Paul Mowry

Teaching Elder, Ordained 2012.

 

When I was 18, I told my mom I was gay.  She immediately responded that she loved me completely and always would.  She then added, “Only two things pain me.  I think you would be a wonderful father and I hate to think of you not having that experience.  And do you know the Presbyterians don’t ordain gay people? ”  This has often been the starting point for my call story, but the real beginning came long before this.

One of my earliest memories is sitting at a window, crying inconsolably.  I was probably about two or three years old.  It was a Sunday morning and my family had gone off to church without me.  I had been sick and they let me sleep in, tended to by a beloved congregant from the church, where my father was the pastor.  I loved being in church.  Partly, I’m sure, because I was the chubby, sweet-natured youngest child of the young pastor.  But also because there was something there for me that I felt, in church, always – more than being at home, more than being a second-generation PK.

Even to this day, it is hard to put words to it.  Home.  Peace.  Sanctuary.  Communion.  Belonging.  I discovered it didn’t have to do with the structure of a particular church, because the feeling followed me even when I went through periods of not going to church.  When my parents split up, I started missing some Sundays.  But when not in church I spent those mornings watching INSIGHT, a morals drama produced by the Paulists.  Or DAVEY AND GOLIATH, the claymation story of a boy and his dog and his developing Christian discipleship.  Or Kathryn Kuhlman, with her mouth seeming to overflow with teeth as she proclaimed joyfully, “I Believe in Miracles!”

So there I was, at 18, mustering all my courage to say I was gay and learning that that was enough to keep me from being ordained.  When someone comes out, when they stake out their identity in sharp relief from the dominant norm, it is, in a sense, like a baptism.  You experience a death and resurrection – the hiding, fearful, lonely person dies so that the more fully actualized, more fully human, more fully oneself person — that innate infant goodness implied by being created in the divine image — is resurrected.  The empty closet (and believe me, the closet can be a tomb) stands as a witness to a life reborn.  And yet, in this great moment of coming into wholeness I was, as so many of us were (and still are) condemned to a life of clipped wings and exclusion.  An existence where my greatest hopes would go unfulfilled, my calling, unanswered.  I was out of the coffin but not out of the box.

So I continued in film school and from there worked in the film business, followed by some years in corporate banking, and finally delving into conflict resolution work as a mediator and a trainer.  All along the way I found myself a bit like an itinerant pastor.  I didn’t go around bringing up God, but clearly God sent many (many) people in my direction to hear a bit of the Good News they weren’t going to church to hear.  In late night talks in my college dorm, or in smoky gay bars, or at production wrap parties, or in stolen moments of humanity on Wall Street, I found people longing to hear about how they fit into this marvelous mystery of Creation and consider, for a moment, that what I said about God loving them might be true.  It proved for me what Calvin wrote about every human possessing an “instinctive awareness of God. ”  Or as Augustine put it, “You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Conflict resolution was the closest I had come to being able to bring the reconciling power of Christ’s love into my work.  But I felt restless.  I knew there was something more I wanted to talk about – needed to talk about.  To witness.  And while still convinced it was impossible to serve the church, I decided to follow in the steps of my father, grandfather, great-great grandfather, my sister, and my cousin, and to enter seminary.  They, of course, had all gone on to be ordained and serve in the pastoral ministry.  “What are you going to do?” was the most common question I was asked when I entered Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.  “I don’t know,” I would reply.  “But I don’t believe God’s brought me this far to leave me.”

I considered other, more friendly denominations.  If the Presbyterians didn’t want me, I felt, I can not want them, too.  And yet, I kept finding that among my new Union friends, the ones who seemed particularly in touch with God were all Presbyterians.  And I was constantly surprised by how deeply…well, Presbyterian I was.  But my a-ha moment really came when my good friend John Martin told me that he was at an orientation for those seeking ordination and that it was highly recommended to have an “ordination buddy” to journey with through the long process.  He wanted me to be his buddy and to that end, he had heard stories of openly gay and lesbian candidates being ordained in NYC.  That next week, Presbyterian Welcome was sponsoring a panel discussion on the very topic with the Reverends Mieke Vandersall, Ray Bagnuolo, and Cheryl Pyrch.  I could feel the excitement rising within me throughout the evening.  The possibility of it all.  Hope.

It is amazing how a small morsel of hope will keep us going for years.  Just as that tiny taste of crust during communion can fill an empty heart to overflowing or sate the starving soul, just knowing that not even a handful of people had been able to answer their call gave me hope that one day I might be able to answer mine.  I suppose I was lucky, in retrospect, that my wandering was closer to thirty years than to forty.

Now here I sit.  In the manse of the church brave enough to not only call an openly gay person in a relationship, but a candidate for ordination when so many churches these days restrict their searches to experienced clergy.  Sausalito Presbyterian Church is a church who believes God’s grace is bigger than our still-limited understanding of sexual orientation.  And my mother, Marge Work Lunan, an ordained elder of the church and PFLAG warrior mom, who labored for years to bring to the church the hospitality God commands of us, and who, upon finally leaving, exhausted, called herself a Presbyterian-in-exile, can return.  For now the Presbyterians do ordain gay people.

As to my mom’s other concern about not experiencing the joys of parenthood, five years ago my partner and I adopted the most amazing, beautiful, brilliant and funny daughter ever, Eliora (Hebrew for “God is my light”).

All in all, my mom was right.  It was a painful shame to think of going through my life without having these two profound experiences.  And my heart overflows with gratitude to the many, many people, LGBTQ and allies, support and advocacy organizations, congregations and presbyteries, pastors and lay people, well known and anonymous, who through the many, many years of our thorough and often painful discernment as the Body of Christ, kept moving the various parts of the church forward as guided by the Spirit.  Some have left the church.  Some have shuffled off this mortal coil.  If only I could gather them all in one moment to say, “Thank you!”

Certainly it proves what my mom has said all along: “Listen to your mother!”

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