Four years ago I was a full-time worship pastor at Redwood Covenant Church (now Bayside Church of Santa Rosa). I was married to my wife of 23 years, and we still had three children in our home. Things looked fine on the outside, but on the inside things were starting to unravel. I had come to the conclusion that I had to come out publicly and live my life authentically as an openly gay man. For me, that meant that I would be leaving my marriage too. And I knew that as a result of all of these changes I would also be leaving my denominational home and my local church. In the Evangelical Covenant Church, there is no room for an openly gay pastor, especially one who is not called to a life of celibacy.
I had been active for several years in the “underground” movement to advance LGBTQ+ acceptance in our denomination. I had founded a very active secret Facebook group to hold space for those of us who were trying to find a path forward into an inclusive future. I attended annual gatherings in homes and hotel rooms where likeminded people would laugh and cry and pray and dream together of a future where LGBTQ+ people could be fully included in the life of our beloved denomination. And in the months leading up to my public coming out in 2016, I came out to many of my friends and colleagues from that affirming cohort. One of those people was Eva Sullivan-Knoff.
Eva had been a pivotal part of my journey toward acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and ultimately my own self. Several years prior to that, she and her daughter (the luminous writer, actor and trans activist Bea Sullivan-Knoff) had appeared at a gathering called “A Time To Listen” in the basement of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare at the ECC’s annual Midwinter Conference. Hundreds of us had packed into that room to hear stories from LGBTQ+ Covenant people, to listen and learn and pray. And in the years following that gathering, the movement had picked up considerable momentum.
Eva was among the people who walked with me in those early months of 2016. And one day I got a message from her on Facebook Messenger. She said I was about to go through a difficult season, and she knew I would need a pastor. She recommended that I talk with Joanna Quintrell at The Journey Center in Santa Rosa. Well, the rest is history. I went to visit Joanna, and we talked and laughed and cried and prayed, and she invited me to join the Spiritual Director Formation Program, even offering me a scholarship because she said Jesus put it on her heart.
Over the next couple of years, I found a safe and sacred spiritual home. In October of 2017 I wrote:
For the last eight months, I’ve found myself in this beautiful place every two weeks. Through an incredibly difficult season of life, the Journey Center has been a refuge for me. No matter what I’m going through, from financial insecurities to a new full-time job, from moving into a new home to having my heart broken, from feeling God’s presence to wondering whether God is even real, through all the doubts and fears and celebrations… Even when I’ve wondered whether I had the time, energy or desire to pursue this program, I’m ALWAYS grateful to be here. It always feels like home. For four hours I put my phone on airplane mode and tune out the world around me. I see and hear and feel the presence of God. I focus on the things that matter most to me. And I am completely authentic and vulnerable with people who are safe and loving. The people who journey with me have become dear to me. Week after week, I’m surrounded by the most amazing assortment of spiritual pilgrims. We come from many backgrounds and perspectives, but we hold sacred space for one another to encounter the Divine. It’s a holy and powerful thing. One thing I know: Whoever God is, s/he meets me here in this space, incarnated in the beautiful people who travel this road with me
When I graduated from the program last March, I was able to begin practicing spiritual direction, which led to my working with the amazing Candice Czubernat and my colleagues at The Christian Closet. Offering spiritual direction and facilitating support groups has been so fulfilling and meaningful to me, and it has opened the door to more opportunities like presenting workshops at the Q Christian Fellowship Conference last month.
As I was starting to work with clients of my own, I knew I needed to be in a spiritual direction relationship with a director of my own. I reached out to Candice to see if she knew anyone she could recommend for me to work with. She recommended I work with an old family friend of hers who is also an accomplished spiritual director and a fierce LGBTQ+ ally. I couldn’t believe it when she said the name: Eva Sullivan-Knoff.
Sometimes faith comes easier to me. Beautiful full-circle stories like this one remind me that God is real and that God is always working, always causing all things to work together for good for those of us who are called according to his purpose.
So it was especially meaningful to finally be with Eva again tonight at The Journey Center Association’s retreat. Hugs and selfies and gratitude. All will be well.