Series Introduction: Last year a large number of former students and professors of Asbury Theological Seminary signed a letter urging Asbury leadership to repent of their treatment of LGBTQ+ students and the ways in which Asbury has supported the discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the United Methodist Church.
Alongside that effort, a group of former students/professors are now sharing their stories of how they have individually journeyed to the affirmation of LGBTQ+ people. Each week during the next couple of months, one person will share their story as part of the project, Journeys to Affirmation.
These are their stories, shared each Tuesday.
My Life is Not a Paradox
I was baptized in 1977 at St. Paul’s
United Methodist Church. It was Christmas Day and I had just turned three
months old. My parents and grandparents, along with my whole church family,
promised that day to nurture me and teach me until I had enough faith to accept
God’s grace for myself.
Growing up, I don’t ever remember
hearing the word lesbian. I didn’t know it was even an option. I guess growing
up in a small town in West Virginia during the 80’s and 90’s it probably wasn’t
one. But looking back I do remember being in the second grade and thinking that
a particular fourth grade girl was very beautiful.
When I was in the sixth grade, I
joined confirmation class and reaffirmed my faith. The next year I attended a
United Methodist summer camp. After a particularly meaningful communion
service, I climbed onto the balcony of my dorm room. I looked up at the full
moon with tears streaming down my face and knew with all my heart that I
believed in this Jesus that I had learned about for so many years.
Later in junior high, all my friends
were starting to have crushes on boys. I quickly realized that I would need to
develop a crush too so that they wouldn’t be suspicious. Suspicious of what I
couldn’t tell you. But I knew enough to choose the most popular boy in school
so there was no possibility of actually going out with him. Later
in high school, I was asked out by a
boy in my English class. We went to dinner and a movie. He was funny and kind.
But something inside me knew I needed to act a little standoffish so he
wouldn’t ask me out on a second date.
Throughout high school I was very
involved in my church. I played hand bells and flute, held an office in
my youth group, and participated in service work. I was later accepted into a
United Methodist college where I studied Elementary Education.
During my college years, God placed
an increasing desire on my heart to go to Africa. I joined a mission team in
1998 and spent three weeks in Africa at a children’s home located on a United
Methodist mission. I fell in love. Not with a person, but a people, a culture,
a land. After returning home, this love consumed me and continually drew
my thoughts back to the red clay roads winding into the heart of the valley
where my children lived.
I felt very strongly that I wanted to
go back there more permanently, but I wanted a closer relationship with God
first. My pastor at the time told me about the seminary he had attended. I went
for a tour during Spring Break and loved the small town and the school’s
program. I met another prospective student on the tour and we decided to be
roommates. Everything fell in to place seamlessly.
The seminary asked us to sign a paper
that stated we would not “drink, smoke, or participate in anything that
supported homosexuality” during our time at the school. I read the
statements and thought to myself, “I can follow these rules for three years.” I
proceeded to sign the paper.
The classes I took were so
interesting and relevant. I was taught to separate my Western culture from my
faith so that I could see where God was already at work without imposing my own
culture on others. I was taught to go as a learner and work alongside
people in efforts they knew were best for their community. I was encouraged to be a part of an
accountability group where I learned to trust friends who helped me grow even
more in my faith.
My last year in seminary, a play was
performed on our campus about a young man who was gay and contracted AIDS. I
don’t remember much about the play except that as Christians we were supposed
to show love to the man despite his lifestyle. Love the sinner, hate the sin.
My mind clouded with confusion when I heard this statement, and I felt a part
of myself retreat as a means of protection.
As soon as I graduated in 2004, I
moved to Africa at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Many of the middle
generation had died, leaving children and grandparents to care for each other.
I joined African health care workers as they identified child-headed households
in the surrounding villages. We started programs that allowed children to stay
in their communities instead of relying on overcrowded orphanages. My work was
challenging, and I loved it.
Although my work was so rewarding, I
began to think about sharing my life with someone. More and more, I
realized that my desire was not for a husband. I decided to explore this
further and purposely chose a mentor who would push me to think critically and
not just tell me what I wanted to hear. After many discussions, I concluded
that I was probably a lesbian, but was not ready to figure out what I would do
with this information.
In 2014, my work visa was not
renewed. I would have to return to the United States. That
September I was hired as the Director of Missions at a large United Methodist
church in Houston, Texas. The staff became a family to me and embraced me
through all the loss I was experiencing. It was a huge adjustment to leave my African
family, move to a new city, start a new job, and readjust to American culture.
I decided to find a good counselor.
With all these changes, I was
surprised by my answer when my counselor asked what I would like to discuss
first. I told her I needed to know definitively if I was a lesbian and if so,
what I wanted do about it. After several more months of processing, I was
finally able to fully accept who I am.
As I drove home that day, I said it
out loud for the first time. “I am a lesbian.” A feeling of peace settled over
me. I felt God say, “Yes, this is who I created you to be.” I
decided at that moment to trust this confirmation and walk forward cautiously
but bravely into this new freedom. Little by little, I began speaking my truth
to others and even gathered the courage to go on my first date.
I felt relief and comfort as I began
to share my truth with close friends and family. I was slowly building a tribe
of people who loved and supported me no matter what. However, as I
continued working at the church, the decades-long controversy over issues
pertaining to homosexuality intensified. The denomination could not reach an
agreement on whether pastors could perform same-sex marriage ceremonies and
whether to allow those who are openly gay to be ordained.
Up until this point, I
lived in relative secrecy because of this indecision. When people I didn’t know
well asked me if I was dating someone I gave a vague answer. I introduced my
partner to others simply by her name with no further explanations. But in February
2019, United Methodist delegates from around the world passed the Traditional
Plan. As part of the vulnerable minority directly affected by that
decision, my fiancé and I chose to leave the denomination in order to find a
place where pastors and leaders are encouraged to actively speak up on our
behalf and allow us to live authentically.
We made the difficult
decision to leave Texas and move to a part of the country that is generally
more open and affirming. We chose to be
part of a church family who openly celebrated our marriage, is willing to help
us grow as a couple, and allowed us to make our vows inside the church.
The United Methodist
Church helped guide and shape my faith throughout my entire life. It was
extremely confusing when some of those who baptized me, confirmed me, fully
affirmed my relationship with Jesus, my calling into ministry, and my ability
to lead others in their faith journey stopped short at allowing me to be
married in a church. They claim that my loving, faithful relationship is
incompatible with Christian teachings. To
me, these actions are paradoxical. I have outgrown believing that I am a
paradox, and will continue to tell my story to help others who are on their own
journey outgrow this belief as well.
Janine Roberts lives in
Washington with her wife Erica. She is currently the Executive Director of
Cowlitz County CASA, advocating for abused and neglected children in the foster
care system. She attended Asbury Theological Seminary from 2001-2004 and
received a Master of Arts in World Missions.
About this series: Journeys to Affirmation is a group of people affiliated with Asbury Theological Seminary who are sharing their stories of how God’s grace moved them from non-affirming to affirming of LGBTQ+ people. New stories weekly, click here for all entries in the series.
Thank you to these Asbury Theological Seminary students, alums, and staff who share their stories. Inspired to write your own? Contact the curator Bill Mefford @ Fig Tree Revolution.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.
Original article: Journeys to Affirmation 02: My Life Is Not a Paradox.