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WORDS FROM FRIENDS

CARA OOSTERHOUSE: GRASSROOTS PERSISTENCE IN THE CRC

I knew Cara Oosterhouse online before I ever met her in real life. She is a member of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the church of my youth. She was baptized as an infant in the Neland Avenue CRC and has been a member there ever since. She is also a lesbian, and we met because she is the online presence of All One Body (A1B), an organization working toward full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members in their CRC homes. Although I left the church forty-two years ago and have since joined a more progressive church, I maintain ties and watch with special interest how the CRC is moving on inclusion of LGBTQ people and other social justice issues. Last summer Cara and I met for the first time at Harmony Brewing Company, one of my favorite eats-and-drinks venues in Grand Rapids, MI, and last week I interviewed Cara on the phone. As we talked, I imagined her sitting beside a crackling fire, like the ones I’ve seen on her Facebook posts.

After chatting a bit about how Cara’s construction business is going (very well, despite the fact that we are now in autumn, soon to be winter), I asked my first question, “How did you experience your faith as a child?” That question always seems to give people pause for a moment, and Cara was no exception.

“Hmmm. I think…that’s interesting.” Then she began talking about how the whole family ate breakfast and dinner together during the week and all three meals on weekends. “After every meal we read from the Bible, straight through from Genesis to Revelation, always a good number of verses each time. It took about three years to get through the whole Bible, and we couldn’t make a quick detour to Romans, for example; we went absolutely in order. So as a child, a big part of my faith was definitely about a series of stories, about Biblical knowledge.

“Also, we had a minister in our church when I was in elementary school and junior high who wasn’t very good at engaging kids. And there weren’t very many kids in the church at the time. But once he said from pulpit that he would love it if the kids drew pictures for him from his sermons. Before that, my dad wouldn’t let me draw in church, but then I had license from the pulpit. I always had a little pad with me after that, and I drew what the sermon was about. It actually helped me listen.”

“What about as an adolescent?” I asked.

“In high school we had catechism class, and we memorized a fair amount of the catechism. Not all of it. That’s when I started delving into those Reformed principles, things that were in the Heidelberg Catechism. Dad was very much a follow-the-rules kind of guy. At Neland, we read the Ten Commandments every Sunday morning, so my faith at that point was about stories and rules to follow in life. The arc of love and grace was something that came later. It wasn’t there in the beginning.”

“So in the beginning your faith was a lot about stories and rules,” I said. “Did that change for you as a young adult?”

“I think it was always important to me. One thing I’ve always been really grateful for—a lot of people I talk to have had terrible arguments with God. My dad died when I was 16, and he was in the hospital for a year before that. So I had lots of opportunity to be angry, but I always felt comforted by my faith and not angry. We always went to church morning and evening.” Then, as if she were confessing something, but laughing at the same time, Cara said, “My rebellion consisted of going with a friend to a different CRC from Neland for the evening service.

“We had a couple of really good Bible teachers at the Christian high school I went to, and I started learning less about stories and rules and more about faith and love. One of those teachers gave us a choice: instead of taking the final exam, we could memorize Romans 8. That was better for my faith than the exam and wise on part of our teacher.”

I understand why memorizing Romans 8 was so meaningful to Cara’s faith, which had previously been built on stories and rules. This chapter is all about freedom from the law, about abundant grace, being heirs to God’s goodness right alongside Christ, about all things working together for good for those who love God, about not being able to ever be separated from God’s love by anything. The apostle Paul ends the chapter, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I was about to ask Cara how she would describe her faith today, but I realized that I would have missed something important if I made that my next question. Instead I asked, “When did you start to realize that you were a lesbian?”

“It was after I was married, in my early to mid 20s. Denial was a finely tuned thing in my life, and it took a long time for me to admit my sexuality. I didn’t even think of it because it wasn’t part of the plan. Oddly, it was when I was back working at Calvin College. My boss, who was also a dear friend, recognized that I was gay and that my marriage wasn’t right for me. She knew that I needed to do something about it, and she confronted me. It took me two years to ask for a divorce and then another year and a half after that to tell my mom.

“I didn’t really get to tell her because I was outed on national public radio.” Cara chuckled. “After Calvin,” she said, “I started working construction. I drove a lot and listened to NPR when I was driving. I heard Rev. John Shelby Spong speak on the Diane Rehm Show about the full inclusion of LGBT people. I sent an email to Diane Rehm, saying I was a lesbian living in Western Michigan, and said it was refreshing to hear this point of view. Rehm read the email on the air a week later with my full name. My mom was listening to the show.”

“Well that jerked you right out of the closet,” I said, and we both laughed. Cara expressed surprise that only one other person who knew her seemed to have heard the outing, and he was someone she had already come out to.

I came back to the question I’d been going to ask next—how Cara would describe her faith now.

“My faith is terribly, deeply important to me. My relationship with God is incredibly important to me. I struggle with communion of the saints, though.” She laughed again, and I took her to mean that it’s the human beings in the church that give her difficulty. “I keep stirring things up in my dear church to get them to talk about this subject [of full inclusion]. And now I have more and more people who want to have coffee and chat with me about it. That’s good. I still struggle to integrate my sexuality with the Reformed tradition that I love in a denomination that isn’t quite there.”

“What is it that you love about the Reformed tradition?”

“Part of it is that in my church, preaching has always been very important, scripture-based, tied to Reformed theology. I also like the traditional liturgy; not a Sunday goes by without us reciting the Apostles Creed, singing the doxology. That’s a comforting part of my faith, and I leave feeling fed and ready for the next week.”

“ And how would you say that your sexuality has impacted your faith?

“I think it made me think a lot longer and harder than most people do. Faced with this tradition that wants to label me as disordered and my life as incompatible with scripture, I hear this, but it doesn’t jibe with anything in my life. I’ve spent a lot more time studying, praying, thinking, and processing my faith than a lot of people probably do. And what the church says doesn’t fit with what my heart is saying.”

“Now sort of the opposite question. How has your faith impacted your sexuality?”

“I’ve always felt that I need to be upholding the same principles I was taught, applying what I was taught about heterosexual relationships to my lesbian relationship. I’ve been fairly conservative in my sexuality because I needed to stay consistent, compatible with my faith. I have friends who, when they came out, didn’t do that. My faith made my sexuality somewhat isolated, but I’m still alive and kicking. I’m not dead. I had a very dear friend who, when he came out, his family and church threw him out. He basically committed suicide by HIV. Antiviral drugs were available then, but he wouldn’t take them, and he died at 26 or 27.”

“You’ve stayed in the CRC, in the same church in which you were baptized. How did your faith inform that decision?

“That’s probably more my personality than my faith. I have the fine Dutch combination of being stubborn and being stuck in my ways.” Cara chuckled. “When my mom was still living in her own house, we worshipped together and that was important to me. There were a few years when I was conflicted about staying, but worshipping with my mom was important to me. Now I’ve been at that church a long time, and I have the feeling that if people think I shouldn’t be there, I can say, ‘I’ve been here a lot longer than you or than a lot of people, so I’m staying.’ Also, Neland is in Classis Grand Rapids East [a regional governing body], which is a fairly progressive classis, as things go. It’s not as hostile as some of the more conservative ones.”

I picked up on her statement that there was a time when she was conflicted about staying in the CRC. “When was that?”

“It was after I was out to my mom but before I met Jacquie [Cara’s wife]. Probably fifteen to seventeen years ago. I still didn’t know who my allies were at Neland. There was no discussion going on in the church, and not knowing who my allies were made it tough to stay.”

Despite the difficulties she acknowledged, I didn’t get the impression that Cara had ever seriously considered leaving. When I asked, she said that she hadn’t. “First,” she said, “there wasn’t an overt desire on the part of the church to kick me out, despite my sexuality. And, I continued to be spiritually fed at Neland by the preaching and the liturgy.”

Since A1B on Facebook is the most consistent way I’ve known Cara, and since it is one of the most open forms of LGBTQ activism in the CRC, I wanted to know how she’d gotten involved with A1B.

“I think it was about five years ago that Sherman Street CRC sent an overture to Synod [the national governing body of the CRC], asking them to reexamine scripture and revise the church’s 1973 decision on homosexuality.” Synod refused to even reexamine that decision. Cara went on, “After that, A1B came out of the Eastern Avenue CRC. A couple of folks there said, “This decision stinks. We need to talk about this stuff. They went to their church council and asked for support and meeting space, and the council gave the go-ahead. Those people called me out of the blue. Until then, I hadn’t heard about anything brewing.”

She went on to say that she thought they knew of her through Jim Lucas, a former CRC minister, who had been open about his gay orientation and had formed a gay ministry within the church. However, when Lucas publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage within the church, he lost his ministerial credentials. He later formed Gays in Faith Together (GIFT), and Cara had served on the organization’s board.

“Quite frankly,” Cara said, “GIFT became ecumenical and was especially a support to Christians who were coming out. In fact, people supporting Jim read like a Who’s Who of the CRC. Even though Jim was out of the CRC, he had a lot of support there. GIFT was a nonprofit, and it evolved to provide various programs over time. Jim did a ton of one-on-one support over the years. GIFT provided speakers, sponsored events and support groups, an annual Christmas service, and fundraising events. One of our most public projects was the “Gay Christian? Yes!” campaign. We put that slogan on a billboard on US 131 in Grand Rapids, and we had it on bumper stickers. We also released a bunch of videos on our website.”

I asked how the CRC Synod’s failure to respond to the request to reexamine the 1973 decision has impacted her faith. In fact, on the day that Cara and I met at Harmony Brewing, Synod was considering an overture to censure All One Body, the churches that offered the organization meeting space, and Cara by name. I had just read online that the overture had failed, and we were able hold a bit of a celebration, although we knew there would be more to come.

Her reply to my question was, “I don’t think it’s impacted my faith, but it has made my love of Synod even less than before. There’s a deadly combination of politics and fear in that body. Older white guys still have firm control of Synod. But there’s enough maneuvering in the background that they aren’t even aware of. People ask me, ‘Do you want Synod to fix this?’ and I say, ‘No, because they’re not going to fix anything.’ Right now there’s still a tiny bit of ambiguity for working around things. But if people keep sending in overtures instead of having conversations, if they keep trying to solve this through Synod, I think the conservatives will win. But if we have grassroots conversations, that’s where real change will happen, and Synod will come kicking and screaming behind when the grassroots say, ‘Hey, we want something different.’”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s such an important concept. Have you said it publicly?”

“I say it until I’m blue in the face,” she said. “I guess another part of that, too, is that in the CRC we love to have neat little packages delivered from Synod—telling us what the absolute Truth is. We’d be much better off to allow a little uncertainty instead of a package with a neat little bow. I’d like to see people be able to live in ambiguity and uncertainty instead of within some Truth that everyone is going to abide by.”

When I asked if there was anything Cara wanted to add, she offered an analogy she’d heard recently.

“It relates to how the CRC is about welcoming LGBT members. It goes like this:

The church: I want to give you a hug.
LGBT Christian: But you’re standing on my foot.
The church: But I want to give you a hug.
LGBT Christian: But my foot hurts.

I find that very true in my life. It’s not the fire and brimstone messages about homosexuality or trying to kick me out that cause the pain. At Neland we’ve had lots of conversations. They look you square in the eye and tell you how much they love you. And I keep feeling, ‘But you’re standing on my foot.’ They don’t get it. That’s okay. I will keep trying to get them to get it.”

To see the Facebook page that Cara administers for All One Body, use the Quick Link in the right column on this page.


© Anna Redsand 2015 All Rights Reserved
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