A few weeks ago, The United Church of Christ, began a television ad campaign that shocked many. The TV ad encouraged 'all' of God's children to come worship with them—male and female, black, white and other ethnicities, young and old, gay and straight. The campaign was so direct that several television networks refused to air the advertisement. So the UCC moved the ad campaign to many cable stations. The shocking thing to me is not the message of the ad, but that networks refused to air a campaign about unconditional acceptance and love. Even running on cable, the United Church of Christ created a powerful witness.
To cover this story on Windy City Radio, I spoke with one of the ministers of the UCC conference, Reverend Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman, and asked if she would talk about why this issue was important to her. And why the church had taken a stand with this campaign. She brings this campaign closer to home, as it must be in many hearts. She calls her story 'small,' but as we know even 'small gifts' are large when shared.
A SMALL STORY OF CONVERSION
By Rev. Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman
It was 1963 and I was a shy, plain girl, a senior in high school, with a terrific crush on a beautiful boy named Steve. One afternoon he had driven me home and we sat in front of my house in his Volkswagen. He was a sensitive boy and could tell of my interest in him. I don't know if he sensed my own openness to what he was about to tell me, but for some reason his story spilled out—why we would never date: because he was gay.
Now remember, this was 1963 and I was one of tens of thousands Midwestern Puritan protected suburban kids for whom at that time the word was a barely recognized reality with hints of mysteriously illicit sexuality. So I hardly knew what he was telling me—yet I did. I may not have understood the mechanics ( this was 1963! ) but somehow, through our shared tears, I knew in that moment of the rejection he already lived, the exclusion, the loneliness, the confusion. And that moment was the beginning of a journey of conversion for me.
Oddly, I'm not sure I was ever fully in the place from which I was to be converted. I was so ignorant, so sheltered. But the culture even then was so steeped in a rejection of homosexuality that even in my ignorance and naivete it was 'there', unwanted but planted in me. I was not fully fertile ground, however. Steve gave the name to others I knew—the organists who came to my home to hang out and talk organ technology with my Dad, the 'old maid school teachers' ( as they were known ) who lived quietly next door to my grandparents. And that personal knowing, now so tearfully embodied in my high school friend, protected me, I think, from the worst of the terrible disease of homophobia.
But still it lurked within me, like a dormant but insidious virus, and it was battling against the thin wall of protection my friend Steve built for me. I recognized it one day, many years later, in the 1980s, when I attended a United Church of Christ ( UCC ) national meeting and, in my process of seeking to absorb this exciting new wide church reality, I somehow wandered ( or was led? ) into one of the formative sessions of what is now the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Coalition of the UCC. I was by then a wife, mother and newly ordained minister, comfortable and 'in touch' with both my gender and my heterosexual orientation. I had learned language like that and thought I was pretty 'with it'—with the then cutting-edge efforts in our church to affirm all persons in the church, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.
Even so, as I wandered into that room I found I suddenly had a raging desire to plant a big sign on my shirt that said something like 'I'm here in support but I'm really STRAIGHT!' The fear behind that desire shamed me but still burned strong. I almost turned around and left and I think I would have been somehow lost if I had. But God was continuing the work begun all those years ago and presented another messenger. This time it was another boy I had known, brother of a high school acquaintance. We began to talk, to reconnect, and my past and present merged into a new clarity: this homophobic nonsense is empty and has no claim on me. This man is my brother, my friend, and we are one in Christ. Anything else is irrelevant. It was so simple but so powerful.
It may seem an utterly small moment to any who might read this. But it was for me a great moment, a freeing moment, a transformative moment. Over time, I have done the work to study the scriptural and theological issues among Christians, I have studied and written papers and preached sermons, I have surveyed people of different perspectives in our church and I have sought to influence change in people and in systems that exclude and isolate anyone for any reason, including orientation. But all of that has been supplemental, an add on, to what God has done for me through those two men and other men and women since, in seeing God's face in them and coming to care about them, but not at all about their private lives except insofar as those lives have been wounded by the church and the world.
It is a small conversion story. But through it God has brought me to a wider understanding of and passionate hope for the sacred kingdom where no one is excluded and everyone is beloved.
I pray that I live as one transformed by that vision and give thanks for those who have brought me this far.
Reverend Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman is Conference Minister for the Illinois Conference, United Church of Christ. For more information on UCC and to see the television campaign ads, visit www.ucc.org