Jason Miller and SBCC Community Members
Earlier this month, we hosted a night for members of SBCC and the broader community who want to learn more about creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people. The event featured a panel of SBCC members telling their stories as LGBTQ+ people and followers of Jesus, and as a parent to a gay son, navigating the complicated and often painful experiences of exclusion and harm in religious communities, and the ways their faith has sustained them. The panel also responded to questions from those in attendance.
Want to know more about historic and progressive understandings of sexuality, the Bible, and Christian theology? Check out these reads:
Washed and Waiting, by Wesley Hill
People to Be Loved, by Preston Sprinkle
What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? by Kevin DeYoung
Mariah: Hey South Bend City Church, Mariah here. Today is a special episode of the podcast. During June, we offered two events to help create safe spaces for LGBTQ people. And on Tuesday, June 13th, we invited anyone looking to learn more about how to be an ally or advocate for LGBTQ people to hear from a panel of members of the LGBTQ community from within South Bend City Church and also some allies as well. You’ll have a chance to hear that panel night today.
Mariah: And just remember that if you have questions around theology and the Bible related to LGBTQ inclusion and identity, we encourage you to explore the resources that are in the show notes below. Over the course of the next hour to hour and a half, you’ll have the opportunity to hear my story. You’ll hear the stories of Zach and Debbie and Cammie, and you’ll hear some questions answered that were submitted by the people attending that night. You’ll also have the opportunity to hear the first time that I ever sang my new song, Jesus Loving Queer Kid, which is just my story in song form.
We’re so thankful that you chose to join us. Thank you for being curious and for asking the questions and for listening to this incredible night. Let’s join the rest of our community now.
Jason: Hey, good evening. Welcome. My name’s Jason. If you don’t know me, I’m the lead pastor here at Southland City Church. I know that we’ve got a lot of SBCC people here, but I think we also have some people who haven’t been a regular part of our life as a church, which we’re thrilled about. So thank you for coming to be here tonight, whether you’re like a long time SBCC person, or whether you got dragged here, or whether you came here very joyfully but you’re not a regular part of our church, we’re thrilled.
Jason: I thought I’d give you just a tiny bit of context for how South Bend City Church finds itself in this conversation, where we’ve come from and where we are today, and that’ll kind of help you understand the motivation behind it, I think. We’re kind of a young church. We came together in 2016 and our first Sunday was in 2017. And early on we had a pretty open-handed posture about a number of questions. I think we realized for many of us that faith and theology sometimes bring answers and they often bring questions, and we wanted to be the kind of community that held those questions openly. However, along the way we also discovered a growing number of LGBTQ members of our own church. And I think what you realize is these kinds of questions stop being issues and start being much more real when you realize it’s real members of your own community who perhaps are left in the gray area of wondering what they can expect from the church that they’ve come to love and trust.
And for us, we realized it really wasn’t right to go much longer without clarifying, especially for LGBTQ members, what they could expect from South Bend City Church. We’ve heard far too many stories of people who maybe fell in love with a church community and felt safety and felt belonging there, only to find out later that there were hidden or unpublicized rules or exclusions that they were unaware of until they raised their hand and wanted to help, or give their heart to the ministry, or tell their story. And then they found out the hard way in very painful circumstances that there were hidden beliefs and unspoken agendas there. And so it felt important for us to name that.
And so back in 2018, I preached a very, very, very long sermon, which was meant to do actual work. It was meant to do Bible and theology work to explain how it was that we came to the point as a church where, even among the members of South Bend City Church you’ll find people wrestling with a lot of different thoughts and questions in their own theology around sexuality and gender identity. I don’t claim to speak for every person in South Bend City Church about what they think or believe, but as a team and as a leadership we do need to speak on behalf of the community for how we will behave as a church. And that was what we chose to clarify. And what we clarified that day was that nobody at South Bend City Church would be excluded from belonging, involvement, membership, leadership, marriage: that there would be no differentiation based on sexual identity or gender identity. And that’s been the case for us ever since.
Tonight, however, wasn’t created to address those big questions of theology and Bible. If you’d like to hear more about those questions on our FAQ page on our website, you’ll see a couple of really clear links. They’ll point you to the teaching episodes. More recently, we did one on gender. And, on those episodes, you’ll also see some resource lists. If you want to do some more reading, we’d really encourage you to do that. But tonight actually isn’t about that. Tonight’s about personal questions and personal experiences and stories.
I think a lot of us, I hope are learning that when you realize the world is built in a way that isn’t equal for everyone, that makes some people unsafe while others feel safe, one of the first moves to make is to simply hear their stories and to understand their experiences. And that’s what we’re here for tonight. Tonight we get to hear from both members of our staff leadership and our church family. You’re going to hear from Zach, who is both a gay man and a black man, lives at the intersection of several lines of marginalization. You’re going to hear from Debbie, the mother of a gay son: a woman whose journey will resonate with many of you who walk with family members, Cami, a transgender woman, a member of our family. And then Mariah, a self-identified, Jesus-loving queer kid. You’ll hear more about that tonight, too. I want to underscore why safe space matters to us before we welcome the panel. These are just a few little snapshots of the world that we have created.
LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely to experience homelessness as their non-queer friends. LGBTQ people are currently having their identities challenged and erased in any number of state-level legislative acts that attempt to purge any education or celebration of their very existence from classrooms and libraries. It’s Americans right now who identify themselves as Christian leaders who have been at the forefront of influence in Uganda, pushing for and celebrating laws that would lead to the incarceration or even the death penalty for LGBTQ people. And these Americans would say they do this because of their Christian faith. We feel it’s important to create a counterpoint and to work earnestly to create safe spaces for these people.
Our panelists tonight are sharing some things that are very personal and intimate, right? I think for all of us, things like sexuality and gender identity, these are vulnerable and intimate and personal things. They’re putting in time, making themselves visible and doing the work for our benefit. This is work they shouldn’t have to do. But we’re grateful that they’re willing to do it, because it does need done in the world that we live in right now. And so I hope as they honor us with that contribution and sacrifice that we’ll have it in our hearts to want to show honor back to them.
For the first half of the night, we’ve asked each panelist to share for eight to ten minutes a little bit of their own experience and story, and to include a few clear takeaways for us. And then we’ll open up the second half of the night to questions. Many of you submitted questions when you registered. We also have index cards on your seats, and anytime during the first part of the night, if you’d like to write a question on a card, feel free to do so. And then when we transition from the panel presentation to the Q&A, we’ll invite you to pass the cards to the end of your row, and we’ll include those in our questioning.
We will not be opening up the floor for an open floor Q&A. We felt that just to maintain a measured environment of safety for these people who are sharing these stories, we would introduce just a little bit of moderation, which is what I’m here for. I’m one of our enforcers tonight, and I will not shy away from enforcing. When we’re done with our program, one more note. Please understand that when we’re done with the program, our panelists’ jobs are done for the night.
They didn’t sign up to be cornered with further questions. They’re not here to get picked off for one-on-one conversations. If they choose to mingle, you’re of course more than welcome to say thank you. You’re not welcome to try to get more out of them than they’ve already given. Amen? Audience: Amen. Jason: Amen, you’re here. Awesome, that’s great. All right, with all that being said, will you please give a very warm welcome to our panelists, Zach, Debbie, Cami, and Mariah. Audience: *applause*
Jason: Zach, you just had a birthday. Audience: *cheering*
Zach: I did, I did. Yesterday I turned 33. Jason: You look good for 33, you know that?
Zach: At 12.35 a.m. according to my mother, but I celebrate all month. Jason: That’s good, it’s a month of birthday. Zach: It is, reparations. Jason: What’s one good thing you did for your birthday? Zach: One good thing was be around my family. My family is my heart. I love them so much and my dad is on a new journey to retirement from being a pastor, which I’ll get into a little later, but he moved down to Indy and when I tell you, my man was so excited.
He was like, oh my gosh, when you’re coming, hurry up, hurry up. Well, you know, everybody’s here, this and that and the other. So it was just really cool to be around him and my sister and a couple of my little cousins that I helped raise and things like that and now they’re adults. It was just, it was beautiful. It was, it was. Jason: Well, speaking of your story, you said you’d get to it a little bit later. You’re up first. Zach: I am. Jason: Talk to me, Zach. Zach: Okay. I’m trying to first, should I sit or stand? Jason: It’s up to you. Zach: I’ma just sit just like this. Hey, y’all.
It’s so good to see you. It’s so good to see you. So one thing that I know about my journey is that it’s very different from the typical queer Christian story. I can’t really say that I had negative experiences in church necessarily, but I’ll start off with the fact that I am a preacher’s child.
A PK. My father has been pastoring at the same church for 32 years, so we got there when I was nine months old. I don’t know any, I didn’t know any other church community besides the New Community Baptist Church. So, you know, being my father’s only son, and being a part of what we call the first family, because in black church culture, the pastor and their family is a big deal. It is. And it’s also been pretty wonderful, like I would get to sit at the head table and eat first and all that kind of stuff. And then the church mothers would bake me cakes and pies. Jason: *chuckles* Zach: It was a wonderful, wonderful thing. And because I was my daddy’s baby, that meant that I was New Community’s baby so, to this day, at 33, I’m still their baby. Which is a wonderful thing. I absolutely love it.
But with that came a lot of scrutiny. I mean, just in general, before sexuality even came into play, anything that my sister and I did was heightened. It was a big deal. ‘Oh, but did you see what Zanzi did?’ or ‘Did you hear what Zachary said? or ‘Did you…’ all these things, all these things. So there was a piece of that. That carried a bit of weight for all of us. And my mother, my mother was a flight attendant turned teacher, you know, so a preacher and a teacher. It was great, right? So great. But when I was around 12 years old, you know, when your body starts to change and things and you realize that it does more things, I was like, wait a minute.
My attractions aren’t what society tells me that they should be. And one thing that I will say is that theologically speaking, I never blatantly heard my father from the pulpit say, ‘if you have the queer community, you’re hellbound’. I never heard any of that.
But what I did here, as a member of the black community, which has a tendency to be very hyper masculine and toxically masculine, that some of my constitution, some of the ways that I would walk and talk and live and move and have my being, were not masculine according to their standards. So growing up, I was always corrected. Like watch how you hold your hand, watch how you say that phrase, watch how you roll your neck. Watch all of these things. But you know, that right there, that’s just heteronormativity and it’s trash. But, but aside from that, even though I had these feelings, I was a kid and I didn’t know what to do with it. And all I heard was, these are not good.
You know, these feelings were bad. And all I wanted to do was please my dad and my uncles and my older cousins, because all of them were athletes, like rough and tumble. I’m just like, can I just sit and help mama cook? Jason: *chuckles* Zach: Can I help you plant flowers on Mother’s Day? Can I do that? *chuckles* You know, and it still blows my mind that we just determine someone’s identity, someone’s masculinity or femininity or whatever, based on what we do because that’s just, mm, a mess.
But when you know better, you do better. So I started to date. I dated a girl. We dated from the ages of 14 to 20. Jason: I think I’ve seen pictures. Zach: Have…you’ve seen pictures? Jason: Yeah, from you. I think you’ve shown pictures. Zach: Oh, I did. I did. Baby, she was bad. Audience: *laughs* Zach: To this day. To this day, she is. And I absolutely adore her.
And I really, really liked her. Like, I loved her, platonically. But then as we got older, I was like, the physical attraction just was not there. It wasn’t there. So, of course, me being a 20-year-old young man, I left this area to work in Arkansas for a summer. Because after my first year, at a local Christian, conservative, evangelical, small liberal arts, predominantly white institution. Audience: *chuckles* Zach: I knew that I could not spend four months at home with my parents, because I was like, uh-uh, I got a little bit of independence and you’re not going to tell me when to come in the house.
So let me go and do my thing. And it was there. And it was so interesting where it took me to leave the area that I was in to go to a place where I knew no one. The next relative that I knew of was five hours north in St. Louis. And it was then when I would be out in public. And one time I got hit on and I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of like this.’ And then I came to the realization that, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to go anywhere. This isn’t going anywhere. So what am I going to do? What am I going to do?’ So I come back. I find some ridiculous reason to break up with my girlfriend at the time.
And it was clearly something that could have been worked out. But I was gay. So there wasn’t anything that could be done there. So then that happened, and then about a year later I dated someone else. And I mean, even if I was straight, we were much better off as friends. But she was actually the first person that I came out to when I was 22.
And I told her, you know, I said, ‘I think I like guys.’ And then she goes, ‘Oh, well, I kissed a girl and I liked it. I’m bisexual.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, but I don’t think I am.’ Jason and Audience: *chuckles* Zach: ‘I don’t think I am.’ Jason and Audience: *continue chuckling* Zach: My god today.
So eventually, you know, that ended and I was like, I’m gonna chill, I’m gonna start to really dive more deeply into reconciling my faith and my sexuality. So that was at 22. By the time I got to 24, my faith started to become more of my own because when you’re a pastor’s child, it’s easy to take on the faith of your parents.
But I had gotten to the point where I was tired of this regurgitory theology, and I wanted to dive in and figure some things out for myself and start to research more affirming theology, because I already knew what the non-affirming theology said. I mean, when I would go to chapel at the place where I went to school and worked at for five years, believe it or not, ooh, child.
We would have a lot of ex-gay speakers come in and they would give me the option of, or anyone who was trying to make heads or tails or navigate the sexuality, they would say, ‘Well, either you go into a symbiotic marriage with someone of the opposite sex or you’re celibate.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to work for me.’ Audience: *laughs* Zach: That might work for everybody else, but that ain’t going to work for me. So…
Long story short, I started telling more of my friends at 24 and I came out to my parents when I was 26, July 1st, 2016. And the thing that got me was when I told my mother, she said, ‘Zachary, I can’t love you any more than I already do.’ She said, ‘Be yourself, be safe, keep praying, and hold on to your faith.’
And I like to say that’s exactly what I did. And then she ended up telling my father, and my father being who he is, is like, ‘Okay.’ You know? And I’m sure that they had questions to everyone else. But I know deep down in my heart that my family would much rather have me with a significant other than not have me at all. And I know that that is not a common experience. And also my family knows me enough to know my gift of goodbye. Like I will be like, ‘All right, I can’t bring him? Cool, bye. I’ll see you when I see you. I love you from a distance.’ You know, and a lot of that is just misconstrued.
It’s misconstrued abandonment when in reality it’s boundaries, you know. Because my parents are boomers and they’re just like, ‘Well, you know, it doesn’t matter what your relatives do, you’re always there, doesn’t matter how toxic it is, you’re always there.’ Ugh, but not I said the duck. That’s what us millennials are like, nah, we good, we good. But since then, after I told my parents, I was like, I don’t care what anybody else thinks, because I just want my mama and my daddy and my family and I’m good.
And just like Dr. Suess said, ‘Those that mind don’t matter and those that matter don’t mind.’ So I leaned into that. I left Bethel. And that is when I felt… Jason: That was the school you were talking about. Zach: That was a school. Audience: *laughs* Jason: Oh, okay. Zach: Like… Jason Sorry. Zach: You know, like my grad school brain was thinking of the IRB, the Institutional Review Board. And I’m like, wait. But anyway, once I left there, I was fully able to be free.
Folks that have seen me sing on the Bethel stage versus singing on this platform were like, ‘You don’t sing like that.’ or “You didn’t sing like that.” And I tell them, ‘That’s because I’m free. It’s a difference.’ And when you can truly worship God in spirit and in truth, honey, it’s a game changer. That’s why y’all see me up here getting caught up. Because I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God loves me and that God delights in who I am.
And, as far as reconciling my faith with that, I juxtaposed what fallible humans say about me to what the infallible God says about me. And… Audience: *applause* Zach: Yes. And I believe the report of the Lord. Somebody is lying. The Bible says ‘Nothing can separate me from the love of God.’ And you telling me that I’m an abomination and God hates me?
Something ain’t lining up, you know? And God is not a man, woman, being that he, she, or they should lie, as it says in the Bible. So I believe God in that. And ever since then, I’ve been in incredible positions like this, where I can show people that being a queer Christian is not oxymoronic. It is not.
And, you know, I just continually, continually pray for anybody out there that’s, you know, going through this journey. And I’m going to tell you exactly what my mama said. ‘I love you. Be safe. Be yourself. And hold on to your faith.’ That’s what I got. Jason: Thank you, Zach. Audience: *applause*
Jason: Will you hand that over to…
Jaosn: Thank you, Zach. Our next panelist, among other things, does happen to be my mother. You may not know about my older brother, Jeff, who’s a big part of the story that my mom’s going to share tonight. But please give a welcome to Debbie Miller.
Debbie: I’ll try and add some humor to follow Zach, but there’s not a lot of that in this and it’s all written down just so I don’t miss what I think is really important. So just for some context, Jeff came out approximately 20 years ago and at that time, short of death or a terminal illness, this was the absolute worst thing I could ever have imagined.
Additionally, that was right about the time all of our friends started inviting us to their kids’ weddings. And not only did those weddings feel like funerals to me, because I didn’t think I would ever experience that for my son, you see people you haven’t seen in a while, and you know what they ask you? How’s the family? What’s going on? And so I found myself stepping back and feeling very isolated. But for some history, I met my husband Steve in his hometown of Grove City, Ohio. And two weeks after our wedding, my parents moved out of state.
And when our youngest child, Jason, was four months old, Steve took his first promotion that involved a move away from family, friends, his childhood home, like I said, we went to Michigan. But corporate transfers, even though they took us away from family, they provided a way that I could be a stay-at-home mom. And we really felt like that was worth the trade-off. So outside of a few job friends and relationships that Steve had, our sense of belonging and community totally came from our church. We went in all the way. I mean, like if the church doors were open, we were there. It was Sunday school, it was Sunday evening, it was midweek. And Zach reminded me of something when he was talking about his family. Steve was an elder. I taught Sunday school.
You know, it was like, we weren’t on staff, but we were totally engrossed in lay activities. Like I said, if the church was open, we were there. We even bought our house where we live right now so we could be close to the church we knew we were going to attend when Steve got transferred here.
So as the kids got older, they had youth group, church camp, VBS, and I eventually ventured into part-time office work, first at the church, church secretary, and then at the church camp. Faith-based spaces were our fortress. We needed a place of protection from the outside world and the evil forces. We even went so far as to file letters of religious objection when the guys were in high school so they wouldn’t have to sit through public school health class that covered sexual orientation. Or it wasn’t orientation then, but it was human sexuality. But following Jeff’s coming out, I found myself hanging on by a thread and like a pendulum, that thread would swing back and forth between the realization that it must have been a failure as a mom and anger at God for allowing this to happen to my family. I mean, I thought I had pushed all the right buttons, right? I mean, I just told you how much we were in church and thought I’d put my kids through all the right hoops. And yet here we were.
So it felt like it was incumbent on God to fix this. So I prayed and then I prayed some more. And I couldn’t tell you when one prayer ended and the next one began because every breath was laced with prayer and every blink held back a flood of tears that was waiting to betray my despair. And what do you do with your anger when it’s directed at God? If you feel that God has betrayed you, where do you turn?
To further exacerbate my despair, I believed my desires were honorable. I wasn’t asking for monetary gain or celebrity status. I was asking for what I thought God’s Word told me I should want, and therefore what I thought God wanted for my child. I thought we were aligned in our purpose, and I believed eternity was at stake. And I cannot overstate that. I believed eternity was at stake. Maybe God was impotent and weak, incapable of preventing this from happening or correcting the collision course. Could it be that he was simply distant, aloof, too busy to be bothered with the likes of me and my family?
And worse yet, maybe this God was capricious enough to enjoy watching us squirm under the weight of our circumstances. I mean, these were all the things that were going through my head. And ordinarily, I would find comfort in the pages of my Bible or time with friends. But this was different. I feared talking about it would breathe life into the nightmare. So all I could do was sit in a booth at a restaurant crying while my best friends kept silent company with me. And scripture even seemed to mock me. I mean, things like James 5:16, promising the prayers of the righteous effecteth much. Well, apparently my prayers weren’t righteous because, weren’t effective, because I wasn’t righteous enough. And then there was the teaching of parachurch organizations that spouted the idea that one of the causes of male homosexuality was an overbearing mom.
This reinforced my concerns like a gavel banging on the desk of the judge as he proclaimed my guilt to the entire courtroom. The burden kept falling on my shoulders, and the weight of it was breaking me. So still believing that God wanted my son to be heterosexual but hadn’t taken care of this yet, and conversely convicted of my guilt in the matter, I put what I thought was my son’s well-being ahead of my shame. I sent Jeff to counseling.
If we simply availed ourselves of professional help, I believed everything would work out, and I could go back to the life that, I thought ,was the way things were: which obviously what I thought was wasn’t really what it was.
When I look at these words on this page, I realize it kind of looked like I believed God had the ten-second rule. You know, you drop the food on the floor and if you pick it up fast enough, it doesn’t count. Audience: *chuckles* Debbie: You know, because I was in a hurry to get my son fixed. But I didn’t hear the term conversion therapy until quite a few years after that. And while Jeff never went to an in-house or residential treatment program, the message was still the same: ‘The way you’re wired is wrong. You need to be fixed.’
Well, eventually we arrived at a place where Jeff’s world and mine began to intersect, and that meant I had to be willing to let Jeff take the lead. A bit of a role reversal, if you will. But looking back, that makes perfect sense now, because I knew nothing about anything in this arena. But as I began taking baby steps on the proverbial slippery slope, it felt like someone had neglected to connect the water hose to the slip and slide.
It was slow and sticky going for a long time. And I wasn’t concerned with my son simply being happy. Have you seen three-year-olds? They can be happy sitting in the road playing with the…eating dirt. They’re happy, they’re just not in a good place. Audience: *chuckles* Debbie: I wanted my son to flourish, but I also had to be willing to consider that flourishing was going to look different than what I had been imagining for so long.
I think I experienced all five stages of grief along the way. But as I saw people who had been shunned and judged by the church love like Jesus, I was confronted with my own self-righteousness and judgmental attitude. As I stepped out of my bubble, the world became so much more beautiful.
My understanding of God expanded more than I could have ever imagined, and my son is indeed flourishing. So there are a couple of things I hope that you can take away from my story. The first one is that when your child comes out, it is an immeasurable act of courage. They are well aware of the cost. The second one is that if you can’t see a way forward when your child comes out, the important thing is to stand with them while you figure it out. The trust they have placed in you is precious cargo. And then I do have a poem I’d like to share with you that actually I just wrote last year.
I call it the remix. ‘Have you ever changed your mind? Do you know anyone who is right all the time? Have you ever held on to an opinion or kept your feet planted in the same position without asking yourself any questions? Have you ever been wrong about what you were taught and thought all along?
Was it really the truth, absolutely? Have you ever come to see anything differently? But what if this belief was held so closely, it shaped your identity and sense of community, your present belonging and your view of eternity? Would you be able to walk away? And what would happen if someone you loved is gay? Well, let me tell you, my life changed forever that day. So would you be willing to take a second look at the way you interpret the good book’ and my thing is not working?
So let’s start back with, ‘My life changed forever that day. Would you be willing to take a second look at the way you interpret the Bible, the good book? Would you still believe what you knew was indeed the gospel truth? Or would you become a detective, a sleuth, investigating and excavating? Could there be more than meets the eye and could culture and context hidden between the lines shed a light and offer insight? But there’s more. There’s comfort and certainty within the paradigm where you have spent your life and invested so much energy and time, until there isn’t.
But even then you are resistant, persistent, and insistent. You try to close the door on Pandora’s box, rein in, and lasso your thoughts. I pleaded and I begged. Lord, no, not this, anything but this. And slowly, gradually, I began to see that God had not abandoned me or my family.
Rather, he was intimately involved with the details of this journey. But stepping out of the path well-worn, my emotions and heart became broken and torn. I mean, where do you stand when even your closest friends cannot begin to comprehend that your journey has taken you to a place where you feel all alone because certain beliefs just don’t make sense anymore? So my questions begat questions, and those have fueled accusations.
So what if one of your friends changed their opinion? Would you consider they’ve done their due diligence and found evidence, both compelling and significant, to support their decision? Or would you assume they had lost their faith and abandoned their religion? You know, the road I have traveled did indeed cause certain beliefs to unravel. And some would say that I’ve been deceived. But on the contrary: I could never have imagined the depths and the beauty of what I now believe.’ Audience: *applause*
Jason: Thank you, church member, Debbie. Audience: *laughs*
Jason: Cam, welcome. Will you share with us? Cami: Thank you. Thank you for giving us this opportunity. It’s been many years since I’ve looked out over a crowd of this size. And Deb? Jason: With the rain, you might need to hold that real close so we don’t get feedback. Yeah, just hold that real close. Thank you. Cami: Sorry. Jason: It’s OK. Cami: Your story resonates with me, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, being that I was the child of very conservative parents, much like you, Zach.
Other than that, my story is really not that much different than a lot of other transgender people across the world. You know, it starts off, we knew since we were knee-high to a grasshopper that there was something different about us. And for me, the particular moment that it became real was I was probably just over five years old and I’d started kindergarten. Now, prior to this, I was very sheltered.
My parents told people, just because of my mannerisms, that I was different, you know, that I was not like my brothers. But they kind of labeled it as a mental inadequacy, so they kind of kept me out of the groups. I wasn’t allowed to have friends. So I didn’t understand that there was a difference between boys and girls until I was about five years old. And I remember in particular one day, I was standing at our kindergarten exit and there was two classrooms that faced each other, because we had a rather large school. And I’m looking across and there’s all the girls there and they have the bows in their hair and they’re wearing the cute dresses. And the jealousy that I felt in that moment was palatable. I’m like, ‘Why do I gotta have this bowl haircut and these jeans and a t-shirt? You know, I wanna look like that.’
And then it started to dawn on me that I was different, but it never really truly set in. And at this time, I didn’t know what transgender was. I didn’t know what gay was. I mean, this was in the very early 80s. And so I had no way of quantifying what I felt. And I kept it hidden from my parents and all that until I was much older.
But I remember in elementary school, in kindergarten, I also made a friend. And he was a young boy that I remember watching him as he came into the classroom that first day. And he was standing in the entryway and he was just terrified. You could just see the look of terror on his face like he was just petrified to be there. And so I, being the chipper extrovert that I am, I walked up and I stuck my hand out and I introduced myself and I said, ‘Is this your first day?’ Of course it was. Audience: *chuckles*
Cami: He’s like, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘I’m scared too,’ because I was. I was terrified. Being that I lived a very sheltered life, I wasn’t used to being in groups of other kids my age, especially mixed gender. And so we became very, very good friends. And it wasn’t until I was probably 14, 15 years old that I understood what that chemistry was between us. But we were arm in arm in the lunch line together, recessed together, bathroom breaks together. And we would get ridiculed and teased non-stop, you know, people would call us gay and all the other words that go along with insulting people of different sexual identities. And it didn’t, it didn’t click with me what it was, what they were talking about until I was much older.
But like I said, I was raised in a very conservative, Pentecostal home. So church three times a week, twice on Sundays. And you went whether you wanted to or not. You know, I’d wake up and, ‘Dad, I don’t feel good, my stomach hurts. I’m gonna throw up.’ And he would say, ‘Okay, go ahead and throw up.’ And I would throw up and he’d say, ‘Well, don’t you feel better now? Let’s go to church.’ So it was a very strict upbringing. We had no television. We had no comic books. We were not allowed to watch movies.
The women had to have their dresses down to their ankles and the sleeves had to be below the elbows, no makeup, no hair cutting, men had to be clean shaven, all these dogmatic rules and it was beat into our head that anything that was a deviance from that was damnation and that you were headed for hell. And I lived that fear, I lived that torment all of my young life.
But I remember when I was about 14 years old, these feelings of knowing that I was in the wrong body just became so strong that I couldn’t ignore them. And I would try to repress them, and I would throw myself on the altar every Sunday and beg and plead and say, ‘God, please take this from me. This isn’t right, this is sinful, this is an abomination.’ But it didn’t go away. And I tried and I tried and I tried. And I remember one time in particular that it really hit home with me that there was something wrong, or at that time I thought wrong. I couldn’t hide myself from myself any longer.
And so I did what a lot of young transgender girls do when they want to start expressing their identity. You know, I went to the local G. L. Perry convenience store, if any of you remember that, and I bought some clothes. Of course, the story was it was for my sister. I didn’t have a sister. And in my own privacy in my room, when my brothers were out playing baseball and football and climbing trees and digging holes and working on cars, I was in playing with my stuffed animals and pretending I was a princess.
And I remember at one time when I was 14, this urge to express myself and become who I was became so overwhelming that I locked myself in the family bathroom at two o’clock in the morning under the pretense of taking a bath, because that bathroom had the one window that I could crawl out. So I got all dressed up and I crawled out that window at two o’clock in the morning and I’m parading around just like, you know, I’m feeling free, like, ‘Wow, this is who I’m supposed to be. I’m like finally myself.’
And my dad had a car that had this particular tick in the engine. And I’m out just being a little princess and all happy. And all of a sudden, I hear that engine coming around the corner. I’m like, ‘Oh, Lord, help me. I’m busted.’ And so I’m racing across the backyard, trying to dive back into the window. And it was locked. And my parents caught me. And the shock on their face and the reaction to this day still gets me. They immediately went into this tirade of, ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you sick? Are you possessed by a demon? Are you gay?’ Because that was terrible to be gay back then. And they just, the physical repercussions, the punishment was brutal. Now my parents are not abusive, they never have been, but they were so shocked to see me like that, that they just reacted.
And it clicked in my head. This is something that you can never tell anybody. You have to bottle this up and ignore it. And so I did. I tried. And I threw myself into church activity. I said I became involved with the youth. And I’d go to every youth meeting I could get into in multiple churches. And I even started really studying the scripture and trying to find ways to exorcize this demon from my heart.
And when I was 16, I got my driver’s license and I started going with other churches and again became involved in youth ministry. And I remember, as I progressed, they would have me giving sermons on Youth Sunday or whatnot. And when I was in my late teens, probably 17, I remember in particular one night, preaching a sermon, damning people like myself to hell: that it was an abomination, that this world was an evil place, and that it was the hearts of men that were corrupted through their own evil lust that had caused this on them. And when I finished, I sat down at the edge of the altar, and I began to weep.
But not because of what I felt was right, it was because of what I felt was that I was a hypocrite. That I was condemning people to hell for being the very thing that I was lying to myself about. But I thought, ‘Well, okay, maybe it’s because I am a virgin.’ I was an awkward kid, so obviously I was. Audience: *chuckles* Cami: So I thought, well, maybe I gotta remedy that. So I met a girl that I went to school with and things happened.
It didn’t go away, but I felt horrible about it. I felt absolutely horrible about it. But I continued the relationship, and we ended up getting married because I confided and told a best friend of mine, of course, then he told the church, and the church told everybody else. And it was like, well, you’ve defiled each other. You’ve got to get married now. So we did. And I was okay with it because I desperately wanted children. So I would do that all over again to have my children, which are amazingly supportive.
But all this time through the marriage, my partner, my wife at the time, could tell that I had already checked out. I wasn’t physically attracted to her. I wasn’t emotionally attracted to her because I wasn’t who I was supposed to be in my head. And I can imagine, and it eats at me to imagine, what she was going through knowing that her husband had already checked out fresh into the marriage. But we stuck it out for seven years, and after seven years, I was like, ‘I just, I can’t do this.’ And I was involved in the ministry at the church, and I was traveling around doing this and that.
And I remember one night in particular, I told my wife, I said, ‘I just need to spend some time alone in prayer.’ And I threw myself on the altar again, locked myself in the church, and I prayed and cried and just cried out to God all night long, you know, to take this from me, because I wanted to be a pure person. I wanted to be a servant of God. I wanted to be holy and acceptable, you know, to the kingdom of heaven.
And in my heart, I was so convinced that I couldn’t be because of this demon, this perversion that I thought I had in my heart. And the morning came and I took myself home and I tried to go ahead and just keep it in the bottle. But it was just a few weeks later, I confessed to my wife at the time. I said, ‘I can’t hide anymore. I am supposed to be a woman.’
And that tore a huge rift in our family. My parents, when I came out to them, excommunicated me for a number of years. I didn’t talk to them. My brothers didn’t wanna talk to me. My family didn’t wanna talk to me. My uncle threatened to kill me. But I was so determined to try to be myself. And I thought, ‘Well, maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re right. Maybe this is a perversion. Maybe I need help.’
So, ‘Well, maybe it’s because I’m not physically attracted to her. Maybe I got to meet somebody I’m physically attracted to.’ So I met a girl from El Salvador who was super model gorgeous. Seven months in, no, I didn’t want to be with her. I wanted to be her. And that ended quickly and abruptly. And I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s because there’s no intellectual connection.’ There was a language barrier. I learned Spanish so I could talk to her.
I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s because there’s not, there’s too many differences there.’ And so I said, ‘Maybe I gotta find an intellectual, compatible person.’ So I met another person who was into information technology and science and all the nerdy stuff that I’m into. And I was like, ‘I’m gonna make this work. I’m gonna make this work and I’m gonna get rid of this.’ And so we got married and that lasted a year. And I’m like, ‘Nope, this isn’t it.’
So, I told her, of course, that I was going to start my transition. And I did. Of course, by then I’d done tons of research, found it all out. And I did. And I transitioned when I was 28 and did all the hormone replacement therapy, had a great life, had a great job. The job that I was working at, it was what we call ‘stealth.’ If you’re not aware, in the trans community, stealth means that you work and live, and nobody knows that you’re transgender. So I worked in an environment. Nobody had a clue. But some things happened that I had to take custody of my kids.
So I say this with a little bit of pride, but also a bit of humility and thankfulness for how good my children are. But the judge told me that when it happened, due to the circumstances that I was the first trans-gendered woman in South Bend, Indiana to get full and unrestricted custody of her children and set a precedent. Audience: *applause* Cami: So that set some things in motion that told me that it was okay to be who I was and that the people that really mattered, my children, were okay with it. They were perfectly fine with it.
But as would have it, insurance didn’t cover any medical transition, they didn’t cover the prescriptions needed, any of that. And so this was all coming out of my pocket. And, a lot of you may know, being a single parent with absolutely no child support coming in, it’s very difficult to raise teenage daughters. So I was like, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do both.’ And so I was like, ‘Well, I’m just gonna bottle it up, put it back in the bottle and just go back to living as a male for the rest of my life and die miserable.’
And, I used the guise of finding Jesus again and got re-involved with the church and really threw myself into it and did that for seven years. And you know, revivals broke out over the trans woman that became straight, you know, all the time, living a lie, living a lie. And finally in 2021, I was dating somebody else and struggling, struggling, struggling, struggling with this all over again. And I did the same thing all over again. I locked myself in a church one night, threw myself on the altar, and just begged and begged and begged, ‘God, please take this thorn from my flesh. Take this curse from me.’ You know, ‘Make me a vessel of honor. Make me an example. Make me a testimony.’ I felt the Spirit impress upon me. And God said, ‘Yes, I could take this from you. I could. It is within my power.
But the problem is that this world is so full of people just like you, that have done the same thing, that have bottled it up and turned to religion as an excuse in claiming they’re healed, and they have turned on people like you and they have caused a rift. They have caused hatred and division because they curse people like you, knowing they are very much that person themselves. So, if I take this from you, you become one of them and you cannot be a bridge.
How are the people over here that says you’re an abomination gonna be able to see that you’re just a human being that loves Christ and that wants to live a godly life? And then those here on the other side that want nothing to do with the church because they’ve been so damaged and hated because of their gender identity or their sexuality. Who’s gonna be that intermediary?’ And so God told me, He’s like, ‘Okay, I could, I could, but I’m not going to. I made you different so that you could learn patience and tolerance for those who are different.’
‘Alright, Lord.’ So, I still struggle with it, and I told my partner, and my partner at the time knew that I was transgender and that I was struggling with it, living as male, and I told her, I said, ‘I need to get away, I need to address this.’ So I did a two-week hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2021. And about 40 miles in, actually about 20 miles in, I reached a plateau and there’s this huge boulder that looks out over the valley called Preacher’s Rock.
And the story was that many, many years ago, there was a preacher that lived in the valley of the mountain. And he would hike up to that mountain, that huge cliff looking out over the valley, and he would practice his sermons. And in that moment, I felt, again, the Spirit of God speaking to me saying, ‘Stop lying to yourself, stop lying to people, and be who I made you to be.’ And that was my moment that I came home and I resumed my transition.
And I’m learning, I’m learning as I go on that there is a reason, there is a reason. Somebody has to be the bridge. And I think that is not just me, not just us up here, but that’s all of us, to realize if you are straight, you can see people like myself, like Zach, like Deb, that we all love God and we are all striving for the Kingdom of Heaven.
And then those of us that are identified as LGBTQ can also show that we are being servants of God, that we’re good and kind and loving people, and they’re really not cursed, you know. So, Pastor, you made a comment on one of your messages, actually it was the one where you’re talking about gender identity, that said, you know, that God created night and day, but there’s also a dusk and a dawn, which is neither night nor day.
So that’s been a lifeline to me. And so that’s my story, that’s me. And the takeaway is that I want people to understand that mostly when people that are transgendered, especially, first come out, we are absolutely terrified because of perceptions. Some of us don’t look feminine or masculine. Our voices may not be right. Our mannerisms may be wrong. All kinds of things. And we are absolutely terrified to be seen in public. So when you see them sulking around, hiding in a parking lot, scrunched down in their car, chances are they’re not being creepers. They’re terrified that somebody’s going to see them, but they’re so desperate to be seen. So my takeaway here is, you know, have an open mind. When you see somebody that’s obviously transgender and struggling, offer them companionship, offer them compassion, and offer them the love of Christ. Audience: *applause* Jason: Amazing. Thank you.
Jason: Yeah. Audience: *applause continues*
Jason: We’ve got Mariah next. Before we get there, I just, one thing that I was remembering as you were sharing that I’ve heard before is that many straight and cisgender people have never wanted anything in their life as badly as many LGBTQ people have wanted to not be that because of the world that we created that doesn’t have room for that. And so I just think to hear these stories of desire and faith. I think a lot of straight people would radically underestimate how deeply our queer friends and family have prayed for and sought to be faithful. And I think I’m really grateful for you to highlight that in your story. Yeah, thank you, Cami. Yeah.
Jason: Mariah, share with us, please. Mariah: Hey. Bear with me. This is my first time talking about this in front of a group of people. Audience: *applause*
Mariah: If you would have told me even like three years ago that I would be doing this, I probably would have laughed in your face. Yeah, so I have a few modes to tell my story tonight, and I’m going to take a quick moment on the first one.
I grew up in a really religious family, went to campmeetings every summer, and fire and brimstone was the theme, it seemed, every year. And it’s cycled between who is the target of that. But I grew up having a really real idea and a visceral vision of what hell looked like, and I just knew I didn’t want to go there.
I was always the kid, always the girl that was playing with the boys. G.I. Joe’s instead of Barbie’s. In fact, my mom just told me like the other week that at my kindergarten graduation, my kindergarten teacher said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone work harder than Mariah worked to let the boys know that she could play kickball as good as them.’ Audience: *laughter* And so sports was my life. And
Yeah, around like eight years old, which is younger than I thought. I found…I’m finding this out in real time. Eight years old, there’s a picture of me with a backwards baseball cap on like this like quarter zip, this like, you know, those like old like
seashell necklaces and like baggy jeans and like I was like ‘They…how did they not’ Jason: You talking about the necklaces that the bros bought at Hollister? Mariah: Yeah, I’m like I yeah wow. And I stayed that way, stayed dressing that way. I was just always more comfortable in
less feminine clothes. I still identify firmly as like she/her, but it was always just my expression never matched up with what the world said my expression should be. And I remember at one point, I think I was probably in like fifth grade. I was over with my neighbor. He was like my best friend, and they were babysitting a girl that was a little younger than us and we were…
We were playing and it got really warm and we were jumping on the trampoline and she goes, ‘Well if you’re warm you can just take your shirt off.’ And I was like, ‘No I can’t.’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah you can.’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And I realized I had to like tell her that I was a girl. But as I did that, even I looked back on that and I was like, I was kind of proud. Like to be like, like she obviously was attracted to me, you know? And um.
Then middle school, high school was kind of rough. I had a high school boyfriend. He went to kiss me on the cheek and I went home feeling so sick to my stomach, which I felt terrible. He was a great guy. But I couldn’t figure it out. In college, I had a college boyfriend and when you go to a small Bible college, you’re convinced within three months you’re gonna marry someone. I was convinced. And around that time, I had realized
and finally admitted that I had been sexually abused as a child by my neighbor who was a girl around my age. And so I was like, “Oh, this is all making sense. I was abused and therefore it’s distorting my brain.’ That’s kind of the way I navigated around it. And um
So I started going to counseling. But I actually didn’t start going to counseling for the abuse. I started going because I was attracted to women. And it’s funny, because my therapist blew past that part and went straight to the abuse, which I think was a great choice. I continued to live my life. I worked at a very large church: non-denominational, but in the way that like Hillsong’s non-denominational, right? Like it does have roots in something quite conservative.
And during my time there, I had a guy that I dated in middle school come out to me as gay, and he was terrified. And I remember him saying, ‘I love God more than I ever have, and I feel closer to him than I ever have.’ And I believed him. And I never had an issue with affirmation and inclusion in the church, but everyone around me did. And so I was closeted in my affirmation and closeted. And then it just became harder to ignore, right? Like in recent years,
there’s just more people feeling brave and comfortable to share their stories. And in the leadership role that I was in, I just found it more difficult to have those conversations with people, and I really didn’t want to. Around the same time, I mean, COVID happened and you spend a lot of time with yourself in COVID and you can’t ignore things. And so I…
I mean my TikTok algorithm was like speaking for me. Like, and so… Jason: TikTok knows you’re gay. You may not know it yet. Mariah: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And around that time, I became closer to my now partner and I had come out to her a year before, but in a way of like, ‘I’ve kind of always struggled with this or like, I think I’m this.’
And then out of COVID, we became closer and I realized I need to leave where I was working and probably where I was living to be safe and to do it in a respectable way, whatever that means. And…
Around that time, my partner now was like, ‘Hey, I actually have feelings for you.’ And I was like, ‘Great. Because same’, but also, ‘What am I going to do about that right now?’ And I remember driving home from a random coffee thing, and I just pulled over and had a panic attack. And I called my sister and I said, ‘I have to come out to our parents.’ And she sat with me as I did. And my parents were like, ‘I mean, we kind of knew.’ which is fine. Like on some level I’m like, ‘You couldn’t have told me.’ Audience: *laughs* Jason: A little help, mom and dad. Mariah: Like, yeah. Anyway, and I started to come out to some really trusted friends and all the while actively actively searching for new jobs and I was just about to give up on the church thing and
I stumbled across Jay’s teaching. And it was like right before that, that I looked at my therapist and said, ‘I’m gonna have to choose between being myself and doing the thing that I feel like I’m gifted and called to do.’ And it broke me. And I heard his sermon and I just, I didn’t, I was in such a bubble, I didn’t even know that churches like South Bend City Church or any church that was affirming existed, that could also hold onto the Bible. And I remember thinking, ‘I wonder. I wonder what it would be like to work at a church like that someday.’ I zoomed Matt Graybill, and I came out to him. He was the first person
outside of like one or two trusted friends and my parents that I came out to. Jason: Matt’s our executive pastor here on staff. If you don’t know Matt. Mariah: And less than a month later, I see Zach and Jay’s face pop up saying, ‘Hey, we’re hiring.’ And I was like, ‘Ohhh’, and I was like, ‘That’s a long way away.’ And my now partner was looking, she’s like, ‘I just feel like this is it.’ And that terrified me and excited me. So last year around this time, I publicly came out on social media and like the world, you know, knows. And around that time, I had just finished writing a song
and that song is called ‘Jesus Loving Queer Kid.’ And I held onto it for a while, because it’s terrifying to put that into the world, especially in the climate that we’re in right now. But it’s coming out at the end of this month, and I figured the best way to sum up my story, and probably a lot of the stories, maybe of those that identify as LGBTQ in the church, that I should play it for you guys. Audience: *cheers and applause* Jason: Yeah, right?
Mariah: I’m gonna let you know I’m terrified and nervous and I might forget the words, even though I wrote them. It’s a weird thing. Audience: *chuckles* Jason: But they’ll be right up there for you. Mariah: Yeah. So let me get set up and then I wanna play this for you. Jason: Cool, hey, while Mariah gets set up, why don’t we also use this as a moment. If you have any questions that you’ve written on a card, if you would pass them to the outside edge of your row, like that way and that way. I’m gonna ask Katie and Matt if they could grab those while we get to be the premier audience or
one of the premier audiences for this song. Mariah: Technically, yeah. This is a song just asking some questions and some of the things that I wish that I could have said to those that I came out to a year ago.
I find it hard to write this song or begin to find the words / Cause I’ve always loved God and I have always liked girls / And those two things can’t coexist or at least that’s what I was taught /
In a dress for Sunday best, I found myself so lost / And a decade on church stages came at way too high a cost / Cause if you knew who I loved, you’d never let me walk through the doors / Not anymore /
But what if I’m like Jesus, and you’re the Pharisees? / Who remember all the rules and forget love intervenes? / What if that’s how the pews became the most dangerous place to be? / For Jesus loving queer kid like me /
I came home on Wednesday and I couldn’t believe / How foreign it seemed to be on Route 283 / I guess it’s true that I outgrew this place that I once called home /
The roads, they look so different from the less traveled one I chose / And you all have opinions on, in the end, where I will go / I’m not asking you to join me, but consider that you read the map wrong / What if you’re right?
And what if I’m like Jesus and you’re the Pharisees? / Who remember all the rules and forget love intervenes? / What if that’s how the pews became the most dangerous place to be? / For Jesus loving queer kid like me / Like me
So throw your stones and do it quick / Do your worst, I can handle it / I’ve erased myself for way too long / ‘cause I believe in the man that stoops down right in the sand / To see oppressed empowered to be strong / And says that in the end love can’t go wrong /
And what if I’m like Jesus and you’re the Pharisees? / Who remember all the rules and forget love intervenes? / What if that’s how the pews became the most dangerous place to be? / For a Jesus-loving queer kid like me?
Jason: Well… Audience: *chuckles*
Jason: I’ll have a little bit more to say to all you when we’re done here. But we want to turn to some questions, and you all have asked some really wonderful questions. Some of you had a chance to submit them in advance through registering, and I wonder if you’ve got any cards. Thank you, Matt. A few extras that might have come through here. We don’t have a ton of time for questions tonight. I think it’s actually really great. The storytelling
held the space that it held for us tonight, but we do have time for some. And so the good news is what I’ve read here and what you sent in ahead of time, and I’ll take a look at these as we move through this. There’s a few kind of clear areas that are expressed in many different questions. And the first one, this is one actual question, but a number of questions sound a little bit like this, and I think it’s a great place for us to start. ‘A lot of us are kind of unaware. We’re ignorant to the reality of everything that surrounds the LGBTQ plus spectrum of existence and experience.
Yet asking questions for the sake of learning can be awkward and unintentionally can come across as judgmental or as virtue signaling. And I know that there are people who are pretending to ask sincere questions but in fact are using those questions as a dog whistle or to make a point. How can we ask awkward questions and have awkward conversations so that we can learn better to be better allies?’ That feels like a good place for us to start. And Zach, can I throw it to you first?
Zach: Sometimes I have like aftershock feels.
Tapping into my higher ed diversity professional compartment of my brain and being a gay black man, the fact that you want to engage in conversation is enough. If you come to the conversation with a posture of ‘help me to understand’ versus ‘I don’t understand,’ then
You have what some people call ‘want to.’ You want to engage in conversation. And if you check your posture when wanting to ask us questions, I’m telling you, we will answer them. Don’t ever feel awkward. Don’t feel that at all. I just want to tell you that. Because we would much rather have you ask us
instead of not saying anything or implying things. You know, it’s good to go straight to the source. And, you know, we’re willing to answer any questions that you have. So don’t have any trepidation, okay? Do y’all have anything? Jason: You wanna add that up?
Cool, I got another one for you all. Actually, for this one, I’m gonna go straight to Cami, if that’s okay. There’s a handful of questions that have to do with language and pronouns and being respectful. I’m gonna give you a couple of sample questions all in the same area here.
And I do appreciate…I think people asking these questions, they might even recognize, they’re not sure if the language in their question is even the right language, but I hear the heart in it. Somebody asked, ‘What’s the most sensitive way to refer to someone whose gender is indistinct?’ And then there’s questions here about, ‘Can you just talk to us about pronouns? I know that there’s he/him and she/her, but there’s other people who choose other pronouns.’ Do you mind just giving us a little bit of an introductory explainer on how our language
specifically around transgender or non-binary people, like how to approach that? Cami: Sure, absolutely. I’ve been asked this question before, ‘how do we approach you?’ And I jokingly say, ‘It’s like a vegetarian, how do you know somebody’s a vegetarian? Talk to them for a few minutes, you’ll know. They’ll tell you.’ Audience: *laughs* Cami: Same thing with triathletes. A lot of times there is the question that a person’s gender identity is in question.
And the most approachable way to ask is just like Zach said. If you come with an attitude or with a disposition of, ‘Help me understand, I’m not trying to be insulting.’ What people ask me a lot of times, they ask me, ‘How do you prefer to be addressed?’ And these are people that know that I’m transgender
because a lot of people don’t know. So it’s okay to ask that question. It’s okay. And we’re okay answering it. We’re not like the video game woman that’s kicking over display stands yelling ‘It’s ma’am.’ If you haven’t seen that: internet. I mean. *chuckles* So it is okay to ask as long as the intent behind the question is right.
Now myself, I do identify as female, so my pronouns are she/her. There are others that identify as male: he/him. There are some that identify as non-binary, meaning that they don’t feel like they fit any particular gender criteria, specifically. They’re also sometimes referred to as gender fluid, which basically means that it’s based on how they’re feeling at the moment.
Typically, they will prefer pronouns of they/them. Some of them, in some cases, will prefer the pronoun that best fits how they are appearing at the moment. But by and large, they/them is acceptable for non-binary, gender-fluid people. Jason: Yeah, that’s awesome, very helpful, thank you. There are a few different questions
that seem to all kind of revolve around walking with younger people in their own journey of discovering identity. And so whether it’s, for example, ‘What’s your best way to wrap your head around a child who says they’re gay, but you never saw it coming and you don’t believe them?’ ‘What’s the most important thing to say to parents of kids who have just come out?’ There’s another one here. I think in your stories you already shared a fair amount, those of you who identify yourselves as queer about
when you learn that about yourself. But there’s some questions there about ‘What was it like for you to come to that self-knowledge?’ And so because I’m seeing a number of those, I wonder, Mariah, can I start with you? So I think specifically around
adults walking with younger people in their own journey. And I’ll throw a caveat in here, and I don’t mean to speak for anybody else here. Some of these questions I know are complex, and I think we’re learning more through good psychology and good data about how to walk with people in their developmental journey. And I’m not expecting any of you individually to be experts in child psychology. That’s not the burden that we’ve put on you. But I do want to throw the question out, because there’s so much of it here about walking with younger people
in their own identity journey? Mariah: Yeah, I think it’s also important with a Q&A like this, right? Every person has a different experience too. So the answers that we might be offering, we’re trying to offer an umbrella answer, but it’s the people that in your life have different circumstances and all of that. Yeah I think…
You know, I shared as early as eight, probably even a little earlier, I started dressing differently and can have memories of being attached to my teachers that are female, or like my camp counselors were my best friends. And I’m like, so, you know, I think every person has a different experience. I think the first thing,
as difficult as it is, I think it is important to believe them.
I also will say I’m not a parent. I hope to be someday.
Everyone’s parenting and everyone’s relationship with their child is different. I think the main thing that you can do is lead with love. Even if you don’t agree. I remember my mom sharing about a month after I came out. She just said, ‘I’m going to choose. I want a relationship with you. Like I’m going to choose to love you. I’m going to trust that you’re doing your work and I’m going to do mine. But I’m going to choose a relationship with you over anything else.’
And I think that that’s, I can’t offer parenting advice, but I will say that I think with younger people that are coming out to you or talking, I mean, first of all, the fact that they’re processing with you is huge. And I think that should be honored, and I think it should be, I do think it should be believed. And I think it should be met with love.
That’s maybe not helpful. Maybe it’s too general, but. Jason: Yes, you were helpful. Debbie, do you want to pick up on that? I know you shared some of that in your story. So grab that mic for us there. Debbie: I’ve talked with some…I’ve talked with parents. And a lot of times, parents end up in a child role with their parents that are the grandparents of the child that’s coming out.
And I would just really encourage you to remember that your parents had their turn. This is your moment. And what’s going on in your child’s life is about them.
And you will never, ever regret siding with your child. And that, I think, goes across any parenting thing. I mean, now if your kid’s getting in trouble, that’s one thing. But as far as when your family or anybody else is challenging your child, I think that’s one of the first things we do as parents is we learn to stand by our kids and let them know we have their back.
And then you can take it offline with your parents or whatever, but sometimes you have to draw tough boundaries with your extended family. Zach talked about that a little bit earlier too. So just say you will never ever regret standing with your child. Jason: That’s great. Mariah: I muted myself. Audience: *chuckles* Jason: We’re not gonna make that a metaphor for anything. Mariah: Yeah, there we go. No, something just came to mind and Debbie, you touched on it.
And now I lost it, so that’s why I muted myself. There we go. Jason: If it comes to mind, just jump in. Mariah: Oh, I have it. There we go. Audience: *laughs* Mariah: This is staff meetings all the time, by the way. We’re just like, ‘I don’t know.’ Parents, if your kids come out to you, even if you believe it’s wrong, it’s not your fault.
Parents try to explain it away and they try to take blame for it because then there’s a route to the problem to be fixed. It’s…there’s no fault. It’s not your fault. I just wanted to say that because there might be some family members carrying that of like, ‘If I did this…’ or ‘I should have done this…’ or whatever. It’s, yeah, it’s biologically proven at this point with science though. Zach: Yeah. Mariah: Now I muted Zach. I’m getting fired tomorrow. Zach: She’s done.
Jason: Yeah, because we’re idiots. And after what you just did, we’d be like, ‘Yeah, get rid of her.’ Come on. Audience *chuckles* Zach: And you know, another thing that I would add is that when coming out, I know that every parent has a dream for what they expect their child to be. And I would say, in the whole process of your child coming out,
I think that it’s okay to create a little space for you to grieve what you thought was going to be. You know? Like my parents expected me to be the kid to get married and have five babies. But there ain’t none of them. Zach: Did the dogs count? Zach: Married to a woman. They love their grand dogs.
They love their grand dogs, but you know, I would say give yourself some space to grieve that, but after you grieve it, come on up out of there and stand by your baby. Okay?
Debbie: When I started talking about my story, I said that, you know, we were going to all these weddings and how terrible I felt because I didn’t see that happening after Jeff came out. Well, the joke was on me because when Jeff got married, it was one of the biggest, baddest wedding parties I’d ever been to. Audience *chuckles* Debbie: And Zach, in like what he talked about in his truth, sang at the wedding. Zach: We had a time. Audience: *laughs*
And Jason married them. And I mean, how many parents can say that? Jason: I’ll step into panelist role for one moment and I’ll just say that
doing Jeff and Anthony’s wedding was one of a million very potent moments
where the joy of getting to stand with LGBTQ people and learn from their faith and absorb their experience and be inspired by them and benefit from their presence just overwhelms any cost or…
negative side that comes with standing up for that. And that’s kind of a high watermark in that story for me, but there are many others that I could tell you. And I think maybe you probably even feel that tonight hearing these stories that what’s lost is nothing to what’s gained. And there are even like selfish reasons to do it because it’s better and really beautiful. So I’ll jump into that where they are too for a moment.
We’ll just, a couple more here, and then to honor time, we’ll kind of wrap this up. I thought this was maybe, this is probably a good place to move then. A few different questions that all kind of get at…I kind of love this, this person leads out with, ‘Can you describe a time when you felt especially welcomed in your faith community? What contributed to that?’ They also ask when you didn’t, and what contributed to that? On both of those,
just to push it a little bit further, whether it’s a faith community or a workplace or any place that any of us have influence, I can imagine there’s the very obvious ways that you would be made to feel welcome or unwelcome. There’s the talking points from the stage and all that. I think I wonder more about the things that we wouldn’t consider or that we wouldn’t realize would either leave you feeling unwelcome or welcome. Can we just start down there and work this way? Mariah: Got it.
Yeah, so South Bend City Church was the first affirming church I’d ever stepped into. I sat in the parking lot and my partner grabbed my hand and she looked me down in the eye. She goes, “Wait, is this your first time stepping into a…’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And Zach sang “The Kingdom is Yours.” And it’s still hard for me to sing that song or to be in the room when Zach sings that song because I was sitting right there
the first gathering and I just wept because I knew the integrity behind those words that the kingdom is yours for those who are broken and those who, fall like a sky of fallen stars or whatever. There’s this line that I just, the floodgates opened.
And then I got a chance to hang out with a band and stuff afterward and to do that with Ashley, like with me, and to not feel weird about like, ‘Oh, I’m sitting around a table with my potential future volunteers,’ because I was interviewing at that point, ‘and I don’t feel weird about the fact, or I don’t feel unsafe in the fact that I’m sitting next to Ashley.’ In a million moments since then, I’ve felt safe here. Um, and like…
this community has been there through my public coming out, which was terrifying and showed up in really beautiful ways. I’m not gonna say about the unsafe stuff tonight, but, Cami.
Cami: I will echo what you said. South Bend City Church was the first place that I truly felt welcome. I was a member of another LGBT inclusive church, but they labeled themselves Pentecostal. You can kind of see the contradiction there. But they expected me to toe a certain line, a certain look, you know, you’re not allowed to wear makeup, you can’t cut your hair. I’m sorry, if I don’t put on makeup, I scare small children, so. Audience: *laughs* Cami: Definitely didn’t feel welcome there.
But what made me feel welcome here was I was actually searching. So here’s one thing that people need to understand about being LGBTQ is that it is a part of you. It’s separate from your spirituality. And there are two things that I can’t change. Number one is my identity. I am who I am and I can’t make that go away. And number two is my unshakable conviction that there is a power greater than myself that is my creator.
And so I was seeking for a place that would let me explore that faith and still let me be myself. And I come across the podcast where Jason was ministering, and he just said one phrase. He said, ‘The LGBTQ community is one of the most underserved in our community, and we need to do better.’ And that was it. And I’m like,
‘That’s where I’m going.’ And that’s, I’ve been here ever since. Jason: Wow. Mom, I know it’s a different angle for you, but in your story, I mean, you expressed all kinds of fear and unsafety in a faith community as Jeff’s mom, so maybe you can speak to that too. Either the negative side or the positive side of that experience. Debbie: Yeah.
It’s fascinating to me how many people sometimes comment on my husband Steve or my Facebook stuff when we post pictures of Jeff and Anthony and Jason together positively. Because I know their posts
outside of their response to that picture. But Anthony looks enough like he could be their brother. So I think they’re like, ‘Oh, we forgot. They had three, not two sons.’ Because it’s… Audience: *chuckles* Jason: There are a number of settings where people assume Jeff and Anthony are brothers and wonder who the hell I am. Debbie: Yeah. Audience: *laughs* Jason: Seriously. Debbie: But truly, and I think that’s what drove me to write that poem, is that people really question you when you
embrace your child. And I’d like to say that it took me 20 years to go from non-affirming to accepting where I was like, ‘Okay, I’m accepting that this is the situation. There’s nothing I can change. I’m not happy about it, but I got to accept it.’ And then I went to…finally to affirming. And now I feel like I’m all the way over on celebratory. And in the church,
it’s not unusual…I mean, that’s why some of our friends from the past are no longer in our life as much, because they don’t understand, they think I’ve sold out, or think we’ve sold out. And…
that’s why when I tried to lay the groundwork with our corporate moves, our family was our faith community. And so when your child comes out, I mean, it meant a lot of stepping down. It meant a lot of separation and feeling adrift and not knowing where to go for a long time. And…
I’m in a really unique position because being Jason’s mom, to sit here and when he founded this church and Jeff and Anthony were an item and not knowing how this was all gonna shake out and then the way it did, it’s like, the life I get to live and experience the joy and like Jason said, it’s like
the gain is so much more than the loss. But yeah, so if you’re a parent and you’re looking for a friend and you don’t know, that’s one of my passions is to just come alongside. Your journey’s not my responsibility, but if you just don’t wanna be alone. And from time to time, we’ll do groups in our home for that because it is a real thing, the isolation in the church, even as a parent. Jason: Is that good? Anyone wanna add?
Zach: Yes, I mean of course like South Bend City Church. I always tell people it’s a game changer when you’re at a place where you don’t have to change who you are, but you give as you are. And that’s what this place has been to me. You know what, help me Holy Ghost. I’m gonna talk about spaces where I felt unsafe. And I’m trying to
look at it through the lens of ‘Everyone an Icon.’ Everyone an Icon, all right. I’m trying to channel Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama. Audience: *laughs* Zach: When they go low, we go high. But I remember once I left undergrad, and I started to work at my alma mater, and I was still working through my sexuality. I remember the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was being signed, which gave
the institution a Title IX exemption. So that meant that they could fire you if you’re not in accordance with religious beliefs. And like I said, when I was 24, I started to tell some close friends. But of course I had to be careful because, you know, I realized that the Lord called me to authenticity, not stupidity, I had bills. Audience: *chuckles*
Zach: You know, so I remember looking up the HR policy. And it was so poorly worded, but pretty much it said, ‘If you are an employee here, not only can you not be a practicing
member of the LGBTQIA community, but you cannot advocate or promote the agenda or you will be at risk for termination. And I marched up to my boss’s office and I slammed it and I said, ‘What is this? And why are we called the Office of Diversity and Inclusion when there are exclusions?’ So that was a moment for me where I was like, ‘Okay.
I’m not welcomed to be myself here.’ And it was also confusing because I would get up on the stage and sing. And these same people that would come up to me afterwards with tears in their eyes, telling me that God had used me as a vessel to bless them, looked at me as an abomination.
So does that mean that the anointing is now obsolete because you know that I fully leaned into who God created me to be? What is that? That was a huge part of my faith reconstruction. But I give God praise for the people in my life who loved me and supported me. And I realized that God never left me.
Never. And I said, ‘Okay, if I’m going to lean into this, I’m going to need you to set some things up.’ And as soon as I left,
that’s exactly what God did. And I looked up and I was in ministry at South Bend City Church exactly as who God created me to be. So I always use that as my faith testimony that God is not going to play you. Some of his kids may be misinformed, that’s all right. But the only person that went to Calvary was Jesus. Can I get an amen? Jason and Audience: Amen. Zach: So that’s my experience with that. Jason: Thank you, Zach.
We could keep going. I want to honor time, so we’re going to wrap it up tonight. Just a couple of concluding words. First of all, for all of you, thank you for being here tonight. I think it’s a real wonderful act of love and care to show up and learn and listen. I do want to encourage you, you can keep learning and listening. I do want to point you again to the resource list that we have. For every
chance you have to sit in a room and hear in person, whether face to face or from a stage. There’s a lot of good books out there. There’s a lot of other resources that are amply available for anybody who wants to do the work. And I think that can be a really powerful way for us to continue to love well. So…but thank you for being here tonight. And for those of you who are a part of SBCC, thank you for the kind of community that you have helped to shape that makes this possible for us to do this together. I tell friends sometimes I kind of feel like we’re getting away with something. Which is probably the fear of our critics to be honest that we’re getting away with something. Audience: *chuckles* Jason: But to get to be a church together that tries to take these convictions seriously is a real privilege. So thank you. And then…
I’m just enormously proud of the four of you, as friend, family member, and pastor, or pastor to church members. Yeah. Audience: *applause*
Jason: There’s the bravery in your willingness to speak tonight and in general in life. There’s the remarkable generosity that you have in your spirit when every one of you for a million reasons could be a very cold-hearted person. And yet you’ve chosen to repay evil with good and to return love to the world when that’s not always what it’s given you or the people that you care about.
And I love the testimony of your faith. And I think one thing that’s just really clear is that the lives that you live are not in spite of your faith, but because of it. And that means that you all have something to teach us about what our faith means to us in the world. So for all those reasons, I’m very grateful. I’m gonna let these guys leave the stage while we say thanks to them again. Audience: *cheers and applause* Jason: Thank you.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that Mariah Keener’s song is being released June 30th. Audience: *cheers* Jason: So keep an eye out for that. I know this may not exactly be a church service, but it did feel kind of fitting to pray as we go. So if you want to, join me in a prayer and then we’ll be done. Loving God, thank you for tonight and for the brave and beautiful testimony of Mariah, Cami, Deb, and Zach.
Thank you for the bravery with which they have walked and the generosity with which they live.
I think we also grieve the many ways that the world that we have created is one that’s not safe for so many people. And so tonight I’m thankful for a safe space, for one where there’s joy and laughter, and I’m also aware that there are many pockets in this world that aren’t safe yet. We pray for those places to be made safe for…
the shadows of bigotry and hatred to be chased away. We pray for everything from coffee shop conversations to legislation to create a world that’s safe for every kind of person who beautifully bears your image in this world. So help us to be brave the way that they’ve been brave. Help us to be creative the way that they’ve been creative. And help us to do the work that you’ve called us to.
I pray these things through Christ. And we all said… Everyone: Amen. Jason: Thanks for coming tonight, friends. We’ll see you soon.