It’s been two and a half weeks since our staff returned to Toronto, and I’m still sitting here, trying to make sense of what happened during the three weeks of our Epic Road Trip across western Canada. At risk of stating the obvious, the trek, for me, was a mix of the expected and the unexpected.
I expected to bond with my co-workers, and I did. We enjoyed so many shared experiences: the hotels (good and bad), the restaurants (good and bad), listening to the addictive Serial podcast (always good) as well as Danice’s highly educational musical playlists – overviews of music through the decades – and of course, lots and lots of Tim Horton’s, the one blessed constant across the many miles and time zones of Canada. There were many “firsts” for us – Danice got her first speeding ticket, Wes tasted his first Vancouver sushi, and for the first time, I held up traffic while driving off a docked ferry because I couldn’t figure out how to disengage the parking brake. Among other things, I learned that Wes always finishes eating one dish on his plate before moving on to another (leaving his tomatoes uneaten), and that Wendy observes “licorice-o-clock” almost daily, at least on road trips, though the actual hour varies.
What I didn’t expect was how well our team members would perform under pressure. I watched Wendy soldier on with presentation after presentation (by the end, she told us she was sick of the sound of her own voice!), always able to answer emotion-laden questions with her characteristic non-anxious wisdom. She also “took one for the team” by downing a disgusting Red Bull so she could drive late into the night and get us home earlier. I marveled as Wes responded to a student’s “question” (which was really more of an accusatory comment) with saint-like grace and patience. I even saw new facets of my own wife as I listened to her tell the stories of queer teens each evening, constantly tweaking her presentation to make it clearer and more engaging.
I expected to see some familiar faces, and I did. It felt at times like I was taking a trip into my own past. Dozens of people from my childhood church attended our event in Saskatoon, giving me the opportunity to tell them my coming out story in person for the first time, which for some reason made my voice quiver more than at any other stop. Danice’s and my mutual friends were over a hundred strong at our event in Vancouver, filling us with hope and gratitude for their solidarity. One of my dearest childhood friends surprised me by driving an hour and a half to Kamloops to join in on our event. I reunited with members of my high school Christian drama team in more than one city, and I was also shocked to meet one of my Jr. High youth leaders in Lethbridge, whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years! We were so grateful to accept the beautiful hospitality of friends and family scattered across Canada.
What I didn’t expect was how the unfamiliar faces would also stick with me… The lady who hugged me tightly after I shared my story, weeping and saying simply, “I’m a mom,” before sharing her own story of journeying with her gay son. The chaplain who treated Danice and me like royalty, taking us out for dinner after our event so we could continue discussing how to help students develop healthier ideas about sex and sexuality. The courageous lesbian whose father, a Baptist pastor like my own father, had sadly reacted to her recent coming out with heartbreaking rejection and patronizing messages. The many pastors who hosted our conversations, some putting their job security at risk in the process. I will cherish these encounters as holy moments in my life.
I expected it to be hard, and it was, though not for the reasons I expected. I had steeled myself at the beginning of the trip, fearing we’d face open opposition and suspicion from people on both theological extremes. While we did receive a few unsympathetic e-mails from churches we invited, and had to field one or two hostile questions in person, overall, my fears didn’t really materialize. Perhaps these opinionated people chose not to come, or if they did attend, they chose to remain silent, or maybe – dare I hope? – they took a different posture and tone because of the “generously spacious” way we framed the conversation. I so admired the participants who, though they were coming from a theological tradition that would not support my marriage, were nonetheless able to ask me humble questions, genuinely curious about how I interpreted Scripture and lived out my faith.
What ended up being harder for us was the emotional depletion of opening up about our lives night after night to different crowds, uncertain of how people would receive our words, and whether or not they would write us off. It was also exhausting (but important) to hang out afterwards with attendees and listen to their stories about difficult family or church experiences after coming out, to sit in on their pain for a time. Other factors added to the strain, like my grandma’s unexpected death during the trip, and the awkward disorientation Danice and I felt as we retraced our journey back to the place we had so recently moved away from, and then left it again. At so many moments we were like cracked jars, hoping some kind of divine strength would shine through our human frailty. Which brings me to my last observation…
I expected to see God show up, and thankfully He did, though not always in the ways I expected. I saw Him during the many hours looking out the van window, in the jagged snow-capped peaks of Banff, the rows of windmills silhouetted by the orange sunset sky outside Lethbridge, and the waterfalls frozen in mid-flow on the rock faces between Seattle and Spokane. I watched Him answer our desperate whispered prayers for a problem-free border crossing back into Canada. I could almost hear Him laugh as He introduced me to a man who had attended my seminary years before me, and had donated some theologically diverse books about homosexuality to the seminary library when he left the city – the very books I had loaned and found so life-changing during my own coming out experience! I saw the image of God on the faces of folks at our events who were eagerly opening up to a new way of tackling a divisive question, or who were discovering with relief that they weren’t the only Christians in their cities who wanted to have a different kind of conversation about sexuality.
In both the expected and the unexpected, God was present, reminding us we couldn’t do it on our own strength. I’m so grateful to have seen Him at work across this vast country, in some of the places I have called home, softening hearts, challenging minds, knitting diverse people together in unity, and filling me with hope for the future of the Canadian church.