This is a true story. The family gave me permission, but I still changed their names to protect anonymity. My reason for sharing this will become clear by the end.
Bill was a member of a church I served, and I had grown close to him and his blended family. He had a daughter from his first marriage named Anna. One weekend, Anna stayed at his home for a scheduled custody visit. Early in the morning, a daughter by his current marriage found her stepsister hanging in the backyard, already dead for hours.
Adding another layer of damage to this inconceivable tragedy was the story of Anna’s final days. Her mother belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While invading her daughter’s privacy, she discovered that Anna had texted her boyfriend some explicit images. Her mother’s discipline included dragging Anna in front of the male elders and shaming her in public. That shame was one of the triggers for her suicide.
The so-called memorial service at the Kingdom Hall was no source of comfort. Bill said it was cold and impersonal, and that one of the church’s members intentionally whispered within his earshot, “The sins of the father are visited upon the child.”
Let the brutality of that comment sink in for a moment.
Suffering a bottomless grief no parent can even describe, Bill came to my office with his current wife, wondering if we could offer an alternative service at our church. I readily agreed, as did the elders of our congregation.
Anna was a student at a local charter high school specializing in creative arts. A talented artist in her own right, she had an array of friends who created in multimedia. I suggested that we open our sanctuary as a space to celebrate her life, letting others say goodbye to her with their own artistic flairs.
And so it happened, an event I dubbed Annapalooza. Friends, teachers, and administrators from the school packed our pews. For over two hours, they took turns sharing poems, paintings, videos, and songs. Some simply stood and gave short eulogies. Each one illuminated an aspect of Anna’s short life, and the uniqueness of this special young woman rose up palpably in our midst.
I simply acted as a host, offering prayers, my love for the family, and a short benediction. We had no illusions. We knew this tragedy would cast a lifelong shadow, but as we cried and laughed and began to process our collective grief, we hoped that we were reframing, even re-envisioning that pain at its outset.
So…why am I sharing this?
Because the degrading of those who are different or make mistakes continues in too many religious quarters. Even when people say, “we love the sinner but hate the sin,” the message is loud and clear. Your behavior or lifestyle falls outside the boundary of what we deem acceptable. We have judged you.
Gay and trans people will readily attest to this attempt at shaming. So can those who suffer from various addictive diseases. But the lifestyle judgers now go far beyond those favorite targets. They are now including politics, race awareness, even a person’s reading habits.
And let’s be clear. This venom is not just endemic to conservative American Christianity. It has been a poison spewed by many world religions and political movements. It is written into our history books, and this demonization of “the other” seems to be on the rise.
Today, I no longer align myself with any particular faith. As I look back on my 32 years spent laboring within organized Christianity, I—like many of my friends—can clearly see its institutional limitations and errors.
But when it comes to events like Annapalooza, I can say this with absolute certainty. There are communities of faith that practice grace and love, that stand with those on the margin, that labor for unity and inclusion. I blessedly found such a group early in my own life. That experience led me to say this in my book, Invitation to The Overview: “Giving people the space to connect to their own spiritual meanings without the pressure of conformity is a priceless gift. This is the real meaning of sanctuary.”
We offered that sanctuary to Anna and her family, and in the years since, I have seen what it meant for them.
Grace, which I define as a powerful, often unmerited offering of love and service for the healing of our world, is still a compelling message of my former faith. When I recall Annapalooza—a memory I will take to my grave—I know the clear difference this grace can make.
I am so glad for churches like yours that are true examples of love, compassion and acceptance. This girl and her father didn’t in ANY way deserve the treatment she got from her OWN MOTHER, or that he got from that church member. It’s beyond reprehensible. May your church be richly blessed for being exactly the sanctuary it’s meant to be.
Thank you for the affirmation. During the course of my career I met many pastors and their members who exhibited the same kind of grace. It’s just the more cultic reactionary Christian forces that get all the press. Unfortunately.