“I never quite belonged.”

To be welcomed, says Mieke Vandersall, is not the same as to experience belonging.

open church door

Photo by Despina Galani on Unsplash

My ordination service was glorious.

A steamy, hot day where your clothing stuck to your body, we could barely even feel the humidity amid the expectant joy. Everyone dear to me was there in the tall, old sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church in the city of New York. Almost 20 years ago, and I remember it like yesterday. It was a service of worship with the music chosen with years of expectation that transcended every border and boundary. Every word spoken was intentional, every role provided was meaningful.

The feeling of the hands on my head, neck, chest, back and arms as the ordination prayer was given, the generations past of those hands represented, the hope they channeled for what God is doing in the world to come, they still weigh on me with gratitude and expectation. I was brought into something way bigger than me, and I couldn’t go back.

I remember each moment of my ordination day so clearly. As beautiful as it was, and in gratitude for the number of saints who stuck their whole beings out there to make that day possible, the ministry I was ordained into and the ordination process itself positioned me for a career in ministry that always requires several more lines of explanation.

I never quite belonged.

I was one of the several out lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer people ordained in the early 2000s, when Amendment B was still in place. Since removed, this clause in our Book of Order stated that church officers “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.” As our ordination aspirations, or calls, were hotly contested, we were the focus of legal gymnastics to get through our series of oral ordination exams and were often blamed for the division occurring in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) It was a rare congregation that would take a risk on us. To be ordained, most of us had to find our calls outside of traditional parish ministry. To do that, we found validated ministries.

Rev. Mieke Vandersall and her family on ordination day.

According to the Book of Order, “Ordination to the ordered ministry of the minister of the Word and Sacrament is an act of the whole church carried out by the presbytery, setting apart a person to ordered ministry. Such a person shall have fulfilled the ordination requirements of the presbytery of care and received the call of God to service to a congregation or other work in the mission of the church that is acceptable to the candidate and to the presbytery of call (G-2.0701).

“When ministers of the Word and Sacrament are called to validated ministry beyond the jurisdiction of the church, they shall give evidence of a quality of life that helps to share the ministry of the good news … The presbytery shall review annually the work of all ministers of the Word and Sacrament engaged in validated ministries outside the congregation (G-2.0503.)”

For me, it was a ministry in the Presbytery of New York City that would work to remove restrictive legislation for LGBTQ folks.

The validated ministry route placed additional responsibility on us. As our calls were found outside traditional ministry contexts, not only were we required to pass oral theological exams by our presbyteries, we had to defend the ministries we were entering into were valid. After almost 20 years of ordained ministry, I still find myself in validated ministries and therefore have to renew the validation every single year. It does a number on you.

Living in the in-between

Ordination day was a big day, a glorious day. It was planned for a Saturday afternoon so pastor friends could fly home and still be at church on Sunday.

Sunday came, and I was plowed under by a feeling of great loneliness. All other pastors went to church that day and, because it was a “first Sunday,” they stood behind the Table and welcomed people to experience God’s grace. In effect, I had nowhere to go. I of course could have gone anywhere, but would be sitting in the congregation and not with the pastors on the chancel. All I wanted was to preside at the most physical act we have: the Communion Table, where brokenness leaks through spilled wine and crumbles of bread and comes together again in the bodies of those who rise to come forward, seeking wholeness in their body just
as I seek that for mine.

All I wanted was to preside at the most physical act we have: the Communion Table.

It hit me then, even though the hands had been laid on me and the words spoken, I still was living an in-between, and this would mark my call moving forward.

My understanding of vocation has shifted and morphed over the years. Currently, I find myself working with congregations and religious organizations in strategic thinking, communication, and fundraising. We walk alongside our clients to help them discern who they are being called to be. Our goal is to move well beyond what my colleague Dave Harder names as “church questions,” such as “where are the young people?” and “what color carpet should we use in the meeting room?” to “God questions,” such as “where do we find the Sacred moving?” and “how do we provide a space where the very people Jesus accompanied can find liberation?” So often when we begin working with congregations and ask who they are, the words “welcoming” and “inclusive” rise to the top. In reality, for many particularly White, liberal-leaning churches, these are code words for “we like the gays.”

Even though the hands had been laid on me and the words spoken, I still was living an in-between…

Like my experience pursuing ordination, working with congregations shows how often gatekeeping is embedded in our welcome. When you welcome, you ask them to come into your home, which is decorated a certain way that signals the rules that people must keep. When we welcome people, they still must cross a threshold that separates them from the life they live outside and the often unspoken parameters they find inside. The table is set in a certain way, the food is decided beforehand.

I dressed the part. I studied the rules well, and I thought that this would help me rediscover the belonging I found in the church of my childhood. But in the end, it didn’t work.

Squeezing through the cracks of conditional welcome

To be welcomed is not the same as to experience belonging. After wearing camouflage in order to squeeze through the cracks of welcome, you can’t find belonging in those spaces. It doesn’t work. I tried hard to approach the church with the conditional welcome it gave. Donald Schell, an Episcopal priest who studied aikido for years, suggested I try this out; he told me the parallels between the practice of aikido and the gospel were many and profound.

I was drawn to the beauty of aikido, to the fact that this is an art that you cannot practice alone, and I chose a particular school where we learned according to our bodies’ abilities, even as those abilities change with age.

In the early years, I had the normal response of not knowing where my feet and hands were, how to connect them, and most importantly, how to connect them with what was happening in the core of my body. I could not memorize necessary vocabulary, which left my brain in puddles, and my body the stiffest of all stiff. I didn’t know how to relax; I didn’t trust myself, and I didn’t trust anyone else with my body.

After all those years of negotiating my body in the church that overtly and subtly repeated the mantra that my body and the way it moved were bad, how could it be any other way?

It took years to be free; some days I still can’t get there. I will always have a long way to go on this journey. We all do.

I learned, though, that the only way to protect myself from injury is to blend with the attack provided, to transform it into something else, and to send that something else on its way. I have to trust my body. Zero options here. We are in constant engagement with our partners, with the earth below us, the heavens above, and the space around us.

I began to get better as a few teachers took me under their wing and patiently moved me through the utter fear of learning my body as it was given, to know that my body is actually perfectly enough just as it is.

To be welcomed is not the same as to experience belonging.

That is where I found belonging. And it is scary.

It has taken a very long time to trust myself in my training, and risk offering myself in leadership to my aikido community. I know how easy it is for the feeling of belonging to go away, so fast, so easily, sifting between my fingers.

As part of my statement of faith presented at my ordination examination in front of the presbytery, I used a line from the late theologian Fredrick Buechner: “A sacrament is when something holy happens … we might see that life itself is sacramental.”

I then, of course, for I know the rules, went on to write about the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but at the base, under it all, we might be assisted by Buechner’s assessment.

This was the line of my statement of faith that dissenters to my ordination found objectionable. In the Presbytery of New York City, it wouldn’t have been cool to vote me down based on me being openly queer, even way back then. So the dissenters picked this apart. I should have known better than to have provided a poem as a statement of faith.

Standing on the floor, trying to defend myself, my body shrank into itself with this line of questioning. My words stumbled. I stood, shaking, in the same sanctuary where I would be ordained as soon as humanly possible, so no one had the time to file charges against the act of the presbytery that would ordain me.

In aikido, in this art, I find a consistent reminder of sacrament … when something holy happens … when we are transformed.

From betrayal to learning to trust again. From body hatred to learning its strength. Just as we all are. Where we show up as ourselves, learning to follow. Learning to lead. All depending on who our partner is. We can’t do this work alone; we need each other. Alone is not an option. Jesus said that, too.

It could all go away, at any minute. I know that now. At present, I don’t know how I could live or love without my practice. But the sweetness of belonging I find. How long it has taken me to trust again so that I can experience being a valuable part of the whole? It is worth it.