Friday, June 21, 2013

Called to The Promised Land

Suffering cannot be avoided in life but it does not necessarily have the power to destroy us. In my experience I have found injury and pain to be markers along the path toward the Promised Land. 

My father died when I was eleven years old. About a year after that my mother told me, “You were a disappointment to your father.” I recall that I was not surprised to hear it but I was stung by the pain. I asked my mother what it was about me that disappointed my father and she explained, “You are too loud, too boisterous. You just wanted too much attention. You were never the kind of girl your father had hoped for in a daughter.” He was gone. There was no opportunity to ask for confirmation from my father nor was there opportunity for me to change and earn my father’s approval. The label stuck: Disappointment. 

My father was a Nazarene minister and the Nazarene Church was all I knew until I went to college and saw more of the world. Because I started smoking and drinking beer, the Nazarene people rejected me. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Dorothy Pickens told me. And so I was. I took my shame and left the Nazarenes.

Several years later, when my daughter was born, I took her to the United Methodist Church. We made a home there. I experienced my call to leadership while a member of the United Methodist Church. I could tell a good story and people noticed the power and effectiveness of that gift. I was appointed to serve my first church.  I grew in my faith and in my understanding of my own needs. When I found the courage to come out as a lesbian, the United Methodist Church invited me to leave.  The rejection left me feeling like an orphan.

I stumbled upon the United Church of Christ in 1994. I began to tell stories in a new place with a new set of people. More important, I began to recognize the light in myself and my storytelling. It occurred to me that my father might have been wrong about me. Maybe I was not a disappointment. My interest and energy were focused on homeless people. My vision then was to establish a laundry in Memphis, The River, where women without homes could wash their clothes while getting support for themselves and their children. Had I known myself better then, had I a more keen sense of God’s call on my life and passion, I would have stayed in Memphis and allowed God to build the laundry, allowed God to wash clothes and to increase my faith and focus on justice then and there. But I chose to put my profile out and enter the search as a local pastor for an established congregation. I was ordained on September 10, 2000 and left home to serve strangers in a faraway place.

Things went badly for me in the established congregation. I was painfully lonely without my partner and loneliness brought out the worst in me as I made huge leadership mistakes. I was not prepared to deal with the series of conflicts that ultimately sent me back home. Then I got in cross-hairs with a conference minister who became obsessed with his need to remove me from ministry in the UCC.  He saw to it that my standing as a UCC minister was terminated.  

Fortunately I have a loving partner, Anna Neal, who stands by me at all times.  She maintained the center for me while I wandered in grief, confusion, rage and resentment. I accidentally found my way out of the wilderness when I connected with theater people. Voices of the South, a local theater company, engaged me in a series of solo performance workshops, in 2009. Jerre Dye and David Prete saw me as a woman with an excellent story to tell and they helped me tell it well. I was loud and boisterous while I wrote my life story and it was staged as a one-woman show, “For Goodness Sake.”  I discovered the joy of loving myself.  I love letting go of shame. I delight in getting attention. It is, for me, an experience of liberation.

My greatest fear is being trapped, being forced to stay in a place, a situation or relationship that no longer feels healthy, that no longer nurtures my creativity and spontaneity. So it is ironic that I have found the satisfaction for my deepest longing inside the county jail. I transferred my standing as a minister to the Progressive Christian Alliance, a group of justice seeking ministers who have moved their ministries outside the walls of the established church. In January of 2010, I went to the jail and said, “I have a theory. I believe that people, once given a chance to be creative, will find a way to set themselves free from whatever is holding them back.” I started the Prison Stories program, a creative writing and performance program for women. The success of that program can be measured by the number of women who say, “I have been set free from my secrets and shame.”

My journey from childhood to the Promised Land has been long and circular. Looking back I see places where I might have been stuck with bitterness and depression. My spirit could have died while my body continued to breathe. But I have always believed that God intends for each one of us to truly engage in the life we’ve been given. I don’t know why my father felt disappointed in me. I don’t know why my mother felt the need to tell me about his disappointment. I do know that the pain of that struggle has propelled me into a place where I can help set captives free. And that means the world to me. I am free to be powerful, useful and good at what I do. I am called to use this one loud and boisterous life I’ve been given to call attention to the love of God for all of us. Nobody needs to feel ashamed, rejected, unfit or like a disappointment to God. That is the story I am called to tell in this, the Promised Land.