We stood in the remnants of Juan’s home in Concepcion, Chile. The walls tilted in wildly. Tears ran down his cheeks; he had built this home with his own two hands. Raised his children here. The earthquake took all that away within minutes. Unlike his neighbors who were crushed by debris, his family survived; they would live another day and make a new home elsewhere. But, for now, there was just a lot of loss, a lot of grieving to be done. How do you gather up the fragments, leave your beloved neighborhood, where people know your name and whose children played with yours, where the banter at day’s end was familiar and comforting as old slippers, broken-in just right? How do you start over? “Are you afraid to be in here?”, I asked Juan, because I certainly was afraid; the walls and ceilings bulged and sagged threateningly. “Yes, I am afraid. This could collapse at any second”. Staying wasn’t an option.
It was Sunday, a day I had dreaded. For the last time as a member, we slid into our pew and opened the hymnal. Words stuck in my throat and I just found my eyes wandering to faces, to backs of heads. I counted our losses, person by person.
We left our church yesterday. We didn’t sneak out the back door (though it was tempting). We didn’t storm out either. We got up front with our pastor and we shared a short letter:
Dearest Friends and Family,
We have a hard thing to share this morning. We are leaving Landisville. This has not been an easy nor a light decision to make. You have been our community for many years. You have nurtured us, you have sent us. When I think of all that God did in Chile during our time there, I just thank Him for you; without you we could not have gone and made disciples. We thank you so much for your generosity and support.
There are issues being debated here and in the broader Mennonite Church that we do not believe are debatable. Melodie Smith, now Melodie Dum, said recently that within the church there is room for diversity of belief on homosexuality. There certainly may be room; the church may be like a large bus with a seat available for everyone, but if the bus is headed to New York and God has called you to Miami, it doesn’t matter if there’s a seat for you, it is not going the way you must go.
Getting off the bus has all the pain and sting of a separation. Please forgive us if we have offended or hurt you in our journeys together. Our sincerest aim was to be a part of you, not to part from you. We love you and will miss you.
Our assignment in Honduras has been postponed indefinitely as EMM does not send “homeless” missionaries. If we find another church family who, after we have been rooted-in with them and knit together, agrees to send us, then we will have that hope of going. If not, the monies you’ve invested into this vision will go toward sending others, but it will not be wasted, that we can be sure of. Please pray for a family to be sent to fulfill the role in Honduras, one that could bring such blessing to so many.
In closing, I ask for your prayers; our family weeps at the loss of you. Please pray for God’s Spirit to direct and guide us. Please pray for our children, for whom transition has been the default of their young lives, that God would be their firm place which never shifts nor changes. Please pray that God would give us hope in this time of trial.
I was too afraid to look up as Dustin read. My eyes blurred and I examined the wood grain of the podium. I didn’t want to see the hurt, confusion, or ambivalence on those beloved faces. Some would be glad to see us go. Some would be offended, as if our leaving were a judgment on their staying. Some would be quite sad.
We were outspoken, see, on both our love for people with homosexual dispositions AND our love of God’s Word. We didn’t believe that stepping towards anyone in love involved a stepping away from the Bible and it’s teachings. We believe that practicing homosexuality is a sin, just as adultery is, just as lying is. We don’t vilify it as the worst, nor ignore it as unimportant. We don’t want our own sins to be accepted, neither do we do anyone else that injury.
Maybe we weren’t in the minority, but we were quite alone in speaking openly. It is odd to feel like a radical when you’re simply agreeing with orthodox Christian beliefs, which have been held true for millennia. It is strange for the Bible to be treated as so pliable a thing and for human sympathy to be heralded over love.
We tried for three years. We met with leaders, we prayed, we shared. We waited semi-patiently. Then it seems, our decision was drastically hurried up by several important turning points in the Mennonite church. Eastern Mennonite University announced a listening/discerning time to see whether they would allow practicing homosexual professors. One of the conferences ordained a practicing lesbian. Our own church hosted a play about a man and his son who has just come out as gay, inviting viewers to laugh, to cry, to be confused. Sure, it was a story, but it was clearly a platform; to continue this “dialogue” which so often has felt like a dogged monologue.
Our pastor helped us through the leaving process and we so valued his wisdom. In emails back and forth, he asked if this was the only reason we were leaving. I responded:
About cause for leaving; the debate about homosexuality is the surface manifestation (and to us a particularly disturbing one) of a deeper issue; sort of like the blue coloring of a bruise, the injury being actually under the skin. How pliable we think scripture is is under there. How we interpret scripture and whether we take into account two millennia of the church’s conclusions on sexuality, immorality, gender, and suffering. Sometimes I imagine pre-schism unity as a thick trunk, then branching off into Rome, then branching again smaller yet post-Reformation, and then splintering yet more into denominations and then tiny twigs where we keep extending out our particular interpretations ad nauseum, are we not near to breaking in this persistent, growing, uniqueness? Are our beliefs to be so very shifting and transient, like the culture’s? I feel the strength of the tree so very much less under my feet each year it seems, the farther out on the twig we go. But these are harder things yet to share on a Sunday morning with a shocked congregation taking it in that we are leaving them. Roots are more tangled than the plants above them. So, yes, it is too simplistic to say that disagreement over homosexuality is the reason we’re leaving, but it is the most tangible present reason; it’s the coloring over the injury that marks the spot of distress. If the knot of contention were switched to questioning whether the miracles of the Bible actually happened, I dare say the bruise would be much the same; it questions the same thing, the veracity of scripture and whether we are compelled to take it plainly.
Juan and my teammate Bekii Kisamore and I bowed our heads in prayer. Tears made wet trails down Juan’s face and hit the rubble-strewn floor. “This, this is what people need”. He then led us to his yard and showed us his “hope”. A beautiful copihue vine with full, generous blooms, snaking up the crumbling wall of his neighbor’s home, where the couple died clutching their small child in their arms. It was a “sign of life” for him, and he brought it water from the countryside to keep it going while all else was in ruin. He shared cuttings with us, he shared his hope with us.
Our decision to leave our church meant that we had lost not only our community, but our vocation as well. To be sent, you need a sending body. Our beautiful dream came crashing down and I am still reeling from that. I don’t know how to live without a dream. I feel like I’m flailing, like the floor has given way beneath me. If not for the peace that God has given us that we are obeying His voice, I do not know how I would go on.
There is just enough light to know that a path is before us. I cling to this verse from Isaiah 30:20,21:
Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”