Life as a queer chaplain

Life as a queer chaplain May 31, 2012

I am grateful to be able to share the stories of others by inviting you  to the conversation as they share glimpses from their journey.  This first guest post is by my friend Laura who was sitting with me by the fire the night I decided to drive to Maiden.

by Laura Arnold

I was in the trauma bay with Jay following his motorcycle accident.  I had been at his bedside only a fraction of a second when he reached out his hand and announced we were going to pray.  I held his hand as he poured out deep and utter gratitude to God for having spared his life.  After “amens” were said, I asked him if there was someone he would like me to call and notify that he was here.  He looked at me hard in the face, “Are you married?”

See, I currently serve as a chaplain at a trauma hospital in Atlanta, GA. I often tell people it’s the oddest job I can imagine, since on any given day my work will range from talking about the weather, to holding someone’s hand while they get an IV, to baptizing a dying child, to doing breathing exercises for pain management, to prayer and meditation, to scripture reading, to fetching ice, to celebrating the birth of a healthy baby, to hearing stories of the dying.

Most of the time, being queer just doesn’t factor into the chaplaincy equation.  That is, most of the time, short of the trust building chit-chat of “Where did you grow up because your accent isn’t southern?” or “Where did you go to seminary?” or “What religion are you?” most of the patients I interact with, don’t need to know anything more about me nor do they ask much about me.  They love that I’m an anonymous person, one who is fully focused on them.  As a chaplain, I live as an anomaly in social interaction.  I don’t want to talk about myself or my own experience or what I discern from what they are saying, and that’s exactly what most of my patients and families tell me they need.

But sometimes being queer and a chaplain gets messy.  I have patients and families that openly gay bash and I have had to weigh the importance of staying in relationship with them as their chaplain with walking out of the room.  I’ve been told I’m unwelcome by patients who look at my short hair and lack of makeup and tell me that I “look like one of those lesbian abominations.”  Long-term pastoral relationships have been promptly ended when I honestly answer the question of whether I’m married and opt not to play the pronoun game.

So when Jay asked me if I was married I paused. I had been expecting him to give me a name and phone number to call his family, so his question threw me off and left me wondering why in the world is he asking me this?  I don’t want to answer this question, I thought, he’s pretty evangelical and pretty conservative theologically and he is going to kick me out of the room if he knows the truth.  But in the moment of my hesitation it dawned on me that this was probably a question of trust, could he trust me to call his wife and tell her gently?  So I went with my gut, praying that I had read the situation correctly and that he wasn’t going to ask for any more details, “Yes.  I am.”  “Good.  Then you know how much I love her.  Give her some peace of mind and some hope.  Tell her I love her,” he said.

I once asked my straight colleague if she ever worried about someone asking about or finding out that she is married.  She furrowed her brow and shook her head no like it was a crazy question.  That’s a difference between being a straight chaplain and a queer chaplain.

While I live with a perceived and real threat about living as an openly queer chaplain, I also live with an incredible gift.  I live as a chaplain in a profoundly different way than my straight colleagues.  I am a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven.  I have the privilege of conveying and testifying of God’s love in a way that no straight chaplain can.

I entered the small family conference room where Stephen sat, alongside a pair of doctors and a nurse.  Introductions were made and then as gently as possible Stephen was told that his partner, James, had inexplicably gone into cardiac arrest and that, despite every effort, he could not be resuscitated.  The sudden outpouring of grief made the medical staff retreat, leaving Stephen and I together.  We sat for a long time letting the news sink in.  When I asked Stephen if he would like to spend time with James, he pulled himself together enough to walk to the room.  I offered him some private time, but he insisted that I stay and then asked if I would offer a prayer.  Trying to sculpt a meaningful prayer, I asked what religious tradition Stephen and James came from.  More tears streamed down his cheeks as Stephen told me that he was a Baptist and that James believed in God but hadn’t been to church in a long time.  With prayers offered, I again asked Stephen if he some private time but he insisted I stay.  So I stayed silently by Stephen’s side until the coroner came to pick up James’s body.

With Stephen unable to think clearly and unwilling to call any of his friends, we decided to call a cab for him.  As I helped him outside, Stephen asked me what denomination I came from.  A perfectly good question but odd given the circumstances, I wanted to be careful of how I answered it.  My denomination’s name is often confused for a very conservative, very anti-gay denomination.  “I’m a part of the United Church of Christ,” I said, “But my wife is a Unitarian Universalist, so I tend to be pretty ecumenical.”  He stared at me like I had twelve heads.  “Did you say ‘your wife’?”  I nodded yes, though found myself questioning my choice of outing.  Out of nowhere he grabbed me and dropped his weight into my arms.  “Do you think James is in heaven?” Stephen barely got the words out as he began to sob, “They say he won’t go to heaven.  But does God love him?”  “The only thing I’m sure of,” I said, “Is that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God.”  In those moments, standing on the sidewalk waiting for the taxi, I was so deeply thankful to be queer.  I thought about how my straight colleagues could have offered Stephen just as good if not better pastoral care, but I could stand with him, as another queer person, in a much different way and assure him that both he and James are loved by God.

Life as a queer chaplain?  It’s messy and moves me to a fearful place sometimes.  Being thrown out of rooms and having relationships cut off because I’m queer hurts.  Listening to gay bashing and knowing that it is also directed at me sucks.  But life as a queer chaplain is also beautiful, almost beyond words.   I am trusted with the stories and worries of closeted and uncloseted queer patients who want and need support but won’t talk to other people for fear of being judged.  I can provide support for queer staff members that live in fear that they could lose their job.  My attentive eye and advocating nature can help partners navigate the institutional system so that their rights are protected.  And when I get over my fear and live fully into who I was created to be, I get to move and have my being in a way that is fundamentally different.  I get to embody and offer the transformational message of the gospel: God’s love for us far exceeds our understanding and nothing! can separate us from that love.


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219 responses to “Life as a queer chaplain”

  1. As a seminary student, a Unitarian Universalist, and someone torn between chaplaincy and parish ministry, this goes to the heart of what I’m debating within myself. I cannot decide if the trade-offs are worth it, if I can hide/conceal who I am to pacify and aid those who do not know better than their prejudice, like Mr. Jack here. I want to be on my feet, constantly moving, I want the challenge of being where the real, burning need and questions are, such as working in a hospital, but I am not sure I can withstand the pressure of a heteronormative, mostly Christian American public at large, when I am neither straight nor Christian. Do I conceal my wife, and my denomination, or not? I took a practicum this fall in hospice, I’ve had both incredible experiences, and some negative ones, as well. It hasn’t helped me to decide this, I feel that I must make a decision, to better guide my path through seminary. Why am I even attending a very expensive UU school if I can be a chaplain by attending pretty much any seminary? Sigh. Sorry, I am flailing about for answers, and all I seem to find is more questions. (Such is the life of a UU, eh?) I’d love to talk to you, Laura, and Kimberly. Thank you so much for sharing your hearts and gifts with the world.

    • It is a strange and wonderful journey we are all on and your is no less complex for sure. What I learned more in my CPE is that ultimately it was not about me. I am merely a conduit where-by grace can hopefully find Her way into deeply painful situations. The life of a chaplain is certainly on the front lines of another person’s deepest pain and in that space who I am tended to recede so that I would not get in the way of Grace. There were times, though truly few, where my private life, my wife and children, could have (and maybe should have) been a part of the conversation but more often than not if I was thinking of how I was being wronged or diminished then I was not thinking about the patient or family and I was just doing it wrong. Parish ministry in a UU context might be a good path for you if having your family integrated into your ministry is vital to how you understand your call. If you ever want to talk on Facebook you can send me a private message and we will keep the conversation going.


  2. Thanks for this. As a minority-faith (nonChristian) CPE student at a major medical center, I’m touched by the strength of this post. Laura, do you blog regularly somewhere else?

    • Maggie,

      Unfortunately she does not but I am badgering her to come back and share more with us here!

      Thanks for reading,

  3. Wow…thank you. I am a straight, married believer in jesus…and until 6 months ago, I also believed all the anti-gay garbage rhetoric I’d ever heard from my leaders.
    Since my awakening, I’ve found myself so angry and disappointed and DIStrusting of the people I used to listen to…and love. I love truth so I’m so thankful that God has opened my eyes and my heart more fully to who He is…yet I feel isolated from my community…in many ways fearful of “coming out gay affirming”. I’m not even very happy with that label…wanting more than just affirmation for my Lgbt brothers and sisters.
    Anyways, thank you for this post and this place in the blogosphere.

  4. So lovely! So sorry that people have been mean and spiteful and scared, but so glad you could be there to comfort this young man, and others like him. No one – NO ONE – need ever fear that God will abandon them, or shut them out. It is human beings who do that, not God. Thanks to that God, you are a voice crying in the wilderness – keep crying out! and know that you fight befriended.

  5. It is better to be holy then popular. I hope you can trust God enough to allow him to be God of every aspect of your life.

  6. Serving my CPE unit last summer, I often found myself playing “the pronoun game”. By the end of my 400 hours I’d learned a pretty valuable lesson: it might have kept me “safe”, but most of the time, it just broke my heart. Thanks for your words, your courage, your service, your call. You are a bright light.

  7. I ‘n also a chaplain. And while I’m straight, I also get thrown out of rooms for being “too liberal.” whatever. The most important thing we can do is be present. Pray without ceasing. And listen, listen. Love, love. God bless yo!!

  8. Wow. As a queer who was a hospital chaplain for a short but intense 2.5 years, I resonate deeply with this. Thanks for putting words to my own experience which I had struggled to do. All the best as you continue on this journey!

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your story and yr reminder that NOTHING can separate us from the love of God.

  10. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing. I’m going to share this blog with my colleagues who are with me in CPE this summer. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for your willingness and courage, Laura. You know you’re on a sacred path. <>
    Hi Jack— I hope you will become a strong and much-needed Christian voice, continuing to make the point that sexual orientation and behavior are two completely different things—-and therefore, legislation based on sexual orientation is an affront to creation as well as science. And since we don’t know what, if any, sexual acts a couple privately engages in, it seems to me that we’d best keep our imaginations out of it. I like your ocular reference to the speck and the plank; however, if we followed the Bible’s examples of marriage in our own society today, we would be selling (multiple) wives as property to men who are encouraged to beat them; meanwhile, we’d be stoning just about everyone else to death for one reason or another. Just as Biblical history evolved from Moses to Jesus, we have continued to evolve as well, in both reason and compassion. Why would God stop speaking? If we’re fixated on the nuances of “sin,” especially the sins of others, we might be missing the latest expansive news from the Divine. What if God is telling us that Love has more than one valid expression? What if God is telling us to step back and respect the diversity of truth that others are finding, with God’s blessing, within themselves? Surely, the mind of God is able to stretch beyond ancient rules based on fear and punishment. This amazing God energy keeps doing awesome and miraculous things, yet we keep anthropomorphizing God because we can’t imagine ourselves being that expansive…..and the result is: we see the god of our own limitations, when the God of infinite possibilities is right there. But, Jack…..I think you’re onto something with the sexual-orientation-is-okay thing. Stay with that.

  12. As a Catholic Deacon, I just started a ministry for GLBTQ Christians in Wisconsin. Stay strong!

  13. God bless you for your ministry, and God bless your ministry. I too recall my basic CPE quarter one summer long ago at St. Luke’s Hospital Center in NYC. It was a conundrum, a gift, and a challenge … just to learn to be and listen as the ground of all my relating, all my ministry. Of course as an openly gay man at the time, I could not easily be ordained, so in the end I wasn’t. Now I suffer from disruptive stress injury flashbacks from certain events innate to growing up Christian and gay boy in the USA Bible Belt. Nevertheless, the blessing and call of the summer’s chaplaincy work has never completely left me, and I truly rejoice that another person/woman of another younger generation gets to walk in paths along which I could only glance in wonder. God be thanked for you and yours. drdanfee

  14. Dear Laura:
    As a UCC pastor-colleague, I thank you for your witness!

  15. Truly loving and inspirational to those of us who minister with open hearts and a wish for all to know Grace. Thank you for sharing. As long as we continue to minister God’s love for all of us, we affirm that the Amendment One vote in NC is an aberration and bastardization of Christ’s commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you.”

  16. As a female pastor of 22 years just leaving the methodist church…as i lay in bed next to my sleeping wife…tears come to my eyes as i resonate with the truth of your words and the breadth of your experiences with which i can so deeply relate.

    Thank you for sharing. You have given a gift to me tonight. Thank you!

    • Tears roll down my cheeks as I read your words. I know all too well the pain that accompanies the decision to leave the Methodist Church. Please know that you are in my prayers.

  17. Entrance to heaven isn’t based on what you do, or who you are… It’s based on what you believe.

    Being gay isn’t a sin. Engaging in homosexual activity is a sin, though. The bible is clear about that. It’s also clear that we’re all sinners, and we shouldn’t comment on the speck in another’s eye before we deal with the plank in our own… But the bible is clear – marriage is between one man and one woman. Sexual relations with people of the same sex is sinful behavior.

    Thank God entry to heaven isn’t based on our actions, or our sexual orientation… But on who we call our savior, and who we believe Jesus of Nazareth to be.

  18. Laura, thanks for sharing your heartfelt reflections on your identity and your calling. I’m also a hospital chaplain and run CPE groups and wonder if I might have your permission to share this post with my students.

    • This is Kimberly, host of the conversation and I am sure Laura would be honored for you to share with your students.

    • I count it as an honor to have my stories heard by others. You most certainly have my permission to use this writing with CPE groups. Blessings on your work as a chaplain and a supervisor!

  19. Thank you so very much for this, it brought me back to my first unit of CPE -both the gifts and the awkwardness. Perhaps the most striking memory of giftedness was being present with a mother and her sisters at the death of their son, whom they had never been reconciled to because of his sexuality; to offer prayers at his time of death as a gay man in their presence felt deeply redemptive. I’m about to start a residency in the Fall; I have a feeling I’ll be returning to this post for strength as I do. God’s peace.

    • My prayers are with you as you return for a residency. As you too have experienced, our ministry as chaplains can bring amazing gifts simply because of who you are. Peace.

  20. Wow, what a beautiful testimony. I can only imagine the difficulty. What a gift you are to so many! I am sorry that there are so many reasons to be afraid and am awed and humbled by your courage and wisdom.

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