I’ve been an ally since well before I knew what an ally was. I grew up aware of my Uncle Rodney and Uncle Clem (though I never got a clear answer why they didn’t come to family gatherings). In fifth grade, I delivered a speech about Jesse Owens, the black sharecropper’s son who won four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympics on Hitler’s turf, only to face discrimination and poverty when he came home. I didn’t shy away from talking about how racial segregation and discrimination prevented Owens from receiving athletic scholarships or having a successful career as a track athlete. It didn’t play as well in my overwhelmingly white rural county as I had hoped.
Up until middle school, the reaction to my social activism was fairly benign. Once, I wrote a report about Mother Jones, the labor activist who revolutionized the West Virginia Coalfields, and it was gently shoved to the back of the group project. When I was 12, my enthusiastic support for gubernatorial candidate Charlotte Pritt, the first woman to make a serious run for the office, was treated as a cute gesture from a kid. Meanwhile, I listened to radio hosts degrade her, wondering how well the state would be run while she was “on her cycle.”
I have only been physically harmed once for sharing my views. Even then, the harm I came to was passive. My privilege means I have never been attacked physically for my views or my beliefs.
Ironically, the injury I experienced was in the place of safety where I was first taught to resist injustice. My entire life has been shaped by my Christian faith, and the United Methodist Church’s mission to create disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world. Our relationship in the community includes a vow we all take at confirmation or at a profession of faith to “accept the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
The church camp I was attending was less a retreat and more a gathering of youth to worship God, engage in service, and pass resolutions that provided the voice of youth in our state’s Church Conference the next month. During the legislative sessions, a church youth group introduced a resolution requesting that West Virginia support LGBT church members responding to a call to the clergy. As small groups, we read scripture, discussed the issue, and prayed about our response. When everyone came together to debate the issue, I was rather outspoken in support of LGBT folks feeling a call to ministry. After all, the Bible recounts countless stories of God selecting what society would deem an unlikely candidate to perform God’s work. Saint Paul, a Jewish Pharisee with a reputation for persecuting the Christian faithful, is our faith’s foundational theologian and the story of his call to ministry is the tip of the iceberg. Who was I to judge how God was calling others?
On Wednesday of this weeklong conference, I severely burned myself on a curling iron while doing my hair. I had a 3-inch by 1-inch second degree burn on the underside of my arm, after my arm rested on a curling iron while I reached for a barrette. You could make out the word CONAIR in the blisters on my dying skin. I went to the nurse for treatment.
“Hi, may I get some bandages and ointment for this burn?” I asked as I showed her the burn in the cafeteria (there was no nurse’s office).
“No, I don’t have anything for that.”
“Do you have bandages or gauze? It hurts, and it really should be covered so it doesn’t get infected.”
“No, I can’t help you there.”
“Can you at least release me to my grandmother down the street so I can get treatment from her or at a hospital?”
At this point, I went to the campus convenience store and cobbled together what I could to cover the wound in 1-inch bandages and gauze. I was afraid to call home collect on the available payphones because I thought my parents would take me away and not bring me back, or that the conference wouldn’t let me back in.
The resolution went to a vote, and barely passed. West Virginia youth were on the verge of affirming LGBT clergy in the mid-1990s. However, the adults charged with facilitating the legislative session did not accept the resolution. Instead, they set up a board of study that they could appoint that would engage the resolution and determine whether it would be offered to the body the next year. Nothing came of it.
Because it was not properly treated, that burn took the better part of a year to heal. I didn’t recover from the spiritual injury for two decades. My activism was guarded. I didn’t speak up in those small one-on-one moments where my voice and witness could have made a difference. I attended rallies and vigils, but because those opportunities offered safety in numbers. I never spoke or led anything, even when I felt passionate about the issue. I thought more of my physical and emotional safety than I did about standing up for what I knew was right. I was silenced.
It wasn’t until moving to Houston that I found a church that met my spiritual needs. I flirted with worship in a few places, including a Methodist church in Pittsburgh with members I still dearly love, and a Unitarian meeting house in the Midwest where the people came off as somewhat cold and smug to a country girl raised in the gateway to the South.
The day I set foot in my church, a large congregation in the heart of the city, I knew I was home. I became an official member that day. Since then, it has taken a full two years of work, prayer, and study to come to where I am today in terms of being comfortable sharing my voice and articulating my vision of a more just and peaceful world. I have been blessed to undergo this transformation in a place that challenged me, respected my boundaries, and trusts me as a member of the community.
With God’s help, I’ve come full circle, now with the spiritual and emotional maturity to handle setbacks I will experience along the way. It was with this realization that I tearfully sang the closing hymn at our church service on the eve of Independence Day. – KBH
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
and yet I pray for my beloved country —
the reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
in spite of differences of age and race.
May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.
–Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness