A Walk in Honor of Generations of Queer Folk

| June 23rd, 2023

A note: there are so many stories about people’s experiences at the Pride Festival. In the spirit of sharing stories, here’s mine. 

Dear Beloved Community,

Nineteen years ago this month, I attended my first ever Pride Festival. I was living in Chicago at the time, and many of my new friends in our Master of Music program at Northwestern were going and invited me along. (Those were the pre-social media, pre-smartphone years (!!), which I was reminded of when hunting for a photo of the occasion! Enjoy this not-quite-as-ancient one from a few years later.) 

I remember so distinctly wondering, “why would I go to Pride?” As a straight, cisgender woman, I didn’t think I should go to a space I knew to be intentionally centering people in the LGBTQ+ community. I didn’t want to interfere, interlope, intrude. Thankfully, my buddies told me to hush and come on, that I was sure to have a good time and might learn a thing or two along the way.

We gathered at one of their apartments, right in the center of the action. The parade began, alight with the colorful extravagance of all the groups represented along the way. There were dancers and performers, elected leaders and Fortune 500 CEOs, families with kids and senior adults waving from car windows. Joy from these LGBTQ+ leaders modeling a true and beautiful way of being in the world blanketed  the hundreds of thousands of us watching in wonder. By that point, I was already realizing that Pride wasn’t what I had expected, when I then saw what would forever shape the course of my life.

One after the other, in floats and cars and walking groups, there they were: the churches and faith communities, filled with folks who looked just as comfortable walking down North Halsted as they would welcoming folks to their Sunday School classroom or showing up with their casserole at the pot luck supper. The faith groups were all together – churches, synagogues, mosques, from Baptist to Ba’hai and back again. I knew these people. (One doesn’t grow up a preacher’s kid without a keen recognition of church folk!) I recognized them. I was them! Yet at that point in my life, I knew not a single church, not one, who would make their witness of celebration and inclusion so clear. Frankly, I could hardly believe that such a witness was possible! In the midst of all the celebratory cacophony, I wept, hard and hopeful, filled with thanksgiving for the faithful before me. “Someday,” I squeaked through tears to my friend, Sarah, “someday I want to be part of a church who would walk in a Pride Parade.”

Years passed. These annual Pride pilgrimages enlarged my love. And yes, the churches who marched never failed to unravel me and put me back together in the best possible way, returning me during those deconstructing years yet again to hope: that one’s faith in Jesus and inclusion of all God’s beloved children could (and do!) peaceably, faithfully, wholeheartedly coexist. You’ve heard me share over the years about how it was the witness of my LGBTQ+ friends whose voices were essential in helping me hear God’s call on my life into the ministry. My call and these relationships are utterly inseparable. 

And so in 2011, two years into my season as Minister to Young Adults at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, all these tender feelings surfaced for me yet again when a group in our church began wondering about having a presence that year at Pride. Some in the church wondered what pushback we’d hear, if this meant we were sanctioning what might happen in other corners of Pride, if this would reduce the complexity and fullness of our congregation to the label, “the gay church.” (One doesn’t serve as a minister without a keen recognition of the fear about what others might think!) And so with tentative curiosity for what might unfold, the young adults of our church, in cooperation with a new LGBTQ-centered ministry called True Colors, got the green light to attend.

A dozen of us showed up that day. We had a hastily-put together banner, no swag, and nothing but ourselves, a heap of love, and the wind of the Spirit at our backs. The parade began, and we started walking. And as we rounded the corner onto Main Street where the majority of the Parade watchers gathered, tears began to stream down my face. Here we were, a Baptist church who loved Jesus with our whole hearts and loved each other all the same, a church where I had the incredible gift to minister.  I knew these people. I was these people! I hadn’t thought it possible, and yet thanks to God’s transforming Love that had opened minds and hearts and hands to a wider welcome, we were there. I watched people do a double take at our banner, one turning to a friend and mouthing, “that’s a Baptist church?!” All along the route, we were met with surprise and overwhelming gratitude. Without question, God changed us that day.

Each year forward, Highland’s presence grew and grew. Their wonderful pastor, Mary Alice, texted me the other day with a picture of their group from last weekend’s Pride, packed with people of all ages and stations in life, full of the joy of God’s beautiful creation. As I saw her picture, I couldn’t help but to think of these 19 years since first I witnessed Pride: years of gains and losses for the LGBTQ+ community, years of transition and growth for our church, years of a new church and a new location for my calling, years of a Confession of Identity and new friends finding their way into our congregation because of it… God’s goodness and presence our steady companion along the way.

Tomorrow, more than 60 people from our church will gather for the first time to share love and celebration with our LGBTQ+ family. We go not to proselytize or pander, but to be with, bearing witness to a good God whose love knows no boundaries and celebrating the wideness of God’s dazzling human creation. We are not the first church in this space by any means, and certainly not the last either. That way has been paved before us from churches like our sister Wake Forest Baptist Church and her trailblazing leaders like Richard Groves and Lynn Rhoades. That way has been paved by thoughtful, faithful leadership of our church’s ministers and laity, every seed of love planted, tended, and nurtured under their care. But that way would not be possible if not for the profoundly courageous presence of our church’s LGBTQ+ family, who, in the words of Bill Coffin, “risked something big for something good” in order to find their place among us. I am utterly grateful.

As we go on this familiar yet new pilgrimage of celebration, we’ll find holy ground beneath our feet. (And yes I will most certainly cry!) But I will walk in honor of generations of queer folk who have come before us. I will walk with courage for our children to come behind us. I will walk in gratitude for the witness of the church – imperfect yet hopeful as she is – and in joy for God’s gift of transformation. I will walk with you, with all, with hope for what is yet to be. 

Together in God’s work of Love,

Pastor Emily