02 September 2010

In honor of fall, school days, and one mentor in particular...

It’s September, back-to-school time for so many of us. I’m honored to have been asked to write for this fabulous blog—and so in honor of fall and everyone who is going back to school, I’d like to offer a reflection about a teacher I had in seminary.

I arrived in the fall of 1998 to begin seminary in Chicago, and was contacted early on to ask if I’d be interested in serving a Methodist congregation in the southern suburbs of Chicago. After a few visits and interviews, all of a sudden the job was mine. I immediately liked my supervisor, Rev. Ermalou Roller, who was a highly-skilled and capable clergywoman. She had served in numerous posts throughout the years in the Methodist Church and I knew I’d have a lot to learn from her. I liked being there so much I ended up staying on for a second year. In more ways than I can describe it was one of the richest and most formative experiences of learning about ministry that I was offered during my three years at McCormick.

My two years at St. Andrew’s Church and with Ermalou really pushed on what were then the limits of my faith. Earlier in my first year, Rev. Greg Dell, a United Methodist clergyman in Chicago officiated at a wedding of two men, and he was put on trial by the Methodist Church. Ermalou was very interested in the trial, and so I got a crash course in United Methodist polity. She was particularly upset and offended because one of her beloved children is gay. Rev. Dell’s trial verdict was announced the Friday before Palm Sunday in 1999. He was unanimously found guilty of performing a marriage of two men, and in a vote of 10-3 was found guilty of violating the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Because Rev. Dell was unwilling as a matter of his conscience to stop offering pastoral care and weddings to the many GLBT members of his congregation, he was suspended from serving as Pastor.

To say that Ermalou was devastated was an understatement. I remember her pain and hurt like it was yesterday. It was a betrayal for her by the church she had so lovingly served for so many years. On Palm Sunday, she led worship, with tears in her eyes. She gave a prophetic, heartfelt statement about her love for the church, for her friend and colleague who had been found guilty and would be losing his posting to a church he had served with great dedication and love, and about her pain as a mother to a son who is gay on a weekend like that one. Ermalou allowed the congregation to see the turmoil she was in, and during her prayers of the people she offered prayers for the church and all those who have violence done to them in the name of the Church.

Unfortunately, that day set in motion a firestorm of church conflict at St. Andrews that continued until I left a year and a half later. Some parishioners walked out during Ermalou’s prayer. Some offered her words of support and solidarity in the receiving line after church. Those who walked out of church decided that she needed to go, calling the Bishop’s office and demanding that Ermalou be fired. The rest of us on staff were attacked for our ministry and our support. I learned about some of the more difficult aspects of ministry the hard way as observed and experienced first-hand the fallout that can happen from church conflict, and the trauma it can do in the life of a Pastor.

What do we do in the church when name-calling, meanness, or hatred comes into our lives? It is a question we have to wrestle with right now as we look at the bigger picture of our culture that so often tends towards violence, or the Islamaphobia that has taken hold our country, the hatred on display towards immigrants who are among us, and of course the ongoing discrimination within our denomination against those of us who are GLBT and their allies (we have our own painful example in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) once again this past week in the verdict against Rev. Janie Spahr for her prophetic ministry in Redwoods Presbytery).

There is a narrative that unites all of this, and it’s not a good one. It’s the narrative that says that we have to be fearful of the “other” and that we have to keep “them” away from “us.” Nothing could be more antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than this. Many days I ask myself: “How am I going to keep my own personal spirit lifted up in the midst of this narrative, especially when some parts of it touch my life deeply? How can I best serve as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the midst of these experiences—how can I guide and lead my congregation during a time like this?” It is a constant question in my prayer life these days.

I also think about Ermalou during these times a lot, because she was one of my early mentors and because I so admired (still do) the grace with which she handled herself and guided her congregation during a time of deep pain. This past spring Ermalou came to visit our family for a few days, and spoke to a gathering of adults at the church I serve about a memoir she has recently written about that difficult time in her life. I thought I knew Ermalou, but this summer as I read her memoir I realized there was a lot I didn’t know—and I was blown away by the courage it took for her to tell her whole story after so many years. I knew her first marriage ended in divorce, but I didn’t know that her first husband was gay and that they had an open marriage. She writes in honest, raw, and surprising language about her relationships with her children, and about finding love later in life—a love that blew open her mind and her spirit. It catalogues her life, her sexual awaking, and then tells the back-story of the trial of Greg Dell and how she sensed God’s Spirit working through all of these things. Her book is a reminder that all of our lives are like this. They are not neat, they are messy and complicated. Rarely do they follow the straight line, many times we hide how unconventional they are because we are fearful of what others might think about us. But as Ermalou so beautifully wrote in her memoir, we have the courage to tell our stories. Our telling of our stories liberates us. Each one of us is a Child of God, each one of us called in baptism, each one of us loved unconditionally by the One who created us. In the end, that’s the only Good News I can trust in time like this, and it’s the hope I cling onto every day.

So here’s to all the teachers that God has placed in our lives and the lessons they have taught us. I pray that there are many more in store for you and for me as we journey forward and work for God’s justice in this place. There are still a lot of lessons to learn and to teach!

[If you’d like to read it, Ermalou’s book, On Thundering Wings: Homosexuality, Love, and the Church on Trial can found at: www.ermalouroller.com]

Rev. Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo
Pastor, Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church (Elizabeth Presbytery, NJ)
Director of Colombia Programs for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship

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