I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, baptized at the front of a very large Pentecostal church, days after being born. God and Jesus were always a huge part of my life.
My youth was full of Christian conventions, church summer camps and Friday night youth groups. I always thought they were my family, and would love me no matter what, because they told me that’s what God did. I loved every aspect of growing up in the church…
Until I realized I may be gay.
From the age of 17 to 29, I endured extreme hurt, neglect, shame, loneliness and guilt from my church family. Sadly not an uncommon story, what had been my refuge since birth became a dark place that made me question everything and hate myself and my futile prayers. They made me believe I had to choose: embrace God, or be damned and embrace this capital Sin.
In 2010, after many years of doing my best to pray the gay away, I spent an intense week of crying out to God at the end of my rope. I told Him I loved Him so much, and was going to walk toward Him— with my girlfriend of seven years Tammy (Tams) by my side. Hours later, I felt a peace that can only come from Him, settling gently into the depths of my soul. The peace resonated from knowing that He had knit me together in my mother’s womb—all of me—and He loved me unconditionally. I prayed that He would soften my heart toward the people who had hurt me most: Christians.
He told me that day, and every day since, to just be authentic. Live authentically, and love authentically, as He would. Maybe this could change the world.
But never did I think I would actually find a church with Christians who truly understood how Jesus would love if He were here today.
Tams and I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in 2010, and knew we would have to begin the arduous search for a church that would accept us as a couple and not just “roommates”. We planned to get married in 2011, and took this position extremely seriously—to be an authentic example of a Christian lesbian couple. Good luck, future church!
In the following 11 months, we did our research. We visited many types of churches. We felt most comfortable with churches that put following Christ and His teaching first, but we knew those were going to be the churches least likely to be comfortable with us.
Many of our friends encouraged us to find an “affirming” church, regardless of denomination. But we couldn’t compromise. We trusted that God would lead us where He wanted us to go.
So I did what any other 31-year-old gal in this day and age would do. I googled “evangelical churches in Vancouver”, and began emailing each one. We didn’t want to visit a bunch of churches if we knew up front they would have a very strong stance against “us”. We also wanted to say that when we find a church home, we want to serve and not just sit in the pews.
Most of the responses I did get were as expected, like this:
“Firstly, ‘Church A’ is certainly a place where you and Tammy are most welcome. We love all people. Secondly, ‘Church A’ would not be a place where you or Tammy would be welcomed to join in any ministry team. We are committed to a sexual ethic founded on Scripture, and individuals whose lifestyles do not align, are not affirmed as leaders. Love in Christ - Pastor."
It may just be me, but I didn’t feel Christ’s love in those emails. I began to flinch whenever a response popped into my inbox, getting more and more discouraged with our dwindling options of churches.
Then I got an email from a little church in North Vancouver called “The Cove.” Sean Graham, lead pastor from Cove sent a response that made my heart leap with hope.
“You and your wife are more than welcome at Cove. We take very seriously our commitment that everyone belongs. I can assure you that you are both welcome to serve in any capacity as you become a part of the community. You will never hear a message from me about the ills of gay marriage. With that said, we are a truly inclusive community and that means we have folks from every background and some may have personal issue with gay marriage, but it is not an issue for our leadership team. Stumbling toward Christ with you, Sean”
We responded back immediately and said we would come visit that Sunday. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope for Christians yet.
We didn’t expect how we would feel though, walking through the doors of Cove that first Sunday, September 25, 2011. We knew no one. We hadn’t even been to that part of BC before, and yet… we were home. The congregation was small, but they greeted us, looked into our eyes, and actually welcomed us. I waited for that familiar wave of judgment to wash over me, but it never came.
We were immediately invited to join a small group, and soon met most of the people in the community. I had forgotten what it was like to be in a church and not be “that gay couple.” As opportunities came up to talk with people face to face, and the dreaded “we are married” or “my wife” fell out of my mouth, I felt… okay. I felt good, even! With each conversation, God was restoring me with hope and healing my wounds. These people saw us as equals, even though we were the only gay people. We were no longer on a hierarchical system of sins with ours being the worst. We were all equal at the foot of the cross. As Sean always said: “stumbling towards Christ” together.
Soon Tams and I were helping out with worship, involved in a weekly small group, and teaching in the kids ministry. We fell in love with these beautiful souls, who I am sure didn’t always know how to deal with their own questions of where gay fits into things. But love was always first, and that was the difference.
The months went by, we developed many strong friendships, were challenged to grow in our faith, and give back to our community. We were just so incredibly thankful to have this authentic community of people surrounding us, just loving us for who we were—no conditions. This felt like what Jesus meant when He said in John 13:35: “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
However, Cove was a church plant of a bigger denomination: The Christian & Missionary Alliance Church in Canada. I always knew this denomination was very conservative, but we felt like Cove was different. Cove was coming up on its 10 year anniversary, and like any small church, there were always financial difficulties. Being a church plant of the greater denomination gave Cove its charitable status, which allowed people a tax receipt upon giving, which is what kept Cove afloat.
We had heard that Cove was going to be inducting new members into their congregation, and Tams and I thought there would be no better time to make our home official. However, we didn’t consider what this could mean to the greater denomination.
We sat down with Sean and shared with him our desire to become permanent members of Cove, and he did not hesitate. He of course wanted the same thing. But he did let us know that, technically, the Alliance denomination does not affirm same-sex couples, and would probably not be happy to know we help out in ministry at Cove, let alone want to become members. But he said we would go ahead anyway.
Sean knew of our history and was protective of our hearts. He understood the character of Jesus, and wanted to do what He would have done, even if that meant going against the denomination. Unbelievably to me, Sean also asked if I would share my story of struggling with my sexuality—at church. On the same Sunday that Tams and I became members.
So on Sunday, November 18, 2012, Sean gave me a gift greater than I can ever explain: an opportunity to stand up in church and reclaim the place I knew since birth as my home, a place where I felt safe and truly loved again. And to share my meandering journey of faith, and God’s steadfast love for me throughout.
A couple more months passed, and things continued as normal. But in February of 2013, we were told one of the people from the Alliance District Office was coming to speak to the congregation about some concerns they had. Within those concerns, one definitely stood out— the misunderstanding regarding homosexuality and what was and wasn’t acceptable.
There it was. We knew somewhere deep down it was coming. The spotlight had zeroed in on us once again. We had heard so many stories of our gay friends being kicked out of their churches, being asked to step down, or just being ignored so they feel they have no choice but to leave.
But Cove was different. We found out in the months that followed that these people really did love us, and weren’t about to kick us out, or not allow us to become members because it was against the "rules."
There were many meetings between the board of Cove and the district office of the Alliance, trying to figure out a way to work together. Obviously, we needed the charitable status from the Alliance to continue, but they could not condone Cove affirming sin. Thing is, Sean and everyone else said to us, it’s what Jesus would do. Just love.
Near the end of April 2013, Cove received a letter from the Alliance. Unfortunately, they could not find a way to make these differences work, and they would be removing Cove from the Alliance denomination and taking away its' charitable status in a few weeks, effectively shutting down Cove.
We were all shocked, with such little time to let such a huge message sink in. How could this happen? Was this our fault? Why does a church finally get it, and then get shut down? And Sean would lose his job. How is that fair?
The last few weeks of Cove were spent with many tears, questions, talking, praying, more tears, and sharing with each other. As much as no one wanted Cove to close, I think we all knew it was the start of something bigger: of people standing up for what Jesus would do, even if that means standing up against the church itself.
On Sunday, May 26, 2013, Cove had its last gathering together. In a way, it felt like a funeral, but also a celebration. Sean had always challenged us to be a real church in our communities outside of these walls, and now was our chance. We shared one last time, took up a collection for Sean and his family, and we gathered in a huge circle to ask God to use this for His glory. My heart was so sad, and yet, so incredibly full.
I had always thought to myself, “This place is too good to be true…” and maybe it was. But maybe it was also the start of a movement. A movement to embrace love over legalism, regardless of the cost. After all, isn’t that what Christ came to teach us?
What an honor to have been a first-hand witness to that kind of love.
Yes, I do think that can change the world.