The Reverend Sammy Clark had one of the thickest Georgia accents I had ever heard in my life. He was a United Methodist minister; a representative of a denomination that did not affirm LGBTQ people. He was already well into his sixties. He was the sponsor of the last all-male social club at Oxford College of Emory University, an organization that sometimes displayed Confederate flags. He was the college's chaplain. And, on this October day in 1994, he was the man in whom I was putting all my hope.
Sitting in the wooden-lined room outside his office I prayed. About two weeks earlier, just missing National Coming Out Day (I could have planned that better), I had come out to my parents. Much to my surprise and delight, it had gone very well. Since then I'd come out to multiple friends. No one was surprised, and everyone so far was affirming. But now I was about to have my toughest coming out discussion yet.
I was pretty devout for an 18 year old. The source of my devotion was a mystery to my nominally Presbyterian family and my baffled friends. But, for whatever reason, I was being pulled deeper and deeper into my faith. It was my foundation, and, I think I knew even then, my future.
Sitting outside the room I wondered how I could choose between the wonderful feeling of liberation that I'd experienced the past few weeks and the church that I felt sure was going to reject me. I considered canceling the appointment so I wouldn't have to face the inevitable collision of two worlds. And of course, about that time, Sammy called me into his office.
As I settled uneasily into the leather chairs he asked me how my first months of college were going. I stumbled through the exchange telling him I loved it there. But then I chose my words carefully. In stumbling, apologetic, tones I explained to him that I was "wrestling with something". I can't remember how I eventually told him that I'd recently come out to family and friends as gay, nor can I recall how I asked him about how I could reconcile it with my faith. All I know is that a few, excruciating moments later it was all out. A minister, a representative of my faith, knew I was gay.
When I finished he nodded. And then he stood up, went to a filing cabinet near the window, and came back to sit with me with an overflowing folder. He smiled and handed it to me. He told me to read it when I got back to my dorm room. I didn't know it then, but it was filled with articles by Walter Wink and other gay affirming theologians. I found out later that many of my classmates, including those who told me my religious convictions were anachronistic, had left his office with that same folder.
But the folder was not the highlight for me that day. What was was the next hour that he spent with me. Without my having to ask he took me through the "clobber texts" that anti-gay Christians used against homosexuality. He explained that one could take the Bible seriously without taking it literally. He taught me about historical context. He showed me how to interpret the ancient Greek. He laid out the differences between coercive sexuality and consensual, loving relationships.
And he saved my life. At the end of the meeting he embraced me with such compassion and acceptance that I knew the God this man worked for didn't hate me. As he released me from the hug, he said simply, "I affirm you."
Through the next few years Sammy continued to affirm me. I learned to lead chapel services under his tutelage. He brought me a book of devotions written by gay Presbyterian activist Chris Glaser. He guided my discernment process as I prepared to apply for seminaries. And he was always there with a listening ear. In seminary he gave me my first stole. And at my ordination he delivered the charge.
I am one of the fortunate ones. In my young adulthood I had a small army of clergy members who affirmed me. College and seminary professors. Other chaplains. Parish clergy. They were all there for me. They let me know there was a place for me in the church. But I would never have been able to talk to any of them about it had I not talked to Sammy first.
I'm aware of that when my friends tell me about negative coming out experiences that they have had with clergy. I know that had I walked into a different minister's office on that day in 1994, my life could have gone another way entirely. Had I met a homophobic preacher who told me that God didn't love and affirm me as I was, what path would I have taken?
It's something I remind myself of often. Now, as a pastor and college chaplain myself, I'm aware of the fact that the words I say on any given day might change someone's path for the better. Or for the worst. It is a fearsome, but wonderful, responsibility.
The next year I did not miss National Coming Out Day. Along with my friends I went to a lecture that Urvashi Vaid was giving at Emory. As she signed my book after the lecture I told her that it was my first time officially celebrating the day. She wrote in my copy of Virtual Equality these words: "Emily, welcome to the family."
It was a gracious gesture that meant the world to me then and that I still cherish today. But, as incredible as it was to get that welcome from an out activist I respected, it pales in comparison to the three words I received from that straight Methodist minister, spoken in a Georgia twang: "I affirm you."
Sammy, I have never told you what that day meant to me. I am sorry that I have failed to do so before now. And so, now I do. At a time when I needed it most, you changed my life. Thank you. May I be half the pastor to others that you were to me.