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My New Friends at the University

8 years ago written by

At 10 p.m. on a Tuesday evening in January 2011, I was at the place — the campus center of the State University of New York at Fredonia— where God had led me, and I was terrified.

I knew if I got close, things were going to get messy. My mind whirled: “They’ll ask me to marry them. They’ll start hanging around my house and my teenagers. They’ll ask if my husband can donate sperm. They’ll ask me what I (and God) really think. They’ll come to church. They’ll want to help out. They’ll want to be members. Isn’t that what happens when I befriend people in Jesus’ name? What will I do? What will I say?”

The Holy Spirit whispered, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear
(1 John 4:18). … For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7)

Truth spoke to my heart as I sat in in my car and cast all my anxiety on Him
(1 Peter 5:7).

I waited until the last possible moment, coaxed myself from the car and found my way to the third floor. Just as the leader called the meeting to order, I slid into a back-row seat, joining more than 60 college students for the first Pride Alliance meeting of the semester. One by one, the council members noticed my presence. Genuine appreciation, welcome and disbelief registered intermittently on their faces. They had not expected me to come. They were glad I had.

Days before, I had met with council members for a vetting before being allowed to attend the “students only” meeting to which I had requested invitation. Previously, I had written them a letter:

“Having committed my life to the vocation of guiding people in their journey toward God, I have recently found myself deeply saddened by stories of people who experience primarily pain and rejection from the church. I have been outraged by the hostility and hatred spewed at people who are part of the LGBT community.

“Yet at the same time, I have come face to face with my own sheltered ignorance and limited exposure. I have had the privilege of hearing the life stories of only a handful of gay and lesbian individuals, and each time have realized how little I understand.

“It is my desire to learn and grow. I am a relational bridge builder by nature, and the love of God compels me to love people while leaving the judging and convicting to Him.

“So, very simply, I am asking for the privilege to simply come and get to know you, individually and as a community, and to learn from you.

“Clearly if you are not willing, I would certainly understand. On the other hand, if you would welcome me, I would be deeply honored and will aim to be trustworthy in my interactions.”

During my screening interview, I had been asked no less than 10 times, in various ways, why I was really there. Each time, I gave the simple answer: “I want to understand what it’s like to be you.”

I learned this answer from Andrew Marin’s book “Love Is an Orientation,” which God had so graciously placed in my hand months before as part of His prevenient, sanctifying, empowering grace as He wooed me out of my comfort zone and into this terrifying mission field, which I quickly discovered is ripe for harvest.

When I was given opportunity to introduce myself to the group, I publicly acknowledged my ignorance and my belief in a God who is good and my commitment to carry the tensions this experience created. The room spontaneously erupted in standing ovation. I wept as I extended my arms toward them. In that moment, I knew their applause really was for a God who would dare to draw near.

That all seems like a lifetime ago, but I remember some of the greatest fear I’ve ever experienced. Yet now “all fear is gone. Because I know…”

The next three years of weekly meetings shaped my heart and mind in ways I could not have anticipated. I fell in love with these people, and they fell in love with me. All the “what ifs” came to pass and I faced each one, in the moment, in the power of the “Word become flesh” — Christ incarnate —  in and through me. I no longer speak about “what I will do” in hypotheticals. As Richard Rohr notes, finding the will of God “is seeking the truth of each situation in that situation as best we can figure it out.”

I learned to rely on “Christ in [me], the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

ALMA THOMPSON is the co-superintendent of the Ohio Conference. She previously served as the co-lead pastor of Harvest Chapel Free Methodist Church in Fredonia, New York.

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