Out, Proud, and Under the Collar

by Tamara Lebak

07/07/2014

Nearly every Sunday morning while growing up in northwest Oklahoma City, my father would plop me into a plastic milk crate bungee-corded to the back of his three-speed bicycle. If it was raining, he would load me into our Blue Plymouth Road Runner, with no car seat or booster. While everyone else was headed to church, we would head to the donut shop. This was our sabbath ritual. My father would have coffee and we would both have donuts.

One particular morning, my parents slept in much later than usual. They were in a rock and roll band and had come home late the night before. I knew better than to wake my parents. I was supposed to occupy myself until they woke up. But I was hungry, it was Sunday, and I knew that I was supposed to go to the donut shop. So, I gathered my mother’s woven purse (which was about as big as I was) and headed out the door. At barely 3 years old, I walked nearly a mile up 32nd Street and across a four-lane boulevard with a median to the Dunkin Donuts.

I remember crossing the street and hearing cars honking at me. I remember a lady behind the counter taking my money and serving me my donut and juice. After I finished my breakfast, I gathered up the coffee and a donut for my dad and made the return trip. I remember feeling quite proud and pretty tired as I made my way home. I never had a doubt in my mind where I was going or exactly how to get there. Once home, I quietly went back inside, put my father’s breakfast in the kitchen, and went upstairs to my room to play.

This story has reached nearly epic proportions in my family. How on earth did I know the way nearly a mile to the donut shop and home again at 3 years old? And just who the hell did I think I was? Not much has changed for me since then. I am still drawn to food like a homing device, and still pretty bold. Grace has followed me around ever since. I have no reason to be fearful of the world or my place in it.

***

I am a woman. I am an Oklahoman. I am a minister. And I am married to a woman. I have always been audacious.


Watch the video, produced by local documentary filmmaker Todd Roberts, for Tamara Lebak’s song “Dear Oklahoma.” A portion of the proceeds earned from sales of Lebak’s album will benefit the plaintiffs in Oklahoma’s marriage equality case.


I was drawn to the ministry because I wanted to give back to a tradition that had welcomed all of who I am, and the fact that I was given the opportunity to do this in my home state is icing on the donut.

Ministry uses all of my gifts and is a passport to the substance of life: birth, coming of age, discovering our gifts and learning to leverage them to help more than ourselves; partnership, illness, loss, and death, all of those moments when time slows to a crawl and we encounter ourselves in the moment as both infinite and finite beings. I felt called to participate in crafting this piece of the human story after bearing witness to all of life’s beauty — as well as its struggles — and then having to claim where I stand. I wanted to give voice to that connection I have felt, throughout my struggles, to a relentless and persistent love that will not let us go. The church calls me to be my best self, over and over again, despite my obvious fallibility, and aligns my priorities with my values.

I came to All Souls Unitarian Church in 2006 for a two-year job interview. Only one member of the church resigned before having met me, and I consider that an enormous success. In 2008, I was called to be a minister of the church by a vote of the congregation: standing room only in the sanctuary and only two dissenting votes. The summer after I was called, Higher Dimensions came to worship with us. My colleague, Senior Minister Reverand Marlin Lavanhar, invited Higher Dimensions and Bishop Carlton Pearson to use our sanctuary during the summer. Their congregation had gone from over 3,000 to around 300 when their minister had a theological conversion and essentially became a Universalist. In the fall, Bishop Pearson announced the closing of Higher Dimensions Tulsa. He and his family joined All Souls, and they encouraged the rest of the congregation to do the same.

My first sermon as a called minister of the church was on Pentecost in front of our newly blended congregations. I was so moved by the possibility of a multicultural congregation, something I felt I had sacrificed when I chose Unitarian Universalism.

I am a woman. I am an Oklahoman. I am a minister. And I am married to a woman. I have always been audacious.

My social-justice work in this climate has expanded from focusing on issues (prison ministry, domestic violence, reproductive
rights) to leadership development in a multiracial context, so that others might go out and audaciously change the world. I have been inspired by this community to do the same as I take my leadership development into the corporate and non-profit worlds as a consultant and executive coach.

I am now in my eighth year of ministry. I am the first openly gay minister of a church that began in 1921. The people at the church where I serve are gracious, persistent, and fearless leaders living out their values in one of the reddest state in America. That is not to say that they are all Democrats. It does mean that mixed in with their socially liberal values are the conservative nuances of commitment, fiscal responsibility, and tradition.

***

Our ministers do not typically wear any sort of religious garb unless we are in the community serving a very specific purpose where we need to identify as clergy. Recently, I was asked by a local professional organization to be a spokesperson for a campaign that celebrates the diversity of my city’s leaders. I thought it would be appropriate to wear my collar to the photo shoot so I would immediately be recognized as clergy to all who see the campaign. My tagline read: “God doesn’t discriminate.”

I dressed in the morning for an end-of-day appointment with the photographer. Before my appointment, I had a few meetings at church, stopped to put air in my tires, went to my guitar lesson, and had a meeting at a coffee shop/bar.

When I arrived at church, one of my staff was so stunned by my appearance she could not contain her laughter. “Is it Halloween?!” she joked.

When I stopped to put air in my tires, a nice young man from the gas station came out to see if I needed any assistance.

At my guitar lesson, the student before me, a man who had never spoken to me before, became an open book. In a matter of minutes, I learned that he was married and for how long, his previous profession, current job situation, and frustrating financial struggles. The student who followed my lesson, a previously chatty man in his late 60s when I was in my cowboy boots and jeans, was visibly surprised by my appearance and chose to simply nod silently in my direction.

At the coffee shop, I was a bit self-conscious about ordering the holiday drink special, a delicious hot apple cider with vanilla and caramel vodka. The bartender flashed me one of those smiles that ends in more of a smirk. It was clear that I had forgotten the power of assumptions, appearances, and the collar.

What I realized during the course of that day was that I had been flying stealth in the community. Because my faith has no standard clerical regalia, I have been able to choose when and whether I presented myself as a minister. After eight years of being nurtured by my church for the whole of who I am, my next most obvious step is to come out as a clergy person. I decided I would make 2014 an experiment. I had a long conversation with my wife about the implications and timing of my idea. I asked for support from my senior minister and staff. And UndertheCollarinOklahoma.blogspot.com was born. For six days a week in 2014, every day but Sunday, I am wearing my collar to all of my daily activities and writing about my experience as I embrace and struggle with the advantages and confines of the collar, the culture of my home state, and my role as a minister.

If we are living out our highest calling as religious people, we should come out and stake our claim on the religious landscape against dehumanization, especially when done in the name of God. If we are awake to our responsibility as Oklahomans, we should come out and claim the diverse landscape of our fair state and take responsibility for supporting the vulnerable among us: all those Oklahomans at a disadvantage. If we are to be effective leaders in the world, we must lead from who we are, where we are, using our gifts and privilege to make a difference.

For every nameless, faceless lesbian, gay, or bisexual person who felt that their church did not, could not, or would not embrace them and their gifts, I stand out and proud.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 11, June 1, 2014.