I come from a large, wounded family. By the time I was 24, both of my parents and three of my brothers had died. And even though I still had two sisters, I felt abandoned and alone. I remember watching The Sound of Music with all those kids lined up in a row; it was like the family I never had. I couldn't wait to be a mother. Life would be perfect, or so I thought.
I met Rob when I was 26, he wrote me a love song, and we were married three months later. It was a really good love song! A year after that, we had our first child and then, four more. When Chris was just two weeks old, we ventured out to the local market. An older woman there took one look at him, so tiny, bundled up in his bright blue baby blanket... She said, "God bless him," and I burst into tears. One day, you're a regular, rational person; the next, you're a mom. You have this amazing responsibility to protect your children, to prepare them for the world. You love them more than anything, and all you want to do is dress them in matching colors.
Here we are at a church camp near Colorado Springs. Our younger son may be wearing a girl's shirt. As a mother of five, you just do the best you can. We figured out pretty quickly that one thing you want when you're raising kids is community. For us, that was the church. We were at church a lot. We led Bible studies in small groups, Rob was a worship leader and I sang on the praise team. And we homeschooled all five kids who basically had the run of the place. Here's Annie, leading a Bible study for her dolls. Life was good!
Our amazing children grew into amazing adults, and we had our trusted community. Then one day, the phone rang, and everything changed. It was Annie calling from college, she was 20. I was wiping down the white-tiled counter in my bathroom when Annie says, "Mom, I got something to tell you. I'm attracted to girls. I think I'm bisexual. I prayed about it, mom, I've resisted it, but it won't go away."
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're hoping I whipped out a rainbow flag and said, "Annie, that's totally fine, we accept you just the way you are." But that's not quite what happened. See, I had nothing against LGBTQ people, really, but after 20 years in the Evangelical Church, I believed that being gay was somehow wrong. I love my daughter, and I thought I had to protect her. So I said, "Annie, don't give in, we'll support you. How can I help?" As I hung up the phone, my heart sank. I knew we'd never be the same in the church again.
Later, at Bible study, I shared with some of my closest friends, hoping they'd give me some wisdom. Instead, they just went straight to the rules. They said, "Being gay is a sin and you can't accept it." Not accept my daughter? What does that even mean? I was devastated. I realized I was being asked to choose between the two most important parts of my life: my child and my church. I chose my child.
What else was I going to do? I chose Annie. And we left the church, we lost our community. And eight years later, half of our family still doesn't speak to us. My faith was fraying at the edges. I needed to understand this. And what does the Bible even really say about it anyway? I needed to understand, and I began to read everything I could. I even went to a seminary. And I learned that most Christians do accept LGBTQ people.
And I also realized that I had become extremely judgmental. That was a really hard realization. But I began a deep process of deconstructing that judgment. Meanwhile, Annie called from New York. She said, "Mom, I'm dating women now, and I am more at peace with God than I've ever been." That was all I needed to know.
Rob and I came to complete peace about Annie. Three years passed, things were good, Annie came home for a visit. We were in the kitchen making salads for lunch, and she said, "Mom, are you sure you won't change your mind and reject me, you and dad?" I was like, "Sweetie, I am sure we will not reject you. But why are you asking?" Then she told me about her friend Alison. When Alison came out, her mother threw her down the stairs and threw dishes at her. That was a real wake-up call. It wasn't just about our little family, it was about countless other families.
Around that same time, I went to a Christian women's gathering where the speaker was saying, "You've got to do what God calls you to do, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how unexpected. If God calls you, you've got to do it." So I went to her at the break, and I said, "As you were speaking, God was telling me to serve the gay community." It's not what she expected. She said, "You mean to help them not be gay, right?" So much for hearing God saying the unexpected. But I knew in her response that this is a huge problem.
LGBTQ people are being bullied, beaten, shamed, abandoned, and rejected. And parents are being asked to choose between a demanding God and their own child. And none of this has anything to do with what we learn from Jesus about the power of love.
Research shows that 57 percent of transgender youth without parental support attempt suicide. But with parental support, that number goes down to 4 percent. 57 percent to 4 percent—that's the power of a parents' love. I knew I had to do something, I had to reach the parents. So I started a blog. And the more I wrote, the more people came out of the woodwork...
They said things like, "When my son came out, I wondered where we went wrong," and "My daughter is a lesbian, now I'm afraid of what people will say about us." One mom, Caren, was terrified that her son would go to hell and she would too for supporting him. Her pastor had told her that. I invited her to my home for the weekend, and I said, "Caren, no one is going to hell here. Your job is to love your son, that's it." Her family was restored, and her son has blossomed into his true self: he's a fabulous dancer!
It was so gratifying to help other Christian parents come to peace, reconcile their faith issues, and keep their families together. It became out full-time work. We made a lot of progress, and my little blog grew into an online support community with more than 3,000 moms and dads and more than 50 local regional groups where parents meet face to face.
But, for every parent we helped, we heard from just as many LGBTQ people in crisis. One young man came out to his parents, and they put all his belongings on the lawn and set them on fire. Another received a delivery of black roses from his family to say he was dead to them. And one young woman stepped out of her college library to find her parents on the corner waving Bibles and shouting, "God hates fags!" Can you imagine? And these parents think this is love, they call it tough love. They've been told that they're loving their children by shaming and shunning them, and seeking to make them straight. But I know what love feels like, and that is not love. Real love...
Real love accepts people as they are, with room for who they may become. I also know what it's like to be the child who lost both her parents. Mom died when I was just nine, and dad when I was 23. And that loss shows up in big ways, like their absence at your graduation, or your wedding. And it shows up in small ways too, like when you just need some mothering or fathering, after a fight with a friend, or when your car makes a funny sound. Or when just want to go have coffee and talk about things. The hard truth is that some LGBTQ children will never get their parents back. What are they to do? These kids need parents. And that's why I do this work. I'm a mom and I love these kids, and I encourage other moms and dads to love them too. Parents in our FreedHearts community step in and support LGBTQ people whose families have abandoned them.
Let me give you an example. Ken and Kathy were married 11 years when Ken relieved a deep secret. Ken knew that he had been born into the wrong body. His parents disowned him, but Kathy was supportive as Ken transitioned to Kendra. Later, they wanted to have a fairy-tale wedding as two brides, to renew their vows and celebrate this new chapter in their lives. Their parents didn't come. And that's where Linda and Janet stepped in. Linda and Janet are two moms in our FreedHearts community. They were there for them as if they were their own child. They sat on the front row and cheered them on. And after the wedding, the brides gave them each a bracelet that said, "Thank you for being the mom you didn't have to be." Rob and I have begun to officiate LGBTQ weddings too.
Here's Stephany and Cindy. And Erica and Ryan. And we have other weddings on our calendar. For most of these people's lives, the message that they've received from those who represented the voice of God condemned relationships like theirs. As pastors, Rob and I represent the voice of God, and it's a voice of love. We go to graduations, we talk on the phone, and we remind people of how wonderful they are. We go to pride events across the country, with our signs and buttons that say "free mom hugs" and "free dad hugs." LGBTQ people come up to us and melt into our arms. Many have not had parental encouragement in years. As moms and dads, we tell them, "You're worthy, you matter, you belong." That's the power of a parent's love.
It's human to be frightened by things we don't understand. It's not just religious fundamentalists who respond in ways that are damaging and hurtful. We can all behave badly when we are not listening to our better angels. How we treat people of color, refugees, people with disabilities, the elderly, people on the other side of the aisle, or people in our own family, anyone who is not how we think they should be, who's not like us. We try to make them like us. When that doesn't work, we reject them. Yet, every major religion has some version of the golden rule: to treat others the way you want to be treated.
After my mother died, I remember sitting in the kitchen at the table. I had drawn the picture of a casket. My sister came through the kitchen with a friend, and I said, "How do you spell 'deceased'?" I really needed to talk to somebody about that. She spelled it, she shrugged her shoulders at her friend, and they went out the back door. And I looked at my picture, and even though I was only nine, I understood I would be alone in this. What a gift it would have been if somebody had seen my shuttered heart, my desperate need, and been there for me. But there was nobody. No child, no person should ever have to feel like that.
So here's my invitation to you. Look around for someone in your life who's not been treated well, who's been treated badly, and treat them the way you'd want to be treated. It could be your child, a family member, a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger, someone who could use some encouragement. You can choose to love them. "There is no fear in love, but real love dispels fear." And real love—real love—accepts people as they are with room for who they may become.