I experience homesickness at an alarming rate. Being in Nebraska instead of Texas has been a culture shock. Though I have family here in Lincoln in the form of my church members, regional staff, and a certain Presbyterian pastoral duo, the Midwest is just different. Flavors do not taste the same. Dr. Pepper is not as crisp. Tacos do not really seem to be tacos. Instead, there is corn at every turn. Husker red far and wide. There seem to be fewer Baptists in the entire state than in the city of Waco. But I am no stranger to being in landscapes that are unfamiliar.
I never felt at home in the church I grew up in, being left out and discounted as the only girl that scored “Evangelist” and “Shepherd” on their Spiritual Gift Inventory. Church was important to me, but I question if I was important to that church. It was where I came to know the love of God but was barred from being myself. I learned all the verses said all the right words, yet it still did not feel like enough. When I met with the pastor to talk about what I believed was my calling, I was met with a lame excuse. It was evident to me that my gifts were not going to be used in the same ways as my classmates because I was a girl. That is where my distaste for organized religion and specifically denominational affiliations began.
This began a long road of deconstruction, proudly wearing the label “black sheep” and hating the pastor. I found another home though. One in the university where I was allowed to ask questions about evolution and the Apocryphal. Finally, at the age of 20 years old, I heard a woman preach on a Sunday morning. It was life-changing. It gave me hope that there could be a place for me too. Male and female staff supported me and encouraged me. Upon starting seminary, I found solace in a United Methodist Church with a pastor that never questioned my calling but forced me to follow it. As they say, the rest is history. God invited me to pastoral ministry, and that is how I landed in Lincoln, NE.
So, a couple weeks ago, when my once-home denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) took a vote telling me yet again that my calling meant nothing, I was left to let it roll off my back like everything else. Religious trauma compounded by another rejection of female ministers and their ministries lingered weeks later. It hurt because I believed, at one point, they were my family. Good, bad, and ugly, I held on to hope we could be together. The vote was not surprising yet was discouraging. It reminded me that some things are not going to change in 2023 or my lifetime.
My other home, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, remained silent. The denominational home made up of people I had found refuge in did not care enough to speak out. Representative Craig Christina said, “Among Texas Baptists, conformity over the role of women in the church is neither a test of fellowship nor a condition of cooperation.” Women are in ministry but whether they are or not is not a major concern of the BGCT. They do love to tout giving scholarships to underprivileged young women for a seminary education though never seem to employ them because of soul competency, autonomy of the local church, and the priesthood of all believers. Alas, it seems as if another family has decided that this “secondary issue” is not worth splitting hairs even if they are on the heads of women in ministry.
Which brings me to my new home, the American Baptist Churches USA. Last month, our family gathered in San Juan, Puerto Rico for our 2023 Biennial Mission Summit: my first official Mission Summit and an unexpected reunion. Our then President-elect, Rev. Nikita G. McCalister, greeted my once SBC spouse saying, “You’ve come home. Welcome home.” That sentiment reigned true throughout the gathering. I was welcomed with open and waiting arms. It felt like coming home to a place that I had never known but longed for. Male, female, and non-binary ministers encouraged me and cheered for me. This show of support was something I had never fully experienced in Baptist life as an ordained minister. Overwhelming faith that my sermon on Sunday would be what the Spirit had for our denomination confronted and quieted the shame I still carry each Sunday I stand to preach.
Finding a new home is always unsettling. It requires us to be open to relationships, allow for vulnerability, and extend grace. But the feeling of being embraced in a home big enough for you is what makes me grateful to be a part of a denomination that invites women and people of color to take center stage per the Spirit’s guidance. To trust that the good news of the Risen Christ can be proclaimed by the accomplished and a recovering Southern Baptist moves me to take my place in the ABC USA family. There was a seat at the table for me with a nameplate and someone to pull out the chair for me.
It is evident that the ABC USA wants to try and draw an ever-wider circle though this does not negate hesitations, theological disagreements, and underlying tension. Good thing women in ministry is not one of these “secondary issues about which thoughtful and faithful Texas Baptists may disagree.” Yes, I am sure some ABC churches are still unsure of women in ministry, I know First Baptist Church of Lincoln was. However, I cannot help but feel that we are making valid steps toward inclusion by welcoming others to come home. We are a group of people who are intentionally working to find common ground and offer grace as we receive it. Families experience the same frustrations and unspoken feelings.
The kind of family that I want to be a part of has enough room for my cousin in recovery, the one getting married, the one that was in prison, the aunt that is always outspoken about legislative rulings, the AWAB (Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists), the Creation Justice Network, the for the Burma Advocacy Group, and the rural churches of western Nebraska. Is that not the beauty and fear of finding a family and a place to exist? Family is always complicated and that stands true for the ABC USA. What if it does not work out? But what if it does? Our testimony is like many families: we might have our differences, but love abounds.
The Biennial’s theme “For Such a Time as This,” was pertinent to me. For it was time for me to come home. It was time to see my family for who we are and who we could be. It was time for Baptists to hear women’s voices, confront Christian Nationalism, denounce racism, and hold space for sojourners. Maybe this was an opportunity to support women in ministry and practice what we preach. It could be that the Biennial Mission Summit was just the beginning. Our churches could and might close tomorrow but there will still be a denominational home for us. We do not go at it alone. We have family to walk alongside us and remind us that God is with us. Perhaps this is the time for other exiled Baptists to find a home. I for one plan on making room for you even if that means we must share a chair. As they say in Texas, “Y’all come on back now.”
Joy Martinez-Marshall is pastor of First Baptist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.