My mom was brought up Roman Catholic, my dad was brought up Greek Orthodox, and they were both saved (converted to the Independent Fundamental Baptist belief system) when I was a year old. My family, which included me and my two brothers, moved from Michigan to South Carolina in 1965 so my dad could attend Bob Jones University’s pastorate program. We began attending a local Independent Fundamental Baptist church. There were five more children born into our family, and times were tough while my dad attended school. When he graduated and was ordained, he applied to several of the BJU network churches, but nothing panned out. Dad joined the staff of the Greenville Rescue Mission and began working in ministry with the men who stayed there.
Mom never worked outside the home while I was growing up. She took care of us kids and the home while dad ministered outside the home. I can remember as a young child, waking up in the early morning hours and seeing my dad on his knees praying in his study. Dad and Mom were very strict and followed the guidelines they learned from the church we attended. We were forced to read the Bible every day: we had to read a chapter out of Proverbs every morning or we didn’t get to eat breakfast. My parents filled our home with rules – the girls couldn’t wear pants or cut their hair and the boys had to have short hair, wear long pants all the time, and wear neckties to church. We all sat together as a family in church – even when we reached our teens. We were not allowed to participate in youth group activities outside the church. Any activities held at someone’s house or at another location were frowned on by my parents. I think they were afraid we would be “corrupted” by being in an atmosphere that wasn’t controlled by them. I remember being allowed to participate with the Bible quiz teams at our church where we memorized entire books of the Bible. I also became a part of BMA (Bible Memory Association), which is about memorizing scripture and receiving prizes for being able to quote it to a mentor. We even had a Bible Club in our home every Saturday for years (ten or more) where a group of BJU students would come and teach Bible lessons in our home.
I assumed that I was saved because my parents were Christians, because we were in church all the time, and because I knew so much about the Bible. When I was thirteen, I heard a visiting pastor preach at our church, and for the first time realized that I needed to have Jesus in my own heart rather than being dependent on my parent’s salvation. Shortly after being saved and baptized, I dedicated my life to being a missionary, which really seemed to please my parents.
I never thought about homosexuality or the possibility that I was gay. It was not a subject that was discussed in our family or in our church. As a matter of fact, I always assumed I would get married and have a lot of kids, just like my mom. One of the many verses I was made to memorize was I Timothy 5:14: “I would rather the younger women marry, bear children and be keepers of the home.” I always knew that this was my lot in life. In my senior year, I started looking at going to college.
My parents wanted me to go to Bob Jones, but I wanted to go to college out of state with my best friend. I went to one of our pastoral counselors at church to talk to him about my desire to go to a college other than BJU: I was told that I was a rebellious and ungrateful teen who had no idea what my parents had gone through for me; I was told that as long as I lived under their roof, I had to do what they wanted me to do. So I did. For three years, I attended Bob Jones, but when I turned twenty one, I bought a car, left home, and quit school. I also stopped going to church. When I left home, my mom told me not to call home to talk to my brothers and sisters. She said if I needed anything, I could call my dad. I left broken, hurt, and angry. I didn’t even care what happened to me.
I got a job and began to spend my weekends and sometimes week days partying and doing what I wanted to do. I got rid of all my skirts and dresses and began wearing nothing but pants and shorts. To this day, I do not own a skirt or dress. I listened to rock and heavy metal music, tried marijuana, and did all the things I wasn’t allowed to do when I lived at home. The first time I attended a movie, I was terrified that the building would be punished by God and struck by lightning because I was there. I remember attending a minor league baseball game where my brother and I had a few beers. Someone from our church was at the game and told my parents that we were drinking. Both of us were condemned by my family and by the church. By the way, when I left that church, no one from the church ever tried to contact me or see if I was okay.
My brother, who is three years younger than I, was going through some rough times in school and with my parents. One day he shared some things with me and I told him that I thought he was gay. He said that he was afraid that he might be and that he didn’t want to be gay. Unfortunately, to this day, he prays that God will take it away from him.
When I was thirty-two, a wonderfully sweet man asked me to marry him, and I said, “Yes.” He was a very thoughtful, genuinely nice guy, and we are still friends to this day. I was engaged for about a month when I began feeling some strange feelings…nothing I could put my finger on, but I knew that marrying this man was not what I wanted to do. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him face to face, so I got drunk one night and called him to tell him that I couldn’t see him anymore. He asked me why, and I told him I didn’t even know why myself. I was very unhappy. Over the next few months, I continued to look for happiness and even contemplated having a baby, thinking that might take away the deep sadness I felt inside. Of course, nothing seemed to fill the void or shed light on the darkness I was experiencing.
I had some gay friends that I enjoyed hanging out with, but I still did not think that I myself could be gay because it was not an option to consider. I knew it was “wrong,” that being gay meant I would go to hell. The pain inside continued to linger and seemed to get stronger the more I tried to suppress it. The summer I turned thirty-four, one of my gay friends invited me to spend the week with her in Oklahoma while she visited her sister. This friend of mine was in a gay relationship, but her family did not accept her partner, so her partner couldn’t go with her. I accepted the invitation and went to Oklahoma, not realizing that this trip would change my life.
When we arrived in Tulsa, my friend said she wanted to go out and have a few drinks and shoot some pool. She said that she was going to a gay bar, and I agreed to go with her. It was a very small pool hall with about five or six people there, but as soon as I walked through the door, I felt a sense of belonging. I wasn’t sure why I felt this way, but at the time, I didn’t care. After we returned home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how accepted I felt around those gay people and how natural it felt to be with them. I called my friend and told her that I thought I might be gay. She gave me a few books to read, and over the next few times of talking with her, I realized that I was, that I am a lesbian.
There were so many different emotions that came out of my realization that I am gay. I finally felt like I was alive and that I could be who I was meant to be. Things in my past finally made sense to me, and some of the feelings that I had not been able to explain became clearer to me. But there were other emotions that I experienced that terrified me. From my education in the IFB system, I couldn’t shake the notion that I was cursed, that I would never be able to go to heaven. I knew that I was saved, but I had also been taught that God considered me an abomination. I began to live my life as a condemned person: if I wasn’t going to heaven anyway, why even worry about living like I was a Christian?
In 1997, I met my partner Cindy. We fell in love and a year later we bought a home together. In February 2001, Cindy came home from her job as a forklift operator with what we thought was a pulled muscle. After a week and no change in her physical ailment, we called her doctor, who advised that it was probably a sprain and sent her home to rest. Her job was okay with her taking the time to heal, so Cindy did what the doctors told her to do. The pain and lack of mobility seemed to increase, so Cindy was sent to a neurologist who did a scan. The scan revealed nothing conclusive, so they put her on muscle relaxers and anti-inflammatory meds and again told her to rest. When she called her job, they told her not to come back until she was released to come back. The “sprain” in Cindy’s neck continued to worsen, and one morning she woke up and couldn’t move her head. After another trip to the doctor, an X-ray revealed that her skull was resting on her spinal column with no disc in between. Her skull was actually locked into her first vertebra. It had taken nearly seven months for a diagnosis. We then received news that the only surgeon in South Carolina that had done the type of surgery Cindy needed hadn’t performed it in about four years. We ended up scheduling surgery with a specialist at Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia for January of 2002.
When we discussed the operation with her surgeon, he told us that there was a 50-50 chance that Cindy would survive. Cindy and I were both Christians, but had lived our own lives for many years even before we got together. We both knew that this was something beyond either of us, and that we would need moral support to go through the days ahead. Still believing that we were doomed to hell, but also knowing that we needed other people to help us through this time, we sought out a church. Hearing about Greenville MCC (Metropolitan Community Church), we showed up one Sunday and sat in the back row. We were skeptical when they kept saying that God still loved us and accepted us: all the things I’d been taught growing up kept coming back to negate what I was hearing.
I went through a class on Homosexuality and the Bible and began to see these scriptures differently, not because they were making the verses say what they wanted them to say, but because the scriptures didn’t say at all what I had been brought up to believe. When we looked at the verses in the Bible that I used to believe condemned me, we would look at who it was written to, the time period it was written, and the circumstances that were happening at the time it was written. I also found out that in order to interpret a verse properly, I needed to read the verses before and after, not just the verse I was trying to understand. I began to feel as if I belonged again.
In 2004, I felt the call to be a deacon in our church, but again did not see how I could do that. In the church where I grew up, women did not have places of authority in the church. They did not pray out loud in services, and they could only teach Sunday school if it were girls they were teaching. I struggled for a while with the fact that I was a woman and gay and being called to be a deacon, but I knew that God was calling me. After I became a deacon in our church, I began to grow spiritually. Our pastor at the time (who is my pastor now) preached and taught in such a way that it made me hungry for God again. The more I grew spiritually, the more I wanted to grow.
As I grew in Christ, I began to read and understand His Word, and through His Holy Spirit, I was able to finally come to terms with who God created me to be. I recognized that I didn’t just “happen” to be gay, I wasn’t “punished” by being gay, and I’m not “condemned” for being gay. God specifically created me as a gay individual, in His perfect image, and for His perfect purpose.
In the fall of 2007, I began seminary, and in June of this year, I was ordained into the ministry as a pastor at our current church, New Day Christian Community Church in Greer, SC. To say that my journey has been filled with ups and downs would be an understatement. But it has been necessary to bring me to the place where I am today. I know that even those times growing up and at SBC (Southside Baptist Church, now called Southside Fellowship) and BJU were all part of God’s plan for me. Those institutions gave me a biblical foundation (albeit a misinterpreted one at the time), and they provided me with the tools I needed to help myself and also be able to help others. I am so grateful that God led me down the path He has, and I am so blessed to be able to serve Him.
Teresa preaching at a recent service at New Day Christian Community Church
My parents still do not accept me and do not condone my being a pastor. However, when I stand before God at the Judgment seat of Christ, I will not be asked if I did what my parents, my church, or BJU said I had to do. What I will give an account for is if I lived my life as God wanted me to live. Did I embrace the person He created? Did I use the gifts He gave me? Did I share His truth with others? God will judge me by what I did for Him and Him alone. He is the One to whom I will answer for my life and for what I did with it. And ultimately it is God who will one day say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter now into your rest!”