The greatest joys in life might be the unexpected ones. I’d put the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County in that category. Who expected the high court to affirm that Title VII protected L.G.B.T.Q. people from employment discrimination? And who expected Justice Neil Gorsuch to author such an opinion? It was a tremendous, surprising win for equality — and it was one that I instantly knew would barely matter for many of us who are pursuing work in Christian ministry.
For the past four years, I have been in the ordination process in the Reformed Church in America, a small denomination embroiled in an ugly, decades-long battle over the place of queer people in the church. To be ordained in my denomination, you have to be granted a document called the certificate of fitness for ministry. A week after the Supreme Court decision, I received a letter from the moderator of the board that grants these certificates. It said that I had met all the requirements for my certificate. But because of my sexuality and the denomination’s ongoing debate, I wouldn’t be getting one this year. The board would reconsider me next year.
Without the certificate, I can’t be “legally” ordained. Without the certificate, I can’t preside over communion or do a wedding or perform a baptism — all the duties of a minister. Without the certificate, I don’t qualify for a pastor’s job. No court decision, no act of Congress can change theological convictions or church law. Over and over, I’ve been asked: So why do you stay?
I stay because of love.
For the past six months, I’ve been serving in a part-time, temporary, nonordained position at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. I lead Bible studies, I organize Sunday school classes for adults, I listen to people, and once in a while I get to preach. This congregation tailored the position for me — a rare and true gift. I love the work, and I’ve grown to love these people. But because I can’t be ordained, I’m essentially a second-tier minister, without the title or the denominational benefits.
My husband and I moved to Michigan in January — a decision that opens us up for all kinds of questions about our judgment. A part-time job, though, is still a job. And the welcome from the congregation was warm, sort of. We received a beautiful gift basket with local delicacies and information on the area. One member delivered a huge pot of homemade Italian wedding soup, which sustained us as we unpacked. Others wouldn’t even greet us after Sunday service.
One of this congregation’s appeals was its theological and political diversity. Some members proudly wear the “evangelical” label, and others have run as far from it as possible. Some members are hard-core Trump supporters, others are the bluest of progressives, and I’d say the majority are somewhere in between. Yet, for the most part, they’ve hung together as a family of faith — and there’s something beautiful, if difficult, about that.
This congregation is in many ways a microcosm of the broader Reformed Church in America, and indeed of the wider church. The difference is that folks in the broader denomination typically don’t belong to such varied congregations. They don’t have to worship every Sunday, come face to face in Bible study every week, and share the bread and the cup of Holy Communion every month with people who hold such divergent views.
A few days ago, I got an email from a member whose convictions on homosexuality differ significantly from mine. She wrote to thank me for a sermon I preached recently about God’s unconditional love. “Thank you for being at Central,” she said. “I hope you know you are appreciated.” In the austere Dutch culture of West Michigan, this is what passes for gushing, and I was surprised and gratified. When I arrived in January, she was among those who didn’t greet me.
Emails like hers remind me of the power of presence. Our bodies and stories can accomplish what no court can. Even if she never changes her views on sexuality, perhaps I’ve been able to complicate her narrative and to instigate a pause, into which a thought might emerge: Maybe things weren’t as simple as I thought. But that line of thinking applies equally to me. Perhaps she has complicated my narrative, too. She has reminded me that the law that governs my faith doesn’t discriminate, even — and especially — when it comes to those who might discriminate against me.
To me, the most stirring words in the Gorsuch decision were these: “But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands,” he wrote. “[A]ll persons are entitled to its benefit.”
I might never become an ordained minister, but I do know that my calling will remain the same. The legal template set by Jesus for the Christian faith says this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Even if I change no hearts, minds or souls, that higher law remains. The instruction is to love God — and to love my neighbor as she is, not as she might someday be. I crave that kind of love myself, even as I struggle to extend it to others. The limits of my imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. All persons are entitled to its benefit. And that’s why I stay.
Jeff Chu is the teacher in residence at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the author of “Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.”
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