I rarely get nervous about public speaking. Since I was young I have been a natural at being on stage in front of people. Even talking about something as personal as my own sexuality is usually fine with me since I have been doing it for years now. But the opportunity of speaking at the Canadian Youth Workers Convention was a truly nerve wracking experience.
Part of my nerves came from the fact that I only had eighteen minutes in which to talk. Fitting the complexities of my story into an hour is daunting at times, eighteen minutes seemed impossible. I worried that I would have just enough time to offend everyone there, and not enough time to have people grapple with the nuances of my position. It’s one thing to tell people that you are a “gay, conservative evangelical, youth pastor married to a bi-sexual woman” it’s an entirely different thing for people to grasp what that actually means to me.
My friends were all very encouraging to me. “Be yourself!” they said. But that was the real scary part. What if I was myself, and people didn’t like me? Being yourself is a pretty vulnerable thing. It gives people a power over you – a power to hurt you. When you don’t care about others then you can handle rejection much better. But I did care about the people at this convention. They were people like me: youth workers who put up with bad pay and ridiculous demands because they love teens and love Jesus. And I knew that in that audience over two dozen denominations were being represented, from the very liberal to the very conservative. I knew that there would be youth pastors there who struggle with their same sex attractions, and pastors who were openly and comfortably gay.
Whatever I said I wanted more than anything for each of those pastors to go home feeling safe and respected. So I made myself very vulnerable as I spoke. In listening to the recording of it I can hear the tremble in my voice as I shared my own journey and many of the places where I was deeply hurt growing up when I shared about my sexuality.
Then I called for all the people there, wherever they are on the theological perspective, to agree to a few things. First, that no youth should have to fear for their safety the way I did because they are working through these questions (whichever way they eventually go). Secondly, that as we disagree with each other theologically we remember that the worst thing we could say about each other is that we are enemies. Yet Christ called us to love our enemies. So it is imperative that we treat each other with dignity, respect and love. And finally, to remember humility – because Christian history is full of examples of Christians boldly proclaiming what they believed to be the truth with the generations after them discovering that they were wrong.
When I finished speaking I was overwhelmed by the positive response from the audience. I received a standing ovation, which is certainly not something I have received often, and unheard of in my experiences attending this conference. Afterwards many people came to talk to me, and the thing that they said over and over was that it was my vulnerability that had really challenged them to rethink things.
I received an email later on that week from someone in the audience, a youth pastor like myself with a theologically conservative position, but who cared deeply for several gay friends, one of whom was another pastor at the conference. He wrote:
“I have to admit I was scared to death when you were giving your talk. I was scared for my friend that she was going to get hurt again, that she would leave defeated and angry. She get’s enough crap from our people and it would just be so frustrating to see her get kicked again. Then when you were speaking I was scared for you. I’ve been around the youth work block a few times, I know what the guys especially are like, and I though, oh geez, don’t show too much, don’t let them get too much. Turns out I was blindingly wrong on both counts. Your piercing vulnerability broke down those walls and prejudices and rhetoric. How can you look at a living, breathing vulnerable person and still spit in their face. I know people still do, but it’s way harder! So thank you. You have been a bridge, you are a bridge, and while everyone coming up and telling you how great and brave you are is overwhelming and nice in the moment, at some point you will have to wade back in to the struggle of regular life as we all do, and I hope that you know that you gave me hope in a totally different way.”
On reflection, I see that bridge building is an inherently vulnerable thing. You are putting yourself in the middle, and that means you often get caught in the cross fire. It is much easier to pick your side, hunker down in your theological trench and not care about those on the other side. But when we risk being vulnerable, to actually take the time to know and care about others, though we risk rejection, it is in that vulnerability that God’s grace shows up and does miraculous things.
The miracle in this situation is that the friend, who had publicly stated earlier her displeasure with me being there as a speaker, came and apologized to me. “I walked by your booth all through this conference and kept my distance, and then here you were and you honoured me with your talk. I am sorry.” It took vulnerability for her to come and hear me speak. It took humility for her to come and apologize. But that evening I stayed up late into the evening talking with her and her wife, sharing stories, laughing and getting to know each other. Our theologies are still different, but the distrust between us is replaced with friendship and a desire to know and understand each other better.
Choosing to care, and to make yourself vulnerable is a scary thing at times, but when we do it, we walk in the footsteps of a Saviour who was not content to leave us as enemies, but instead chose to make himself vulnerable, even to death on a cross. The conference weekend was an example of what the Spirit does when we are willing to step out. Some days I get tired of constantly putting myself out there, and the backlash that happens when I do. But weekends like that remind me why I do it, and give me the courage to go on.