06 June 2014

Listening for Grace

I, like many other Mennonites I know, grew up watching Ted Swartz. From "Armadillo Shorts" to "Fish Eyes," his videos were a favorite at Sunday School gatherings and sleepovers. When my parents were attending Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia we attended Community Mennonite Church and got to know Ted and his family. His humor and authenticity are the two things I remember most clearly about him. So, when I heard that his theater group, Ted & Company was doing a play that talked about same-sex sexuality, I was very interested to see how he would take on this complex topic. Lucky for me, my church decided to host a performance on May 31st.

I went to the performance excited, but also anxious. As I've stated before, I'm quite sensitive about queer Mennonites' exclusion from the church. I didn't know what the crowd would be like, what would be said in the talk-back and whether this old, white guy I admired so much could articulate the pain and struggle of queer Mennonites. But in the midst of all that swirling in my head, I did my best to enter the space without expectation.

It's a one-man show, except it isn't. Ted is joined by Justin Yoder on the cello and Patrick Ressler on the piano. Patrick has a few lines as reluctant pianist Luke and Justin never speaks; but both of them contribute powerfully to the emotion and depth of the show with their music. The main characters in the play are Daryl (played by Ted), a Mennonite father whose wife, Grace, died of cancer years earlier, his only son Jared (represented by Justin's cello playing), who is in college and has just come out as gay when the play begins and the piano (played by Patrick), which sets the mood and often finds a way to speak for the audience. Justin is able to communicate for Jared through the music in a way that doesn't feel contrived and has a depth and insight that words could easily have missed. The addition of instruments to this piece to lend a kind of voice for the voiceless was inspired.

The play begins soon after Jared comes out to Daryl. He is a father confused and mourning. He is still mourning the death of his wife, but now must also mourn the lost future that he had imagined for his son. He must face the fear that his son could now be excluded from something so important to both of them: church. He is wrestling with his own theology around same-sex sexuality and not finding satisfactory answers anywhere.

I recommend you go see the show, so I'm not going to recount it here in detail. But, I want to give an overview of the different opinions that this play gives voice to. Daryl first goes to his mother, who Jared had come out to first, and asked her how she handled it. She tells him that the thing grandmothers are best at is unconditional love. Next he goes to hear someone preach on the topic of sexuality in the Bible. This preacher emphasizes the fact that all kinds of deviant sex can be found all over the Bible (incest, rape, polygamy, etc.), yet we focus in solely on these few passages about same-sex sex. The next three characters we meet Daryl compares to Job's three friends. He reminds us that, while Job's friends get a bad rap, they were the only ones who came to sit with Job on his pile of ashes. Mel comes to Daryl first and offers a traditional interpretation of how Christians should handle same-sex sexuality: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Next is Steve, who isn't sure what the answer is, and remains open-minded. Then Daryl goes to visit his cousin Aaron who "left" decades earlier. The audience quickly understands that Aaron left because he is gay and, decades ago, it seemed that leaving was the only option for queer Mennonites. Aaron tells the story of his partner, Michael, whose parents tried to get Michael to stop being gay and, when he was unable, they burned all of his pictures and acted as though he had never been born.

I saw many things in this play: compassion, fear, honesty, love, heartbreak and healing. But, more than anything, I saw hope. Hope in an old, white guy who really could articulate the struggle of queer Mennonites and the church. Hope in a sanctuary full of people with varying opinions coming together to listen. This hope was most clear to me in the juxtaposition of what happened with Daryl's cousin, Aaron and what is happening with Jared. Aaron left. He chose or felt forced to leave his faith tradition, his family and his life because he could not conform to what was expected of him. While it is not stated explicitly, it is clear that Jared isn't going anywhere.

This is the real strength of the inclusion movement: queer Mennonites and allies are not going anywhere. Not only are they not going quietly into the night, as queer Mennonites once did, but instead are getting louder and proclaiming that they belong. I think Isaac Villegas said it best in his article "Easter in Emmaus" that appeared in The Mennonite when he said:

"I'm grateful for you who are LGBT, because you have stayed with us even though we have official documents written against you. Your steadfast love for the church, despite rejections, bears witness to a God who loves us despite our sins— a God who overflows with patience and long-suffering, a God who loves us with a stubborn love, refusing our refusals and rejecting our rejections. You—my sister, my brother—you love us with God's love."

So often when I think of the story of the prodigal son, I view myself as the prodigal. The one who has turned their back and now returns repentant. But, for once, I'm the father waiting at the door and watching down the road. I, and other queer Mennonites and allies, are watching and waiting for our church family to come back to us. And the father did not judge the prodigal or spurn him for leaving, he simply rejoiced in the reunion. I place my joy in the hope of this coming celebration. When we all will join together and rejoice in our unity as God's children. This play showed me, once again, that if we continue to listen to each other and love each other, we will get closer and closer to this glory.


  1. Beautiful Brooke, beautiful. :-) So glad I met you!

  2. Powerful, Brooke! Seeing Ted & Co. was part of what spurred my blog post on this topic several months back...it leaves an impression, and it is a sign of hope that we are at least starting to be able to have these conversations. I pray that our generation will be the one to bring full inclusion!

  3. Thanks, Brooke. Sometimes I'm the Prodigal (either coming home or still hanging out with hogs) and sometimes I'm the father yeaning with open arms. But sometimes I'm the elder sibling--challenged to make a decision between conflicting values and a bit baffled about which way is most faithful. And in the parable, the story of the elder sibling is the only story unfinished.