It happened just after Easter more than six years ago. I remember it vividly, almost like it happened yesterday. I was on the couch having my morning coffee in my apartment in Boston. The phone rang. Without any greeting, the voice on the other line said, “Tim, you’re not going to believe this, but someone has filed a complaint against me, and I am going to be brought up on charges.”
The caller was my dad.
For those who did not grow up in the United Methodist Church, I should explain that the UMC’s Book of Discipline outlines a host of rules, as well as penalties for pastors who break those rules. My dad, a United Methodist minister, had broken one of those rules, and a congregant had filed a complaint, which started a disciplinary process that would ultimately capture the attention of the country.
“Night after night, I would pray and beg God to make me ‘normal.’”
Six years earlier, my dad had performed my same-sex wedding. Now, this violation of church law had finally caught up to him. In the months that followed, the UMC appointed a pastor to act as prosecutor charged with conducting interviews, gathering evidence, meticulously preparing his case and filing formal charges against my dad. By November of that year, a trial began. The gymnasium of a United Methodist campground was converted into a courtroom, complete with a defense table, a prosecution table, a bishop on a judge’s bench and 13 ordained clergy members sitting in a jury box. The room looked like the courtroom in “Law & Order.”
During the two-day trial, my marriage certificate was brought into evidence as proof that Frank Schaefer had conducted a gay marriage, which was a clear violation of the Book of Discipline. Some of his church members testified against him, claiming he had broken his vows and shattered their trust in him. My dad took the stand, never denying that he had done what he stood accused of having done, while also refusing to promise never to perform another same-sex wedding.
But he also pleaded for leniency, justifying his actions by invoking the parable of the Good Samaritan. He said to the jury, “Just like the traveler that was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, my son, Tim, was beaten up and left for dead by the doctrine of the church. When he asked me to perform his wedding, there was no way I could say no and walk by him like the priest and the Levite did. I had to stop and help him, to minister to him, like the Samaritan did.”
Finally, it was my turn to testify. On the witness stand I began to share my story. As a teenager, I had heard the debates rage within the United Methodist Church over gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. Over and over again, slurs were used against gay people; over and over again, the church ratified and reinforced its rules, claiming proudly that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“I hoped my story would somehow move the leaders of my denomination to take note and hear the anguish their rhetoric was causing for members of their churches and their families and communities.”
It was around this time that I was questioning my own sexuality. I convinced myself that my very being was contrary to Christian teaching. I looked to my local church, my family, anyone within my denomination for a counter-narrative, but I heard only silence. And by its silence my local congregation allowed the official doctrine of the denomination to speak for it.
I didn’t want to bring any shame on my family or my church, so I convinced myself that I was just going through a phase and that I would grow out of it. And so, night after night, I would pray and beg God to make me “normal.” I was so distraught over this that most nights I would cry myself to sleep.
By my early high school years, I finally came to accept that I was not just going through a phase, and that my prayers – my pleas to God – had gone unanswered. This was the moment I began to plan my suicide. I methodically planned what my letter would say and to whom it would be addressed and when and how I would kill myself. I devised a manner I knew would be quick, easy and effective. Surely that would spare my family the shame of having a son whose sexual identity was “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
As I finished sharing these intimate details with the 13 strangers sitting in the jury box beside me and the 100 or so spectators gathered in the gallery to observe the trial, I hoped my story would somehow move the leaders of my denomination to take note and hear the anguish their rhetoric was causing for members of their churches and their families and communities. I wanted them to understand how their words were harming queer people; how they were turning us away from our communities of faith and isolating us simply for who we are.
After the trial, my father was defrocked, stripped of his ministerial credentials and forced out of his congregation. (He was eventually reinstated on appeal to the denomination’s highest court and appointed to a congregation in Southern California, where he continues to serve as pastor.) The trauma the denomination inflicted on my dad, my mom, my siblings and me should have been enough for us all to give up on the church completely.
“Every time you … make a public statement of your inclusion and affirmation, you help create a counter-narrative to the exclusionary and deadly rhetoric that is commonplace in American Christianity and some of its largest denominations.”
However, in the midst of our pain and grief, we recognized a glimmer of hope. Before the trial began, a group called Reconciling Ministries Network quietly mobilized congregants from member churches across the country. As our family arrived for the first day of the trial, we were greeted with hundreds of supporters holding signs of encouragement and offering chants of support. Throughout the trial, they sat in the gallery wearing rainbow stoles around their necks in a silent sign of solidarity. Those who could not find seats remained outside to continue singing, chanting and praying.
Rather than pushing me away from the church, this brave witness and the bold work of these organizers drew me closer. Indeed, it was this very moment that reignited my call to ministry – a call from God I first received as a teenager but ignored for more than a decade because I could not see a path toward ordination for an openly gay man like myself. It was this moment that brought me to Dallas to pursue my theological degree at Brite Divinity School and to serve on the ministry team at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation that would ultimately ordain me to Christian ministry.
This is why I am so incredibly grateful for the work of organizations like the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, the Affirming Network and others advocating within their denominations toward full inclusion and equality. This is why I am grateful for every individual and congregation that participates in Pride parades and festivals and that hang rainbow signs or flags on their church buildings.
To deliberately switch pronouns, every time you do these things you make a public statement of your inclusion and affirmation, and you help to create a counter-narrative to the exclusionary and deadly rhetoric that is commonplace in American Christianity and some of its largest denominations.
You may never realize the positive impact you will have on countless queer people suffering in silence. And you may never come to know how many lives you have literally saved through your witness.
For those who have been reluctant to speak out and to act on behalf of queer Christians in your families, in your churches and in your communities, please know that you can make a difference. Your words and actions will not go unnoticed.