Ruling Elder, Ordained 2004.
A few months ago, something unjust was going on at my daughter’s middle school. She’s 14 now, and I’ve been politely given some direct info about what I am and am not allowed to do (sending in photos for the yearbook or community service slide shows are a no no).
So when I decided to speak up about the school injustice, knowing full well that it would probably cause her some “pain” from the coach and other players, I did it anyway.
“I’m sorry,” I told her in the car that day after the vice principal talked to me. “I just couldn’t sit quietly. It’s wrong.”
“No mom. I’m glad you did,” she said. “I don’t care if it changes things. They need to change.”
So yes, this is the story of my life. Speaking up. And out. I don’t march, usually, and I rarely make signs, though I do post a lot on Facebook and Pinterest which these days is about the same thing. But the truth is, since my partner and I decided to become parents back in 1996, we promised to live our lives openly and out and have never looked back.
When we visited Grace Covenant in Overland Park, (GCPC) KS, in the early 2000s, we came in through Vacation Bible School. We figured there was no better way to find out how an open two-mom and two-kid family would be treated. It left me with some questions overall, about the church, but I was assured GCPC welcomed us while some other churches, one mega nearby in fact, still wanted to welcome us with the hope that Christ would transform us in their midst. Code words. Transform. As in change - not for the church, for us.
We joined Grace, and I instantly got on the outreach committee. Yum. My favorite. Exactly what I believe we should be doing – working outside the church walls. I was content.
Then one day a call came asking me to serve as an elder. For lots of reasons, I wasn’t that keen on the idea. Let’s just sum it up by saying, I’d served on the board of another church of another denomination and left disillusioned. At the time the call came, I really didn’t understand that much about the greater Presbyterian Church or the regulations regarding ordination. My partner, Karen, was at a presbyterian church in Wichita when we met in 1983, and had served as a youth on many boards and committees and even at General Assembly. Both of us still had questions about Grace Church … was the “acceptance” just a pet project of the pastor, as one member suggested, or something embraced by the Church as a whole?
It wasn’t an easy decision… and more than once I wondered what the price would be. Still, I said Yes.
Suddenly there were meetings and more meetings, not for me as an elder, but for the congregation to discuss this business of me becoming an elder. It probably served me well that I wasn’t a lifelong presbyterian. There were big meetings in the gathering hall where it was explained, though my name was never used. These meetings were full of interesting comments both for and against my ordination as an elder. At one a little old lady stood up and asked, “but what will you tell your children?” There were people there way ahead on this issue, people way behind on this issue, there were those who were afraid, and those who thought we were stirring up dust that needn’t be disturbed. A lot of people said nothing but I am quite sure the book clubs and dinner groups were buzzing. I became closer to the younger people, and the older people and the people I didn’t know all that well who took the time to write me a note of support or just said a kind word in the hallway. A few, my friends who would draw closer and closer as time went on, said this:
“LeAnne, we will stand with you, and behind you, and beside you, and most importantly we will stand in front of you whatever comes.”
And they did. And. They. Do.
It was a big deal. Bigger than I expected or imagined. I recall being at church one day when, by courier, more legal papers arrived that had to be signed for. Legal papers? I remember feeling the wedge draw between myself and friends who went to a nearby church that sued our church, and eventually left PCUSA. I didn’t want it to be personal, but there’s nothing quite as personal as having people you know “vote” on something that is Who You Are.
My own real-life neighbor went to one of these opposing churches. One day we stood on the front lawn and discussed it. She and her sister left the church that sued our church.
After a long, detailed conversation about church law, she said: “I’m pretty sure we are supposed to love thy neighbor.” Hmm, very literally! With that, we laughed and went back to pulling weeds.
Over the years since that day, all the “court” battles and votes that were fought on “our” behalf, life has gone on. No longer is there ever a question of where we, Grace Covenant, stand. Ever.
We are looking for a new pastor at our Church. Quietly, both my partner and I were asked about serving on the search committee. We didn’t need to. We know, KNOW, that our church family will call someone open and affirming. It’s not even a question.
My daughter is going through confirmation this year. The whole issue of the vote and our Church came up in one of her classes and she asked about it – she was too young to remember when it happened.
“That was me,” I told her. “I was the first elder, openly gay, elder elected here and our church went through a lot to make that happen because the people at this church believe in justice.”
It was painful but it opened the door – now I look on the boards and see all kinds of people serving as deacons and ruling elders… everyone in the family can serve, not just some. Teenagers, sons and daughters of longtime families of Grace, all know they are welcome and have the same rights and responsibilities. And all they have to do is say “yes.”
And I’m so glad for the people who stood – behind, beside, with and in front.
LeAnne Stowe and her partner Karen live in Overland Park, KS and are the parents of Sara and Sam. They have been members of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church since 2003.