It was the last thing I expected when I stepped into an Uber in downtown Cleveland to head to the airport. I was tired after several days of meetings and wasn’t really up for a lot of conversation. But the Uber driver, Adam, was chatty. “So what do you do?” he asked. Not wanting to explain the whole “Conference Minister” thing, I simply replied, “I’m a pastor.” Thus began an extraordinary, Spirit-led encounter I cannot forget. For the next 20 minutes, that car became sacred space.
“I used to be really involved with the church,” Adam started, “but not anymore.” He was raised in what he described as a conservative Christian family. When he was a teenager, he came out to his parents as gay, and their response was to send him to a group home to be “reformed.”
Despite the devastating toll that traumatic experience took on his faith and his spirit, he somehow managed to maintain his faith and find his way back to the Church. In adulthood, he became very involved with a local church who accepted him as a gay man and invited him to provide leadership in a variety of ways. Later, though, he moved to another city and sought out another church home. The church he found did not offer welcome and inclusion, but rather excluded him from any leadership positions and consistently made its harsh judgement of his sexual identity known. He left that church and has not been back to any church since then.
Adam told me that he once had a dream of being a pastor one day. Now he just dreams of a church that will truly welcome him, his husband, and their two foster children.
I assured Adam that he is precious in God’s sight, and that nothing any church might do or say can separate him from the certainty of God’s love. I told him about the United Church of Christ, about our “open and affirming” identity and our history of LGBTQ inclusion. I confessed that we don’t always get it right, that sometimes we fall short of the extravagant welcome we claim. Mostly I wanted him to know that not all churches will try to ‘reform’ him or judge him, that God absolutely loves and celebrates him as the precious creation of God he is.
Eventually we arrived at the airport. Other cars maneuvering for space all around us honked as we stood outside Adam’s car and continued a conversation we were reluctant to finish. I didn’t have a business card and he didn’t have a piece of paper. So, he grabbed a worn dollar bill from his wallet and wrote his email address on it, asking me to send him more information about the United Church of Christ as he handed it to me. I promised I would, offered him a last word of encouragement, and we parted ways. Both of us, I feel certain, changed and blessed.
What Adam shared with me during that 20-minute Uber ride contained a lot of precious wisdom for us as Church. I’d summarize one bit of that wisdom like this: how we ‘show up’ matters.
How we invite, receive and welcome others into our church life matters. How we engage the world and all its injustice and need and messiness matters. How we proclaim and embody the bold love of God matters. How we recognize and honor the precious image of God in others matters. How we match our words and the core values of the Gospel message with our everyday behavior matters.
Our choices, our words, and our actions matter immensely. What we do and say, how we show up for and with others, can either inflict great harm or multiply great love.
May we be the Church God is calling us to be. It matters.
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister