My last semester at Goshen College, I took a class called congregational ministries taught by Keith Graber Miller. On the first and second day of class, Keith asked us to talk about our religious heritage. My answer to this question is just as complicated as when I was transitioning between Goshen, Denver (my hometown), the northern suburbs of Chicago and now Minneapolis and people asked me where I was from. The simple answer is that I grew up in an evangelical Covenant church in the richest county in the nation. The more complicated answer is that my family was among one other church member who were not registered Republicans and that we didn’t go to church during election years. I also sporadically attended my neighbor’s church, Littleton Bible Chapel, an even more conservative church than my family’s. Relaying the rhetoric I internalized in those settings has become a tedious but routine task when I find myself in new religious settings.
What I remember most in those settings was an explicit and heavy emphasis on sexual purity, which included virginity until heterosexual marriage and an understanding of “homosexuality” as a lustful, sinful disease. There was also a large emphasis on proselytizing, which often took the form of neocolonialism, although my former pastors would never frame it that way.
I have dozens of stories and moments where I realized how deeply my sense of self was wounded growing up with such toxic theology. To further complicate my religious background, my parents often discussed what they disagreed with in the sermon on the drive home from church. My mom was also called to ministry and refused to silence that call despite the fact that my church was wary about women in leadership.
My parents were also likely aware of how I struggled socially in the church and how a theology focused on denigrating the body began to take its toll on me. In that, my parents gave me the space to choose whether or not to go to church. As a result, I left when I was 16 and never returned. I tried several other churches, some non-denominational and some evangelical. I gave up eventually and stopped attending church and church-related activities after about six months.
Two years later, during my first semester of college at Seattle Pacific University, I found myself in similar religious settings to the ones I had grown up in. I had come to SPU excited to explore a new city and to discuss what young, although promising, understandings I had of social justice and feminism. Some of this new knowledge was picked up in my time away from the church, my new involvement in the Denver slam poetry community and from my oldest sister, who had just graduated from Eastern University. I was not met with the same excitement I had for my growing knowledge of justice and social movements. After that first semester, I transferred to Goshen College.
I brought some level of anger with me about SPU, the religious settings I had grown up in and the difficulty in finding other Christians with the same theological orientation as I had. At Goshen, although this anger was often misunderstood, it was also welcomed and affirmed. My older sister, then a junior at Goshen, invited me to a Goshen Student Women’s Association meeting during the first week of classes and I found an incredible solace in being among women who had felt wounded in similar ways and wanted to do something about it.
The following semester, I came out publicly in The Record, Goshen’s student newspaper. In so doing, I had promised to myself, and to the Goshen community, that I was done reconciling my sexual identity with my spirituality. This began a spiritual awakening of sorts. I added a women’s and gender studies minor to my English writing major and learned and relearned the ways institutions are set up against the truth of my life as a lesbian. I also learned the ways my sexual identity was not a point of contention with my spirituality, but a place of growth, love and sanctity.
I can’t say that I don’t still cringe a bit when I walk into a church, Mennonite or otherwise; or that my trauma in the church does not perpetually sit with me. But what I found in Mennonite theology and Mennonite contexts was liberating. And simultaneously, I saw the ways Goshen College as an institution was not built with people like me in mind. Policies such as the division of sexes in housing and visiting hours in the dorms were clearly created with the assumption of heterosexuality and the denial of identities outside the gender binary. During the Open Letter movement at Goshen, I also became aware of the ways the college frequently valued its image over the voices and experience of its LGBTQ students and faculty. When I worked in the admissions office, student workers were advised not to wear the purple “Where’s my GLBTQ Prof?” t-shirts during work in case a prospective student saw one. I sense that my mother had a similar experience when she found liberation in her call to ministry but could not live out that call to its full potential in the church because she was a woman.
The summer before my senior year, I started attending Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Lutheran church, House for All Sinners and Saints, in Denver, Colorado. The liturgical services, open Eucharist table and large population of LGBTQ people in the church was liberating. And so I bring some of the focus on ritual in Lutheran liturgy into how I understand my spirituality. In Keith’s class, we often discussed the different ways we saw the church fail and succeed in congregational settings. Having the background of growing up in an evangelical church, attending a fairly radical Lutheran church, and finding myself feeling both affirmed and devalued in Mennonite contexts brought diversity and a variety of insights to the ways our class was figuring out what congregational ministry can and will mean for us.
In this position at BMC, I want to incorporate and bring what I have experienced and learned in the Mennonite church, Lutheran church and evangelical Covenant church to the ways I advocate for LGBTQ people in Mennonite and Brethren contexts. I also want to expand my knowledge of the Church of the Brethren and to deepen my understanding of institutional oppression in Christian settings. As I have come to know myself as both a spiritual person and as a lesbian, I have found a deep joy in living an honest and faithful life. I am committed to allowing other people to live a life that honors their truths. An important part of that is creating spaces for young people to understand themselves and the history that brings them to where they are today. I am excited to work with Mennonite and Brethren college students and faculty and determining the specific needs of their campuses relating to gender and sexuality and what we can do together to create and recreate spaces where LGBTQ people can be fully affirmed and liberated.
Hayley Brooks, 2015 Kaleidoscope Coordinator