Kari Aanestad, a seminarian at Luther Seminary in St Paul, has compiled ten LGBT faith stories into a booklet that may be downloaded from the website of the Joint Synod Inclusivity Committee of the two ELCA metro synods in Minnesota.
Michelle Morse’s gray angora sweater seems to match her soft, yet articulate voice. Now 27 years old, she has spent most of her life internalizing the views of a society that continually suggests and sometimes even proclaims that there is something wrong with her. Even more painful, she now feels unsafe in the Lutheran Church.
“I used to feel centered, peaceful, and trusting,” Michelle said. “Now I feel as if that has been
taken from me.”
Michelle grew up attending a Lutheran church in Shoreview, a St. Paul suburb. Her family was and still is intimately connected to this church; her father was confirmed there and her mother has worked there for the past 10 years as a financial secretary. Michelle was also baptized and confirmed there. In high school she taught Sunday-school music and confirmation. She even received a leadership award from the congregation.
At Augsburg College, Michelle received both a performing arts scholarship for orchestra and a Lutheran leadership scholarship. While there, she majored in religion and was active in Fellowship of Christian Athletes and campus ministry. Her first year out of college, she became a youth director at a North Minneapolis Lutheran church and stayed there for two years. On her last Sunday as youth director, Michelle met her partner Lauren in an unexpected way — through the sermon at the early service.
Michelle said, “It felt very divinely orchestrated.”
Michelle helped out with the hip-hop service, so she normally didn’t attend the early service. This Sunday, however, she was asked at the last minute to lead a Bible study before the traditional service. Michelle led the Bible study and rushed into the traditional service, sitting down right as the pastor began delivering his sermon. The pastor started talking about a woman who felt called to go to seminary but was questioning the call, especially because she is gay.
“I kept thinking the pastor was talking about me, because I was considering seminary at the time,” Michelle said. “Then he said the woman was about to move to New York, and I was shocked. I realized that he wasn’t talking about me, but that he was talking about Lauren. I’d seen her in church, but had no idea she was gay.”
Michelle wasn’t only shocked because of Lauren’s sexual orientation; a part of her shock was her internal knowledge that her life was about to change.
“I always envisioned meeting my partner through the church and I remember thinking while listening to that sermon, ‘Is this that moment? ’ I had an immediate recognition of something I had always been hoping for. I ended up e-mailing Lauren to tell her I was struggling with some of the same things she was. We began e-mailing back and forth, and our relationship grew that way for eight months.”
Three years later, the two have set a potential wedding date. Even though they are both excited to share their lives, they talk about it differently with other people.
“If Lauren were here she’d say without hesitation, ‘We are about to be engaged; we are getting married May 15. It’s Michelle’s responsibility to propose, and she knows it.’ I just can’t do that. I’m so afraid of what people will think. I know they’re going to be thinking, ‘Oh, they’re being ridiculous. They’re getting “fake” married.’ They can’t take us seriously — and there’s even a part
of me that can’t take us seriously because we’re so challenged in the world. I’m so tired of fighting for something I shouldn’t have to fight for. I’m so tired of having to constantly explain and defend myself.”
Ironically, Michelle has worked part time as a wedding videographer for the past four years.
“Coincidentally, all of the people whom I employ for this work are gay. None of us can actually get married.”
Michelle and Lauren have more than legal obstacles and the judgment of others complicating their relationship. Lauren is a recent graduate of Luther Seminary. She received a Master of Arts degree, but her candidacy for ministry was postponed. She informed her candidacy committee that she
was in a same-gender relationship, which prohibits her from being consecrated as a diaconal minister in the ELCA.
“Lauren has run into some problems with her candidacy. She’s not denied but she’s not approved.”
While Lauren has found a way to be herself in spite of others’ opinions about her, Michelle has not been able to brush off her critics as easily. This difference has become a sore spot in their relationship.
“Lauren’s very bold. When I go into a situation I think of every possible outcome. Lauren, on the other hand, will go into a situation and introduce me as her girlfriend at least three separate
times until people get it. I just can’t do that.”
I got disillusioned by fighting the fight. Lauren has a few seminary friends who have not been able to get past her sexuality. Lauren shrugs and is friends with them anyway,” Michelle said. “It’s hard because I want to be a part of her life, but it’s difficult for me to be around those friends. I don’t like being around people who think there’s something wrong with me.”
Michelle and Lauren pose an interesting balance for each other. Lauren didn’t grow up in the church but was always fascinated by it. She wasn’t confirmed until college and didn’t come out until after college. She did two years of volunteer work and then attended Luther Seminary. Michelle, on the other hand, was baptized in the church, confirmed in the church, and completely brought up in the church. She grew up internalizing the church’s negative responses to varying expressions of human sexuality. In college, Michelle was very outspoken and tireless in her efforts to help educate church leaders and members. She was a part of a Lutherans Concerned committee, sat on panels, talked, and told stories to help educate people about the complexities of sexual identity. After years of working for change and not seeing enough happen, Michelle’s energy is drained.
“I got disillusioned by fighting the fight. Lauren has a drive that I’ve lost. She wishes I was sitting next to her on Sunday mornings, but I can’t fight for a change within a church in which I don’t feel safe and valued. It’s really hard because I don’t connect with the gay community either . . . I think my sexuality is so much bigger than ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’ I know a lot of people say that’s just a phase, but it’s been seven years and I still don’t sit well with the labels. I’ve been given a label, and the church has questioned me. So I started questioning the church, and once I started questioning one thing about the church, I began to question many things in the church.”
All the questioning has led Michelle to a loss of faith and trust in the Lutheran church. Losing trust in something that was so intimately a part of her identity for her entire life has left her feeling unbalanced.
“Spiritual trust is a very intimate thing; without it, we feel uncentered. I fear critics would say I’m
feeling uncentered because of my relationship with Lauren; if I just give up my relationship
I’ll go back to being centered. I can’t do that. It doesn’t make any sense; it just doesn’t seem
like living fully. If God is a God of relationships, why would giving up my relationship be the answer?
Living in a world that tells me there’s something wrong with me has driven me to impress others. I work so hard to make sure people like me and are impressed, so that when they do find out that I’m in a same-gender relationship, they will still like me. It wears me out. I constantly censor my language surrounding my relationship with Lauren. I intentionally avoid conversations that might lead to questions about my personal life and I conveniently leave her out when I am retelling a story about something we did together. ‘We did’ suddenly becomes ‘I did’, etc. It’s exhausting. I sometimes wonder if I’m this capable when I am putting so much energy into watching what I say, what could I do if I could be myself? ’That’s tragic. I want to live my life according to the best model of possible goodness, and I’m trying to do that. It stresses me out that this is the only life I have to live, and it might be like this for the rest of my life.”
In hopes of reclaiming her faith, Michelle recently bought a notebook and titled it her “creed book.” She writes down everything she believes in an attempt to find her spiritual center again. So far she has not been able to reclaim her spiritual trust in the church or find spiritual nourishment. Michelle hopes one day she can return to the church or at least rebuild the spiritual trust of which she feels she has been robbed.
“It’s just very difficult for me now to attend, support, and feel comfortable in a place that questions what my role in it is. Yeah, the Church is making progress, but it is still not sure what my role is, or if my relationship should be recognized or my partner should be a leader.”
Editor’s note: Before their story went to press, Lauren and Michelle emailed some news that they
are happy to share. They have gotten engaged, and are planning a spring 2010 wedding.