Rev. Emily C. Heath
Editor’s note: This commentary was originally published Wednesday on the The Bilerico Project website and is being republished here with exclusive permission from the author.
One of the occupational hazards of ordained ministry is that every Thanksgiving dinner you attend for the rest of your life will result in you being asked to pray. I don’t mind that. I went to school for this stuff. One of the gifts of seminary is the ability to bust out into prayer at the drop of the hat.
But every year, right about now, I start to think about what I’m going to say at the table. Part of the reason why is because I know this prayer is the only one most of my friends will hear me say all year. And in this one interruption-free moment there are a few things, things about me and them and gratitude and hope, that I want them to know.
When I was in seminary I was taught that grace repairs the brokenness of this world. And I was taught that gratitude is the only proper response to grace. I believe that. I try to live my life as a testament of thanks to grace. But look back at the past year in our community. Grace has seemed to elude us.
Politicians we thought were allies failed to stand up for us and against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Gay men were brutally beaten in the Bronx. A gay bar got raided in Atlanta. And the elections proved that homophobia will still win you plenty of votes. And then there was the worst news. The seemingly unstopping reports of gay youth after gay youth taking their own life.
I’m not always the “glass half-full” type. I tend to be a realist. I believe that “it gets better” but I also believe that it takes way too long. And, in the recent past, I can’t remember a year that has closed with me having less hope that change is imminent for our community.
And, as I prepare to pray at a table filled with queer folks, I almost wonder what we have to be thankful for at all.
When I read the headlines, I get discouraged. But they only tell a small part of the story. The truth is, I can find a hundred examples from the last year that show me that grace is real, and that hope still has a place.
There is grace in the small town pastoral search committee that didn’t take one look at the big, butch lesbian who walked through their door last January and then say “thanks anyway.” I’m thankful that they not only sat down with me that day, but they believed that I was supposed to be their pastor. I’m thankful because I had no idea at the time how much of a leap of faith that was for this church. And I’m thankful for the people who did not want me there, but who still come to church every Sunday, shake my hand, and say “good sermon, preacher.”
I’m thankful for my former colleagues in the Presbyterian Church who, when I left that denomination earlier this year, without exception supported me. I’m thankful for the Presbytery Executive who received my letter of resignation and wrote back with words of understanding and regret for a denomination which continues to struggle. Thankful for seminary professors and classmates who blessed me on my way. Thankful that through the affirmation and zeal for justice of all of them, they made leaving bittersweet for me.
I’m thankful for my new UCC clergy colleagues who consistently do their best to be supportive of me and of every other LGBTQ person who they encounter. Thankful that when I bring up an issue of inclusion they don’t brush it aside but instead ask to be educated. Thankful that they are willing to risk so much to be allies.
I’m thankful that when i moved to a state I knew nothing about the local LGBTQ folks went out of their way to invite me to their dinner tables, or to show me around. Thankful for the couple that approached me in a parking lot to say, “We’ve never seen you before.” Thankful for all the wonderful, sober LGBTQ folks who have helped me stay that way for years now. Thankful that we have not forgotten how to love and support one another.
I’m thankful for parents who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this year. Thankful that they have made a point of saying that their union is in no way threatened by the idea of two men or two women marrying one another. Thankful that they wish for nothing less for me than what they have had.
I’m thankful for the LGBTQ couples I married this year, including two friends I married last month in Massachusetts. I’m thankful that I could actually sign a marriage certificate after their wedding. And I’m thankful that in the midst of their deepest joy, they observed a moment of silence for all victims of homophobia.
I’m thankful for the people who took the time to record a video of themselves saying that “it gets better”. And I’m thankful for those who are out there making it better. I’m thankful for the young butch who saw my picture on the internet and emailed me because they hadn’t met another butch before. But, most of all, I’m thankful for every incredible LGBTQ youth out there who is choosing to thrive.
I’m thankful for our LGBTQ elders. Thankful for the ones who just wanted to gather in peace on the night of June 27th, 1969, but who in the early morning hours ended up sparking a revolution. Thankful for people like Storme DeLaverie who led the fight, but who can no longer always remember it. Thankful for my friends who called her nursing home to see if she needed anything. Thankful for the social worker who told us that she didn’t, that she was surrounded by friends, and that, “She is so blessed.” And, I’m thankful that we all cried when we heard that.
Like I said, I’m not always a “glass half-full” person. I prefer to think of myself as a realist. I know that the reality is that we have a long way to go on the road to true equality. I know that. But I also know that grace abounds. And I know that if it has been this present in my life this year, it must be in others as well.
I believe God is with us in this struggle, because I believe God always stands on the side of love. To me, it’s the everyday graces that signal that the tide is changing. I believe in my heart that they are a divine indication that our hope is not in vain.
This year, as I prepare a Thanksgiving prayer, I remember the theology lectures I heard as a seminarian. The ones about recognizing grace and then living one’s life as a prayer of thanksgiving. For me, the best way to say “thank you,” the best way to pray, is to work to change our community, and our world. And I think I’ll be working particularly hard this next year.
About The Rev. Emily C. Heath
The Rev. Emily C. Heath is a minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC). She currently pastors two small town congregations in southern Vermont. Additionally, she serves as the Spiritual Life Advisor at a small liberal arts college. Prior to her current call, Heath was a hospital and hospice chaplain specializing in trauma.
Heath received her undergraduate degree from Emory, where she was president of the LGBTQ association. She also holds an MDiv and a ThM in systematic theology from Columbia Seminary.
Though originally ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2001, she later left after feeling at odds with that church’s unchanging policies which excluded LGBT people from the full life of the church. She was attracted to the UCC by their openness to all persons. The views expressed in her posts are solely her own, and do not necessarily reflect the UCC’s.
The Rev. Heath is a regular contributor to the The Bilerico Project.