One minister preaches radical inclusivity to spread the message that all are acceptable to God
I grew up in a rather insular African-American Pentecostal family.
My people were of the diaspora that left Texas and came to California just before World War II. We all lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same school, attended the same church, and shopped at the same stores.
I was deep in the church and, as they say, “highborn” because I was the child of bishops, preachers, and leaders who were on the front lines; I felt called to ministry from an early age.
Growing Up Pentecostal
However, it was an atmosphere where men were able to be the preachers and leaders, and women were the support system. I had the skills to be a leader and to preach—in fact, I was a bit of a prodigy, one of those kids who read the Bible through three times.
But the church didn’t know what to do with me. They kept trying to think of something to call me—some called me a messenger and some a missionary—since they couldn’t call me a preacher.
Another aspect of church I found problematic was that we did so little justice work.
We spent all our time trying to live a sin-free life so we could go to heaven because we were taught that God was punitive.
Our version of God was like an alcoholic father in that he would get you if you crossed him. If you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, stuff would happen—you’d have a car wreck or maybe you'd get sick. You didn’t have a lot of time to be worried about other folks.
The final thing that closed the door to that church for me was that I began to sense I was a same-gender-loving woman. I believed there was no way in the world God would have made me who I am and then require me to lie about it and hide it in order to do his work.
Eventually, I decided I would either tell the truth and stay or tell the truth and leave. Either way, I was going to tell the truth no matter what. That became the beginning.
Still, without question, I was alienated. What I cared most about was my relationship with my mother. She was my joy and my challenge because she had two children and both of us were gay. She became the common denominator.
One of the things that same-gender-loving people sometimes don’t fully realize is that when we come out publicly, we force our parents out too. They have to deal with their own community, and they’re often blamed. What did she do that caused both of her children to be gay?
Telling the Truth, Coming Out
For my mother to thrive, she had to alienate us in some ways. We didn’t really talk for about four or five years. We couldn’t. I couldn’t hear her, and she couldn’t hear me.
But I believe the LGBTQ community becomes a full community only when it honors its elders and cares deeply for its children. Anything short of that is just narcissistic. I received a revelation one day that I needed to do something to repair my relationship with my mother, to build it again from the place of my truth.
I called her and said, “I’m coming to see you today and we’re going shopping.” There was this long pause. She asked where we were going, and I knew I had gotten a victory. I told her where I was going to take her because I knew all the places she liked to shop. That was all I said.
After many, many shopping trips, I was carrying her bags one day and she said, “Yvette, I need to understand some things.”
She began asking me questions, and I answered them. She would then ask me other things. She would ponder and push back some, but she kept asking.
We eventually talked about lots of things—theological things and earth things and sex things. She stopped me one day when I was in the middle of answering a question and said, “Shut up, Yvette.” So I did.
Releasing the Hold of Longevity
After a few minutes she said, “If what you’re saying to me is the truth, then for 60 years I have believed something that I did not have to believe. Do you understand that that makes me feel like a fool?”
I told her she had just put her finger on the reason why people cannot have a fresh revelation and change.
We make holy a practice that we no longer really believe in simply because of its longevity.
In our culture we defend something just because we cannot believe that we could have given so much of our life to something we never really had to believe.
In the end, my mother and I got very close again. She became my greatest champion. She also grew very close to my partner, Shirley.
This was a huge lesson about what we owe our parents and those who raised us. We need to give them the time and space to make their own shifts. I did not want to abandon my mother, but I also knew that it would take some time for her to come along.
I thank God every day that I am gay. I used to ask God to help me not to be, but I now understand the real beauty of being in exile and finding God on the edges.
My mother also became a part of my organization. I cannot express what an incredible blessing it was to have my mother praying with me and for me while we were giving birth to The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a multidenominational group of Christian leaders moving toward a theology of radical inclusivity.
Of course, I didn’t go straight from the Pentecostal church to founding The Fellowship.
After I had stopped going to church for a period of time, serving people became my temple—my worship. I became deeply engaged in helping people with HIV, elderly people, and children with special needs through food, housing, and other programs.
I was arrested by the Holy Spirit one night on the freeway while driving home.
A Call to Build a Home for Exiles
I’d been doing this work long enough to know when I was hearing the voice of God—it was so tangible. I pulled over and had this Pentecostal moment in which I could clearly hear that it was time for me to come back and establish a church with what I had learned while I was in exile from it.
I argued with God, saying those things I had learned were unable to be homogenized. But I realized the same God who was calling me was the God who was going to make a way for it to happen.
Not long after, we established City of Refuge UCC, an independent church in Oakland, California. It’s the mother church for The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries and a model that has been replicated in churches around the world. It was borne out of being in exile from religion and learning to connect with the active work of helping people.
I thank God every day that I am gay. I used to ask God to help me not to be, but I now understand the real beauty of being in exile and finding God on the edges. I now understand other people who are on the edges, and I can help them celebrate their own otherness.
This article was adapted from a June 2019 interview Bishop Yvette A. Flunder gave to Rev. Ellen Debenport and Rev. Jacquie Fernández on the Unity Online Radio show Voices of Unity, airing Tuesdays at 11 a.m. (CT) on unityonlineradio.org.