My Story: to the PCUSA Civil Unions and Marriage Task Force

Dear friends in Christ,

I have read a number of the letters that have been submitted to the committee. Many have been moving; some have been so eloquent that I feel intimidated and awed. Yet I still feel that it is my responsibility to offer my story as well.

I promise that I won’t tell my whole life story, but I was born in a Presbyterian hospital to a non-Presbyterian, non churchgoing family. Perhaps I was born to be a Presbyterian. The reason that I became a Presbyterian is that a neighbor–the mother of a friend of mine–offered to take us kids to church; this neighbor had been born in the same hospital as me (1200 miles away).

Church was very important to me. I had deeper friendships with other kids at church than elsewhere. I had great adult role models. I learned about peace and justice. I went to summer camps and synod youth events. I developed a wonderful relationship with God, with Jesus.

* * * * *

In 1973 when I was 21, when I was away at college, I was quite surprised to fall in love with a woman. Not that I had ever been the same as most of my female friends in the way they related to their boyfriends, but I did date and had a boyfriend in high school. Indeed, I just thought that I hadn’t “met the right boy” yet. But falling in love with a woman was so strong, so powerful, so fulfilling, that I realized in retrospect that my attraction to women had been my sexual orientation all along.

My relationship was important enough to me that I returned to my parents’ home that summer to tell them that I had fallen in love. With a woman. They did not take it well. My father, with whom I had always had a difficult relationship, had little to say; my mother called me names. She next decided that I needed therapy. I agreed that we had lots and lots of issues as a family, so we could go to family therapy together. She found a family therapist, who was also a Methodist minister. After us spending an hour talking, he said (in very 1970s language) that he “viewed homosexuality as a valid alternative lifestyle,” but that we could benefit from family counseling. My mother did not want to hear that, so she then wanted to find a different therapist–one who would agree that I needed to be “cured.” She had also contacted the pastor of the church–MY church (remember that my folks were non-churchgoers)–and talked with the pastor; he, too, made a half-hearted attempt to convince me to be straight.

This was enough to push me out. Out of my family, out of the church. I returned to my college town and awaited the return of the woman I loved from her summer with her family. It was three years before I heard from my parents again. My absence from the church lasted significantly longer; I was gone from the church for almost twenty years.

This latter one was not an insignificant separation for me. It had been my plan–indeed, my calling–to finish college and then to go to San Francisco Theological Seminary, only 30 miles to the south of where I lived. But the pastoral counseling that I had received from my minister was so hurtful that the church immediately seemed a foreign place, and alien place, and a place where I was unwelcomed. So leaving the church was both inevitable, and me turning my back on God’s voice calling to me.

* * * * *

Three years later, my parents called me from completely out of the blue. They wanted to come see me. I told them that this would be okay, as long as they realized that they would be visiting me and my partner as well (the woman mentioned above). They agreed to that. We got together. We went out to dinner, mostly uneaten, and had uncomfortable table talk. We drank too much. Finally, we returned to our home. We all talked for a little while, until my mother excused herself to go to bed. My father then talked about how he had started going to community college. His association with students the age of his children but not his children had taught him unexpected lessons. He summarized those lessons by saying that he had learned that in life we must “figure out what’s right, do it, and not make apologies for it.” That was his way of saying that he had come to a place of acceptance of me as a lesbian (and as a whole person).

* * * * *

My partner and I continued in our relationship for another three years. A serious car accident (mine) and graduate school (her) took too much of a toll on our relationship though, and we broke up after nine years together. It was too much for me to remain in the small rural community where we had lived for so long, so I moved to San Francisco for the next part of my life.

* * * * *

I had a good friend in San Francisco, a gay man named Etienne. He and I worked together, but we spent lots of time together as friends. He had also grown up in the church, had considered seminary, had become disaffected with the church. Together, we decided that we would give church a try. After several false starts, we screwed up our courage and went to the door of the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco. There on the marquee, just below “Welcome” were the words “Guest Preacher this Morning: Janie Spahr.” That was the beginning of my journey back to the church, of God’s welcome home to me. (Etienne died of HIV/AIDS shortly after that. In his illness, he was able each morning to awaken to feel God’s hands gently holding him.)

* * * * *

In 1983 when I lived in San Francisco, Candy–a friend from my youth at church–called me to share with me that she was a lesbian. When I came out, I had share my story with her, and we had stayed in touch over the years. She lived in Los Angeles, but she wanted to come visit me, to come and introduce her partner to me. I was a couple of years older that she was, and had always been like the older sister she had never had. They came to visit. I liked her partner. Over the next nine years, I would visit them when I came to Southern California, and they would visit when they came to the Bay Area.

Sadly, Candy died in 1992. She was in the hospital, and her partner had to lie to tell the doctors and nurses that she was Candy’s sister in order to get visitation privileges.

I came to Southern California to attend her memorial service, as well as to console her partner. By then we had become good friends. In the process of consoling each other, we somehow crossed the line from loving each other as friends to a deeper, romantic love.

I returned to San Francisco, deeply in love, but not knowing what our future would be. One afternoon, I got a phone call from a delivery service, asking if I would be home for the next hour. I had no idea what it was about, but I said I would. When the delivery person showed up at the door, there was a huge rainbow balloon bouquet, accompanied by a card with these words: “Will you marry me someday? Love, Melinda.”

Not long after that, after conversations with my now-supportive mother (my father had died in 1983) and figuring out if I could return to Southern California after being a Northern Californian for so long, I moved in with Melinda. On October 16, 1992, the moving van arrived with my stuff, we opened a bottle of Dom Perignon, read to each other from the book of Ruth and the love chapter from Corinthians–and so married one another in a very Quaker-like way.

* * * * *

Candy’s memorial service was held in the church where we had grown up. The pastor who had counseled me so poorly was long gone. Since then, the church had gone through the discernment process and had become a More Light congregation. Melinda had also grown up in church, and we decided that we wanted to go to church. We went one week, then another. The third week, the pastor asked if he could call on us. He came over and had tea and cookies with us. Soon we joined the church.

* * * * *

In August, 2001, Melinda was on a business trip. She rushed home because I wasn’t feeling well. She insisted on taking me to the hospital. In doing so, she saved my life, because I had Stage III colon cancer, which had progressed to an almost inoperable condition. Things had changed significantly for same-gender couples in California by then; we were legally-registered domestic partners, and we also had signed durable power of attorney documents for each other. In addition, my health plan had a philosophical policy that included all sexual orientations. My surgeon treated Melinda with the respect that any spouse would receive. And Melinda was able to spend 24 hours a day in my room if she so chose.

* * * * *

On May 15, 2008, I sat in front of my computer, watching as the words VICTORY! and WE WON! filled the screen. The California Supreme Court had handed down their ruling that excluding same-gender couples from marriage was unconstitutional. As the 30-day waiting period passed and the time that couples could get marriage licenses approached, Melinda and I started talking about wedding plans. Neither of us proposed: she had done that sixteen years before when she had sent me the card with that balloon bouquet.

We knew that we wanted to get married in church. In our church. In our Presbyterian church, officiated by our Presbyterian pastor. We were both elders–I the Clerk of Session, Melinda the Treasurer–and loved by the congregation. It seemed only right that we get married in the presence of our church family, by our pastor, while being recognized by the state. The pastor agreed, the session agreed, and we were married on August 2, 2008, after being together for sixteen years. During the service, our scriptures were once again the readings from the book of Ruth and the love chapter from Corinthians. In attendance were about 140 people–including family members, work colleagues, neighbors, friends, church members, and about 30 ordained clergy members. While we married each other, it was just as important for those who attended the service to be a part of it with us. Even though we had been together for a long time, on that day, making our declarations to one another, our relationship changed for the better. As a matter of fact, just the process of planning–of sending out invitations, of answering RSVP phone calls, of thinking about food and beverage for the reception, and all of the other zillions of details–changed our relationship for the better. When a couple becomes domestic partners, they fill out the forms, go to the notary public for signature and seal, send it off, get the certificate back, put it in the safe–and go on with their lives. When a couple gets married, it is a celebration–from the minute they make the decision that this is what they want to do; and something that we are still celebrating and plan to celebrate for the rest of our lives.

* * * * *

It was painful for us on election night to watch the results coming in showing that Obama had been elected President while, at the same time, seeing that we were going to lose Proposition 8. Some very dear (heterosexual) friends had invited us to spend the evening with them, and we went to two parties with them. It was sad to see that the very progressive (heterosexual) people at these parties did not share in our dismay. When we returned to our friends’ home, we ate our leftover wedding cake and drank champagne as a sign of hope–even while not knowing what the future might hold for our marital status. The subsequent Court decision to uphold Prop. 8 while still counting our marriage as legal left us feeling bittersweet. We feel that we are a third class of people in California, a small class that no one else can join.

* * * * *

We are a couple who believes that God had a hand in bringing us together, and we do our best to work to serve God in the church and in the world. We had a pastor who believed that joining us in legal and holy matrimony was a responsibility and an opportunity provided by God. We have family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and church colleagues who believe that our relationship is blessed by God, and that we should have the same standing in the church and in society as do any other (heterosexual) couples. Those who are called to not participate in same-gender marriages are already provided that opportunity; it is only right that those who believe as we do be provided with the opportunity to marry in their churches, or to officiate in those marriages.

Thanks for reading my disjointed comments, and thanks for your consideration.

In the love of God,
Sonnie Swenston
Covina, California

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5 Comments on “My Story: to the PCUSA Civil Unions and Marriage Task Force”

  1. Leigh Says:

    Sonnie, I love love stories and I am filled with joy and celebration of you love journey with Melinda. There is not a bit of “disjointed comments” and I invite you to think of this offering as the master piece that it is! Love, Leigh


  2. […] My Story: to the PCUSA Civil Unions and Marriage Task Force « A piece of my mind heysonnie.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/my-story-to-the-pcusa-civil-unions-and-marriage-task-force – view page – cached I have read a number of the letters that have been submitted to the committee. Many have been moving; some have been so eloquent that I feel intimidated and awed. Yet I still feel that it is my… (Read more)I have read a number of the letters that have been submitted to the committee. Many have been moving; some have been so eloquent that I feel intimidated and awed. Yet I still feel that it is my responsibility to offer my story as well. (Read less) — From the page […]

  3. Beth Sieber Says:

    Beautiful, Sonnie. Truly beautiful. Thank you for sharing more of your story. I’m honored to read it!
    With great fondness for you & Melinda–
    Beth


  4. Sonnie & Melinda,
    The caffection you share is a beacon of hope for many. Everyone should have the great wonderful commitment and vibrant relationship you have.
    Blessings,
    Mariah/Byron


  5. Sonnie,
    I’ve been wanting to respond to the link you sent me of your response to the task force. First let me say thank you for sharing that with me. You have had a remarkable and beautiful journey even through the points of strife and difficulty. I truly believe that our stories matter. I don’t believe that the road to changing the PCUSA polity on the matter of ordination, same gender unions, or any other matter is found in our ability to make the most refined argument, as has been the common practice. Rather it is found in one relationship at a time. We meet, grow together, and become more aware of our grafting into the body of Christ. Ultimately, that is all I have, relationships bound together by love and I’m grateful to the PCUSA for being such a meaningful part of that past. I wish it were part of my present and I’ll hope to return in the future. Peace be with you and Melinda as you continue to be part of a wonderful journey of faithfulness and love.

    Grace,
    Lavender


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