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Retirement comes in stages that begin, as I’m starting to understand, not with the last day of one’s job but the first.

Two years ago, I stepped down as the executive director of Room for All, an organization that advocates for the full affirmation of LGBTQ+ people in the Reformed Church in America. Two weeks ago, I felt ready to go through my worn briefcase, another step toward closure of that fulfilling final chapter of my professional career. As it turned out, it wasn’t the contents that brought things around for me; it was a purple ribbon that had been tied to the handle ever since my first RfA Board meeting in the fall of 2010.

I had time to spare before that meeting, so I stopped at Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, a few blocks away. One of the installations at that time, “I Wish Your Wish,” featured hundreds of ribbons printed with wishes submitted by previous visitors and hung from tiny holes in the exhibit walls. Arriving visitors were invited to take a ribbon and replace it with a slip of paper containing a wish of their own. This is the ribbon that I pulled out. I wore it around my wrist during that first Board meeting, and then tied it to the handle of my briefcase when I got home.

Over the next ten years, the ribbon went with me to my office, to homes, campuses, congregations, retreats, RCA classis, Regional Synod and General Synod meetings and more, where I met, learned from, and was profoundly changed by LGBTQ+ people across the RCA and beyond. They included young people who wished they could tell, older people who had never dared tell their now-deceased parents. Church kids who had assimilated the message that God could not love the person they secretly knew themselves to be, adolescents who begged God to make them “normal” or who believed God had abandoned them. Some, if they did summon the courage to tell, were sent to so-called conversion therapy, or were cut off by their families, their friends, their churches.

When I untied the ribbon recently, I discovered that some of the letters had worn off, leaving only “I Wish I Could Tell My Par…”

Ironic, in a way, because in my experience over the years, the original printing could just as easily have read “parishioners” or “partner.” I know too many stories, some of gifted LGBTQ+ ministers who believed they had to choose between telling their flock or living out their call. Other stories of closeted queer folk who, wanting the church’s blessing to marry and perhaps have a family, felt their only choice was celibacy or to marry someone of the opposite sex. In some cases, the secret held. In others, the inner turmoil became too great, and when the truth was finally told, the pastoral relationship and/or the marriage ended painfully for all concerned.

Buried secrets are toxic, especially when kept from people you love. My years with RfA confirmed that sad truth many times over.

But thanks be to God, this is only part of the story. RfA also introduced me to queer folk, young and old, parents and partners, pastors and parishioners who have told; who are fully out and flourishing because they embrace who they are; whose congregations, friends and biological or chosen families affirm them, celebrate their gifts, and welcome them at pulpit, font and table. Those relationships were, and continue to be, some of the most sustaining and hope-filled glimpses I have ever had of the body of Christ at its best.

To be sure, things have changed for the better. And yet, as any LGBTQ+ person with ties to the Reformed Church will tell you, we’re not there yet. The painful onus of “I Wish I Could Tell” is still very real in non-affirming families and churches.

Since January, some theologically conservative congregations have formally left (or plan to leave) the RCA to join “The Alliance of Reformed Churches” or other communions that prohibit same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ+ persons, among other things. Some in the RCA see this as a “solution” to decades of contentious debate, a clean break, even “grace-filled.” The proverbial can, they say, has finally come to the end of the road. I’ve heard people on both sides say some version of “good riddance.” Maybe, especially if you’re cisgender, heterosexual and non-affirming.

Let me be clear. I hear, understand, and support my LGBTQ+ friends who also believe it’s for the best, who have frankly had it with the trauma of exclusionary actions, policies, and people in the church; who want to freely live their lives and express their faith as beloved children of God. Period. Sing the doxology, they say, and go forth to live in peace. As a cis/het person who seeks to be an ally, I have no right to argue with that.

Given all this, I ask myself now: what do I wish I could tell, and to whom?

I wish I could tell the queer kids coming of age in those non-affirming churches that despite what they may be hearing from their parents, pastors, or youth directors, God’s love for them is not contingent on denying or repressing their sexual orientation or gender identity; that there are church doors wide open to them; that they belong, that who they are and what they bring are welcome. I wish I could tell them to find someone safe to talk to, and to hold on to hope. For some, their lives will depend on it.

I wish I could tell those non-affirming congregations what they’re missing. I wish I could tell them that LGBTQ+ people who have traveled the journey toward self-knowledge and self-love, who know that they are unconditionally loved by God, are some of the most authentic people I’ve been privileged to know. In the essential meaning of the word, they embody deep integrity—wholeness. They are gifts to the church. The open-heartedness that they have found and offer to others is simply contagious. Do they carry wounds and scars from the journey toward wholeness? Yes. Do they “fall short of the glory of God?” Certainly; not because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but because of the fact of humanity: they, I, you, we — are all flawed children of a loving God. Together, we reflect the wonderfully creative diversity of the One who made and loves us all.

I wish we could be the church at its best, that body through which “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10).

At that museum twelve years ago now, I replaced that purple ribbon with a wish of my own. It read, “I wish I could make a difference.” With God’s help, maybe I still can.

Marilyn Paarlberg

Marilyn Paarlberg is retired after a career in various education ministry positions, and most recently as the Executive Director of Room for All, Inc. She lives in Albany, New York.

15 Comments

  • Marilyn,
    What wonderful writing. Thank you for this. It was a great blessing to read as I prepare for my day.

    Please keep writing.

  • Tony Vis says:

    Thanks, Marilyn. Your gentle, yet strong and fierce, presence and advocacy made a difference in the lives and perspectives of many of us. I appreciate you!

  • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

    Thank you for this, Marilyn. Retirement doesn’t mean we lose our voice. You haven’t lost yours.

  • Rebecca Warren says:

    Beautifully said. Thank you.

  • Carol Westphal says:

    Beautiful. Thank you!

  • Mary De Ridder says:

    Thank you for sharing this! Well written!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Marilyn,
    I wish you could know how many lives you saved, saved not only from suicide, but from the living suicide of having to live a life as other than who one is.

    Yours is a life from which there is no retiring.
    Wishing you many days of delight in the un-pathed meadow ahead.

    PS. The ribbon story sent shivers

  • Valerie Terpstra Van Kooten says:

    Marilyn, my getting to know you has been such a blessing. You are such a grace-filled, solution-oriented person. God’s blessings in whatever other roads you travel down in the coming years; please know that you were (and are) an incredible asset to Room for All and its mission.

  • Rob Williams says:

    Beautifully expressed by a beautiful soul.

  • Jo Zomer says:

    I have ever felt more at peace than I do now after reading this. My last 10 years apart of our local RCA recently left to the ARC has been torture for our family. As a parent of a lesbian daughter; married to a wonderful woman, and both a mom to our beautiful grandson, we have been judged so many times and actually asked to leave a church that we have been a part of for 38 years. This writing hit the nail on the head in every stage we spent many agonizing hours. Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

    • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

      Jo, if my words have brought you and your family some peace, I’m grateful. What you have shared here about your church is a discouraging example of what so many other LGBTQ+ people and their allies in the RCA and other denominations have experienced. Your affirmation and love for your daughter and her family, on the other hand, continues to give me hope. You have set a Christ-like example, and I hope that you can find a church home that welcomes and affirms your whole family.

  • Sally Hoekstra says:

    Thank you, Marilyn, for your words which are always rich and come from your love and experience and openness to all.

  • Victoria Karssen says:

    Marilyn, always giving and living out generous love. You are a light. Vic

  • Dawn Alpaugh says:

    I am so thankful for your dedication, love, care, and support in this journey Marilyn. You have been and continue to be a gift to us all.

  • Barbara Satin says:

    Marilyn, you have made a difference and I treasure the years we spent together within the Welcoming Church Program Leaders group. Your open heart and open mind provided strength and energy to the group – and helped move it forward the mission of bringing affirmation and welcome into the lives of faithfilled LGBTQ folks. Keep writing…..it has an impact.

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