I sat in the pew next to my eight year-old, dabbing at my eyes at intervals. Robyn, who was currently reading a piece he’d written after attending the Gay Christian Network conference, had shared this same piece two weeks prior, in our Sunday school class, which he leads/facilitates. My heart sank and rose intermittently, as Robyn shared about the people he’d had the opportunity to meet, all of whom were astonished that he was an openly gay member of a church congregation that allowed him to serve, that welcomed him, that accepted him just as he is.
Robyn’s sharing these mornings fell under the heading of “Exhorting,” a chapter from the book our Sunday school class was working its way through. So Robyn wasn’t just sharing about his experiences at this conference in Houston; he was simultaneously thanking our entire congregation, graciously reflecting to us the deep, meaningful good we’d done as a body, just by inviting him in and welcoming him to stay, to serve, to be.
One particular aspect of Robyn’s message spoke loudly to my heart: He spoke of a woman whose gay son had died of AIDS, and who had taken in one of her son’s friends after he’d been kicked out of his own house for being gay. This young man – abandoned by his parents and surely feeling truly hopeless – had slit his wrists one day while this mom was out of her house, leaving a note that said he’d have been alright if only he could have hugged his mother one more time. This precious, beautiful soul has therefore now taken it upon herself – through Freedhearts.org – to distribute buttons to any and all who ask, which read “Free Mom Hugs” and “Free Dad Hugs,” so that men, women, and children, can have a willing stand-in for their own biological parents at a moment’s notice. So around the conference that weekend, men and women bearing these buttons were peppered throughout those gathered, happy to distribute “free” hugs as needed.
Robyn went on to highlight the individuals in our congregation who’ve never forgotten to include him in their holiday gatherings, who invite him into their homes, and even one truly special, insightful man, who looked at Robyn and told him he was a blessing – a thing Robyn’s own father never told him, instead missing no opportunity to verbally and mentally abuse Robyn.
In time, Robyn’s message came to a close, sniffles were snuffled, more hugs freely given. And as I started to gather my children’s scattered church bulletins, crayons, and bags, I looked up to see an older member of our congregation amiably wishing me a good week, bearing a button that read “Free Dad Hugs.”
I was almost comically overcome with emotion in that moment. I kept it together because: adulting. But I never expected to receive so precious a gift myself.
I’m not sure when, how, or why the Church got its wires crossed with regard to what it means to love each other as Christ loved us. Neither can I pretend that our little East Texas congregation gets it right all the time, and my frustrations are nil because all the things are perfect all of the times.
But what I do know is that this time, with this treasured friend, unique individual, service-minded congregant, we’ve gotten it right: We’ve not alienated him, abandoned him, browbeaten him, bullied him, or sternly insisted that we love him but hate his sin. Instead, we’ve welcomed him in, we’ve loved him completely, and we’ve learned alongside and from him.
I’ve never been prouder to wear a plastic button. I’ve never been prouder to be a member of my church.