A few weeks ago in an Old Ticker blog I wrote a Pride Month tribute to a deceased friend, Warren James, celebrated by many in Portland for his early, long, unrelenting struggle for his own rights and the rights of others like him, a gay man.
In this post during Pride Month, I seek to honor Andrew Freeman, a much younger gay man and gladly still with us, for his courageous and costly leadership and his steadfastness being a hopeful forerunner in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and for being the beautiful person he is.
In the first days of 2011, Andrew and his pastor, Philip Brockett, created a Facebook page they named “Coming Out Covenant” to be a forum where gay Covenanters, their families, and their supporters could tell their stories. The page would not be closed with membership carefully selected and protected but open to any who chose to read what was written there.
On January 18, 2011, on that open site, Andrew quoted a letter he had written to the Covenant Companion, his denomination’s bi-monthly magazine, that included this paragraph:
Much of my formation can be attributed to the nurturing care of Covenant churches. And yet, rich as my Covenant heritage may be my place in this church appears questionable. In this church, I have been baptized, confirmed, spiritually formed, theologically educated, and called. I am all of these things… and I am also gay. My voice is one of an isolated minority, left to struggle in silence, deeply committed to this church, yet plagued by the seemingly unanswered question: “IS there place for us in this church?”
Those words and Andrew’s experience were sharply painful when I first read them and even more now reading them again seven years down the road, for every word he wrote then remains true today. Andrew has been boycotted by his church, his request for ordination relentlessly denied although he is fully theologically trained, well-qualified, and assuredly called to ministry.
Some four years after that first statement, with no sign of progress at all toward affirmation of him or others who were openly gay, Andrew wrote another open letter, dated October 12, 2015, and posted in Coming Out Covenant, to the president of his denomination. After several paragraphs about the hurt he received from words the denomination’s top leader had used when speaking about gay people, he wrote:
In a spirit of reconciliation, the third thing I want you to know is that I am committed to being your companion in this long and difficult journey. One of the most troubling aspects of the recently released guidelines for clergy and the accompanying resource on dissent was the suggestion that clergy who find themselves in ongoing dissent with the church have only two principled options: to yield to the church’s position, or to conclude their service with the church. Two options: yield, or leave.
Now, three years after that letter—I am unaware of how it was received since Andrew promised secrecy for any response—Andrew has not yielded nor has he left. Employed in a church of another denomination but not ordained there, he yet remains with his friends and colleagues and near to the ongoing debate within his church, a debate which in those three years has become vastly more intense, with now several clergy turned away either because of becoming uncloseted, for participation in gay marriages, or simply that they have exposed their protest to full public view. While the upholders of the denomination’s position have become more galvanized, so indeed have those who oppose; battle lines have been clearly drawn, and smoke of confrontation now fills the virtual sky. Andrew remains close at hand and involved and a perennial figurehead representing the enormous costliness in individual lives of the intractability of denominational leaders—positive of predominant support from churches and pastors—on this unresolved issue.
Andrew’s exclusion defines for me the cruelty of the church’s stance. It is simply imperceivable that one so superbly equipped, able, and proven, so committed and loyal and assured of his own calling, can be excluded for no other reason that his sexual preference. I am dismayed beyond reason—and what follows here explains some of the cause of my pain.
Fifty-five years ago this coming fall I began a four-year stint working with Andrew’s grandfather, Rev. William A. Freeman, on the staff of First Covenant Church, Omaha, where he had served long and well and was near retirement age. A son of Swedish pioneer immigrants, he had been born into the church and also had served long and very well there, one of a generation of pastors who led the challenging transition from Swedish to English as the principal language of church life. He also was a veteran of battles that had gone on in the denomination for decades, provoked by a fundamentalist cadre among pastors. He had witnessed angry clergy shouting “Heresy” He had stood back of denominational leaders whose words and actions maddened fundamentalists. With roots deep into the Pietist history and ethos of the denomination, he defended the freedom of thought and practice that history embodied. Thus, Andrew shares roots in that history and ethos; his being blocked from fulfilling his calling to ministry within that arena is unusually brutal.
Beyond those four years working with Pastor Freeman, Annette and I have enjoyed close friendship with Andrew’s branch of that Freeman family. His father, Bob, was a frequent visitor in our Chicago home and friend of our children. When our son, Philip, died Bob was one of our most persistent carers in our grief, for he truly shared that grief. When he and Andrew’s mother, Bev, were married, they chose an apartment barely half a Chicago block from us, and we were together often. Later on, after all of us had left Chicago for New England, our meetings were fewer, but I recall well an occasion around the dinner table in Bob and Bev’s West Hartford home with the family, and especially blond, curly-haired Andrew, friendly, bright, charming—and there were later meetings at Pilgrim Pines where Andrew’s unique talents shone brightly. During part of my time as pastor in West Peabody, Massachusetts, his uncle, Chuck, was a parishioner. It’s obvious I’m not an unbiased onlooker in my concern about the rejection Andrew has since experienced at the hands of the leaders of the denomination of his birth and in which his growth has happened.
A new set of church leaders soon to be elected seems likely to move even further from the foundations many of us love, as Andrew does, and if like me, acutely resent the destruction we see happening in defense of a position that’s untenable from any perspective of distance. Yet for whatever reasons that are cloaked in biblical words, our leaders soldier on, determined and uncompromising, and people like Andrew are the collateral damage of the battle. Despite his many qualifications, Andrew asks no special treatment, no unique standing; he asks simply for equality, for himself and for his—and our, assuredly our within the family of our common Creator—brothers and sisters who are queer.
Andrew, we salute you, for you have led us. You have paid a high price. You have laid down your career so things would be different. Sadly, we have been unable to reduce that cost. We have not yet been able to help you back to our team. We lament with you. We long to see you serving in the church where we have served, and we believe strenuously and unreservedly that your church can and must include you in its freedom. What a glorious day it will be when you are welcomed once again!