I’ve been home only five hours from the second annual Generous Spaciousness Retreat hosted by New Direction Ministries of Canada, and I’ve been experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the moment I left. Nestled among rolling hills and historical buildings, the picturesque community of Crieff in southwestern Ontario was the ideal setting for spiritual renewal. This retreat was for LGBTQ individuals, family members and allies—like me. It was a safe and generous space to gather for a weekend and share stories, learn from one another, worship the Lord freely, and be—just simply be. This is something us straight folk take for granted every single day. Church is a place where we especially want to—and should—feel safe and welcomed by our community. But imagine not feeling either of those things. Instead imagine feeling isolated, rejected, and persecuted just for being you—for your inherent qualities, your biological make-up, your very personhood—the way you were created. I’m certainly not insinuating that all churches have this effect on their LGBTQ members—some churches are in fact taking great strides to become safer places—but the negative ramifications seemed to be a common theme this weekend.
The retreat was an escape from daily life for the LGBTQ individuals in attendance. For a weekend, they could breathe easy, not wondering whether or not they were sticking out like a sore thumb, their membership would be revoked, or they truly belonged. For many, this was the very first opportunity to be completely authentic. Through my lens, I observed freedom and I observed the Holy Spirit working in the lives of many, including my own. For the first time in my life, I was in the sexual minority and there was something incredibly humbling about that. I was honoured by those that entrusted me with their personal heart stories. I received and experienced people for who they truly are: real people. I looked deep into the eyes of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals and I didn’t see any labels. I didn’t see them for what some would call their “sins”. In fact, I didn’t see them any different from myself, although that didn’t surprise me. What I did see was everything I could relate to: pain, torment, despair, and longing. My heart broke with every mention of rejection: from family, friends, colleagues, church, and Christian university. I could not imagine such a betrayal. My heart shattered with every mention of suicide. Many had considered and many had attempted—way too many. But I also saw love, courage, perseverance, and faithfulness. I saw loyalty, patience, and grace granted for those betrayers. And there is something to be said about the faithfulness to God in those that are persecuted because despite all their suffering; they still passionately desire their Maker.
However, the most gut-wrenching thing that I saw was my brother, Andrew. Through others present, I saw his struggle, his agony, and his yearning to feel accepted; his desire to persevere, and his courage to do so for as long as he did. I wished with every ounce of my being that he could have physically been at the retreat with me. Spiritually, I journeyed alongside him, bearing his load. I especially felt this way when we sang The Servant Song. These lyrics barely escaping my quivering lips:
“Brother, let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant too.
I will weep when you are weeping.
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through.”
The retreat was divided into different segments. There was an introduction to Generous Spaciousness as well as various approaches to discerning and interpreting Scripture surrounding faith and sexuality. Worship, community groups, various workshops, and a discussion panel were also offered. I attended the workshop Releasing Grief. As diverse as the group of attendees was, we quickly became united by our common ground: pain due to loss. As the ‘speaking stone’ circulated, the heartache rose to the surface. Grief was present in many forms. There was that which comes from the death of a loved one—like my own personal grief. But there were also other things which needed to be mourned, like the loss of a ‘dream’ life, past identity, job, education, community, and worse, family. The list went on, but the testimony that cut me deepest was that of a son and brother, consciously denied and rejected by his family due to his sexual orientation. That I cannot comprehend. What I wouldn’t give to be loving my brother for all that he is instead of all that he was.
I’m sure that more of my own healing took place than what I am presently aware of. I felt my already dehisced wound tear open even more with each sharing of my story. A tornado of confusion constantly whirled my mind, heart, and stomach as I spoke about Andrew in the past tense. But I think that every time I spoke the words out loud, my brain processed reality a little more. I was certainly incredibly nervous to speak up but I knew I was surrounded by people that had to don their brave faces every single day. That, along with my desire to honour Andrew was the catalyst for my unexpected courage. And then I experienced something I really wasn’t anticipating: the sincere tears of gratitude for my presence in that place. I did not expect my desire to learn, grow, and heal to be so appreciated by my new friends that it would move them to tears. I went selfishly to receive gifts, and in the process, I became one. That raw human desire to be loved and accepted for who we are is alive in every single one of us; however those that have to fight for it are so much more appreciative.
I attended the retreat with no expectations but with hope that I would learn how to better advocate and grow in compassion. I also hoped that if it was really great, maybe it would even mend a few shards of my broken heart. Well, by the time Friday night came to a close, some of those hopes had already been met. By Sunday afternoon, I had been blown out of the water. I was—and still am—emotionally, mentally, and spiritually fulfilled and drained all at the same time. Everything I had hoped for was far exceeded by my life-changing experience. I’m still reeling from the intense highs and lows and attempting to process all that took place in just a few days.
The retreat was certainly all-encompassing of its title. Generous spaciousness was offered in abundance, but where do we go from here? The weekend has come to an end, and I can only imagine how difficult the transition back to reality has been for everyone. My desire is that this newly acquired unity among diversity, fellowship among isolation, hope among despair, and Light among the darkness will continue to resonate long into the weeks and months that lie ahead. What happens, though, when the flame begins to flicker again? How can we seek to offer this generous spaciousness in our own lives and communities? We can start simply with love, grace, and humility; we can acknowledge our diversity as a gift; and we can journey alongside our brothers and sisters in the same manner that Jesus did.
12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Colossians 3:12-14