Many years ago now—before the turn of the century, imagine that!—I found my way back into the Episcopal Church after a long period of anger and alienation. The place that opened its doors and said, “welcome home” was All Saints Church in Fort Lauderdale.
My husband was first hired as the Associate Rector there, after I had accepted a promotion with FedEx that required me to move to Southeast Florida. Within months after his hiring, the person who was rector was deposed (suspended from ministry) and renounced his orders after charges of significant clergy misconduct were brought against him. Sherod was named interim rector and ultimately, the Bishop of Southeast Florida, Cal Schofield, made an exception and allowed him to remain as the rector.
I have learned about the ways in which a whole system, a whole family, a whole congregation, plays a part in its health or sickness. The rector at All Saints was the person who most visibly failed, but there was a deeply entrenched culture of silence and secrets. So many knew something was not right and said nothing. It took such brave lay people to finally stand up and say, “no more.” One of the promises Sherod made to himself and to All Saints when he was made rector was that he would do what he could to open space for truth and honesty.
One of the truths that had to be faced and embraced was the number of LGBTQ people who came to church at All Saints. Everyone was welcome—but that part of the family could not be open about who they were. It was a classic “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of place. Over about 3 years, there was conversation. There was some education and formation. There were some very ugly confrontations as well, and good people who loved their church decided to leave. Those losses were real and they left us diminished; for the remainder of our time at All Saints, there were people Sherod and I continued to miss.
Coming out to ourselves was very, very hard.
But those of us who stayed and worked, worshipped, loved, sometimes fought, and almost always laughed, were invited deeper into God’s generous and extravagant life. Matthew Shepherd was brutally killed right in the middle of that time; the way he was killed was so violent it left us wordless. A few years later, Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. An openly gay man was elected to the vestry at All Saints. So were lesbian women. One served with me as the lay leader of our youth programs at All Saints; I remember Katie and I talking about bullying with our youth as we sat around a table and talked about the challenges of being a teenager. She was an amazing youth leader. We continued to be church.
In 2012, after the Episcopal Church approved the blessing of same gender marriages, nine couples who were members at All Saints, gay and lesbian, who had been married in other parts of the country, because Florida did not allow same gender marriage, gathered with Sherod and planned a shared service of blessing of their marriages. Between them, they had over 240 years of committed relationship. One of the youngest had an absolutely delicious little son. We all were concerned for one of the couples who had been together the longest. One of them had dementia and we all held our breath, praying R would be able to be cognitively present that day. He was. All Saints has a balcony and as they processed out at the end of the service, several people threw rose petals on them from the balcony.
One of the loveliest moments of those years occurred when Bishop Robinson came to visit at All Saints. He was with us over a weekend, preached, broke bread with us, brought a gentle spirit with him that graced us all.
On this day when, thank God, no lives were lost despite the fact that 13 bombs were mailed out, the starkness of fear, turned to anger, turned to hate, turned to violence, weighs heavy. Today is also the day that Matthew Shepard’s remains were laid to rest at the National Cathedral. I watched most of the service on YouTube. Bp Robinson is retired now, and as he processed in, carrying Matthew, he was older, more stooped than when I met him. I imagined how incredibly bittersweet that moment must have been for him. The violence of Matthew’s death surely haunts and grieves Bp Robinson to the core, even 20 years after Matthew was killed. The honor of being the person bringing Matthew’s remains home must have been piercingly beautiful for Bp Robinson.
To me, some of the scariest ‘cinematographic’ moments are ones when someone is out on ice and it starts cracking more and more quickly, giving out from under the person and plunging her or him into water so cold it can kill in minutes. Sometimes these days, it feels like in this time and this place, we are standing on ice cracking and giving out beneath us. Today was like that for me. And then I remembered today was the interment of Matthew’s ashes. I watched how, in the chancel of the National Cathedral, an old man who wept frequently during his homily, who was dwarfed by the space he occupied, and who got a long standing ovation as he finished preaching, reminded us all that we are called to anamnesis. A remembering that makes events of the past ours, and challenges us to remember in order to be transformed. A remembering that loves and works for twenty years to find a place safe enough, and loving enough, to receive the ashes of a young man who others were so scared of, they killed him. It was my church, the Episcopal Church that finally said to Matthew, “Welcome home,” as it had to me all those years ago.