Jackie W. is a Lay Leader at Saint Mark United Methodist Church and shared her story at a Listening Session for official delegates from the North Georgia Conference to the 2008 General Conference.
I was born in East Point, Georgia, along with 3 other siblings in a 5 room duplex with a full size basement. I also had a half brother from my mom’s first marriage. I remembered attending church until I was around 9 or 10 years old. I also remembered receiving my very first Bible. It had a white leather cover with my name inscribed in gold letters. I was so proud of that Bible. At age 9, my mom suffered a severe stroke paralyzing her and she was no longer able to work. As my mom was recovering, we lived with my grandparents in the Sylvan Hills area. We continue to attend church for about another year and then we moved to Forest Park where life began to change quite a bit for us as a family. My mom became a very heavy drinker and was on quite a bit of medication for her illness which enabled her from being the mother we needed at that time in our lives.
With my dad being out of town most of the week, my brother and sisters were pretty much left to fend for ourselves. During my years as a teenager, I stopped attending church all together until I began playing sports in high school and began attending a Baptist church on Sunday evenings with the basketball team. It was not a very pleasant experience for me. The picture I have of that preacher was someone who always appeared to be very angry and was always screaming and hollering, which wasn’t what I had grown up with. I often left church feeling very frightened and afraid, not loved and affirmed, which I had remembered in my early years at Capitol View Methodist Church. I began to find reasons to stop going to church with the team and finally quit church all together. I also played softball during the summers where I began dating my softball coach’s son. By this time in my life my sisters had both gotten married and my younger brother was still in elementary school. After dating for awhile, he asked me to marry him. By this time in my life I was already beginning to feel the pressures of having the responsibility of taking care of my younger brother because my mom was in no shape to and my dad was still spending quite a bit of time on the road. My mom was not very thrilled with the marriage idea and it wasn’t because she didn’t like the guy and it wasn’t till later in my life that I realized my mom was more attuned to my sexuality than I was.
I remembered a time when I wanted to go visit one of my girlfriend’s who I spent a lot of time with. My dad was out of town and my mom had been drinking most of the day. We began to argue about me going and as I was leaving out the door, she yelled to me and called me a lesbian queer. I really didn’t think much about the word lesbian because I had never heard it before, but I had heard the word queer and knew those were the people who were always getting picked on and made fun of at school. Again I really wasn’t too worried about the queer word because I knew that was not me, I had never got picked on at school because I was very popular. I decided to go ahead with the wedding against my mom’s wishes and 3 days before my wedding, she died. Everything in my life went down hill from there. The entire year of my marriage was filled with confusion and turmoil. I began to become more and more distant from my husband and with the help of my boss, who really became like a mother to me began to see the struggles I was having and stepped in to help me with my divorce. My husband was a very good man with very devoted and caring parents who both treated my like their very own daughter.
For the next 20 years, I tried countless times to fight these feelings of wanting to be with a woman. I dated several men which ended up even worse than it was when I was married. I just never could find myself compatible with someone of the opposite sex. At one point I even tried to commit suicide because of all the depression I was beginning to feel in my life.
I was very close to my half brother that lived in Tullahoma and I would visit several times throughout the year. He was the first one in my family I came out to and I will never forget what he said. He told me he already knew about my sexuality and had known for a long time and that would never change his love for me. In the summer of 95 my brother became ill and was diagnosed with cancer. By December of that same year he was dead at the age of 57. He spent the last 2 weeks of his life in a comma and his wife and I spent each day at the hospital from sun up till sun down. During those 2 weeks, I saw an outpour of love that I had never seen before. A day did not go by that someone from their church would stop in to pray with us, bring us food or just to say they were thinking and praying for my brother and the family. I was overwhelmed from all the outpour of love and care from people, some of which my sister in law barely knew. I remember seeing the strength and peace that would come to her after those visits and how much comfort was brought by all that caring and love for my brother by his church family. At that moment I remember saying to myself, this is what it is all about. It was the love I had witnessed and been a part of over those last 2 weeks and it was coming from total strangers who I had never met or even seen before except at the occasional holiday times when I would visit and attend church with my brother and his wife. On my way home from his funeral, I remember asking God to help me find that kind of true love. I wanted to be free of living a double life of pretending to be someone I didn’t even know. I apologized to God for the lies I had been living, which was the real sin, not my sexuality which had been given to me by God at birth. I asked God to help me find that person I was created to be.
Over the next year, I began visiting a friend’s family church and was almost ready to join when she told me about a church in midtown Atlanta that she would like to visit and asked me to come. That church was Saint Mark. It was in the spring of 96 around Easter and I will never forget how I felt after leaving that service. Yes, it was a new beginning for me. Mike Cordle was the pastor at that time and Mike in his usually manner was going up and down the pews to each row welcoming everyone and calling most people by name. I couldn’t help but notice how friendly everyone was and how genuine they were as they spoke and welcomed me to the church. I immediately began to experience the same feeling I had when people would come by the hospital to pray with us as my brother was slipping away. It was in that moment I began feeling God’s awesome power of love and acceptance I had prayed for and my soul had been searching for as well. Each week I began hearing affirmations of God’s unconditional love and how we are all precious in his site. I was once again beginning to feel whole and alive. St. Mark began to give me the strength and courage to live as the person God had created me to be and I began to accept the love and grace that had been there all the time regardless of what I had been told in the past.
After the first couple of years, Mike asked me if I would like to be a delegate for annual conference representing St. Mark. At this point I wasn’t really sure what it meant to be a delegate but I thought what better way to learn more about this connectional Church I was becoming a part of. I will never forget my first experience at conference as I sat and listened to stories of so much division and couldn’t help thinking was this the church that was so loving and accepting in Midtown Atlanta? Needless to say I left conference that first year feeling confused and rejected, but this time it was by my own Church. Something had to be wrong. For the next several years, I would leave annual conference feeling rejected and overwhelmed with anger and hurt. One time I remember it was a Thursday afternoon just as the delegation again voted down any small glimpse of hope for full inclusion, and I begin to become overwhelmed with emotion. As I stood, and tears of pain and angry streamed down my face, I watched other delegates file out and not one person even acknowledged me or even as much made eye contact. I could honestly say, I felt as if I was the neighbor lying on the side of the road waiting for my good Samaritan to come and rescue me, but it didn’t happen. As the tears continued to come and everyone was walking past, I kept hearing that voice saying over and over, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. I continue to struggle at times about leaving the church but then I hear the voices and see the faces at St. Mark that inspire me and the sermons that feed my soul that once again reinforce my love for this church and the United Methodist Church and the love I know I feel from God. It is in those moments, I am thankful this Church is diverse enough to include all of Gods children.
As I close, I give thanks to you and God for allowing me the opportunity to share my story and my concerns. I also ask you to prayerful consider voting for inclusion by removing all the exclusionary language which limits full participation of LGBT persons in the life of the Church. This includes:
• Advocating for full membership rights (Judicial Council 1032, ¶214)
• Removing the incompatibility clause (¶161G)
• Removing prohibitions on marriage and holy unions for LGBT families (¶161G, ¶161C, ¶341.6 ¶2702.1(b))
• Removing the prohibition on ordination of LGBT persons (¶304.3, ¶2702.1(b))
• Removing the funding restrictions for ministry to and with LGBT persons (¶806.9)
And finally I would like to end with a quote by Rev. Don Messer in an address to the United Methodist Council of Bishops in May 2002: The exclusion of homosexual persons from the life, leadership, and rites of the Church threatens the very nature of the Church itself. It not only cause irreparable harm to the children of God but also to the Body of Christ itself. Each time a person is rejected or ejected from the koinonia fellowship of United Methodism, a new wound is inflicted and the Body of Christ is broken once again.
Thank you again for your time and may God continue to guide you in the decisions you will face at General Conference.