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Open and Affirming Reflections

by Sherry Villanueva

In a Moment for Mission at United Church of Christ of La Mesa (UCCLM) on 1/10/10,  Sherry Villanueva, wife of Pastor Félix Villanueva, shared her “thoughts and experiences” regarding UCCLM’s Open and Affirming process.

     I must confess to being a late bloomer in my spiritual enlightenment, in spite of growing up in a religious home. When I say a late bloomer, I mean it in the context of one who only later in life sought out and questioned the Bible and Christ’s teachings, something that was not encouraged in my home while growing up.  While I am eternally grateful for the Christian foundation I received as a child, I realized only a handful of years ago that I was living to a large degree the faith of my parents and not my own. While I still hold fast to many of the tenants of faith handed down to me, I have in recent years come to embrace some that differ significantly, but not without some fear and trepidation. I have to admit I had been living my life in a “spiritual safe zone,” but not necessarily an authentic one.  And so an overall dissatisfaction with where I found myself spiritually led me to begin a slow process of listening, watching, questioning, asking and, finally, to tiny tentative steps toward opening myself up to and embracing a faith that is becoming more grounded in the human and divine person of Jesus and yet still curious and open to the beauty and possibility of other truths.      

     While some of my enlightenment began well over 15 years ago, I would have to say that my faith walk was turned upside down some ten years ago when I met a “heretic” preacher who invited me to come and check out a “progressive” church.  For a girl like me who comes from an extremely fundamentalist background, the word progressive would send chills up my spine while at the same time evoking visions of some hellish place with fire and brimstone set aside for those who “stepped across the progressive liberal line.”  For those of you who don’t know my story, the progressive church that I visited would be this one (UCCLM) and the heretic preacher who invited me would be “that one” (Félix).             

      My conversion, awakening, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it, was not an overnight one.  There were many beliefs I held fast to simply because I had “always believed that way” and it felt safe.  But eventually I found myself in the midst of many heated conversations, accepting the challenge of studying viewpoints and interpretations other than the ones I had grown up with, along with many hours of introspection and prayer.  What I also did was to intentionally expose myself to people whom I had up until then excluded from my circle of acquaintances based on differences in biblical beliefs as well as sexual orientation. There are many I could name here, but one person who had a significant impact on me in this process was the Reverend Donna Eubanks. She bravely and willingly opened herself up to my many interrogations, to include being subjected to me pointedly questioning the authenticity of her faith in the midst of her sexual orientation. What I found and could simply not deny was that she, along with many others since then, is a modern day, spirit-filled follower of Jesus with a deep, grateful and abiding faith in God.

     I took all of these experiences and held them up next to the life and teachings of Jesus.  What I found was troublesome.  I found that I was living a contradiction.  On the one hand, I had come to understand God and Jesus in a far different light.  The hellfire and brimstone that followed me throughout my life gave way to a belief that I could walk in God’s forgiveness, grace and acceptance.  The question that plagued me was “How in the world could I accept these gifts being offered to me and think others would be excluded?”  Before surrendering myself to what I knew could possibly be a permanent shift in my thinking, I frantically looked for the “exceptions” to God’s love and acceptance that would support my crumbling theology and found none. I could not find a time when Jesus walked this earth that he ever uttered a word of rebuke or rejection of any person seeking a relationship with the transcendent.  And so I made a conscious decision to “come out” to my family and friends about my conviction of God’s love and acceptance for all, which included my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ.  Many of my family are still “praying” for me.  And yet others are stopping to think…..

     I would like to leave you with a parting thought. Whatever you have been contemplating or feeling up to this point, please consider this:  we are all the recipients of God’s free, unlimited, unconditional love, grace and acceptance. These gifts that have been bestowed on us were never intended for us to keep just for ourselves, but rather we have been charged to give them away liberally and without exception.  And there is no better illustration of this than the one we claim as our highest example, Jesus the Christ.

Visit La Mesa United Church of Christ here

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