Ohio: An Atheist Finds (Some) Reasons to Believe in Her Old Church
By Sarah Stankorb | November 29, 2016
It’s been years since I last had this feeling, that the place I considered a home wasn’t what I thought it was. On election night, I watched my state turn red—something I haven’t seen it do since college—and the majority of my neighbors standing with a man who to me represents bigotry and hate. I had to get up the next morning, now in Trump’s America, and make my way through my neighborhood with so many Trump signs in the yards, the blue Clinton ones already tucked away. A day before, I’d assumed progressives would win. Now I feel repelled, but where can I go?
The last time I felt like this, I withdrew and withdrew until I no longer belonged.
It’s been a decade and a half since I walked into a church sanctuary without the awkward arm-twisting of someone’s kid’s baptism. Even on those occasions, my belly fills with nerves—either my convictions will be insulted, or worse, I’ll find something worth trusting. Too long ago, the church broke my heart.
As a young woman, I had thought I was being called into the ministry. I was raised in Ohio in the United Methodist Church, a Sunday acolyte and youth group president. I was even a delegate to Youth Annual Conference, that bureaucratic training ground for future committee-loving Methodists. I grew up believing in a kind of Wonder Bread, Rust Belt Jesus—a standard bearer promising a better life.
But as I approached adulthood, I began wrestling with a more wrathful God, one I was told damned my friends and didn’t really call women to preach. That God was nestled in my born-again English teacher’s Bible-lined classroom shelves. That God popped up on the walk home from high school one day, in anti-abortion, fetus-image-rich pamphlets handed out by protesters who waited at the periphery of the schoolyard.
Even at my annual teen summer camp in Lakeside, I started to lose track of the God who’d once been a comfort. Lakeside was a singular place, a Methodist-affiliated resort town on Lake Erie and a remnant of the Chautauqua movement. It was peaceful, gated, safe. But a few of my formerly blithely faithful camp friends were increasingly evangelical. I found myself wondering if I’d truly been saved; my damnation felt implied.
I started attending Bible studies with other teenagers who believed the word of God was literally true. Their God began competing with the version I knew growing up; their wrath shouted out the love.
When I went to the United Methodist Church’s East Ohio Youth Annual Conference, I remember feeling official, select. (There had been an official vote to get me there.) But I was utterly unprepared for the bitter cascade of Scripture and vitriol that rolled forth there, over a single line in the church’s doctrinal rulebook, The Book of Discipline: “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” Some of the teen delegates dared to suggest that we, the Methodist youth of East Ohio, voice disagreement with this assertion. I was proud of them.
But the room rang with disgust.
It was the nineties. I was 16 and had one gay friend who was sort-of out, but where we lived—a poor suburb of even poorer Youngstown, Ohio—people didn’t typically talk about being gay, except as an insult or at Bible study. Our dads drank hard, and our moms ran the Sunday schools. Well, except for my mom. She was a church-going, former Republican, Nixon girl who grew up rural poor only to wind up blue-collar poor. She joined nary a church committee, found abstinence-only sex-ed insane, and frequently reminded me that she wouldn’t care one bit if I was a lesbian. I joked my mom was wasted on a straight, church girl like me.
But at that youth annual conference, I watched an assembly of teenagers, who had just been singing about their “Awesome God” reigning with power and love, turn savage. They shouted Scripture into microphones, voices cracking, hellfire threatening. It was as if ice hit my chest.
I didn’t want to be part of these people. I didn’t want to associate with so much hate. Someone introduced a middle-of-the-road amendment that tried to at least welcome “homosexuals” into the church, calling us all sinners equally. Even that failed. I stood there to vote and could barely see the few others who stood with me.
It felt crushing to be so outnumbered. I wondered what kind of church I belonged to, anyway. Why did this expansive room of young people want to maintain the (homophobic) status quo in the church?
It’s them I remember. It was them I left behind when I quit the church.
FOR 11 YEARS, I lived somewhere other than Ohio. As a nonbeliever on the East Coast, I felt far on the outskirts of church life. The only time I thought about the United Methodist Church (UMC) was when my old (straight, male) camp friends were ordained, or when I heard about church trials and complaints lodged against pastors who dared officiate same-sex weddings. There were pastors like the Rev. Frank Schaefer (who for a time was defrocked), Bishop Melvin Talbert, and the “Philadelphia 33” (a group of eastern Pennsylvania clergy who helped officiate a same-sex wedding in 2013).
I followed church trial stories closely, saw how much pain the church was causing and felt superior for not being part of it. I heard whispers of potential schism within my former denomination, and wondered if a healthier, more vibrant church might spring from the ashes.
That church wouldn’t be mine, but I still couldn’t stop caring, a little.
And then three years ago I moved back to Ohio. I could no longer treat the church as spectacle because my neighbors, my kids’ friends and families were churchgoers.
Youngstown, where I grew up, is a city with a conservative, Christian element, to be sure, but such resounding poverty and a steel town’s die-hard commitment to unions means most people vote Democratic. (For decades my mom voted as a straight-ticket Democrat but remained registered as a Republican just to annoy my dad.) More so than religious banter, politics were a constant.
Now I live near Cincinnati, the red part of our purple state. The houses are nicer. People have jobs. But I frequently get asked, “What are you?” They mean what variety of Christian, or perhaps Jew, might I be. It’s strange. There are growing numbers of religious nones like me everywhere, including Ohio. Yet my son’s Boy Scout troop meets in a Methodist Church. They talk about faith and assume he’s read the Bible. Among my neighbors, political discussion happens tentatively, and only after agreement has been subtly established, but faith is assumed.
The church of my youth still permeates here. The West Ohio conference of the UMC is also one of the denomination’s largest—it ranks fourth in the U.S. in overall weekly attendance. And yet, from my home in the southwest of the state, I have begun to see signs of resistance within the UMC, with local names popping up in coverage where national and local news converged. In May, the Rev. David Meredith, a UMC pastor in Cincinnati, married his long-time partner in direct defiance of church rules against same-sex marriage. UMC conservatives lodged complaints, raising the specter of disciplinary charges.
The wedding was days before the start of UMC’s 2016 General Conference, the church’s rule-making assembly. Delegates from the global church would be asked to reconsider Book of Discipline language that states “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
People started taking a stand all over. Soon after Meredith’s wedding and before General Conference, 111 LGBT Methodist clergy and candidates for ordination signed an open letter calling upon the church to accept them. The letter acknowledged some leaders within the church would rather its LGBT members simply leave, but “Is leaving home ever that simple?” they asked. “We are here because God has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised,” the letter continued.
I had left the denomination, without personally withstanding direct attacks on my identity. Their staying and fighting took a spiritual courage that captivated me. I actually wept at my computer when I read about Meredith’s march into the UMC’s General Conference, surrounded by a cavalcade of LGBT advocates playing trumpets, drums, and cymbals, calling for him to be named the church’s first openly gay bishop. In a coordinated resistance, 1,500 clergy insisted they would refuse to fill the pulpit of a pastor if removed on the basis of “God’s given sexual orientation or gender identity.” Protests erupted with pastors bound hand and foot with rainbow stoles.
Ohio’s Meredith was not elected bishop, but in July a San Francisco reverend, Karen Oliveto, was elected the denomination’s first openly gay bishop by her district. Progress came first from on the West Coast, but resistance continues to build elsewhere. Meanwhile, the global church is still trying to avoid a schism over LGBT issues, putting off an immediate decision in favor of appointing a commission to make recommendations.
The plodding pace is infuriating, but Angie Cox, a candidate for UMC ordination from Columbus, recently told me that progressives might love for people’s minds to just change overnight, but she insists “that’s just not reasonable.”
Cox is a realist. She had to list her wife’s name on her application for ordination, meaning there’s now a paper trail, and Cox is open about her sexual orientation with her bishop. She is pursuing ordination as an out candidate, in an Ohio district.
Admitting her call to ministry despite knowing her denomination’s restrictions has been a spiritual test, she told me. “I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I can’t ignore it. I can’t not do this, so this is going to be a leap of faith.” She knows other clergy who went through the ordination process closeted, who were not in a relationship at the time and so were not considered “practicing.” She knows one other ordination candidate who is out, but his progress has been halted.
Her optimistic friends talk about “when it happens,” when she gets ordained. “No, be realistic,” Cox says. “It’s a pretty big ‘if.’ Denominational changes will need to happen before that could be the case.” Her future is wrapped up in that if, but she believes she’s following God’s course.
I ask Cox what it’s like to wait under these conditions.
She tells me, “My former pastor likes to tell me for such a time as this, she believes, I have been called.”
THE REV. LAURA YOUNG is an ordained United Methodist minister in West Ohio. She was also one of the hundred-plus LGBT signatories of the open letter to the UMC, and she took on a new post as lead pastor at a Columbus, Ohio, church in October. Young makes sense of her place in this moment in UMC history, saying, “I think an LGBT pastor can serve as an evangelism tool because the church has done so much harm in its discrimination against gays and lesbians that embodying the identity of a gay person speaks volumes to people who are not in church.”
Young has lived in Ohio most of her life, but because she came to the ministry after divorcing a man and has children, her ordination board made certain assumptions about her sexuality. She didn’t volunteer or self-avow her sexual orientation to her bishop or district superintendent when she was ordained in 2011. But if she were going through now—in a time since marriage equality was secured and LGBT acceptance is becoming the cultural norm—Young says there’s no way she’d go through ordination in the closet.
Young had the advantage, at ordination, of being assumed straight, and now being single makes Young’s position easier than someone like Cox whose married life deems her a “practicing” homosexual by the church. Still, Young’s never lied about who she is, and when she used to get asked about marriage equality, her pat response was “I hope to be gay married someday.”
I ask why Young stays in the church, in an Ohio district where one can be less certain of support.
“Years ago, I briefly considered moving to another conference where I could go through the ordination process out,” Young says, “but then I realized the blessing I had of being located in the heartland.” She calls Ohio a bellwether for political understanding. “I feel like if you can make it in West Ohio, you can set an example for other conferences for how this change can happen.”
The UMC is a global entity, one that very well could still break apart over this issue. Some conservative ministers have made statements suggesting a schism might be best for the church. But more than a few progressives have told me no matter how the church divvies up, LGBT kids will be born in all the churches, and deserve a place to feel safe and loved. They argue for sticking out the fight, pulling the whole church along.
Maybe it’s something about living back in Ohio again, maybe it’s the raised eyebrows and social weirdness I feel when I describe myself as an atheist to my church-going neighbors. But while post-election, I have new and considerable anxiety about neighbors with whom I disagree, I also see the resilient power of living among those who hold one in contempt. I am not under physical threat—and too many are—but here, feeling like an outsider but not in danger, I have learned the subtle courage of engaging those who would reject me. I also recognize what many of my Christian friends mentally overcome to remain open-minded to people who don’t line up with the portrait of acceptability their churches teach.
I see the magnitude of faith that Young and Cox exhibit as they serve, as they believe they have been called to do. I can’t fathom ever joining any church again, but our homes—geographic, spiritual—are in our bones. They make us. Our hearts are full of soft spots our roots stretch through.
I tell Young there’s something, and I have no other word for it, Christ-like in her example, in the sacrifices and patient battle so many LGBT clergy are in, not just with a global church, but with their congregations. To me “Christ-like” is a metaphor, language that harkens to something I no longer feel personally, but something I can appreciate and admire in her. We both get choked up.
Knowing people like Young and Cox and Meredith exist doesn’t make me believe in God. But it does rekindle faith in the church and in humans generally, that they can come together through the accident of geography and shared belief as brothers and sisters.
Much as I don’t want to hear my neighbors defend Trumpism, they remain, unless I pack up and move away, my neighbors.
And I’m theirs.
I don’t know that Trump’s election to president will or can draw us together. I fear so deeply how it could pull us apart. But this I know: there is precious work in trying.
Young and Cox ask their fellow Methodists to find ways to be accepting, but they don’t do it while turning and walking away. They remain in the tangle, in the hard-fought battle to change minds. They beat back prejudice, not by simply claiming high moral ground, but by demonstrating the power of love and acceptance. They care enough to see and hear those with whom they fundamentally disagree.
In them, I see people who will hold on and try to love one another for as long as they can. What unites them remains deeper than the fight that currently divides them.
Sarah Stankorb’s articles and essays have appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, TheAtlantic.com, Fusion, Salon, and CNNMoney, with regular contributions to GOOD Magazine. Her beat spans religion, the environment, feminism, health, motherhood, and cultural commentary. Follow her on Twitter @sarahstankorb.
A setting to debate the issues of the day.