Why I Love Central Pres. and the Presbyterian Welcome LGBTQ Future Pastors Retreat

I am helping to run the online Indiegogo campaign for Presbyterian Welcome‘s LGBTQ Future Pastors Retreat. This morning, I gave a Minute for Mission at my church (Central Presbyterian, Austin, TX). It was the first time I have ever said aloud to a room full of people “I am an openly bisexual woman and a candidate for ordination in the PCUSA.” It was both terrifying and awesome – talk about fear and trembling. My congregation graciously received me and my truth with applause and cheers.

I did it because I wanted to share with my congregation this retreat that is so important to me. And I’m posting it here because I also want to share it with you. If you’re willing to donate, you can do so here. We’ve got 6 days left to reach our $15,000 goal.

Here are my words from this morning:

Good Morning.

If you don’t know me, my name is Layton Williams. I’m a member of Central and I’m a senior at Austin Seminary.

I’m also an openly bisexual woman and a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA. That can a terrifying truth to name, even in a church like this. 

I came out a couple of weeks into seminary and it has not been an easy road—it is, at times, lonely and difficult and scary—but I have been so lucky to have spent these past few years surrounded and lifted up by supportive communities. Central is one such community. And there is another community that has been absolutely essential to my journey that I want to tell you about this morning. 

Every July, dozens of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, and Queer future Presbyterian pastors come together to spend four days in community. Over the weekend, we worship together, we learn about leadership and advocacy and ministry, we laugh, we cry. We are a nerdy, Jesus-loving bunch and it is a life-giving, sacred time. In that place, there is such deep, holy, unbridled passion for the church. I wish you could see it. I hope you can see it in my face. 

This gathering is called the LGBTQ Future Pastors Retreat and it is put on annually by Presbyterian Welcome. Pres Welcome is a New York based organization, and its Minister for Advocacy and Education is the Rev. John Russell Stanger, who was nurtured by this congregation and just a few months ago in this sanctuary became the first openly gay man ordained in Mission Presbytery. Annanda Barclay, Central member and former intern, serves on the retreat planning committee. And I am helping run our current online fundraising campaign to help cover the cost of the 50 plus participants we expect at this year’s retreat. We’ve raised $9,400 so far and have 6 days left in our campaign. 

This church has deep ties to Presbyterian Welcome. There are others, besides John Russell, Annanda, and me who are cared for by this congregation and nurtured by the retreat. In fact, if you didn’t know it, you boast the single largest population of retreat participants of any church in the country. And this congregation has been a consistent financial and spiritual supporter of Presbyterian Welcome’s work. I encourage you to visit presbyterianwelcome.org to learn more about our work and the retreat. You can also find there the link to our fundraising page to see how it’s going and/or make a personal contribution.

Every year at the retreat, we each get a list of all the churches who have supported us. Our eyes hungrily take it in, each congregation name a shining light of hope that we are not alone. I am so proud to find my own church home’s name on that list year after year. Your embodiment of Christ’s radical love touches each and every one of us, and all the churches that we will one day serve. Thank you for supporting us, for loving us, and above all, for recognizing and celebrating that we are called. 

In Love and Gratitude for my Queerness

I’m a total sucker for love, even though I’m sort of awful at it. I love the capacity within us to utterly fall for another human being, to risk being seen in all our terrifying vulnerability, to bravely attempt to cradle the vulnerability of another—I love it. And I especially love the infinite number of shapes and forms and embodiments that love can take.

I get to swoon over both of these people. Tell me I'm not lucky.

I get to swoon over both of these people. Tell me I’m not lucky. (And no, this picture is not super relevant, but I just couldn’t help myself)

Which is why I found myself grinning like an idiot this morning as I had a text conversation with a friend about the wonder and beauty of owning the full range of our queerness. The conversation developed in response to this article, which implores gay men to explore beyond heteronormative and cisnormative understandings of male attraction. The author writes about falling in love with a trans man, and coming to understand that his sexuality was separate from acts of sex and that the former was not determined or limited by the latter.

I am so very on board with this idea, not just for gay men, but for all people and certainly for myself. It is why I proudly and gratefully identify as queer. For me, my sexuality isn’t rigid or binary or static. But it is beautiful. And always an adventure. And always a gift. It is queer.

I was a late bloomer in a lot of ways. I was in my twenties when I got into my first relationship. I got my curves at 22. I didn’t come out until I was 25. I’m still learning how to flirt. But embodying and understanding queerness is the one way that I think I have been ahead of the curve. Queerness has always made sense to me. The hard part was coming to terms with a world where queerness didn’t make sense to everyone else.

I often identify as bisexual. This makes sense because I am attracted to both women and men. It also makes sense because bisexuals are often erased within queer communities and naming and claiming is an important part of visibility. But it is not quite the whole story. I have been attracted to transmen. I have been attracted to those who are genderqueer. I am decidedly not straight, nor am I exclusively gay. I am queer. My sexuality, my whole way of relating to the world, naturally transcends and disrupts boundaries others consider normative. This is not always an easy way to be, but it is an amazing way to be.

My queerness doesn’t mean I don’t see gender or sexuality or that I’m indifferent to them. On the contrary, I love gender—the whole spectrum of it. When I find myself most attracted to people, a big part of that attraction is the degree to which they own and embody their own gender identity and sexuality—whatever that may be. I love maleness and femaleness and genderqueerness each in a vast array of iterations. I love sex as an expression of love and the capacity to seek pleasure and intimacy from one another in a diversity of ways. I am grateful that I was born into a self that couldn’t sit still with one-dimensional articulations of sex, sexuality, gender, or love.

“Queer” is a hard word for a lot of people. As I have learned how to be an LGBTQ activist, I have also learned to be careful about when and how I use the Q-word when I’m speaking with political or public voice. I try never to identity someone else as queer without their permission. I honor the gravity of the word and the weight it carries from past oppression and hate.

But today I am celebrating my own queerness, and my gratitude for the freedom to personally identify as “queer.” I love that this word allows me to claim my place within a larger community, while speaking my own intricate truth. I love that it allows for the reality that sometimes I feel much more attracted to men than women, and other days I feel much more attracted to women than men, and that I can be surprised daily by my own capacities for love and attraction. I appreciate that it compels me to remember our history and the violence and hate endured by LGBTQ people who have come before me and the hate that happens even still. I have hope that on that inevitable day when some angry person throws the word “queer” at me like a knife, it won’t conjure for me a sense of disgrace and fear and powerlessness. Instead it will remind me of the best within me—the God-given ability to love boundlessly.

QueerBlog

The beautiful world I belong to.

The Courage Project: A Christmas Wish and New Year’s Resolution

“The bravest thing you an do when you are not brave is to profess courage and act accordingly” – Corra Harris

courageproject

A few weeks ago, while I wasn’t sleeping in the middle of the night, I came up with a Christmas list. With big changes looming in my not so distant future, the things I found myself most deeply wanting were intangibles and I summed them up in three words: peace, proximity, and possibility.

I was wishing for peace in heart and mind and family and in our conflict-ridden denomination. I was wishing for proximity to people I love and communities of support wherever I go next. And I was wishing for possibility in both my personal and professional life. In a broader sense, I was thinking about how much I want real peace, greater proximity, and new possibility with all these people I love and these communities that I’ma part of and which are a part of me—not just between me and them, but between each other.

I was thinking about this idea Sunday before last as I sat in worship at the church that had raised me. I watched the faces of people who I’d known for years and the communal life of this congregation whom I had left behind when I came out out of fear that they would reject me. I thought about the amazing family of LGBTQ people and allies I’ve come to known since coming out. I thought of my seminary community and new church community. I thought of how I love them all and how impossible it seems that they could not all love or care for one another when I love them each so much.

As I was thinking about how my love binds these communities together (even if they don’t know or like it), it occurred to me how much more true that is of God’s love and something suddenly became so apparent to me that I was embarrassed not to have realized it before. These things—peace, proximity, and possibility—were not things God needed me to pray for.  The Spirit was already at work in these efforts in whatever capacity the Spirit desired to be at work for them.

What I was looking for, really, was a sense of participation in this holy work. For that, I needed something I was afraid to ask for because I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t already have it: courage. I talk a lot about courage. It is the virtue that has always appealed to me more than any other. I’ve often thought I had a lot of courage because I do crazy things like move 1000 miles away from home by myself or travel all over the world or ask strangers for jobs or speak truth to a room full of potentially hostile strangers. But the truth is—these things don’t really scare me the way they might scare others. I think this might have given me (and others) the impression that I am brave. I even said as much on Facebook a few weeks ago.

But here’s my confession: I am not really brave. I am not brave at all. What I am, I have realized, is strong. I have dealt with my fair share of adversity and I have survived over and over—enough to know that I am very strong. But the sort of strength I know myself to have is all about holding on. Courage, I think, is about how much you’re willing to let go. How much you’re willing to risk for what you want or believe in. The truth is I am not very good at facing my fears. I go to shameful lengths to avoid it. I let it keep me silent, and invisible, and diminished at times when it is really important not to be.

When it comes to the fact that I will probably never skydive—I’m not too troubled by my cowardice. But much more often than that, my lack of courage means that I hide myself from those I love. I stay quiet when everything inside of me knows I should speak. I permit injustices that I might not have the power to prevent, but that I could at least name and call attention to if I were not silenced by my own fear. Too often, my anxieties and fears own me. I want to stop giving them that power.

I am not interested, really, in head-long, daredevil dives. I am, however, interested in real, deep love of myself and others and of really seeking justice. I am desperate for the kind of courage that allows you to let someone in, to be vulnerable, to name what you believe even when it’s hard, to say the thing that’s on your heart, to let go of needing others’ approval, to screw up sometimes in the name of trying to be better, to forgive, to give up control so you can become a part of the Greater Work and let the wonders of life unfold around you.

And I have not yet found myself brave enough for any of these things. So this Christmas, I have one wish. I want it more than that purse at Target, or a cushy job post-graduation, or even the acceptance of my family: I wish for courage. I wish for the courage to love and be loved, to see and be seen, to grow, and to act in the name of what is right. I wish for the courage to trust and have faith and participate in the work that I know that God is doing in this world for good. I wish for Christ-like courage.

So I have decided on a project for this coming year in hopes that it will help me discover the capacity for courage within me. I am going in search of my braver self. I am going to try to live—for the next year (2014)—by the mantra “do one thing everyday that scares you.” Not just silly things, either, but things that I hope will lead to love and justice. I’m going to see what happens. I’m hoping that I discover that I’m brave after all or at least that I can learn how to be. I hope that it leads to more good than bad, but that I’m willing to risk it either way. I hope that I find the courage to be really seen, and that I find out there are people who love what they see and that I’m okay with the ones who don’t because I’ll love what I see. I hope I become more loving and more just. I hope that I become more faithful.

But more than anything, when it comes to love and justice, I just want to be brave.

I don’t know how or even if I can do this. Even trying when I could so easily fail terrifies me… which makes me think that—when it comes to finding courage—this is the perfect place to start.

Want to support me? Help me think of ways I can practice courage daily. And share moments when you’ve been brave, or things you want to be brave enough for. Share in the comments below. I think it’ll encourage me on the hard days.