Christianity · LGBTQ Christians · Religion

We Were Wrong. And We Have to Fix It.

In the fall of 2006, a colleague and I sat at a backyard picnic table supervising freshman Homecoming float building. In the course of our meandering conversation, she vaguely alluded to relationship problems. She was clearly being evasive. I don’t remember if I probed or if things just got awkward, but eventually our exchange went like this:

“I’m gay, and I have a partner.”


“I didn’t know if I should tell you. I know you go to a Presbyterian church, and I’ve been reading in the newspaper…”

“Oh. Right. I’m sorry. It’s fine.”

She was right. At the time, the Presbyterian Church, USA was embroiled in a very public internal clash over the question of whether “practicing homosexuals” could be ordained in the church. This was by no means a new issue. I first remember it arising in the mid-80s, and it wasn’t new then; I had only just begun to pay attention. The issue bubbled up every few years, as progressives periodically challenged the denomination’s official position, but so far, a “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” ideology had prevailed.

I had written my first-ever college research paper on the question in 1990 and, oddly given my whole-hearted buy-in to conservative theology, took the position that yes, the church should allow it. It was the right academic answer based on the research I had done. The evidence supported this position. But it bothered me. It was one of many times in my high school and college years that I felt torn between the doctrines I had been taught as a lifelong conservative Christian and the ideas that compelled me in school. I turned in the paper with a hint of queasiness, feeling that I’d compromised my faith ideals for a grade. That those faith ideals might have been flawed was not an option I was willing to entertain. I couldn’t.

By 2006, I had settled uneasily into the decision to believe despite doubt, to take the Bible (or the interpretation I’d been told was the correct one) as the infallible Word of God, and to accept the positions that made me uncomfortable because that’s what it meant to be a true Christian. I viewed this as humble, not arrogant. Who was I to pick and choose? God’s Word was God’s Word. I might not like it, but God called me to obedience. I could be a friend to my colleague and still oppose her lifestyle. So I did. And so I was the worst kind of friend. I stood alongside her and stuck tissue paper in chicken wire but looked at her disapprovingly. I let her stay in my spare bedroom when she separated from her partner but worried about what people would think. Once we were no longer co-advisors, we quickly drifted apart.

A short time later, our church worked through a difficult separation from the denomination and moved to a new, more conservative one. As a new, incoming elder, I had been asked to affirm three tenets: that the Bible is the infallible Word of God (check), that Jesus is God’s only son, sent to die and rise again for our salvation (or some version of that; again, check), and that marriage is between one man and one woman (WHAT??). I was told in response to my query about why the last statement should make the Top Three that they wanted leaders during this time united on the issue. I accepted, with reservations. I convinced myself that I agreed with the premise, if not that the ordination of gay pastors warranted separation. In fact, there were larger issues at play. The ordination of gay pastors was enough for many, but the conflict was multilayered. Still, those reading about us in the paper didn’t see the complex theological debate. They saw Christians willing to fight other Christians in court over the right to exclude people from full participation in the life of the church. I asked a fellow elder one day, “Do you think it’s okay that I support the decision but not the reason?” He didn’t answer. And of course it was not. But I did it anyway. I cast my vote, first as elder, and then as a congregant.

The church’s role in state-level legal battles exacerbated the tension I felt. When Proposition 8, eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry, came before California voters in 2008, I voted no, primarily because I could not justify denying a legal right on a religious basis. The “marriage-is-sacred” argument did not sway me. Christians did not oppose the legal rights of atheists and Muslims to marry. Proposition 8 felt discriminatory. I knew that I had broken with most of my fellow conservative Christians with my vote. I also felt far more comfortable with it than I did with the vote to leave the denomination. In this vote, I felt I was standing up for people rather than doctrine.

Six years later, I moved from my conservative community to a progressive one in order to attend a far more progressive university. Before I left, I had “Psalm 71:5” tattooed on my wrist: “For you have been my hope, sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth.” Politically, I had long since moved left of center. 20 years working in public education will often have that effect. But from a faith perspective, the move scared me. I knew my beliefs would likely be challenged, and I desperately wanted to stand firmly in my Christian faith.

At the very first department event I attended, my advisor casually pointed out a colleague’s partner and told me her name. I nodded and then glanced sideways at him, waiting for…something. He moved on. There was no awkward pause, no qualifier, no raised eyebrow. It had not even occurred to him that I would flinch. He had told me his colleague was gay as easily as he would have pointed out that the sun was shining. And I wanted to be like that. I never wanted to flinch again.

Over the course of the year, as I entered into this new community, I continued to marvel at who these people were and how they lived their lives. They accepted each other’s varying family configurations, partnerships, and other personal choices. They attended diligently to the language they used, striving for inclusivity. They celebrated each other’s new relationships and engagements, no matter what gender or orientation the partner was. These were not morally bankrupt people who appeared in need of the Truth that I held. These were deeply compassionate people. They shed tears over police shootings and immigration raids. They had come to graduate school because they had recognized the ways in which the education system ignores, fails, even actively hurts some kids, and they wanted to change it. They had devoted their careers to pursuing justice. They came from a range of religious backgrounds. Some had grown up in Christian churches and since left, some had no religious background, some were Muslim or Jewish, some had connected with other spiritual traditions. But to a person, they showed love, they spoke and acted with integrity, they welcomed the stranger, they fought for the oppressed, they cared for the poor. That some of them were gay or bi or gender-nonconforming had no bearing whatsoever on how they lived their lives. It made no sense to me qualify their morality. These were not good, kind people EXCEPT…These were just good, kind people. They treated their partners with the same love and respect and took their relationships as seriously as any Christian married couple I had known. For me to take issue with their “lifestyles” made no logical or moral sense. They may not have identified as followers of Christ, but their lifestyles reflected the values I had long associated with Christ.

When I began attending progressive churches and engaging with the online progressive Christian community, I experienced these same convictions. Same-sex couples, trans men and women, and gender-nonconforming people honored God in their worship and in their church leadership and service as faithfully as straight married couples. They identified as Christian for the same reason I did: they were compelled by the story and the example of Jesus, and they strove to follow that example alongside and in accord with the rest of us -as part of the body of Christ. And it struck me that the only thing in their way of being powerful Christian witnesses and leaders was a church that shut them out.

And as I saw what the church could look like and the richness of Christian community that grew out of inclusion of LGBT+ people, I began to reflect more honestly on the role I had played in exclusion. In the name of faithfulness to God’s Word, I had turned people away -in off-handed comments about “Christian values,” through my votes on denomination policy, and simply by being part of a church whose conflicts over this issue regularly appeared in the news and failing to dig deeper and examine our stance. Now that I read the work of LGBT+ Christians and attend an affirming church, I see with new eyes how much we have lost over many generations by silencing these voices.

The conservative church’s approach has not made anyone less gay, less bi, less trans; it has made them less Christian. Countless LGBT+ people have walked away from church, and often, as a result, from God, as their church communities have condemned them. Gay Christians have limited options. They can pretend not to be gay and enter into a heterosexual marriage, which may be perfectly loving but will never be sexually fulfilling for either partner (and given all the “God-created-sex-and-he-wants-you-to-enjoy-it” youth group talks I sat through, it seems that component should not be ignored). They can remain single and celibate, sacrificing the opportunity for partnership that Christians believe God so highly values. They can seek a church that will accept them, which can be a painful, lonely, and frustrating process. Or they can walk away. None of these options allow people to live out their full identity in Christ the way straight Christians can. And to impose this forced choice on people because the interpretation of Bible we’ve chosen to accept deems their relationship sinful is to ignore a number of other Biblical commands, some of which Jesus himself identifies as more important than the others.

I regret that it took me 45 years to understand what has always been obvious to progressive Christians and to LGBT+ Christians themselves. As Jared Byas pointed out in a recent episode of “The Bible for Normal People,” in conservative Christianity, we are “conditioned not to trust ourselves.” On some level, I have known since I wrote that freshman-level research paper that the conservative church was wrong on this issue. But over and over, despite the conflict I felt, I squelched my own intuition, and that was dangerous and unwise and ultimately hurtful. God creates us to know right from wrong. I should have heeded my own internal discomfort.

I regret the part I have played in perpetuating the harm that conservative Christians have done to LGBT+ people. I will never again attend a church that isn’t openly and fully affirming of LGBT+ people. I will do all I can to amplify the voices and teachings and scholarship of LGBT+ Christians. And I will not sit passively by anymore. It is important, and it is urgent.










Christianity · Politics · Religion

Dear Progressives Confused by Conservative Christians…

Note: If you’re a conservative Christian, you probably don’t want to bother reading this. You already know everything I’m going to say, and how I’m going to say it will annoy you. I know that because it would have annoyed me a few years ago, before you all elected a mean-spirited bigot and sent me spinning into a crisis of faith. 

As a senior in high school, I watched a video one night at youth group that depicted a group of teenagers just killed in a car accident facing judgment and then plunging, screaming in terror, into the fiery pit of hell. Just before the door to the cage they were placed in slammed shut, they cried to their Christian friend, who was of course spared this fate, “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I assume and sincerely hope that this particular VHS has been removed from the shelves of the Christian Children’s Video Library (or wherever youth directors get these things), but the message embedded in the video is still a central theme in conservative Christian teaching. We have the truth. They are lost. If you don’t convert them, they will burn for eternity.

Recently I was talking to a woman who was expressing her bewilderment over conservative Christians’ attitudes: “I don’t get it. If you think abortion is wrong, don’t have one! If you think homosexuality is a sin, don’t be in a same-sex relationship! Why do you have to impose your beliefs on everyone else??”

Answer: See description of video, above.

“Live and let live” is not an option in this paradigm. There is only one truth. There is only one way. We learn about narrow gates and broad paths that lead to destruction. Your way is not simply another viable alternative; it’s wrong. If I am a faithful disciple, it is my responsibility to lead you through the narrow gate.

So if all of this is about concern for your eternal life, why do you feel more self-righteously policed than loved to salvation? For me, believing that I was right and you were wrong led to a sense of moral superiority that trumped love. That doesn’t happen for everyone. My own weird mix of pride and insecurity made “having the truth” manifest for me in uglier ways than it does for some, but I’m certainly not alone.

Because I was right and others were wrong, my beliefs and values warranted protection from those who wished to assault them. Legalization of abortion, broadening acceptance of homosexuality, increasing tolerance of divorce and sex outside of marriage…all of that is threatening. These things don’t just run counter to my own religious beliefs- they’re wrong. Because my religious beliefs are Truth. So not only must I not engage in them- I can’t condone them.

Of course I was taught to be kind, but there were many times when being kind clashed with being right. My “lifestyle” aligned with biblical principles of morality, even if my attitude often did not. I didn’t drink or do drugs. I went to church every Sunday. I dressed modestly and was so extremely cautious about sexual contact that I couldn’t manage a healthy dating relationship. I didn’t cut class (well, once, to hide in the library and finish an essay on Edgar Allen Poe that was due that day, but that’s so nerdy it seems like it shouldn’t count), I didn’t swear (which in my house included “butt” and “fart”), and I didn’t take God’s name in vain (I still don’t, even though I interpret that commandment slightly differently than I used to). And for the most part, my life was charmed; my parents were married, my home was comfortable, I always had more than I needed, and I coasted somewhere around the top 20% in school without a lot of effort. When you follow all the rules, and life is pretty easy, it’s easy to consider yourself “blessed” and to attribute other people’s hardships to their own immoral choices. Homeless and addicted? Shouldn’t have used drugs. What? I never did. It’s not that hard. Pregnant with a child you aren’t ready for and can’t support? Well, serves you right for having sex. Dying of AIDS? The Bible warns about homosexuality. The list goes on. Should have stayed in your marriage. Should have complied with police. Shouldn’t have crossed the border illegally. It’s not that I’m not compassionate; it’s just that we’re all accountable for our moral choices. And why was I so easily able to float above it all? Free from neighborhood violence, tensions with police, the anguish of divorce, a life of poverty? I’m blessed.

This line of reasoning worked for me for a LONG time. I had people in my life who questioned it, but I disregarded their perspectives because they weren’t Christians. They didn’t understand. They were lost. The belief system reinforces itself and inherently blocks out competing ideas.

I grew familiar with systemic inequality sort of organically. 20 years in public education made me more aware of the relationship between race and class and success and less sympathetic of wealthy parents demanding schedule changes, lifted suspensions, and a host of other privileges for their deserving children. But a few specific incidents disturbed my religion-based moral compass. When I was a new assistant principal, a colleague mentioned, almost in passing, that many people in her community regard U.S. policy as having created the economic conditions that lead to illegal immigration. A community I was newly a part of erupted, uniformly, in outrage when Darrin Wilson was acquitted in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I sat across the table from a Muslim friend as she described the marginalization the Muslim American community experienced after 9/11 and how that felt to her as a second grader. I rescinded a comment I had made about Christians’ treatment of the LGBTQ community that had offended conservative Christian friends and realized that by pulling back, I had hurt my LGBTQ friends. A friend I deeply liked and respected was visibly offended when I used the phrase “being a Christian” as a synonym for being kind and gracious. I started to question prayer requests from friends that their children be granted transfers to “better” schools (what happens to the children left behind?) and social media posts praising God for blessing a couple with the perfect  house (why would God want you to have a 3000-square-foot house and allow another family to live in their car?). I became suspicious of any sentence that began, “The Bible is clear…” In fact, the Bible, like any text, is socially and culturally situated, and it is rarely as “clear” as I was raised to believe. It’s not that I’d never confronted these questions before; I’d just always been able to answer them within my framework. But each new story and new experience stretched my framework, until eventually, not coincidentally right around November, 2016, it broke.

When I look back now and wonder how I lived 40-something years never questioning, never recognizing that significant strands of what I considered my Christian beliefs directly conflicted with the core themes of Jesus’ teaching, I alternate between anger and shame. I should have questioned. I should have known. But I also remind myself how strong the pull of ideology is, and how powerful a force it is to live in a community of people who share those ideologies. I never wanted to be anything other than a strong Christian, standing on the solid rock of the truth of Christ, but the notion of truth is complicated, and it is surprisingly easily misused.

So I’ll continue to search, and wrestle, and challenge, and question, but I’m not deceiving myself. It’s an uphill battle. And I’m significantly under-qualified to fight it.

But here’s the upshot: although it appears to be a baffling contradiction, it’s not a giant leap from Sunday School to Trump.


Education · Politics

No, Your Kids’ School Can’t Be “Neutral”

You can demand that your local public school keep politics out of the classroom. You can demand that they be race-neutral, that they discipline every child the same way, that they show equal respect for everyone’s views. But they can’t agree to that. They’ve seen too much. They know what “neutral” really looks like.

They know that when they are race-neutral, white students consistently out-perform their black and Latino/a peers on academic measures.

They know that when they are language-neutral, only English counts.

They know that when they are income-neutral, their students get the education their parents can buy.

They know that when they are religion-neutral, Christianity sits front-and-center while other faiths are pushed to the side.

They know that when they are gender-neutral, there are only two options, and any student who does not fit is excluded at best and tormented at worst.

They know. They’ve seen it.

Your kids’ school staff has seen a parent write a $200,000 check to his child’s school to buy an all-weather track, while the school 10 minutes down the road cancels track practice because the track can’t be safely maintained.

They’ve seen black kids give up on school because their behaviors, dress, and interaction patterns didn’t fit “classroom expectations” and they were labeled as bad kids.

They’ve seen wealthy white parents storm the district office, attorney in tow, and walk out with their child’s suspension cleared.

They have listened to white parents demand “accelerated” classes and programs for their “advanced” children, and they have responded, even though they know those programs will exclude children who are just as capable but have been socialized differently.

They’ve watched students still developing English, or who speak a variety of English outside the “standard,” sit quietly in class, deferring to their classmates, believing their ideas have less value because their language doesn’t match.

They’ve seen white kids spend their Saturdays in $1200 SAT prep workshops and in meetings with their $5000-a-year college coaches, having their applications carefully tailored to ensure they get into the schools of their choice.

They’ve watched teacher presentations and classroom discussions filled with examples of trips to the Grand Canyon, chocolate chip cookie baking, Monopoly games, and Thanksgiving family dinners -examples that mean nothing to children who have not lived the typical white, middle-class experience and who are left out of those discussions altogether.

They’ve seen gender-nonconforming kids meticulously plan their school days so they could use the bathroom without being mocked.

They’ve seen “neutral” selection of literature and social science materials result in a list of books by white men, with tellings of history that ignore the experiences and contributions of most of the world.

They’ve seen celebrations of gay pride countered with “Day of Truth” demonstrations, with students asserting their “religious freedom” in shirts bearing the message, “Homosexuality is a sin.”

They’ve heard girls called sluts, gay students called fags, students with disabilities called retards. They’ve heard white students ignorantly deride Islam, declare that everyone should speak English in public places, and proclaim immigration bad for the country. They’ve cringed because these comments are made with girls, gay students, students with disabilities, Muslim students, multilingual students, and immigrant students sitting right there in the room.

That’s neutrality.

Public educators know that there are structures and systems and ideologies built deeply into our society that privilege certain people and groups over others. They know that who achieves in school has FAR more to do with race, class, language background, and family income than with talent and work ethic. They know that the black kids who are in the office all the time, the kids still learning English, the kids living in cars, and the kids desperately trying to figure out which socially constructed category they fit into, are just as smart, just as talented, just as passionate and driven as the white kids who occupy the front row of their AP classes with their hands confidently in the air. They know that there is no place in the typical structures and practices of school for those students’ talents and passions to be valued.

Public educators know kids don’t start on a level playing field, and they know the playing field never levels unless they take deliberate steps to level it in school. They know that “neutral” maintains the system as it is, with all its inequality. They know that if they don’t actively work to resist and counter those inequalities, they are complicit in maintaining them. And they can’t be.

Because for public educators, all those kids who are positioned to fail have names too, just like the ones positioned to succeed. They have personalities. They’re funny and sensitive. They have stories and gifts and siblings they love. They matter, and they’re worth fighting for.

So you can demand that public schools be neutral, but they can’t agree to that. Neutral isn’t neutral. And they know it.






Christmas Through New Eyes

I live by some very strict rules during the Christmas season, which I define officially as the day after Thanksgiving to December 31st (that’s one of the rules). I get rid of the fall soaps and candles and replace them with Christmas scents. I eliminate pumpkin from my kitchen and bring in peppermint. I listen only to Christmas music, and slightly more extremely, only to Christian Christmas music. I mean, I don’t leave the mall if they’re playing “Rudolph” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but those songs aren’t on my Christmas playlist or my Pandora Christmas station. I own an array of Christmas decorations, but none of them include Santa Claus or reindeer.

I don’t impose my rules on anyone else. I’ll drink my Starbucks peppermint mocha out of any color cup, I’m happy to be wished “happy holidays” or even just “have a nice day” at Macy’s, and I will honor whatever type of celebration or non-celebration December involves for you. My rules are mine, and I know they’re odd. I don’t have anything against Santa or secular Christmas music. Christians far more devout than I incorporate both into their Christmas festivities. And yes, I know my own practices include many symbols that have no tie to Jesus’ birth, and some that even run directly counter to Christian beliefs. My rules aren’t coherent or, really, even reasonable.

So why follow them? I’m protecting Christmas in my own mind and heart. My most cherished childhood memories are Christmas-related. The brewing anticipation as my father stood on the ladder in the garage pulling down Christmas boxes, the tree lit in the quiet dark of our living room, “Mary’s Boy Child” in the background on the record player as we ate dinner, my grandmother bustling around in our kitchen making her almond brittle and lacy oatmeal cookies, the words of Luke 2 increasingly cemented in my brain with each year’s children’s choir Christmas pageant, my mother’s high-pitched voice squeaking “eight tiiiiiiiny reindeer” in her dramatic reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the lighting of the purple center candle on the advent wreath at the Christmas Eve service, my mother tucking me into bed asking, “Did you have a good Christmas?” Yes. Always yes. There were bad moments and bad days, but yes. Christmas was always good.

It was through Christmas that I came to understand Jesus and my Christian faith. Before I understood anything else, I understood the deep love and immense power emanating from the manger that night. It was through Christmas that I came to revere God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and at the same time as the embodiment of perfect grace, mercy, and love. I believed that baby was God made flesh, His gift of salvation, my redemption. These days, I have to consciously choose to believe that almost daily, struggling against doubt and all the other competing forces that make faith so much harder than it used to be. Christmas reminds me of the core of my faith and allows me, just for a month or so, to let everything else fall away as the manger takes its place front and center.

So Christmas feels like it needs protection, more than ever before. Not from a society of heathens, but from my own conflicted feelings and beliefs. I recognize the ugliness of contemporary white American Christianity in the “war on Christmas” rhetoric, and it makes me want to back away altogether. I want no part of that. I want no part of the excess spending (although I’ve played my own part in that) or in the “holiday stress” that the white middle-class now bears with a kind of showy pride. I want no part of the refusal to acknowledge that celebrating Christmas is not an essential part of being “American” or that Christmas can be and has been adapted as a holiday that celebrates giving generally rather than Christ’s birth specifically, just as Thanksgiving can celebrate gratitude without specifically linking to our nation’s history of genocide and colonialism. I don’t want to be party to the ways Christmas has been used to force white American Christian culture on a nation of diverse cultures and religious beliefs and practices.

But at the same time, Christmas is an important part of my own cultural and religious heritage, my faith’s anchor, and I treasure it for what it has meant to me. I want it preserved and visible. I want to concentrate and soak up Christmas as fully as possible during this season. But the more aware I become of white American evangelical Christianity as one brand of Christianity among many rather than as Christianity in its only true and pure form, the more I become aware of that brand of Christianity as much as a culture as it is a faith. It’s surprisingly difficult to disentangle the two, and in my version of Christmas, they are impossibly entangled. I am realizing, slowly, that in order to strike balance between celebrating with pride a holiday that I love and honoring the diversity around me, I need to separate the celebration of the birth of Christ from the cultural traditions and symbols that white American Christians have claimed as our own but were never exclusively ours to begin with. We can celebrate our unique holidays but share winter. Christians don’t have to own snowmen and candy canes and lights and ornaments. We don’t have to own gift-giving. If we don’t claim it all as ours, might we be less threatened and offended by lights that aren’t the right color and wrapping paper with the wrong images on it? If Christians whittle Christmas down to its core, it becomes impossible to “take Christ out of Christmas” because that’s all it really is. Everything else is shared, adaptable to different cultural and religious traditions. Nothing is being taken from us because it was never ours. All that’s ours is the manger, and that was always meant to be shared too. But I suspect people will find even that more appealing if we disentangle it from all the excess stuff.

I’m still going to put Fresh Balsam antibacterial soap in my bathroom and make some gingerbread cookies tonight because those things make me feel immersed in the Christmas season. But this year I’m also going to work to separate culture from faith, to see the trappings as the trappings, and to celebrate the birth of Christ as God’s great gift of love, peace, hope, and forgiveness. That’s all I really need. The manger. Front and center. Take the peppermint and snowflake decorations and use them as you will.

Happy holidays. May there be peace on earth.


From the Shoreline

I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.                -Anne Fadiman

This passage, from the preface of Fadiman’s beautiful book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, rang in my head yesterday as I navigated, poorly, between two worlds: the world of my Evangelical upbringing and the one in which I now reside, albeit still as something of an outsider.

I stood at the shoreline, seeing both sides, fully connected to neither and pulled toward both. In a moment of thoughtlessness, I wounded people on one side, and in my desperate attempt to repair the damage, I wounded people on the other.

I have dwelt in the middle of Evangelical Christianity. I lived the first forty years of my life steeped in its doctrine. I know first-hand the certainty of a single truth, the conviction that those without it are lost, and the call to resist a culture straying from God. I know the sense of injustice at being called hateful when you know, deeply, that you are seeking to protect what God has created and ordained. I know the voices reminding you that the insults, the hits you are taking were prophesied; they confirm that your path is God’s path. I know the urge to cry out that you don’t hate people; you hate sin. You love humanity because God loves humanity and you yearn for their salvation. You know that, in the end, it’s all that matters, and you will fight for it whatever the cost.

But now I am standing outside, at the edge. And I see it differently, if not better. I see it from the standpoint of those who feel hated. I see inconsistencies and disconnects that I never saw before. I see, from the shoreline, that the greatest dangers the world faces are not the ones at which the Evangelical community is swinging its sword. I see the strongest voices in the Church driving people further away, reaffirming their belief that if there is a loving God, this is not where He is to be found. I see the horrific damage being done in the name of Christian values, the very real pain people feel. I see, from the border, that even if Evangelicals are right, they are wrong. People are wounded, threatened. They are not turning to Christ. They are turning from you. However certain you are that you are acting in obedience to God, the consequences of your actions are devastating. From the shoreline, it’s ugly.

And I see this other world too, where I don’t quite belong either. It looks less like Sodom and Gomorrah that I expected and more like the community I’ve often heard described from the pulpit. People fight less for valued norms than for each other. They stand up for the marginalized and they challenge structures of power that keep some voices silent. I came to this community believing I had a higher moral calling, but from the shoreline, morality is less clear-cut. I don’t feel “right” asserting my Evangelical beliefs in this world. I don’t even feel Godly. I feel ashamed. Because where the edges meet, the values we have come to associate with Christian faith look nothing like the character of Christ.

Yesterday, I reacted with anger and cynicism to what I see as destructive behavior on the part of Evangelicals. My post was sarcastic and mean, and in that sense just as destructive as the behavior I condemned. But when I removed it and apologized, I betrayed the values, and the people, I’d sought to defend. A friend sent me a message last night that said, “I agreed with your post, and with your decision to remove it.” I felt the same way, and the opposite. I simultaneously stand by and regret both choices.

The shoreline is a fascinating place to be and a painful place to be. I am learning and growing by leaps and bounds and crashing to the ground with nearly every leap.

But for all that I don’t know, I do know this: Evangelicals, the message you believe you are sending is not the message being received. You are obscuring rather than illuminating Jesus. Your reasons don’t matter. Your justifications don’t matter. Your convictions don’t matter. You are not advancing the Gospel. If that is somehow okay with you, then you have lost sight of the mission.

Do with that what you will. But I’m standing where the edges meet, and I love you enough to tell you what I see. Over and over. Until you hear. Because it matters. The Gospel matters. People matter.




Learning From a Me Who Never Was

If I had grown up in Jesus’ day, my family and I would not have followed him. I have a high degree of certainty about that. He was a radical who broke the rules. We were not down with that kind of nonsense in my family. We became Christians long after Christianity was institutionalized. Once it was more common to do it than not to do it.

We fell in line in my family. Rules were good and the law was right. The summer before fifth grade, I begged my mother to call the school and request the good teacher because EVERYONE ELSE WAS. Nope. We trusted the system. I’m still trying to catch up on fractions. When I explained that no high school senior attended school on the last day and that it would be embarrassing and absurd for me to go, my mother barely glanced my direction. So I and one loyal friend made our way from class to class that day and chatted with teachers who would have preferred we go to the mall like every NORMAL senior so they could grade papers. I was raised to comply, to trust authority.

So I often wonder how it would feel to have been alive in the 1950’s and not to have actively supported civil rights activists. Because I wouldn’t have. For all the same reasons. I can hear the dinner table conversations about disrespect, a society in moral decline. I hear myself speaking up in my high school government class about the U.S. as a nation of laws and the activists’ willful disregard for order and authority. I see myself nodding in church as my pastor prays for peace, for the violence to stop. I know that we, like many Christians, would have hated the protests. We would have called the students sitting at the lunch counters criminals and responded to the beatings by contending that they should have obeyed the law. We would not have personally discriminated, at least not consciously. My mother is without question the most selfless, caring person I know. But we would have seen our personal choice to be kind as sufficient. We would not have advocated for systemic change.

And I wonder how it would have felt later, after the Civil Rights Act and later the Voting Rights Act passed and those laws became institutionalized, to look back and know I resisted that change. I don’t know anyone now who doesn’t agree that the Civil Rights Act is common sense and that the state of affairs prior to its passage was immoral and unjust. Wouldn’t I be ashamed knowing I had berated African Americans fighting for their rights for being “disrespectful?” Once those activists became American heroes, would I feel like a hypocrite praising their bravery when I had condemned their actions and decried the chaos and disruption they caused? Wouldn’t I wish that I had seen it all differently and had stood behind them rather than sneering at them from my place of comfort?

I just read an opinion by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for a paper I was writing. The case was Castañeda vs. Pickard, which began with a lawsuit against a Texas school district on behalf of Latino students who were not being effectively served. One of the Court’s arguments was that a district with a history of discrimination should be scrutinized more carefully than one without such a history. A history of discrimination is hard to overcome. Claims of injustice, the Court felt, should be taken more seriously when such claims had been shown in the past to have been justified.

That’s where we are now, isn’t it? People are crying out about injustice. Much research has documented institutionalized racism in our criminal justice system. Education data reveals persistent race-based disparities in achievement and in discipline. We have a disturbing pay gap and people of color living in poverty in vastly disproportionate numbers. But perhaps most importantly, people of color feel treated unjustly and are telling us that. And we have, as a nation, an undeniable history of racism.  So shouldn’t we be scrutinizing ourselves especially carefully? Shouldn’t claims of injustice be taken particularly seriously since we know we have a tendency toward racial injustice? Since we ended slavery in the mid-1800’s and 100 years later still hadn’t universally granted African Americans basic civil rights and needed federal legislation to do so?

If we were looking back to the early 1960’s and saw African American football players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest legalized discrimination, would we still berate them for disrespecting our country? Wouldn’t we recognize now that their resistance was justified? Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge the truth of their silent statement that not everyone in this country was living under the protection of freedom that flag was supposed to represent? Wouldn’t we feel arrogant and irrational and stupid telling them to stand up and respect the flag, knowing what we know now? We would never tell those activists, with the benefit of hindsight, what type of peaceful protest we would and wouldn’t tolerate. We would feel ashamed for not joining them.

I don’t want to live with that guilt and shame 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Even if I were not convinced by the research and swayed by the testimonies of people of color about their experience in our society -and I am -I would still be afraid to deny them their voice. I would still harbor doubt and wonder how this might all look to the next generation. Certainly if there are real injustices built into our system, we have no business telling Black people to stand up and respect the flag. That would be reprehensible. If racial discrimination is still embedded in our institutions, I don’t want to be among those who helped to maintain it by shouting down the voices calling attention to it and vilifying those who challenged the status quo.

In some of my less proud moments, I’ve thought how grateful I am that I wasn’t alive during Jesus’ time or during the Civil Rights Movement. I’m glad other people were there to do the suffering and the resisting, so I could embrace the ideologies they fought for, once they were broadly accepted and normalized. I know who I am and what my natural tendencies are. I’m not inclined to go against the grain, and I am working to guard against that tendency to accept what is generally accepted. I’d rather look back and know that I did what I could to bring about change where it was needed, even if it wasn’t popular at the time. We know from hundreds and thousands of years of history that systems and laws can be wrong. If ours are, I want to help make them right.



Conviction, Conflict, and Broken Bridges

A few major media outlets published pieces around the holidays last year about family relationships hurt by the election campaign. I’d been frustrated by conversations with family members, and it bothered me that I had to avoid talking to some of the people closest to me about a topic that felt more important than any other at that time. Some of my family relationships felt constrained, and a little superficial, but they were not damaged. I didn’t believe politics had that kind of power. On Thanksgiving Day, I posted this:

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Bob, my brother-in-law, while passionately anti-olive, did not vote for Trump and does not support the border wall. Bob was bringing levity into a sensitive climate like only he can. More than anything else, he was messing with me, and everyone, including me, found it funny.

In the past year, I’ve lost a few acquaintances over politics. A former colleague unfriended me with a touch of dramatic flair when I wrote a post in support of Black Lives Matter. At the height of the Clinton email controversy, a cousin blocked me -an act I thought we reserved for maniacs trying to break into our homes to set our pet hamsters on fire. I’m certain I’ve been unfollowed by a number of people, and I’ve had others tell me they just scroll past most of my posts. And that’s okay. I don’t unfollow people I disagree with, but I understand why people do, and I respect that decision. I also understand the frustrated responses of people who sign on to social media sites to see photos of their friends’ cruises and cute animal videos and find their feeds flooded with political rhetoric.

More recently, though, the very real threat that political division poses to relationships has hit me hard. Last Thursday afternoon, I received this text from someone close to me:

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The post in question was the essay by Ta Nehisi Coates that appeared in The Atlantic that same day. I hadn’t commented on it except to say, “Well worth reading.” I did find it well worth reading. His argument is compelling, if painful to read. Not as painful, though, as the text, which knocked the wind out of me.

Of course I do not dislike our country. I am patriotic to a fault. That’s why I am losing sleep over the current state of our nation. I also did not see the essay as “hateful.” I saw it as exposing and countering hate.

But none of that matters. Not the merits or the flaws of the essay or my rationale for sharing it. Our conversation (if one could call it that) ended this way:

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All that matters to me now is that this post (and, I assume, other posts conveying similar sentiments) seem to have ended a relationship that, while difficult, has always been deeply important to me.

Before about two years ago, I used Facebook exclusively as a forum for self-deprecating humor and to share cute pictures of my niece and nephew. I cringed at posts condemning public schools as dens of iniquity, but I never engaged with those doing the posting. It didn’t seem worth the anguish. But then I changed contexts, and I recognized the urgency that people around me felt to challenge unfair policies, to point out implicit racism and other biases in dominant responses to current events, and to push for social justice. They used social media for political purposes because their lives were political. They had to be. These people were fighting for their communities, for their students, for our education system, for our society. They lived these causes because they had experienced in real and concrete and sometimes tragic ways the effects of injustice.

And suddenly being silent felt arrogant. It felt like a function of privilege to choose to keep my social media page benign, funny, trivial. Not everyone has that choice. At the same time, I realized I had a network that many of them didn’t have: a predominantly white, predominantly conservative, predominantly evangelical community. People who generally had not been exposed to the ideas my colleagues were sharing and the questions they were raising, just as I had not been. I knew I had people in my network who would want to hear these perspectives and who would be challenged and enriched by them, just as I had been. I also knew many people would hate them, and that worried me. I could have stayed silent, but to stay silent was to be dismissive of a struggle of which I’d been largely unaware but from which my friends and colleagues, and even my students, were battered and exhausted. I felt ill-equipped to join them, but I knew that in this very small way, I could help. And it felt like the right thing to do. It also felt like an important part of my own learning experience. I had to engage in order to understand.

Now, this week, I’ve taken my first real blow. It’s nothing like the blows others have taken. It’s laughable compared to the blows others have taken -those whose passions and gifts and positions have placed them on the front lines. But it hurts, and I find myself sort of stuck, as I imagine others have before me, to an exponentially greater degree.

I can’t change my political views. They have changed before, and they may change again, but right now they are consistent with my understanding of the world. They have, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, put me at odds with some important aspects of my upbringing, and I’m working to resolve those tensions, but overall I feel less tension among my politics, my faith, and my work than I did five years ago. Becoming conservative again for the sake of relationships is not an option, even though last Thursday I wished it were.

I could revert back to a social media page full of stories about out-of-control laundry and fun pictures, but that too feels unreasonable now. As angry as I have been at the evangelical community, it is my community. Its leaders are my leaders and its members are my friends and family. I am one of them, and I am in this with them, even if I stand in disagreement with the majority on major issues. And this country is my country. I still cry when I stand to salute the flag during the National Anthem, even as I stand firmly and proudly alongside those who exercise their right to remain seated. I am compelled to fight for the Church because I am deeply connected to it, and I am compelled to fight for our country because I desperately want it to be its very best -with liberty and justice for ALL. And I know that our country is not its best, nor is the Church. There is work to do. And I know my friends at the opposite end of the political spectrum agree; we just disagree on how to make it right. But we won’t make it right if we don’t talk about it.

I also know that I will likely be fine whether I enter the fray or not. I am sure of my salvation, and my rights are secure. But that is not the case for everyone, and I bear that responsibility too.

I am fumbling on social media. I share arguments that I find persuasive, and then I read counterarguments that are more persuasive.  I inadvertently plagiarize people, thinking I’m presenting an original idea. I say things in hurtful ways, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes in the heat of the moment. I’m trying, but I’m making a lot of mistakes.

I cherish my relationships, even the hard ones. I know that my most challenging relationships have made me better. I hate that political strife comes at the cost of relationships. I wish it didn’t have to. But I can’t pull back, because that would come at the cost of my integrity, and that’s a price I can’t pay.


Featured Photo Credit: Dave Schumaker, Flikr. Retrieved from

Education · Politics

I Know. I Thought Racism “Worked Both Ways” Too. It Doesn’t.

I graduated with my teaching credential in December, 1994 -two years after the L.A. riots and just weeks before the start of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. Race was front and center in this country when I started my career. But having grown up in a predominantly white community, I had little first-hand experience with it until after college. I believed that racism was largely a thing of the past, with the exception of a deviant few.  I was sure that Rodney King must have been impossible to control, that the officers wouldn’t have beaten him unnecessarily, that the acquittal proved that out, and that any connection to race was manufactured, divisive, and unproductive. I trusted those in authority (without noticing how many of them were white), and I trusted the system.

In my student teaching and first year in the classroom, a few patterns jumped out at me. One was the stark racial divide between high-track and low-track classes. Another was the impressive ability of my students of color to explain race-related dynamics in contrast to my white students’ inability to do so. It was apparent to me early on that my students were experiencing school differently, but I never thoroughly made sense of that or tried to engage with issues of race as part of my work. I came to think about equity more broadly, and more vaguely.

At the school where I spent most of my career, we took what amounted to a colorblind approach. We knew there were racial disparities in achievement, enrollment in advanced coursework, and discipline, but we sought to address those disparities by treating all of our students equally. We focused on building an inclusive school community, and we opened access to advanced curricular pathways in hopes of increasing numbers of underrepresented students in these courses. We treated culture superficially, celebrating “diversity” generally but never really seeking to understand the diverse values and day-to-day practices that characterized our students’ lives. We took our academic and behavioral standards for granted; we strove to ensure that every student mastered them but never called the standards themselves into question as racially and culturally biased.

As an assistant principal, I once had an African American student in my office who had interfered with an arrest in our parking lot after school. As I wrote up her suspension papers, she stood across from my desk and screamed at me that the school was racist. I rolled my eyes and assured her that a white student who had engaged in the same behavior would be facing the same consequence. But of course that statement was ridiculous. No white student would have felt the outrage that she felt on seeing her black friend pushed to the ground by a white police officer on her school campus. Comparing her to a white student in the same situation was absurd because white students and students of color don’t find themselves in the same situations on school campuses or in their communities. Despite what we wanted to believe, there was no “treating students equally” because they were experiencing school, and the world, very differently.

Many readings, presentations, and conversations have helped me to shift my perspective, but the one that still stands out to me is Gloria Ladson-Billings’ From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Ladson-Billings argues that the disparity in academic achievement between white students and students of color is not just a gap but the result of a long-accumulated debt. For generations, our society has denied access to education to minority populations, first by barring them from attending school at all, later by relegating them to separate schools, and into the present by failing to ensure that schools that serve large minority populations have the same resources as schools that serve primarily white students. What we see now when we look at achievement data can only be understood by looking at our country’s history of racism and injustice.

The first time I read Ladson-Billings’ piece, I thought about my father’s lectures about credit card payments -specifically the evils of the “minimum payment.” I learned at 18 that consistently paying the minimum payment would keep me decidedly in debt, even if I curtailed my spending. It would satisfy the bank for the month, but it would do little to put my relationship with the bank back in balance. To do that, I would need to look past the minimum payment line to the “total balance” line. I would need to put forth extra effort to make a dent in that number.

I found this an incredibly helpful metaphor for thinking about race and equity. Deciding to see everyone as equal is like making a minimum payment. It’s better than what we used to do, but it won’t address the very large debt we’ve accumulated over hundreds of years. To make a dent in that debt will require more intensive intervention. We are out of balance right now. White people in this country hold more power than people of color. White people occupy the bulk of high-level leadership positions and hold most of the wealth. White, middle class culture and values are so dominant that they’re invisible until they’re challenged. We can’t claim to be addressing racism until we begin actively working to establish balance.

But this won’t be entirely painless for white people. Repaying a debt requires giving up assets. And balancing power requires the people with too much to relinquish some of it. When we hear people cry, “Black lives matter” and we respond, “All lives matter,” we’re maintaining imbalance. Black lives have historically mattered less. We might need to attend to them specifically in order to establish balance. Affirmative action corrects an imbalance. Education has historically been less accessible to people of color. We might need to prioritize their access to college to establish balance. It’s not “reverse racism.” It’s countering of racism. It’s repaying of a debt.

Individual people can harbor prejudice, but systemic racism requires power. Right now, in our society, white people hold power. We are not victims of racism; we are responsible for it. If we start to feel our power threatened, it doesn’t mean we’re oppressed; it might mean we’re moving in the right direction.




Language · Politics

Hicks and Yankees and the Fuzzy Standard of “English Proficiency”

Last week, CNN’s  Jim Acosta and White House advisor Stephen Miller engaged in a heated exchange over a newly proposed immigration policy that would institute a merit-based system for granting entry into the U.S., using English proficiency as one of several measures. Acosta suggested that the policy would advantage people from English-speaking countries like Britain and Australia. Miller called his comment “ignorant,” asserting that these countries are not the only places in the world where English is spoken. Conservative media sites claimed that Miller “wrecked” Acosta in the exchange. Liberal sites attacked Miller’s response as flawed and missing the point.

Whoever gets credit for “winning,” Acosta’s inquiry and Miller’s response raise important questions about the fairness of English proficiency as an expectation for people immigrating into the U.S.

I grew up in California but spent a couple of weeks most summers in North Carolina, visiting my mother’s family. My favorite memory from these visits is sitting on my great grandmother’s screened-in porch where the family gathered on Sunday evenings. I ate cake and listened to stories and tried, awkwardly and flounderingly, to fit in as one of them. During one such gathering, my mother’s aunt turned to me and said, “You talk like a Yankee.” I didn’t know what a Yankee was, and evidently neither did she, but I knew what she meant: you don’t talk like us. It was true. And how I talked was the clearest marker that I wasn’t a full-fledged member of that family community. They loved my sister and me because we were my mother’s children, but we were obviously outsiders. Anyone who has ever experienced being the one who talks differently understands the role that language plays in signaling to others that we either belong or don’t belong.

My aunt’s comment didn’t feel insulting to me because I actually took a great deal of pride in my use of language. I’m not sure how my mother became the master of school-based English that she is, but she passed it on to me, early and with great fervor. There was no “transitional spelling” in our house. If I spelled a word wrong, she corrected it and I fixed it. I learned about the past perfect tense from a Winnie the Pooh Golden Book when I pointed out “had had,” thinking the duplication was a misprint, and in turn received a grammar lesson on the function of the auxiliary “had” in positioning an event as prior to another past event. I knew the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and even in casual conversation with other children, I always put “I” in the subject position and “me” in the object position. I was never a stand-out in school, except in grammar lessons. During those 20 minutes of the school day, thanks to my mother, I was unmatched. In the spring of my senior year in high school, I asked one of my English teachers for feedback on my college application essay. As he worked up to telling me the essay was dull and essentially devoid of substance, he said, “I’m struck by how…correct…it is.”

“Correctness” became critically important to me, and I carried that through my teaching career without ever reflecting on my tendency to use my students’ English conventions as a measure of their academic ability. I couldn’t see (or didn’t look) past deviations from standard sentence structure, punctuation, or spelling to engage with students’ ideas. Conversely, a paper that grammatically and mechanically matched my expectations conjured in my mind an intelligent and thoughtful student. From my first glance at the paper, the ideas had credibility for me, and I responded differently, more respectfully, more helpfully. The students who came to my class with a strong command of school-based English received different -and higher quality- instruction in my classroom. Because those students were most often white and had parents who were highly educated professionals, my disparate treatment of students based on their language use was both racist and classist. I privileged my already-privileged students and dismissed those who most needed to have their ideas recognized and valued -and at the same time very likely missed many opportunities to help develop brilliant and original ideas. Even though at that time my students all used English easily and could communicate whatever they wanted or needed to communicate in the language, I treated them differently if their English didn’t match the standard I had adopted.

I learned as an adult -after my pronoun usage was firmly cemented in place -that my mother was self-conscious of her North Carolina dialect when she moved to California in the 1960s. She worried that she sounded, as she put it, “like a hick.” So she fixed it. Over time, she modified her language use so that, for as long as I can remember, traces of “Southern” dialect only emerge when she talks to her family or tells stories about them. My mother adopted the language practices of her new community, and perhaps that is to be expected, but I wonder how it might have been different if she hadn’t felt that her own language held lower status than the language of her new coworkers and neighbors and in-laws. She was certainly “proficient” in English. It was her first and only language. But compared to the person sitting next to her in church, or the bank teller at the next window, might she have been regarded as less proficient, because her language didn’t match the standard in that community? Might her ideas have been dismissed more easily in a business meeting if she had used the language of her home community -even if her ideas held equal merit?

This is why Jim Acosta’s question was not nearly as absurd as Miller made it sound. Of course English is spoken in many countries other than England and Australia. But there are many, many varieties of English being spoken both in this country and around the world. Do we view them all as equal? Or do some varieties hold higher status, so that people who speak those higher-status varieties will be deemed more highly “proficient” than those who speak other varieties? Won’t those people probably be white? Won’t they probably be more like “us”?

Setting aside the deeply flawed assumptions that underlie the belief that everyone in this country should speak English in the first place, we need to explore honestly what counts as proficiency in English, and how race and class play into those assessments. Language is a powerful symbol of belonging, and whether or not people’s language passes the test depends on who is doing the evaluating. It is not an objective measure, and if we’re not very careful, it will be a dangerous one.




Christianity · Singleness

Christian, Conservative, and…Single??

I took my first “spiritual gift test” (yes, that’s a thing) the summer before my senior year in high school. It was sort of fun. Like a personality test. I remember very little about the results. What I do remember is that one member of our group was more than a little alarmed when the “gift of celibacy” emerged near the top of her list. I listened as others reminded her that she was only 15 and assured her that it was unlikely a multiple-choice test could destine her for a nunnery.  But the gift of celibacy came out high on my list too, and I knew exactly why. The test included true-false statements like, “The idea of being single is traumatic for me.” I wasn’t yet 17, but I answered the question confidently as “false.” Evidently, most people had not.

Four years later, I was sitting around a table with a church leader and several other high school and college students. We took turns responding to the question, “Where do you think you’ll be in ten years?” My answer included school, career, and geographical location, but it left out an essential element. Someone quickly followed up:

“Do you think you’ll be married?”

“No…I really don’t.”

The church leader chimed in, “The problem with Heather is that she has no self-esteem. She’d be a great catch. She just doesn’t believe it.” It was true that I lacked self-esteem. But I thought it was an interesting assumption that if I expected not to marry, I must deem myself unworthy.

I’ve been asked many times by well-meaning friends and acquaintances how it happened that I never got married. I’m sure any psychologist would relish the opportunity to explore all the weird and complicated personal history that contributed to this circumstance, but the truth is that it was never part of my vision for my life. I never imagined myself as a wife and mother. I never dreamed of my wedding like so many young women do.

But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never been bothered by it. I often am. I hate seeing “and guest” after my name on a wedding invitation. I dread bridal showers and baby showers because it’s hard to celebrate rites of passage that I sometimes feel like I missed. I’m uncomfortable in groups when conversation turns to marriage and relationships. I have asked family members and close friends if they think something is wrong with me. I have ventured into dating several times and every time have reached the same conclusion: I hate this. It doesn’t fit. It isn’t me.  When I am asked (and I have been), “Do you wish you were married?”,  the honest answer is no. I do not wish I were married. I just wish I weren’t abnormal.

In college and throughout my 20’s, I asked my mother several times if it worried her that I might not get married. And -God bless her traditional, conservative, Bible-believing heart -she always said no, and I believed her. My maternal grandmother, also a conservative Christian who will forever be one of my favorite people and greatest heroes, adored her husband and grieved his loss but wished marriage on no woman and made no bones about that. That the two most important women in my life, traditional as they were, never urged me to find a husband was a gift I didn’t recognize until years later.

In my early 30’s, I began to realize that nowhere was being single as uncomfortable as it was at church. Once we pass the college/career group stage, we define groups by gender and marital status. We have couples’ groups, moms’ groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, senior groups, and, yes, singles’ groups. I have attended exactly two singles’ group meetings in my life. One quite obviously offered treatment for singleness; the other was a struggling start-up in a church clearly geared to families. I tried to attend women’s events but got tired of hat themes (“We ladies wear so many hats! Wives, mothers, career women…) and Bible studies about busyness. I cringed every time a pastor said from the pulpit, “Ladies, turn to your husbands…” and avoided every sermon series on dating and marriage.

I knew these topics applied to most people and never expected the church to cater to my interests. But I have always felt that church didn’t quite know what to do with me. It was organized around the traditional family structure, and I didn’t fit. I so wanted to eliminate the categories and just be one among many adults. I wanted not to be excluded from a house-building trip because this one was a “men’s” trip or a “family” trip. I wanted not to have my gender, age, and marital status constantly highlighted.

Importantly, it only recently occurred to me that my own discomfort would barely even register compared to that of someone who was gay or gender noncomforming. I can walk into a women’s ministry event without turning heads. I might not feel like I fit, but at least I look like I fit. My cultural practices match, for the most part, the types of activities that take place at church. The styles of music are familiar to me; I can easily make a batch of vanilla cupcakes for the Easter party; when I’m called on to read a passage of Scripture, I can do that smoothly and without embarrassment. If I often feel like a misfit, how might church feel to people whose cultures, lifestyles, and family structures fall far outside the boundaries that church draws? If we want those people to feel welcome, do we ask them to adapt to our structures? Or do we ask ourselves how we might move toward genuine inclusiveness? Are we willing to rethink men’s and women’s ministries to accommodate those who identify as non-binary? Are we willing to make Sunday School look less like traditional school to help embrace children for whom school is alienating?

It’s a long road ahead, and there are no simple solutions. Historically, church has been slow to adjust to social change. Churches remained racially segregated long after federal law mandated integration of schools. But it bothers me that I have often felt more easily accepted and included in secular circles than I have at church, when it should be just the opposite. Of course, church should sometimes make me uncomfortable, but it should make me uncomfortable because I feel convicted to love more fully, to show greater compassion, to live in deeper communion with God. Not because I can’t find a social group to join.