MOM, I’M GAY: Loving Your LBGTQ Child and Strengthening Your Faith. Revised Edition. By Susan Cottrell. Foreword by Justin Lee. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xvii + 178 pages.
It's been a few years since my brother came out as a gay man. That decision some fifteen years in the past opened my eyes to realities I had previously ignored. What was once an academic discussion, became personal. As a family, we embraced my brother. What I have learned over the years is that such revelations not only affect the person coming out, but the family as well. Not every family is equally equipped to deal with this reality. That's one reason why LGBTQ children often find it difficult to come out to family, especially parents. You don't want to risk being rejected by those closest to you. So how do we change the equation?
As we moved toward Open and Affirming status at the congregation I serve as pastor, we invited David Gushee, a leading Christian ethicist with strong evangelical roots, to come to the church and speak to us and others in the community about his own journey to affirmation of LGBTQ persons, and how we might do the same as a congregation. Among those who came to the sessions was a group of moms from a local megachurch. They found themselves in a difficult place. They were moms of gay and lesbian children, but their church was less than welcoming. This put them in a difficult position, for they loved their children and wanted their children to love Jesus as they knew Jesus loved them. Unfortunately, the church seemed to be an impediment. On the Saturday of that two-day experience, I discerned a calling—that was to establish a ministry at our church, a sort of Christian PFLAG that would allow for a conversation about faith and sexuality, a safe place for conversation and for support. David confirmed that wherever he spoke, he had conversations with moms and dads who felt alone and unsupported by their faith communities. Since that time, I’ve been in conversation and have been looking at and for resources that would help launch such a thing.
Ironically a resource has been sitting on my stack of review books for several months. There have been several great books dealing with faith and sexual orientation that have emerged over the past several years. I've read many of them, including Justin Lee's Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate and David Gushee's Changing Our Mind: A call from America's leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church. Feeling the need to look at other books and other issues, I let this one sit. When I finally picked up I realized that an answer to my fervent prayers had been with me for some time.
The author of Mom, I’m Gay, Susan Cottrell, is the mother of two lesbian daughters. She is also the founder of FreedHearts, a ministry for LGBTQ individuals and their families. She's active with PFLAG. She comes out of an evangelical background, having been actively involved in local church life. She understands the disconnect between the stances of her faith community and the reality of her family. As Justin Lee notes in his foreword to the book, this isn't a book about the politics of sexual orientation or debates about the Bible (there are two brief chapters covering the so-called clobber passages). Rather, as Justin notes, "this is a book about how you can respond as a parent or loved one-- knowing what you can change and what you can't and recognizing the ways your own response has the power to mend a damaged relationship or push your child away forever" (p. xii).
Mom, I'm Gay is written by a mom to other parents, offering them words of support and guidance. She understands that the Christian community can be a stumbling block for parents and children. With this understanding of how the church too often operates, she writes to families to strengthen family bonds and spiritual ones as well. She writes not from a theoretical point of view, but a very personal one. She draws upon her own life experiences and her conversations with parents and children.
The book is comprised of thirty-six brief chapters, none more than four pages in length. The chapters are arranged into four sections. Part one focuses on "Coping with the Shock." The chapters in this section take note of the reality that for most parents, having an LGBTQ child wasn't what they expected. So, let's be honest with our feelings, but not stopping there. In Part two she deals with "Understanding Your Child's Experience." There are two helpful chapters in this section dealing with "what not to say." These are important chapters because our words can destroy relationships, even if we don't mean to do so. Part Three invites us to "Respond in Love." Chapters here include "Embrace Your Child," "Don't Shame Your Child," and "Let Go of Your Plans." The theme of these chapters, and the others in the section is one of unconditional love. Such is the love we would expect of a parent, though we know such is not always the case. My brother was fortunate, as was Cheryl's cousin, but my cousin, whose family is Jehovah's Witness wasn't so fortunate. Jeff has been excluded from his family. Fortunately, he and my brother have forged a strong family bond. Unfortunately, faith has been lost in the process.
In Part Four, Susan Cottrell deals with matters of faith. The section is titled "Working It Out with God." It is in this section that she deals with how we approach matters of faith. One chapter is titled: "You Don't Have to Protect God." She reminds us that God can handle things, so instead of trying to protect God from the challenge of the LGBTQ person, we can turn to God for comfort and strength. As she notes in another chapter, God can handle things.
Finally, in Part Five, she speaks of "Finding a Community of Support." In these chapters, she speaks clearly of the importance of finding communities that will support and sustain. She's been part of the faith community long enough to know that the church is often not that safe place. You may have to find a new faith community. You may also have to turn to organization like PFLAG, which is secular in nature, but can be very helpful in sustaining one's relationships with one's children and family members. Fortunately, there are growing numbers of Open and Affirming Congregations. Unfortunately, these often go undiscovered because LGBTQ persons and their families have been so hurt by their faith communities that they are unable to seek out such communities.
My hope and prayer is that this book, which is in a second edition, can serve as a catalyst for important conversations within families and churches. The book is set up in such a way that it can be used by a support group to wrestle with questions and concerns. What is valuable here is that the process needn't be undertaken in anger. I especially think that this book and perhaps ministries that will grow from it (and I'm just now discovering how the FreedHearts organization could be of help to fulfillment of the vision laid on my heart for ministry to families of LGBTQ persons.
Whether or not you are a parent of an LGBTQ child, I believe this book will be enlightening, and faith affirming. It might help answer questions that have had the effect of erecting walls. If so, perhaps bridges can be built and the healing can begin.