Contributed by Katerina Friesen
When I was a sophomore in college, my mother saw a picture posted online of my friend Claire planting a kiss on my forehead. I forget what solicited that soon-to-be incriminating kiss, except that Claire comes from a family that is perhaps more inclined to physical affection than mine. My mom confronted me with the picture when I returned home on break. Her face was troubled as she asked, “I need to know: are you a lesbian?”
My mother’s deep-seated fear of the possibility that I could be lesbian shocked me. Since then, I’ve periodically faced her “homo-filia-phobia” (my term for fear of an LGBT or Q daughter), especially as I enter my late 20’s without a significant male other in my life. It’s painful to experience part of your identity questioned by a parent, someone who you think knows you inside and out. Yet in some ways, I am grateful for my mom’s questions. Beginning with that picture, she unintentionally “outed” me to myself as straight, casting a spotlight on my previously unexamined heterosexuality.
My mom and I have had a turbulent relationship over the years as we figure out how to love one another despite great theological differences. In the midst of the tensions, we share a love of debating the scriptures and our phone conversations often become a kind of midrash as we go back and forth on different interpretations of Biblical passages. I’m someone who tends to see all sides to issues and can end up mired in ambiguity, so my mom’s sense of clarity often pushes me to take more of a stance, albeit one that does not always align with her beliefs. Talks about hell, truth outside of Christianity, and my choices of friends have often ended in frustration. Yet our love for one another and our mutual desire to journey further into relationship with God continue pulling us back into conversation.
Last week, however, she emailed me out of the blue and asked me not to come home for her birthday, saying that she did not want to see me for a long, long time. She wrote, “I do still love you, but as your mother, am in deep emotional distress over your life choices at this time.” She went on to describe the most recent choices: I decided to do a seminary internship at the First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, a church that openly affirms LGBTQ relationships, with a pastor as my mentor who has officiated marriages of gay and lesbian couples. No matter that my internship is focused on climate change, my life choices have brought me into worship with sinful people who “teach the degradation of God’s good creation of sex between man and woman,” in her words.
At the end of her letter, my mom urged me toward repentance with images from the story of the prodigal son: “When you repent from the lies you have chosen, I will accept you back as the daughter I love – with open arms – but you do need to leave the ‘pig trough’ you have been feeding from.”
Honestly, part of me wanted to laugh in disbelief after reading this last line. “Pig trough?!” Really? If only she could witness the profound faith I’ve encountered in people at First Mennonite of San Francisco, gay or straight. I wish she could hear the prayers shared during our time for “joys and concerns,” and listen to the refreshing openness and trust as the community shares one another’s burdens and gives thanks together. I long for her to see how this congregation channels God’s healing love for those who were rejected as whole persons in other churches.
After finishing her letter, my initial disbelief faded into sadness – she was quite serious in her call for me to repent if I want to be welcomed back home. Even with our past disagreements, I had never before questioned my acceptance into my family. I believe she firmly thinks that by showing “tough love” and distancing me, she is being faithful to Jesus, as painful as the decision to push me away probably is for her.
And so, after sitting with her letter over several days, I have in fact been convicted of my need to repent. This is my confession:
I repent… of my risk avoidance.
Love and justice require movement and risk, and so far I have done neither. My study of the Bible and understandings of texts that concern same-sex sexuality, even my friendships with people who identify as lesbian, gay, bi or queer have not significantly moved me into actions that would make me stick my neck out or be seen taking a stand. I have mostly taken the route of avoiding conflict until it all blows over. Creator of all, have mercy.
I repent… of thinking this issue is not really my issue to care about.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly’.” As much as I love Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous lines from the Birmingham city jail, I have not internalized them when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion. Rather than seeing the web, I have acted as if there is a hierarchy of social justice issues. Since climate change was at the top of my pyramid, I saw this issue as a distraction from caring about things that are destroying the planet. Healing Christ, have mercy.
I repent… of not truly seeing.
Pain can make the scales fall from our eyes to see injustice more clearly. It took being personally impacted for me to fully see why LGBTQ inclusion matters. For those of you who have experienced rejection from loved ones, all I have to say is, Wow. It hurts. Now I have an irreversible taste of what it might feel like to not be welcomed home as a gay or lesbian person (though my privileges as a straight person keep me from a full experience of other exclusions). Holy Spirit of Life, have mercy.
Siblings in Christ, forgive me.
It took my mother’s rejection to help me see that I have chosen a way, and I commit to walking this path in a pink shirt from here on out. I don’t know what will happen next between my mom and me. I want relationship with her, and I hate the thought of an unknown length of time cut off from her. Thankfully, I am in a church where I am receiving support from people who have walked this path before me, and I have much to learn.
As much as I don’t know what’s next in my family, I also don’t know what’s next for our family together as MCUSA. The personal is political – the dividing lines in my family run through churches and MCUSA conferences as well. The question remains, can we remain family with irreconcilable differences?
I do know that love does not mean keeping my head down as I have been doing. Love does not mean staying passive, or trying to find a “third way” as people unaffected by structural violence. Yet I also don’t believe that after claiming a side, love demands that the other repent in order for us to embrace them. How often do we become so immobilized by our own right-ness and the other’s wrong-ness that we cannot open our arms or run toward them in welcome?
In the end, I see neither side as either prodigal son or father. Perhaps one of the only places we can find unity is in the recognition that in some ways, we are all prodigal. We are all longing for home, longing for intimate relationship and assurance that we are beloved. And we all find it so hard to imagine how we can be met by that Parent who runs out rejoicing, crying, laughing, astonishing us with lavish love that somehow heals those divisions that have wounded us and honors those differences that help us find our way home.
Katerina Friesen is currently a student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS). You will find her in a Pink Menno shirt at the 2015 MCUSA Convention. Since she submitted this post to Pink Menno in July, her relationship with her mother has improved.