In 1998, we moved from San Antonio to Portland. Katy was heading into 3rd grade, Allison was starting kindergarten, and Steve was ready for pre-school. We experienced culture shock as we settled into our home in early September. The days quickly grew shorter and clouds and rain replaced sunny blue skies.
That year, I had many first-time conversations with my kids about their friends with two mommies or two daddies. Katy had an amazing teacher, who happened to be a lesbian. I was coming to know and love those who identified as LGBTQ, but I also carried tightly held beliefs that their lifestyle was sinful and it was my job to “save” them.
Three years later, we returned to San Antonio to do full time ministry on staff at a conservative evangelical church. One of the first young adults to reach out to us was the daughter of church leader, and she was trying to “escape the lifestyle.” We slowly developed a relationship of trust as I bumbled my way along with her. I felt torn between my love for her and a sense of duty to call her out of her sexual preference for women. She was generous, kind, forgiving, and unbelievably loyal to our mentoring friendship.
She was just one of many young adults in that church who trusted us with their secrets and sexual struggles. I remember one night when a church staff member’s child knocked on the door. Seated on the blue sofa in our living room, he told us with tearful eyes, “I’ve heard y’all are a safe place. I don’t know where to go. I’m gay and I can’t imagine telling my parents.”
I’ve held more stories than I can count now. My heart and soul have been changed by courageous kids wrestling with God about whether He loved them, could they belong, or were they an abomination. And, nothing has changed me like the tearful story I heard in November of 2015.
“Hey…are you guys going to be home tonight?”
The text popped onto my phone around 3pm as I was driving to pick up the little girls from school.
“Yes. Why?” I replied.
“I have something I need to tell you. I’ll Facetime around 8pm.”
Mark and I settled the girls into their beds and sat in our bedroom waiting for the Facetime beep signaling the call from our son.
It’s all frozen in my memory. Steve in his blue jeans and white button down shirt, talking to us from a stairwell in his dorm where the signal would remain strong enough for this important conversation.
Given his life story up to that point, this call was not totally shocking. We’d had conversations about his sexuality for years, starting with his sharing that he’d been sexually abused in middle school. Using the phrase “same sex attracted” became a way to talk about some of his feelings during those years.
Mark and I assured him of our love, acceptance, and commitment to walk with him wherever the road was going. We hung up from that call and sat quietly with the weight of it all bearing down on us.
The days forward were some of the hardest I’ve known. At the time, I worked for a Christian non-profit and had listened to several board members share their beliefs about homosexuality. I feared how they would receive the news and what it would mean for my future. My mind sifted back through countless encounters with friends, family, and coworkers regarding this issue:
“Those people need to repent. They need to simply turn from their sin. They need to choose celibacy. They are unfit for leadership. They are an abomination. They are deviant. They are dangerous.”
For years, I’ve quietly held the words “if you only knew…”
When you speak about “the gays” and “those people” you are speaking about my people. You are speaking about my son. My son who loves Jesus, who is part of a new church starting in his city, and has been to hell and back at the hands of “safe, godly men.” My son who still believes Jesus loves him and that the gospel is good news.
I could say so much more, and what I want to say is this: if you only knew the stories of those you judge as “sinful” you might find your heart and soul changed.
You have to earn the right to hear those stories because they are deeply personal and only shared with safe people; and you won’t hear them if you aren’t willing to join Jesus at the tables where He sits—with the sinners and the tax collectors, those deemed unclean by the church in His day.
I am passionate about the table. I know I belong there with the other sinners, and I believe Jesus joins us there now, just as He did then. The invitation to come is yours.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 30 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastors wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.
Tracy, I believe that fear controls the hearts, words and actions of people who judge and condemn rather than love and accept–whether it be fear of people of different sexual orientations, people who have disabilities, people who are in prison, people who have different skin color, different cultures, different religious traditions. Only love can cast out fear. Thank you for sharing.
Madeline, I agree that fear is often the source of judgment and that only love can cast out fear. Thank you for your kind and wise words.
What a beautiful piece, and what a gentle, non-judgmental and courageous way to speak up about a topic that is so fraught for the church. Join Jesus at the tables where He sits indeed. Thank you, and bless you!
Thank you Claudia. You are right this topic is so fraught for the church, I hope that what we are about here at RTL can move the needle there more and more. So glad you are part of our community.
Honored to sit at the table with you, T. xoxo Thank you for sharing this truth so vulnerably.
Your kind presence and love are such a blessing, it is my honor to sit with you too dear friend.
Tracy, I’m humbled and honored to read your words and share in a part of your story, your heart.
Lina, it brings a smile to my face to picture you and recall how many years we have known each other. You have known me since back in the days when I was learning my way around young adults and how to love them well. Thank you for your grace and for these kind words today.
Yours and Mark’s ministry had a profound impact on how I embrace my story in light of where I am and who I’m with when I fully trust the Author and perfecter of my faith. I learned from you there is perfect grace when we know who invited us to The Table. We don’t need to bear the responsibility to judge anyone. Praise God for this truth. I love you and your wonderful family.
Brave and vulnerable post. May we search our hearts and strengthen our legs so we can stand and say ‘my people’ with tenderness and empathy. Isn’t the heart of the gospel that an other with the power to destroy calls us beloved and mine?
I love that last sentence, and yes, I believe it is the gospel! Thank you for sharing, what a blessing to have you see me there.
Beautiful, strong words. So grateful that you have written them for “such a time as this”. Now more than ever we must stand up and have our voices heard.
I agree Maria, for “such a time as this”…thank you for standing nearby today with your kind reply to my words. I am grateful.
Thank you Tracy for being transparent. These are powerful words for such a volatile subject and one too many people are afraid to speak truth about. How many are still sitting in silence because of how they will be judged ? Too many. May your testimony open hearts and open doors for more honest and “heart” conversations like you and Mark had with Steve. Thank you Steve for being who you are.
Oh friend, tears welled up as I read your words. Thank you for responding, and I agree with you…Thank you Steve for being who you are.
Beautifully written from the heart of a mother who loves well. Carry on, my friend, with the goodness of your family. I love you💕MJ
MJ, you have always been a voice calling me to mother my children from my heart and to love them well. Thank you for your faithfulness, mentoring and friendship.
I love this post written straight from your tender heart. I love the acceptance, grace and compassionate invitation you extend for all to join Jesus at His table. And I love the call to wonder… “if you only knew the stories of those you judge as “sinful” you might find your heart and soul changed”. May each of us wonder with such compassion. Thank you for your heart and your courage. It is an honor to sit at the table with you.
You are one who wonders with compassion, and you have steadily stood near me as I’ve been walking this road. Such gratitude my heart holds to sit at the table with you.
Tracy, thank you, thank you, thank you for pealing back one more layer of the shadow many of us live under with our kids. There are so many tables where we aren’t welcome, and many more we would be dismissed from if people knew. “When people speak about ‘the gays’ and ‘those people’ they are sparking about my people. They are speaking about my son”. Yes – my son. My son who loves Jesus, who cares for people like Jesus, who is adored by Jesus, and who has taught me more about Jesus than all my years living in West Michigan.
I love your last sentence Kristen, such goodness in that for you and your son. Sending you love. T
I agree with the above replies. It IS the gospel to include everyone at the table. And exclusions have been way too normal in Christian settings. It is time for me to not be silent. It is time for more inclusions. Love is the answer and love is what Jesus is calling me to do. I loved your vulnerability. Thank you for sharing with us.
How did we move from the inclusiveness of Jesus to the exclusiveness that has become way too normal? Yes to more inclusion!! Thank you for raising your voice with me.
I honor you Tracy. You are speaking with boldness and conviction. My people too. My table.
Yes friend, our people, our table. Thank you for being with me in so many ways.
Tracy, I have pondered your words all day, felt them in my body. Wincing at the remembrance of words like ‘queers and sodomites’ being spit from the pulpit. Terrorized that there was no safe place for me and the man I loved deeply, a man whose story included childhood abuse and same sex attraction. Would to God I had a nickel for every time I too thought “If you only knew” as people, convinced they knew so much just had to make their opinions known. Knives, their words were. Death by a thousand cuts. I still marvel I survived it all. I’m sure glad that I did, for I want to sit at that table with you. Steve, pass the bread, please. Thank you, Melodie
Melodie, “death by a thousand cuts” feels so true. I am so glad you survived, and of course you are welcome at the table with me and mine. Thank you for sharing a bit of your story in your response. I am glad you are part of the RTL community.
“I am passionate about the table.” Tracy – this last line seems to define the passion of your life, and a deep foundation in RTL for which I am incredibly grateful. Thank you for so vulnerably sharing your story with us. You breathe kindness and grace that is easy to spot as Jesus’ own. So grateful to be at a table with you.
I am so grateful you are here at the table with us. Thank you for seeing my passion and for being part of our community. Can’t wait to see you at Brave On!
Tracy, I agree so very much with your words, honesty and invitation to halt oppression and to open our hearts to be more like Jesus, who is full of love, grace and acceptance. Thank you for your bravery in sharing. Love, Anna
Thank you Anna. You are a powerful force against oppression, it is a privilege to stand alongside you.
Tracy, this is a a bold invitation to be Jesus with skin on. Your faithfulness to hold the stories of others is both challenging and inspiring. I want to be faithful to hold your life stories with tenderness and love. You invite me to open my heart wide in wonder at the God who loves us ALL so perfectly. You invite us to be more like Him. I love you and all the members of your precious family, Christine
Such faithfulness you have extended to our family Christine. Thank you for continuing to love us. Looking forward to hugging you at Brave On in September!
“I’ve heard y’all are a safe place.” This right here is one of the truest, most visible things about the culture you’ve created in your family. One of the many reasons why I love “all y’all” so much!! You have struggled well as you kept asking what it would truly look like to love as Jesus does…including everyone at the table. Your willingness to say no to the destructive messages the church continued to preach, and yet somehow still love the church…so redemptive. ❤️