On the subway platform afterward, she invited me to a women's anti-racism group, and we chatted easily on the train for the few stops we had together. I found I did not mind that her partner was kind of quiet. I was just excited by the possibility of a new friend...or so I thought.
Eight painful months of coming out later, she left her husband and we began a relationship, with all the bonding and baggage our new history gave us. As our relationship evolved, we began to encounter deeper closeness and deeper distance. A primary joy in Jennifer's life -- and a major object of terror in mine -- was Christianity.
I had grown up Catholic: a liberal, post-Vatican II Catholicism that allowed my parents to help build our angular brick church and me to be an altar girl. As a teenager, I loved my spirituality and spoke at church retreats. However, by the time I went to college, male-centered and embodied God-language began to alienate me. I became aware that the shame I felt about my sexuality was induced and supported by my church. I struggled through college with my growing discomfort and my desire to hold on to the parts of church that were meaningful to me. I taught religion classes and found a parish whose leadership spoke about priests marrying and women being ordained. Yet none of this was enough to keep my soul from being broken every week during Mass.
Then I met Jennifer. She had spent her life struggling to shape her relationship with Christianity -- first in the conservative Baptism of her family, then at her conservative Christian college, with the Presbyterians for a time, at the liberal Union Theological Seminary, and most recently with the American Baptists, where she was considering a call to ministry. Given the depth of pain and healing she endured throughout her life, my terror felt like a knife digging into her whenever we approached the subject.
Her Christianity was intensely personal, crafted, protected, and emergent. My words assailed her, whether I said something that felt hurtful to her, whether I asked questions to add to my new and expanding knowledge of denominations and varieties of Christianity, or whether I requested that our conversation end because my own pain had become too great.
We were not doing well. We both felt hurt, unheard, and isolated from one another. And while I wanted to connect, one of the things I did not understand was why a woman, a lesbian, a person who had been deeply injured by institutional Christianity, would want to be ordained.
Then I heard her preach.
When I heard what Bible passage she'd chosen for that day, I doubted a sermon on Genesis 1 would do much for me. Adam and Eve, myths based on myths from before the Bible, creationism, creator God...I knew all about it and didn't know how she could find anything to inspire me in any of it.
She offered us a way of recognizing and appreciating this peace between our own pain-filled, hectic, overwhelming days. She urged us to look at how caught up we are in our troubles, large or small, and to see whether amid our craziness we experience the "rhythm and order" of "a simple, spiritual life -- the framework that holds our daily lives together."
I felt moved. And I felt an expansion in myself that took into account the woman I loved, her convictions, her process, her sadness, and her passion. I was coming to see her leadership in her faith as a wide opening of herself, a gift, a naive, pure truth that leapt past the stumbling blocks of restrictive beliefs that she -- and I -- grew up with.
And so I came to write a poem that I read at Jennifer's ordination ceremony. I could not have written this poem without the intricate weaving of our histories, pain, and growth. It would not have been authentic, I would not have understood. By the grace of love, desire, and truth I opened myself enough to appreciate Jennifer's faith. My understanding and appreciation allowed a poem to emerge that honors her true self, her sistership with a congregation of folks who recognize and thirst for the gifts she brings them, and her location in a tradition she has made hers.
The poem aims to incorporate much of Jennifer's history: her favorite parable (Matthew 9:20-22), her favorite biblical book (James), the Bible passage for her ceremony (Ezekiel 37:1-14), her call to anti-racism work, the experiences of her faith and current church community, and the beautiful moment in Baptist ordination of the laying-on of hands, which signifies the conferring of ordination itself.
Reading these words at the pulpit, I felt tall. I felt connected to the gathering -- through telling my truth. I had not been asked to sacrifice any part of myself by this Christianity, and I felt whole.