I must confess: as a transplant from New England, and an outwardly and visible "other", I was excited...but a bit nervous about going to northern Alabama for the weekend.
Yes, I would be seeing my mentor, her husband, and their animals.
Yes, I would be taken for an overnight trip up to Sewanee.
Yes, I would get to see this new church where she is interim rector.
It didn't help that some of my friends were also less than enthused that I was taking this trip. I was warned about the still active KKK in some areas. I was told that it is "NASCAR country" (code for "Homo, Go Home" attitudes). I was encouraged to wear a wig to hide my crew cut. And it didn't help that the forecast for the afternoon when I was leaving was for possible snow.
But I wanted to make this trip. I have been missing the invisible slingshot Mtr. Lee carried into the pulpit with her that she would secretly pull out, carefully aim it at my head, and then--ping--"Nailed the dyke with the crew cut in Pew Thirteen!" (Of course, she wasn't really aiming at me, but sometimes it sure felt like it!) And, nerves or not, I refuse to continue living life in fear that someone might object to the essence of my being, and let that fear keep me from seeing this place where my mentor now lives and is pinging new victims in the forehead.
So, off I went.
There was no snow. And my hosts didn't leave me abandoned on the roadside to fend for myself. In fact, I was treated quite graciously. And their dogs couldn't get enough petting from a trained petter (aka Licensed Massage Therapist).
But one of the transformative moments for me was the visit to Grace Church in Anniston.
I knew Mtr. Lee was going to be busy (Third Sunday in Advent and Bishop Henry Parsley would be there to do baptisms and confirmations). Lee would be preaching at 8am; the Bishop at 10:30. Her husband, Tom, and I attended 8am. I couldn't believe how many people were there! Most early services draw pretty small crowds, but this one must have had about 60 people. And they were friendly! Really, friendly. Even with me wearing a gay pride rainbow wrist band, these folks were anxious to introduce themselves to me. Tom and I spent a little time in the parish hall after the service before he went home. And then I was on my own with these strangers, a stranger in their midst.
I am a very quiet and reserved person, not prone to extend myself to people I don't know. So I understand people who don't make efforts to talk to somebody like me.
But the people of Grace Church would have none of that! Just when I thought that I would find a place away from everybody else, and remain quiet and fade into the woodwork, a woman reached out to stop me and invited me to sit with her and her friends. Before I knew it, I had been introduced to almost half the choir! Another woman joined the conversation, and soon I was laughing and felt very included...almost family....in this church. Folks wanted to make sure I sampled some of the breakfast food, and had a cup of coffee. And as they found out that I was a visitor from Tallahassee coming from the church where Mtr. Lee had been before, they were delighted and even more welcoming, making sure that I knew how much they loved her as their interim.
"Yes, you're lucky to have her. We'd love to have her back in Tallahassee!"
"Oh, no, you can't have her!", which would start another round of laughter.
By the time I was heading home, I had a good feeling all over. And another example of the dangers of prejudging people and places was put before my eyes. I had been worried that I was going to be viewed with suspicion. I was going to be made to feel like an outcast. My "otherness" held up as a reason to turn away from me. All creations in my own head of what I believe is happening when people don't approach this quiet, reserved one. Instead, I felt embraced and wasn't going to be allowed to go melt into the woodwork.
And this in a church in northern Alabama.
Thanks be to God.