A deep restlessness pervaded my 40-year-old being as I knelt with others for Holy Communion and pondered Christ’s commandment “Love one another as I have loved you.” I had never felt this way before. I felt unsafe. Suddenly, prompted by a sharpening inner discomfort, I bolted out the sanctuary door. I went into a quiet isolated forest to wrestle with my spiritual pain. Sinking to the base of a tree I cried aloud, “God, why have you made me this way? What am I to do?”
What had gone wrong? I was a pre-birth Methodist born into a loving Missouri pastor’s family. My brother and I were blessed by a small rural congregation and community that epitomized the proverbial village raising its young with care. Through Dad’s community leadership, I became involved in social causes. Mom directed the church choirs – both children and adults.
My parents stood firm for personal convictions in private or public, for truthfulness, fair treatment and honoring the dignity of every human being. I learned that whatever the origins, appearance, social status, faith or behavior presented, all individuals are equally God’s beloved children. As a family, we organized and led church and conference camps. I absorbed a broad sense of who and what the church is and the good it does. I’m full of gratitude for this life foundation.
At age 14, God claimed my life and I yielded. After college, my first Methodist Board of Missions assignment was to Phoenix for US-2 service among Mexican-Americans around Wesley Community Center.
God’s numerous calls led me to vocational service by the Deaconess and Diaconal Minister relationships in the church. I couldn’t have imagined the surprising routes and settings for church and community ministry to which God directed me.
In Missouri, under episcopal appointment, I administered ecumenical resources among the poor and served unmarried pregnant girls and their babies. I pioneered HIV/AIDS medical social work in Howard University Hospital in Washington D.C. At The Damien Center in Indianapolis, I organized volunteer services and did chaplaincy. My Memphis, Tenn. mission required counseling abusive parents and their children in foster care.
Works of charity are not enough. Truth and justice require advocacy and education for systemic improvements. At the seats of power in Chicago and Indianapolis, I’ve advocated against harmful policies and practices perpetuating prejudice and discrimination against individuals and targeted groups.
Most recently God took me to a ground-breaking ministry among prison residents. This program organizes church congregations to guide and mentor prison residents as they transition into productive Christian lives in our communities. I have been surprised by joys and lively friendships with these neighbors. Clearly, God has placed me with people and in places many faithful Christians are hesitant to serve.
In each setting I experienced a “faith-quake” of deep cognitive and spiritual dissonance, conflict produced by incongruous beliefs and attitudes. These conflicts challenged my service and faith understanding. Dissonance has the power to alter perspectives, attitudes, judgments and, finally, behaviors. I am grateful all of these experiences ended with integration of my inner and external self, bringing peace. Clearly, they were precipitated by God’s action. I’ve been faithful and hold gratitude for them.
My story in the woods relates to “faith quakes” of 1972 and 1984. These quakes, precipitated by United Methodists’ action, tragically negate the ministry of faithful and effective clergy and laity. It prevents many qualified people from fulfilling God’s call to United Methodist ministries. The quakes responded to Disciplinary polity that “…the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be … appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church” (Paragraph 304.3 of the UM Book of Discipline). By that action, my 40-year ministry could be discounted, even denied, if persons who exercise institutional authority knew that I am a lesbian. I felt disenfranchised and my appointability was threatened. “God why have you made me this way? What am I to do…with the deep love I have for her?”
This polity has catalyzed profound cognitive and spiritual dissonance in our congregations for 39 years. By it, parents, including clergy parents, of children born gay, their siblings, grandparents and friends are disenfranchised within their faith family.
“We’ve not been honest enough about basic things of life: human suffering, the presence of God coming through our lives, human integrity. If we can be open to the word of God speaking in our flesh, then God will be with us.”
Where can we tell our personal stories if not in the church? Our hope lies in God’s being with us in truthful witness that liberates and can make our congregations vibrant.
Mary Z. Longstreth is a Diaconal Minister of the Indiana Conference and serves as Chaplain of the Damien Center in Indianapolis. She is retiring this spring.