms, but witnessing babies be baptized in the name of God, mother and father of us all, was a new, even more powerful experience. Families of all types are part of Hennepin, and my daughter made friends in Sunday school with a girl whose family has two dads. My daughter noted the difference, and we were able to have an easy conversation about that normal family variation. Senior Pastor Judy Zabel’s Pride weekend sermon set me on fire, and I knew I wanted more of this kind of worship experience in my life back home.

I’m deeply involved in my Baton Rouge church, even continuing my webmaster duties from Minnesota, but the rich church experience we found there, for myself and our family, made me want to look for a Reconciling Congregation in Baton Rouge. One doesn’t exist… yet. Googling did lead me to the Reconciling United Methodists of the Capital Region, and after talking with my pastor I learned that a small group within a church, such as a Sunday school, could choose a Reconciling designation and make a public statement in support of LGBTQ+ people in the Church. A newly started Sunday school class in my church welcomed me to join and is in full agreement with equality, justice,  and radical inclusivity of LGBTQ+ people. We are in the process of affiliating with Reconciling Ministries Network, and I pray we will be a spark for others in our church and city to join us.

I want to be part of a Church united that preaches the Gospel and that welcomes and affirms, heals and holds in high regard all people, not in spite of gender or sexual orientation but because of it, as that’s an important part of what makes individuals who they are. God is love, and love is love is love. Who are we to stand in God’s way?

Mari Walker

Mari Walker is a freelance communications specialist living with her husband and two daughters in Baton Rouge, LA. Originally from Oklahoma, Mari has degrees in journalism from Oklahoma State University (bachelor's) and the University of Maryland (master's). She has lived and worked in Alexandria, VA, and New York. The Walkers are members of St. John's United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge.

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