LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR.
I can't stop thinking about a woman I met at the Oprah tour this weekend. She was an audience member who shyly approached me, and asked if I could give her some advice. She was African-American, in her 60s, humbly dressed, with a face full of worries.
She wanted to know how to reconcile the deepest problem in her life, which is that she is secretly gay, but that she belongs to a church in her small town in South Carolina where she has been taught forever that homosexuality is a sin, and that homosexuals will burn in hell.
Because of these teachings, she has had to hide her true self for years, and the suffering is killing her.
She said, "I'm 62 years old. I have a secret partner, and we have loved each other for 30 years. But that church is the center of my life. It's my community. I love my neighbors there. I'm a deacon. I teach Sunday school. I believe in God. I need my church. I don't want to go to hell. But this secret is destroying me. I'm too old to lie about my life. But if I tell the truth, I'll be exiled from my community and condemned. What should I do?"
There are times when people ask me questions that make me just want to crumble into a heap on the floor in humility and grief. I wanted to bow down and kiss her feet. I wanted everyone to line up and kiss her feet — this beautiful soul.
Then I was hit with a spike of rage: How DARE someone tell this beautiful, kind, loving, grace-filled, faithful, decent, suffering woman that she is going to hell?
I don't even believe in hell, but I believe there's a special place in hell for people who tell other people that they are going to hell.
It enrages me.
Who do we think we are, to condemn our sisters and brothers to burn? For shame, for shame. (And don't anyone dare throw scripture at me here, to defend their condemnation of a suffering fellow human being — I won't take it. I won't buy a word of it.)
And how could I advise her? I live in a big shiny liberal Northeastern United States bubble. Gay rights are so assumed where I live that I sometimes forget (shame on ME) how people suffer elsewhere. For heaven's sake, I know a straight 17-year-old boy who took his childhood best friend and neighbor (who happened to be a gay teenager) to the prom this year — not as a romantic date, but a gesture of solidarity, because the straight boy wanted his gay friend to be able to enjoy the experience of prom. So they dressed up in their tuxedos, took photos, got in the limo, and danced all night and had a blast. Do you get that? I live in a community where STRAIGHT 17-year-old boys are perfectly comfortable bringing their gay friends to the prom with them, just because they love their friends…
That is not how it is in this woman's small town in South Carolina.
And what could I tell her? Could I blithely tell her to just stand in her truth, to stand up against her entire community — where she was born and raised, where she has lived and prayed and loved and shared grace for decades? What's it to me to make such a comment? ("Yeah, just be yourself." — as if that would be easy. As if she would not lose her entire community, the core of her being. And maybe her job.)
I asked her, "Would nobody come with you, if you were to tell your truth? Would nobody, even in privacy, whisper in your ear that they believe in you, that they love you, that you are still their friend, that they don't condemn you?"
"Nobody," she said, tears rolling down her face. "They can't."
"Do think there are other people in your church community who are suffering for the same reason?"
"Yes," she said.
"Could you somehow reach out to them?"
"It's not safe for any of us," she said.
"Do you believe that you're going to hell?" I asked. "Do you really believe it, in your heart, that the God you love and worship would condemn you to burn in hell because of your 30-year relationship with a woman you adore?"
"No," she said.
This was my only relief in the whole conversation — that at least she doesn't believe it. She hasn't digested the poison. She knows it doesn't make sense.
"You know there are other churches — churches who would welcome you?" I said.
"Not where I live," she said.
And I believe that.
Nobody should ever have to choose between their community and their truth. Nobody should ever have to choose between their faith and their heart — between their neighbors and their partner.
I wanted to take her home with me. I wanted to bundle her up and fly her away — she and her partner, both. I had no idea what to tell her to do. I felt ashamed and embarrassed and unworthy, that this dignified woman in her 60s would even be reduced to having to ask advice from ME. I held her, and we wept, and I told her that she was beautiful, and that I would pray for her freedom and her peace and her truth — and that she is so, so, so loved by God.
I couldn't let go of her. I didn't want to send her back there.
I can't stop seeing her face.
I'm tired of it, you guys. The world is changing, but for people like this woman, the change is not coming fast enough. The change hasn't reached her — or hundreds of thousands like her.
We have to move faster on this. People's lives hang in the balance.
It makes me feel helpless and I can't stop thinking about her.
Today — in the name of this beautiful woman — I made a substantial donation to an organization called the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which works tirelessly on behalf of LGBT individuals and families.
If you would like to join me, and also make a donation, here's their website:
This is my act of prayer today. It's all I've got.
LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR.