Marilyn Bowens, a professor of law turned Christian minister, remembers how hard it was to celebrate the holidays with her large African-American family.
"My mom would host a big family gathering with my sister, nieces and nephews – everyone," said Bowens, now 56 and living in New Haven, Conn. "She always wanted me to come home with my children, but not invite my partner to come."
Bowens is a lesbian, coming out well into adulthood after a heterosexual marriage that produced two boys, now age 20 and 27.
Today, she ministers to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and challenges the church in her new book, "Ready to Answer: Why 'Homophobic Church' is an Oxymoron."
"It was very tough," she said. "We were actively involved in our church and other traditions like inviting a few people who didn't have families. It was a full house."
She says the social divide is "mute" now -- her mother died last year and her father, who finally reconciled her sexual orientation with his faith, died in 1995.
But as an evangelical Christian and a lesbian, the memory still stings and Bowens asks why Christianity and what she calls the "accusers" turn a back on those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
"You don't have to understand. You don't have to approve. You don't have to 'condone.' Just love your child, and be open to the possibility of growing to love someone else who loves your child," she said.
"And, next holiday season, give your son or daughter what Jesus will give him or her for Christmas (and every other day) -- unconditional love. Just be like Jesus. He is, after all, the one whose birth we celebrate."
Bowens said she "totally understands" her parents homophobia -- one that is endemic in many evangelical families, particularly among socially conservative African Americans.
"It was the indoctrination she got in the church," she said. "I am fighting against that. It's based on the misreading of a few verses that are plucked out of context to support homosexuality as a sin. It was my experience in my black church."
Bowens said she struggled spiritually and emotionally with her sexual orientation until she came out in her early 30s.
Before that, "I was living the life that was scripted," marrying and having two children. "I went to college and married the first man who asked me … I didn't get into it from a place of self-awareness and authenticity."
Her father, who was a pastor and presiding bishop of the United Holy Church of America in Washington, D.C., held out an olive branch just before his death, which heartened Bowens.
"It was an experience I will never forget," she said. "He was sick and bedridden and I went to visit him. He was sitting and watching TV and when the commercial came on, he glanced over and was starring right at me."
Her father didn't speak at first then "out of the blue," he said to Bowens: "You belong to the Lord, Marilyn. Whatever you are doing and whoever you are doing it with -- male or female."
She said she felt his acceptance. And eventually her mother's, though unspoken. She traveled to North Carolina for Bowen's ordination as a pastor then to New Haven when she was installed as pastor of the
Metropolitan Community Church.
"I knew she loved me," said Bowens.
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