Paige Schilt

A Lesbian Mom's Lakewood Moment

Filed By Paige Schilt | May 21, 2008 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: American Family Outing, gay Christians, Houston, Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, mega churches, Soulforce, Texas, Victoria Osteen

Last Sunday, on Mother's Day, my family and I were part of a group of LGBT families who visited Lakewood Church--the largest and fastest-growing mega-church in the nation. Located in Houston, Texas, and housed in a former basketball stadium, Lakewood Church is pastored by the Rev. Joel Osteen. If you've walked through an airport in the past six months, you've doubtless seen Rev. Osteen smiling at you from ubiquitous displays peddling his latest bestseller, Become a Better You.

Our visit was part of The American Family Outing, a six-week effort to promote dialogue between lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families and families at six of America's most influential mega-churches. Conceived by Soulforce, The American Family Outing is rooted in the philosophy of nonviolent reconciliation. Each of the participating LGBT families have pledged to refrain from violence of the fist, tongue, and heart.

Before we even got to Lakewood, I knew this was going to be a personal challenge.

I wasn't worried about the fist and tongue part--I've never been in a fistfight, and I can usually hold my tongue if I need to. But refraining from violence of the heart requires us to recognize and identify with our adversary's common humanity. Nonviolence demands a radical openness to the other. What's more, nonviolence demands a radical reflexivity about the limitations of our own perspective. In order to engage in true dialogue, we must remain open to the possibility that our adversary may have an insight into truth that we do not have.

In other words, I was supposed to believe that Lakewood could teach me something.

I hasten to point out that many of the American Family Outing participants share a huge swath of common cultural and religious ground with the average Lakewood family. But for me, stepping inside the Lakewood lobby was like stepping across an enormous cultural chasm. The purple curtains and the big hair are more familiar from Saturday Night Live parodies than from anything in my own personal experience.

I was raised Catholic, and my father had a particular penchant for pre-Vatican-II-style Latin mass. When I was growing up, going to church was less about being entertained or getting "fired up" than it was about endurance and mortification of the flesh. Not surprisingly, I spent most of my adult life unchurched. Ironically, it was fighting anti-gay legislation here in Texas that revived my interest in religion, because I kept meeting all these smart, loving, gay-affirming clergy in my activist life. They made me curious about how church might have changed since I was a kid.

But just because I now count myself among the community of churchgoers does not mean I felt an immediate affinity with Lakewood. At my church, we alternate masculine and feminine names for God. Our ancient projector barely works, so we don't do multimedia. Everyone says their prayers out loud, and, on a good Sunday, almost everyone present has a chance to speak. Once a homeless man walked in off the street to thank God for LSD and marijuana, and no one raised an eyebrow. So I wasn't quite prepared for the efficiency of Lakewood-style hospitality.

In retrospect, I think we were probably just experiencing the regular Lakewood greeting protocol, but when people started hailing me every 10 feet to wish me good morning or to say "God bless you," I immediately felt like I was in trouble. As we waited for the other families to join us outside the Lakewood bookstore, I was sure we would be scolded--or worse, expelled--for some infraction of standing the wrong way or blocking the flow of traffic. It's the kind of automatic reaction that I suspect many queer people have to mainstream religious institutions: the sense that they are not authorized or welcome. Ultimately, it's a defensive reaction--not the ideal starting point for openness to the other.

Soon a cordial Lakewood ambassador appeared to guide our group of families to the seats that had been assigned to us. I was pleasantly surprised when we were seated near the front. As we prepared for the service to begin, I tried to unfold from my defensive posture and open my heart.

Then the praise music began. At Lakewood, the service begins with 40 minutes of very loud praise and worship music. Now, I heard many of my friends sincerely admiring the music, but I have to confess that contemporary Christian praise music ain't my cup of tea. Still, I know that perspiration is the better part of inspiration, so I applied myself to clapping and singing in the hopes that I could share a moment with the 10,000 worshippers around me. It was easy, because the words were projected on 25-foot screens like the ultimate karaoke. When the lyrics said that "all are accepted" in Christ, I sang with particular gusto, imagining myself and my queer family a part of that "all."

Somewhere toward the middle, the crowd began singing a song with the chorus "we are on the winning side." Who was on the losing side, I wondered--Iraq? non-Christians? People like me? The loser was never specified, but suddenly my enthusiasm for singing waned. I was trying to remain genuinely open to a new culture, but this kind of "us against them" thinking seemed like precisely the kind of thinking that our presence was meant to subvert. I didn't want to take it into my heart.

By the time Joel came out and praised the crowd for sounding like "victors, not victims," I was beginning to lose hope. It wasn't just that all the talk of victory seemed like a roadblock to reconciliation. I was losing hope that I was going to be able to find a sliver of common ground. I was losing faith that I was going to be able to share a meaningful and transformative moment. In spite of my commitment to nonviolence, I was beginning to doubt that Lakewood had something to teach me.

Then Victoria Osteen, Joel's wife, came out and asked all of the Mothers to stand up.

Apparently Victoria preaches and teaches for 10 minutes every Sunday, but this being Mother's Day, she had a special prayer for all of the moms. I stood up proudly next to my wife, Katy. Our five-year-old son, Waylon, was between us, holding both of our hands.

On my other side was my mother, Charlotte, and I reached over and put my arm around her waist. Most LGBT people feel lucky if their parents accept them, but my mom hasn't just accepted me, she has taken on part of my struggle. She actually volunteered to be part of The American Family Outing without any prompting from me. As Victoria began to talk about the many sacrifices that mothers make for their families, I felt so grateful and loved.

Truth be told, my relationship with my mother has been rocky ever since we stopped wearing matching outfits, when I was in approximately seventh grade. The whole separation and individuation thing was never easy for us. I sometimes feel like the world's oldest person with teen angst. But, as Victoria spoke about a Mother's love, I thought about something my friend Gretchen said. After being estranged from her mother for years, she realized, "I like how I turned out." She was happy with the person she grew up to be, and she knew that a big part of that was due to her mom. That was the seed of their reconciliation.

Victoria assured all of the moms in that huge crowd that they were good mothers. I scanned the rows of standing women, and I thought about how they might share my same hopes and fears about being a good enough mom. Victoria talked about how mothers can feel unappreciated, like no one sees their hard work, but she assured them that their efforts would be revealed in the love that their sons and daughters pass on to their own children. Standing there between my mom, my son, and my partner, I felt like a conduit for a love that is bigger than me. I was overwhelmed by what a powerful gift our parents give us when they foster the ability to give and receive love. It's the foundation for all of our relationships.

Sometimes people speak about nonviolence as a philosophy rooted in love. I know that we would not be able to do this work if someone had not fostered that trust that we can be open, we can be vulnerable, and that--ultimately--we will be loved. I left the service with a new appreciation for how both of my parents prepared me to love my wife and son and to participate in this work of reconciliation.

In the end, I did learn something from Lakewood. I hope the families there learned something from us too.

Read a news account of the visit and support the families of The American Family Outing.


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Paige, what a powerful read. Thank you. I remember my first soulforce action and listening to Mel White talking about non-violence in our hearts. I had never thought of that before, and like you, I knew that I could control my fists and tongue quite easily, but my heart? That was the supreme challenge. Thanks for being there as a representation for so many who could not. I'm so proud of you and Katy and Waylon and your mom, and all the other Soulforce families there.

What a great first post, Paige! Welcome to the Project; if this is what we can look forward to, I'm confident you'll be one of our most popular contributors.

Hi Paige, this was a wonderful post! I'm glad to hear that Lakewood extended some hospitality towards you and your families. This is the first time I've heard of the concept of non-violence in our hearts. I'll be chewing on that. Plus I'll be chewing on how the call to be victors instead of victims can serve as a roadblock to reconciliation. Interesting. Thanks for catalyzing my thoughts, process, and journey!

Oh yeah - the us vs. them lyrics in praise music is a huge turn off for me too. =P

Hey Eric,

I think you're right that the idea of "victory" in Christ has a theological context that I didn't provide here. In my own faith community, I often hear a call to identify with the oppressed and marginalized, so the formulation of "victors not victims" created an interesting kind of tension in my mind, but it's something I need to explore more.

Thanks for reading!

Paige

Hey Eric,

I think you're right that the idea of "victory" in Christ has a theological context that I didn't provide here. In my own faith community, I often hear a call to identify with the oppressed and marginalized, so the formulation of "victors not victims" created an interesting kind of tension in my mind, but it's something I need to explore more.

Thanks for reading!

Paige

Paige, thank you so much for sharing all of this. It is such a challenging tension to inhabit, that between anger with unjust systems and nonviolence toward those who work them. I find I need to be constantly mindful of the tension to keep from slipping out of balance and missing out on the creative potential inherent to all tensions. You make me wonder how many lessons I've missed in the past.

What a powerful and moving first post, Paige!

Thank you for sharing this amazing experience with our readers.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 22, 2008 12:18 AM

As another "far fallen away" Roman Catholic, with relatives who have big hair, I thank you for your post, courage and sharing your truth with us.

I've watched Lakewood grow from a small church on the northwest side of Houston to occupying Compaq Center.

Paige, what you witnessed is probably nothing unusual for Lakewood. They don't call themselves 'the Oasis of Love' for nothing. When Tropical Storm Allison flooded out the surrounding neighborhood in 2001, they opened their food pantry and fed their neighbors for several days. They collected $30K at the first Sunday service after Allison passed through the area and donated it to relief efforts.

While I'm not a fan of megachurches, Joel Osteen is one person I do keep an eye on becuase he seems to at this point be avoiding the bash-the-gays negativity that too many megachurch ministers engage in.

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | May 22, 2008 1:08 AM

Kudos Paige on your first post here on Bilerico.

My feelings about Lakewood are a little less generous than yours. My cowboy wearing, George Bush loving father is a regular attendee of the Lakewood. Two years ago when I returned to Houston for my mom's funeral my father lecture me for about 20 minutes about how Bush is a great man and that I needed to repent for being gay before it was too late.

Osteen may not engage in the acidic homophobia routinely spew by his conservative Christian brethen, but that silence in and of itself is destructive.

Melanie Davis | May 22, 2008 4:40 AM

Thank you for this insight, and for having the courage and ability to come form a place of openness in order to so effectively conduit your experience. I had previously only thought of non-violent activism as keeping the fist and tongue quiet while your insides seethe with anger and frustration. Now I look at it in a wholly different way, and I am amazed. Now, I see not the ragged hippie or the quiet and proud African-american demonstrators at some pre-Woodstock sit-in. Now, I have the image of those like Ghandi, who maybe could embrace the idea that they could sit across from those with whom they disagreed and accept them as fellow humans and think that there is possibly something that can come of a dialogue.

I believe in non-violence, I also believe in people who can climb Mt. Everest, and right now I don't believe that I belong to either of those groups. Maybe I should go have a sit-down with Joel, myself. Or, for the sake of the cause of equality and understanding, maybe I should stay very far away from that segment of the citizenry and let people who have far more compassion than I could ever muster be our liaisons in that arena. Thank you and your family for being those people.

Paige: Thank you for sharing this with us.

May I suggest that the victors will be those who are able to accept and love one another, and the losers are those who find reason to hate. We don't win over the bigots by responding in kind, but rather open and softly spoken dialogue will win over the day. Some day people like Anita Bryant, Sally Kern, the current President of Gambia, and others will be relics of the past, and hopefully these attitudes will also be relics of the past. Change does come slowly, but it will come.

But refraining from violence of the heart requires us to recognize and identify with our adversary's common humanity. Nonviolence demands a radical openness to the other. What's more, nonviolence demands a radical reflexivity about the limitations of our own perspective. In order to engage in true dialogue, we must remain open to the possibility that our adversary may have an insight into truth that we do not have.

Paige, this is such a powerful concept. I think it is our greatest challenge as activists/people of faith.

Thank you for sharing your feelings about your mother. I was really touched by what you said, seeing as my own mother and I haven't always had a great relationship. That, however, has changed substantially, thanks to therapy and a lot of hard work on both of our parts. When you talk about making sacrifices, I can see all of the things my mother has sacrificed for me along the way so that I can be the person I am today. I hope that chosen families are welcome to participate in the Soul Force message. Because my chosen moms are just as important to me as my birth mother.

Thanks for all you are doing with Soul Force. I really admire what ya'll do. My dad sent me a press clipping of your visit to BYU and I have to say . . . I wouldn't be able to go there and keep my mouth shut, let alone take nonviolence into my heart. I'm still working on that.

Thanks to everyone who commented. YES, the American Family Outing is definitely open to chosen family. Families are defined by their love and commitment to one another; that's what this project is all about. And we are probably coming to a town near you soon--check the Soulforce web site.

And, to respond to Michael's comment, I definitely want to be clear that seeking common ground does NOT mean that we let Lakewood off the hook. One of the things that came out of our visit was that Lakewood clarified their position on gay and lesbian people (see link to Houston Chronicle article above), and that's really important information, especially for the many LGBT people who attend their church. Our hope is that, if they get to know out LGBT families, it will reduce the fear and misinformation and lead to more productive dialogue.