When Sarah and Elizabeth Clapp considered joining Northwood Presbyterian Church (NPC) in San Antonio, Texas, Pastor Traci Smith knew the congregation would welcome them. The question was “how deeply?”
She decided to employ a simple exercise as the elders gathered for their monthly meeting. Share a story, she asked, about one person you know who is gay, and specifically tell us—if you know—about how other churches received them. The stories were diverse, and throughout all of them it became obvious that NPC’s leaders wanted to extend an unconditional welcome. It was a sacramental moment, illuminating the truth that listening is hospitality made flesh.
When the Clapps joined, they immediately experienced this inclusion. It was especially gratifying for Sarah, who grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition and attended a conservative non-denominational Christian school for 13 years. She looks back on that time with mixed emotions.
“There are so many negative things I could say. They were hypocritical, judgmental, rich, white, ‘know-it-all’ Christians. But there were also many positives. That school grounded me in my faith. I received an in-depth micro-seminary education. They gave me questions without easy answers. They taught me to think for myself and to have my own relationship with our Creator. They showed me how to incorporate spirituality into my daily life. All this was extremely important during a formative period in my life, ensuring that I had a solid foundation for my faith.”
Those benefits, however, were ultimately outweighed by the fact that Sarah could never fully be herself. Further, she saw the tragedy of students expelled for openly declaring their sexual orientation. Later, she and Elizabeth experienced this same exclusivity at other churches, where they were barred from working with children and found closed doors when it came to positions of meaningful leadership.
In a testimony to the strength of her spirit, Sarah says, “All that judgment and rejection didn’t shake my faith, just my faith in people.”
Everything changed when they came to NPC.
“Everyone here was willing to listen to the fullness of our stories, and the acceptance has been like coming home. We have had people say to us, ‘I wasn’t sure about where I stood on marriage equality, but after experiencing it with you and Elizabeth, I have come to embrace it, and now I am sharing the message with my friends.’”
Since joining NPC, the Clapps have celebrated the baptism of their daughter, Samantha, and Sarah’s ordination as a Ruling Elder. She is now leading the Membership and Evangelism Team, strategizing ways to welcome all people into a community of love and acceptance. She is spearheading the effort to bring Jennifer Knapp to NPC, the Christian recording artist who came out as lesbian and now has a touring ministry called Inside Out Faith. Its mission is to “actively engage faith communities in order to educate, affirm and foster support of LGBTQ persons and their allies.”
Sarah remains grateful for the community of faith their family has found at NPC, and the ministry of witness it provides.
“The longer we are here,” she says, “the more we see how our continual presence is working its way through the hearts of so many people.”