While we won’t be making a habit of releasing new posts on Sundays, we decided to make an exception today because it is exactly 1 week after the closing session of the Gay Christian Network 2014 Conference held in Chicago.
We both have a deep love and appreciation for the work of the Gay Christian Network (GCN). Our story as a couple began through our interactions on GCN. For the last two years, we have been blessed to attend the GCN conference together. We value the GCN community because we have found it to be a place where all people, in every situation, from any Christian tradition, can ask meaningful questions about enabling LGBT Christians to live as faithful disciples of Christ. GCN is a community that values the questions and honors the fact that different people arrive at remarkably diverse conclusions.
Sarah started the conference a bit earlier than Lindsey by participating in the women’s retreat. The retreat was a fantastic time of fellowship, song, and prayer, which featured three inspiring testimonies. The testimonies touched on topics ranging from losing a church family to painful lack of family acceptance to healing from the effects of ex-gay ministry to finding one’s partner. Every story that was shared blessed and challenged Sarah in its own way. Rev. Audrey Connor (Disciples of Christ) delivered the keynote and focused on the importance of truly listening to what is being said by the Spirit and by other people. Listening is about being present and honoring the image of God. This shared time of fellowship with over 100 women enabled lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight, and other woman-identified people to connect with one another before the conference. Sarah was particularly encouraged by the number of mothers of LGBT children who joined in the retreat.
As the main conference began, we started to shift gears in order to meet newcomers to the conference and provide an extra dose hospitality for more liturgical Christians. Conference can be overwhelming as (1) a lot of the attendees have already connected with other people and (2) the structure of the main sessions closely mirrors Evangelical services where a praise team opens with music before a speaker. On Thursday night, Rev. Dr. Christine Wiley (Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, DC) had both of us laughing to the point of tears as she shared that she has spent years “trying to make Christians out of church folk,” and “It’s hard work!”
Sometimes, the biggest blessings at conference come where you least expect them. On Friday morning, we (and everyone else in the room) had tears streaming down our faces as Linda and Rob Robertson shared their story of losing their gay son. When their son Ryan first came out, the Roberstons walked the path advocated by many conservative Christian organizations and encouraged Ryan to ask God to change his sexual orientation. Ryan stayed with that course for five years until he literally couldn’t take it anymore. The Robertsons walked us through their experience as parents watching their oldest son develop a severe drug addiction as he tried to deal with his pain of feeling rejected by God and his family. The Robertsons’ grief was palpable because their son Ryan’s 25th birthday was the following Tuesday, a birthday Ryan would be celebrating in heaven. We both cried and cried and cried through the whole story because it was so easy for us to connect with what the Robertsons were saying.
By Friday afternoon, we found ourselves completely over-extended. We make a point of hosting morning and evening prayer times in our hotel room that are recognizable to people from diverse liturgical traditions. Pulling together these prayer times is a lot of fun, but can be a bit draining. Additionally, we presented a workshop entitled “Celibacy Involves Family” that drew nearly 40 attendees during the first workshop session. We had a blast preparing our workshop together, and we’ll likely share some of the content we presented at that workshop in future posts. Yet, all this running around left us feeling a bit depleted. Lindsey felt especially zapped: conferences can be an introvert’s worse nightmare.
We wanted so desperately to serve the community that we had forgotten how important it was to receive care, love, and support from others. On Friday night, we clued in to our mutual exhaustion. We decided that the best thing to do would be to go down to the lobby, find someone interested in eating dinner at the hotel, and have real human conversation about what was going on in everyone’s lives. We met up with Rebecca and James Farlow, two friends we had met at a previous conference who have graciously served by leading the times of musical worship two years running. They gave us the opportunity to share vulnerably about everything we had been experiencing lately: our car accident on the way to conference, Lindsey’s recent job loss, Sarah’s chronic health problems, and our general frustrations with the universe. The Farlows graciously shared with us what was going on in their life together. It was a sacred time of mutuality, respect, and prayer that refreshed us. We decided it would be best to continue refreshing (and unfortunately, had to miss the concert by Bobby Jo Valentine and Derek Webb). Later, another couple spent some time with us as we celebrated the different ways God has blessed all four of us in the year between GCN conferences.
On Saturday, we prepared for the event everyone was talking about: Rachel Held Evans’ keynote! Her kind, gentle, yet thought-provoking speaking style reminded us a great deal of the challenging content she regularly posts on her blog. We found it particularly meaningful that she contrasted the experience of an ally having a shared enemy with the experience of a sister having a shared identity.
Immediately after the keynote, we embarked on quite the mission: trekking over to a friend’s house to use an oven so we could bake bread. You see, we are a part of a closed communion tradition (and do not partake of communion outside of our Christian tradition) and simultaneously value that GCN offers communion during the Sunday morning service. We recognize that for many people in the GCN community who have endured painful rejection by members of their Christian traditions, the GCN conference is the only time they feel welcome to partake of communion. But we also believe that in having an open table at GCN Conference where people can make a choice to commune, it is equally important to honor the choice to abstain regardless of a person’s reasons. Toward that end, we decided that we would offer to bake a loaf that would remain unconsecrated and be available for all people at the GCN conference as Bread of Fellowship (rather than elements of communion). So across Chicago we went with our ingredients, measuring cups, and mixing bowl to our friend’s kitchen. We enjoyed talking with our friend’s partner as we waited for the various stages of bread making (never, ever try to bake bread in a hurry) and then returned to the conference in time for another round of workshops and more fellowship. Later, on Sunday morning, we would pray for every person registered for the conference by name as we cut the Bread of Fellowship into distributable pieces.
If there is one area in which the GCN conference really excels, it is providing opportunities for fellowship. The conference schedule includes significant time to gather with others, and attendees tend to milk every minute for more time together. Saturday night is reserved for an open mike time where people can share their experience of God at the conference. This sacred time always contains so many awe-inspiring stories of God’s faithfulness, and we consider it a distinct privilege to participate. Moreover, no one seems to want Saturday night to end, so impromptu gatherings tend to spring up all over the hotel lobby. We came prepared with several games, and the ever-extroverted Sarah spent hours playing 10 Days in the USA and Catch Phrase with folks. Spending time with close friends playing board games until all hours of the night makes GCN Conference feel less like a conference and more like a family reunion. It’s also a great way to bond more closely with old friends and extend one’s family of choice to include some really awesome new people.
The last general session of conference featured incredible singing from a choir comprised of conference attendees, a talk delivered by Justin Lee that tried to sum up the events of the weekend and encouraged people to continue letting God transform their lives, and a final circle. It’s a tradition that at the last minute of conference, Justin and Trey (GCN’s Conference Director) announce the conference city for next year. We hope to see you in Portland, Oregon 8-11 January 2015.
Overall, the GCN conference provided a rich time for us to be ourselves in community with other people we have come to adore. As a celibate couple, we are able to receive encouragement in our specific vocation from the diverse people gathered. So many people have found space at GCN conference to be themselves, and we hope that you will consider joining us in Portland. We’d love to meet you!
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