LETTING THE SPIRIT SPEAK:
MEMBERS SHARE THEIR STORIES
Christian and Gay: One Disciple’s Experience
Every June, our congregation celebrates the glory of our diverse and welcoming God with an LGBT Pride Month celebration during Worship — then gathers on our front lawn for our annual Community Picnic. On this Sunday, BPC’s Ed Haralson (pictured below) shared his struggles as a gay Christian across the decades — and the healing that comes from being honest.
On this Pentecost-Pride-Picnic Sunday, I have the honor of sharing a bit of my journey with you.
Let me start with middle school, when I realized I was a boy who liked boys, although I didn’t understand what all that meant. In high school, I fell in love with God. But in order in order to love God, I realized I couldn’t be a boy who liked boys. So I learned how to embrace a lie – I didn’t really like boys – in order to hold on to a truth. I went to Bible College where I learned to put God in a box, but men who like men were not allowed in that box.
I soon transferred to William and Mary where I became involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, attended a conservative Presbyterian church and later then an independent charismatic church (also conservative, but with tongues). After graduating I taught English in western Virginia where I attended a Pentecostal church where I learned a new lie. I wasn’t a man who loved men but a man possessed by the demon of loving men. That summer I shared a house with another teacher, who, I soon realized, was gay. And to my surprise, he wasn’t a demon. But my lie kept gays outside the box where I had placed myself and God.
After a year, I returned to Williamsburg and supported the work of Inter-Varsity. My spirituality shifted from embracing dogma to embracing promise. I began to understand that what God had promised I would become in the finite existence of my present had already been fulfilled in the infinite reality of His eternity. From my finite point of view, I struggled to become the reflection of the image of God. From God’s infinite point of view, I already was that image.
I remember vividly walking across campus and God saying (in that personal way in which God speaks to all of us), “Edmund, you know there is no reason why you cannot be that which you are.” That is, unless what you think you are and what God says you are, are two different things.
God and his truth had broken out of the box. I and my lie stayed in it. I eventually became a campus minister with Inter-Varsity in Kansas. I attended a Presbyterian church. The box I was in got bigger and bigger, but not big enough to include men who loved men, men with my history. I could reel the tape back to middle school, see the faces I had loved – and they were all male. They were the faces I was not allowed to love. And I knew the ministry I was in taught that God’s infinite love was, in the end, finite.
So I took my box and my lie and left this ministry. I returned to Northern Virginia, found a new church, and developed many relationships of great love and trust. I came to realize that I was not a Christian struggling with homosexuality, but a homosexual struggling with Christianity. I let go of the lie.
And because that church was a “no gays allowed” club, I left, leaving the lie behind, keeping the box, but following God. I found myself at the Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia, where God was open to everyone. The congregation was filled with straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folk. The infinity of God’s love was available to the infinity of God’s people. And you can’t put infinity in a box. The box was blown away. This struggle between being either Christian or gay was transformed into harmony, a harmony of light, a rainbow of light. Things were not black and white with shades of grey. They were a full spectrum. There was more light in the infinite universe of God than I ever knew existed.
One day someone told me there were Presbyterians who knew about and embraced this broad spectrum of God’s rainbow. I eventually found myself at Clarendon Presbyterian in Arlington where I learned about a group calling themselves More Light Presbyterians. I threw myself headlong into this church and into this movement, and I burned out. I left. And in leaving, I found freedom. Freedom to return to my first love of teaching. Freedom to leave the country and move to Bangkok, Thailand. Freedom to fall in love with a man, my partner Bom.
I returned to America, moved to Foggy Bottom, looked for a More Light church, found one, but things didn’t really fit. I recently moved to Chevy Chase, looked again for a More Light church, and found you guys. On this Pentecost-Pride-Picnic Sunday, let me say why being a More Light church is so important. There was a man named John Robinson, a spiritual leader of the Pilgrims who died in 1625 before he could join those who had earlier transplanted to America. We all know the Mayflower, but there was another ship called the Speedwell. In his farewell message to the Speedwell, Robinson said, “If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.”
Looking back upon my history and journey, I can see that I have received more and more and more light. And the word that God broke open to shine more light in my direction was not The Word of God, the scripture. It was the word of God’s people. The children of God are living words of God. Just as God breaks open the Word of God, and more light shines forth, so too does God break open the people of God so that more light, more understanding, can break forth.
Being a More Light congregation doesn’t mean that your theology or mission statement is watered down, easier to swallow and less filling like some light beer. No, by choosing to be a More Light Presbyterian congregation, this church has accepted the challenge of being a source of more light. Of becoming the people of God who are willing to be broken open so that more of the light of God’s eternal love shines forth.
A More Light congregation is one which welcomes, embraces, strengthens, invites – more than invites, it is one which goes out and seeks and finds and brings in those who have been denied the full love of God and humanity for far too long. A More Light congregation dares to declare to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community that there are no boxes which keep God in and keep people out because we are all eternal children of an eternal God born of an eternal love. A More Light congregation is one which has declared that it is willing to be broken open in order to become a safe and welcoming place for members of the LGBT community.
So on this Pride Sunday, you should be proud to be a More Light church. Thank you!
Black in America: One Disciple’s Experience
During African-American History Month, BPC’s Rob Rivers (pictured below with Rev. Chuck) shared the following powerfulpersonal witness in Worship.
I want to begin with a disclaimer: By no means do the views expressed represent the official views of Bethesda Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or represent a collective voice of what other Black males in their mid-30s think. Rather, these are my heartfelt convictions and thoughts as we go through this month of both remembrance and recognition for the accomplishments of Blacks in America during Black History Month.
My goal is not to stand here and try to convict all of society for injustices in the past because we have all in some way played a role in it. Rather, I would like for us to use this moment, this month and this opportunity to reflect and consider what our response can, could and should be…
Every February over the past few years on our Sanctuary Big Screen, we have been reminded through photos and music and clips of Dr. King’s speeches of our collective past. We relive the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and we all see the courageousness, bravery and moral outrage of thousands Americans, black, white, brown and others that stood up to the ugly vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow and fought for equal opportunity and equality. I see these images and I am reminded of how so many others sacrificed so that I might stand here today.
However, while I think about the Freedom Riders and the marchers, my soul is far from at peace and far from quiet because despites their valiant efforts, all is not well. My soul is not at ease and I feel that today — just as when these photographs were taken — we are at a vital moment where we must decide what we want our society to be …
I am a grandson of the Civil Rights Movement. I attended integrated schools, my father served as an officer in an integrated military service and we lived in neighborhoods that had individuals from different locations as well. Reading and reflecting on those statements alone on many days I can convince myself that things are fine, my family is well and currently we have the first President in our country’s history that is African-American. However, as I dig into the details, I realize that the veneer of equality and judgment that is dependent only upon the content of one’s character is not the reality in which we live today. In America, the land of the free and home of the brave, where unarmed black males can be shot down by law enforcement, vigilantes or from drug violence while the perpetrators of these crimes go unpunished – my spirit cannot rest and my soul can not be at ease.
My soul is not at ease, but when I look to the scriptures and read the Bible I am comforted. I am not comforted in a false prosperity gospel but rather in recognizing what the Bible teaches us about struggles and what are righteous response can and should be.
It is time for Black History Month and the Civil Rights Movement to move into the New Testament and move beyond the mountain where Martin Luther King was directing us to go before he was slain … It is time that we leave the Temple and we become a New Testament people …
In the Old Testament we are introduced to Abraham who is considered the father of Faith. Over the following chapters and books, we follow the children of Abraham who become as numerous as the Stars and we see how God selects this community from which to share his light to the world. The experience of Abraham’s children is not one of glamour and it is a story of oppression and difficulty. Nonetheless, warts and all, God chooses this group of people to endure and share through their adversity what it means to be in relationship with God.
The Experience of Blacks in America is parallel to many of the experiences of Israelites. It is recorded that the first African slaves arrived near Jamestown in 1619, nearly 500 years ago. From then on Blacks in America were treated as second-class citizens, being considered 3/5 of a person in the first Constitution and even after the civil war being reduced to sub-human standards due to Jim Crow, voting laws and a number of heinous acts and laws that prevented equal opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Despite the gains of the civil rights movement it is easy to still point to the disturbing statistics in the poverty rate, the value of black life, and incarceration rates to see that Blacks in America still suffer. Yet we are surviving despite the great deal of adversity that we face. There are many comparisons between the journey of the Israelites and the life of Blacks in America and even today we sing about it with classic hymnals such as Wade in the Water. However, today, I ask that we move beyond the comparison of the experience of Black in America to that of the children of Abraham …
To really respect the sacrifices and actions of Black Americans in the past and to help bring greater equality of opportunity and justice to all we must work with all our might to make POVERTY an issue in America and the world and work towards addressing.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was coldly assassinated in Memphis, TN as he worked organizing with the sanitation workers of that city. Many believed that his assassination was linked to his calls to address poverty and his open criticism of the war and government. Prior to his death, he saw beyond the mountain and realized that the greatest injustices, the greatest tragedy that can befall a person is unbreakable poverty.
Today, one of the greatest injustices that we commit is that we have self-identified because of our professions, education, zip codes, races and salary; and as a result of building up these walls of division we do not look at the people on the street as our neighbors/brothers/sisters that are sharing this fleeting moment of existence on the planet Earth with us.
As a New Testament people, we must double down in our social action efforts that focused on helping the poor and impoverished through efforts both nationally and internationally. As a New Testament people, we must take a stand and inform our political leaders that if they don’t mention the issue of poverty then they don’t have our vote. We will no longer stand for the demonizing of the poor that has continued to intensify since the mid-90s with Welfare reform and continues to this day. As a New Testament people we must welcome the stranger and aid those who come here in search of an improved opportunity of life because they can no longer maintain a livelihood in their neighborhood or country. As a New Testament people we must celebrate the accomplishment of Blacks in America but not only through fleeting ceremonies during the shortest month of the year, but through concrete actions that address issues of disparities that effect the entire population …
Today, tomorrow, this year and for the rest of our lives I call on all of us to be New Testament people not only remembering the actions and deeds of great Black Americans but moving beyond remembrance into action and the fullness of faith … Will we walk into our call of being New Testament People? Our will we sit back and stand idly by as more than half of humanity struggles for justice and dignity?
Blessings and Peace!
During the Season of Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas), BPC member and professional conductor Vicki Gau (shown below with her daughter) shared in Worship her response to the question, “What Does Advent Mean to Me?”
I light a lot of candles in Advent.
The day I caught my first glimpse into the beauty of Advent, I was an angel. Well, I can’t say whether I had been a metaphorical angel, but, quite literally, I was a 5th grade angel in a Christmas Eve pageant at a small church in rural North Carolina where my father was pastor. As we held candles in the darkened church, my father read these words from the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I listened to these beautiful words about a light in the darkness and felt the warmth of the candle on my face and the glow of its light and something new stirred inside me.
As I grew, I gradually became aware that all the trappings of the season – as much as I loved them, were ephemeral. But the stillness, the wonder of waiting and watching as darkness quite literally covers the earth with the approaching solstice and looking forward to that great light is an experience that we can all share with confidence, year after year.
In my work, I lead countless Alleluias and Jingle Bells and He is Borns throughout December in a parade of Christmas concerts. I don’t mind this, as it’s part of the joy of the season for me, highlighting what it is that I’m waiting for (and, yes, there is joy in anticipation). But I come to church in Advent to remind myself of the wonder and awe of that waiting. When the bass soloist in Messiah sings the words from the prophet Isaiah, “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”, I remember that long-ago awakening with the candle in my hand. And at home I light a lot of candles to remind myself of that coming Light in the darkness. Because that is what Advent means to me.
Spiritual leaders on our Session (church board) and new members alike have been asked to share during Worship their response to this question: “What does Bethesda Presbyterian Church mean to me?”
Lately, we have had some focus on 12-step programs. I am not a 12-step follower, but I have been to many meetings and had conversations with people involved with these programs. Last evening was such a time when four members of the Del Ray Club and Charlie Brown shared their moving stories. We frequently hear the success stories, of people who have had the courage face up to their addiction or the addiction of a loved one and to change their lives. But there are probably as many if not more less happy stories, of lives ruined through addiction.
My father and two uncles were three such persons, unable or unwilling recognize their dependence on alcohol and unable to see what it was doing to their lives and the lives of those close to them. And so I think of the courage of those who do try to overcome their addiction, because it was probably very hard to walk through the door of AA for the first time, and probably for many times after that. We heard some of those stories last night.
I think there is some amount of courage to join a congregation as Kurt and Lois are doing today, and even to come through our church doors for the first time and for the 100th time. Here inside the Beltway, when you mention that you go to church, people kind of look at you funny, like You Seemed Like a Level-Headed Person But Now I’m Not So Sure.
I hope I am not stepping on the sermon, but I think of the man in today’s gospel as needing courage and strength, rather than fretting about his lot in life, whining to Jesus. Our faith in the path of Jesus Christ gives us the courage to face the difficulties each of us lives with. The courage to live with our own problems and the strength to be ready to help others with theirs.
That is one of the central themes for being A Place for Healing: looking after not only our own spiritual wellness but that of people around us. It is an especially joy-filled calling. For me, our church as A Place for Healing means that we can serve as a Sanctuary, a safe place, where everyone who comes into this church, whether for a Sunday service or adult education, or the Saturday lunch program for the hungry, or the Del Ray Club, can find courage to live the life that God calls them to live, in God’s grace and love.
When asked to think about what BPC means to me, what came to mind was the FCC. No I am not talking about the Federal Communication Commission but rather a different of F-C-C. For me this church and my involvement with it are about Three Core Things … FAITH, COMMUNITY, and our COMMITMENT
Last Sunday, the Old Testament reading came from the Prophet Micah: “God has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” (NKJV) In sharing about my faith and what BPC means to me, I think this verse plays a key role. In this verse, Micah is reminding all of us that are role in this journey is not just one of following rules, attending meetings, and making sure everything is done as we see fit. No. Rather Micah is reminding us that what the Lord requires from us is to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.
Last Sunday, the message was about Just Love – and it is something that as a community of faith is critical, as love without correction does not show love nor justice to the person. But merely castigating an individual for whatever bias or reason is neither just nor shows love. These insights including the engaging Sunday School lessons in September, “Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace.” It shows the real faith of BPC and how the Spirit is moving in the membership. This faith is not shown through a uniformity of beliefs but a respect for others’ beliefs and a communal desire to engage God’s word and live out our lives in accordance to Jesus’ teaching – walking humbly with our God.
When I first entered the door at Bethesda Presbyterian Church, I was welcomed with a loaf of bread. This small yet symbolic gesture spoke volumes to me. (Also, the fact that the bread ended up being quite tasty didn’t hurt.) However, beyond just the flavor of the bread, the gestures showed firsthand that here was a community of believers that are interested in not only in your spiritual well-being but your physical well-being. As I learned more through talking with members such as Kurt, Dot, Donna, and John, is that the church was more than a Sunday gathering place, but also a community, which welcomed strangers and showed hospitality.
Now only a short three years later, I have a better idea about this church and this community of believers. I hope that we can embrace the idea of community even more, especially to individuals new in the area that are looking for a place to grow and be “a part of”. We are great as a community welcoming others and one another; let us continue to grow in being communal and increasing what we view as part of our community.
Our commitment: How do we support and embrace both our faith and community through our actions? Theory is great, but the action is where things really become alive! As a church, we have shown our commitment through steady support of the Saturday Lunch Program, healing of houses in bad shape through Rebuilding Together Montgomery County, a commitment to reaching beyond our own shores through support of Umbrella Initiatives, and hopefully soon through the Peacemaking Offering and the work of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Members of our spiritual leadership, the Session (church board), have shared with the congregation their lived responses to the following two questions: “Where and how have I noticed God working in my life? and, What difference does it make that I am a Christian?” Two of them are featured below …
One way I found God working in my life was through my friend Tom. Tom was paralyzed in a swimming accident at the age of 33 and continued to live in a V.A. hospital until he passed away 25 years later.
I made a personal commitment to visit him regularly — which I accomplished. For 25 years, I drove 250 miles round-trip once a month to visit with him. Somewhere, somehow, God gave me the strength and determination to keep it up.
Another way God works in my life is by providing spirituality through music. “Blest Be the Ties That Bind” at the end of our Passing of the Peace evokes an emotional response from me. My second wife, Sheila, always teased me about it — but God was providing a spiritual path between us. Sheila was a Catholic, and so for me this song promoted an understanding and appreciation for each other’s religious persuasion. We alternated between churches on Sundays until she passed away in February 2011.
God has been working in my life through BPC when I’ve been willing to participate in church life through the Session, the Diaconate, coaching sports teams, and through care for Sylvia (my first wife) and Sheila in their final days.
I’ve been a member of BPC 65 years. I joined with my parents and sister in 1947. I have been told I’m the longest continuing member. To which your reply should be, “So what?”
My first wife Sylvia and I were married here. Our daughter was married here. Our four grandchildren were baptized here. Our son was married at home by a BPC pastor.
Last fall, the Nominating Committee asked to nominate me to fill a one-year vacancy on the Session. As was made very clear, it was for one year. I presumed they did not want to exceed my life expectancy.
I thought about it and actually prayed about it. I asked God in my prayers if I should do it. I’ve been deacon, elder, property chairman, and have served on a pastor search committee, the personnel committee, etc. Why me? At 85, haven’t I done enough? The word came back, “Yeah, Joe, you’ve done all that. But what have you done for me lately?”
I feel my relationship with God is a Father/son relationship. I believe we are all called to stay involved in our church.
Where and how have I noticed God working in my life? I would have to answer, “Always actively.”
There have been so many instances but I think still the most pivotal for me was when I was wrestling with issues around my second marriage. My first husband had been killed during Vietnam. And I have often said that I wanted to crawl into God’s lap and ask, “What were you thinking?”
The only thing I have been given as insight is that I have since been able to comfort others going through bereavement. After my husband’s death, I was angry at God and so threw off all the values I had grown up with. I did things that should have killed me or at least make me very sick.
But now I see God’s protection through it all. I have called those years the lost years of my life and title that portion of my testimony, “the Prodigal Daughter.” I came around and knew I needed to get a “normal” life back. I moved from one situation to another probably too quickly. And I married the only guy I had seen with short hair in a couple of years …
I remained married for 18 years and had 3 children in that marriage but there came a time when things became intolerable. And yet I thought I am a Christian, I just have to try harder and Christians just don’t get divorced. In counseling with my Pastor I was challenged to make up my mind what I really wanted. It was like being asked, “Do you want to be healed”
I was paralyzed by fear and indecision. I went to the Wilderness. Literally, I was in Montana at the time and as I wandered and wondered the scripture story about the Woman at the Well came clearly to me. Jesus knew all about the woman and yet recognized her, spoke to her against many taboos, engaged her in conversation much to the shock of the disciples. I interpreted that as unconditional love for someone who others thought unworthy.
I truly felt the love of God and that acceptance and love enabled me to get through a very difficult time. Remembering this time and other times when I have seen God’s guidance, love, and protection have helped me get through other difficult trials in my life. This is also why I am a Christian: I am thoroughly convinced that I would be mentally unstable, well more than I am, if Jesus was not my Savior. I would be lost indeed. Knowing Jesus loves me, I am able to do things I would, on my own, not even attempt.