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A Conversation with Reverend Nancy Brink

September 7, 2012

Today we begin a dirtcakes interview feature, one in an occasional series related to our most current release, “Girls Will Be Women.”

“A Conversation with Reverend Nancy Brink” not only relates to our newest dirtcakes issue, but also hits on hot-button themes of this election season.  We’re also pleased to introduce Michael Boone, the interviewer, an emerging voice in social justice.

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“A Conversation with Reverend Nancy Brink” by Michael Boone

As someone who is gay and atheist, I often times struggle to understand how someone of the LGBT community can follow a religion that so often oppresses and ostracizes people of that identity.  Reverend Nancy Brink symbolizes the face of a religious LGBT person. She’s outspoken about her lesbian identity, holding hands with her wife in public, and clearly she’s outspoken about her faith as well, serving several churches in her lifetime. An ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Nancy is also the director of church relations at Chapman University. 

It took Reverend Nancy Brink until she was into her early 30s to finally understand what love songs were all about.  She was married to a man, but falling in love with a woman.

When Brink married her fiancé at the age 20, a tragic event had happened 3 months earlier: her mother died of breast cancer. As she was dealing with this loss, yet another unexpected situation crossed her path: she discovered her father was gay.  Luckily, Brink had the privilege of attending seminary in 1976 right on the heels of the American Psychological Association removing homosexuality from the category of “mental illness.” She used her time in seminary to try and figure out everything she possibly could find in the Bible regarding gay and lesbian identity. As she was studying, she realized that perhaps she wasn’t straight either.

When Brink was ordained in her denomination, Disciples of Christ, she was in the first wave of women who wanted to be preachers. There was unemployment and underemployment of women trying to enter ministry. By the time Brink decided to divorce her husband in 1987, the church’s discomfort with women as pastors was beginning to calm down, and the focus transferred to the issue of LGBT persons being ministers, which was particularly prominent due to the AIDS crisis. After her divorce, Brink came out to herself as a lesbian. She moved to Nebraska in the late 80s, and lived with her partner. They spent the next 7 years “closeted,” allowing Brink to spend time working on her sense of self.  She eventually found her own voice. 

The driving force for her to come out publicly was that she and her partner wanted to adopt a child. In fact, they decided to be the first couple to challenge the state of Nebraska in terms of adoption issues because Nebraska, like many other states, only allows one mother of any child. However, her agency’s lawyer determined that the agency would have to pull the child out of their home and put her in foster care while the case was being heard. Nancy refused and instead gave her daughter her own last name while her partner held the title of legal parent.

The two women eventually split.  Brink and her current partner also challenged the law as plaintiffs against the state of Nebraska and its Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) law. It was the only case against DOMA that was tried in the federal courts before the well-known case in California.  They won in U.S. district court, which is referenced in the California case; however they lost in the Eighth Circuit.  

I approached Brink in April 2012 to explore the intersection between her faith and her lesbian identity.

Nancy Brink

Boone: Were your parents religious? Did this affect your childhood?

Brink: Oh, they were very religious. My father was also an ordained minister, so I was what you would call a “preacher’s kid.”  I served all my congregations while growing up. I loved my time with my church and being involved in youth group – it was a really positive place for me growing up. When I attended my university, I originally was going to be a theater major, dropped that and went to psychology, and ended up in the religion department.

Boone: What is your faith like?

Brink: The Disciples of Christ? One thing you should know is that we’re not literalists. We do not think every word of the Bible is written in the hand of God. Instead we look at the context of the time it was written in and assess accordingly, much like if you were to read Shakespeare.

Boone: Anything else?

Brink: When I was growing up, the Disciples of Christ was about ecumenism – many different Christian groups finding a way to work together. Now, it has expanded to understand the interfaith path, including religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Boone: Did you ever question your faith?

Brink: My understanding of God has changed.

Boone: How so?

Brink: I no longer think of God as a…it’s hard to find words for it…as a being. Now, what God means to me is the force for life, for love, for creativity, for personal growth and information. For me to be a person of that faith is to choose to abide to that kind of love and spirit. It’s not about worshipping God; it’s more about giving God more room to expand within me. To me, Jesus didn’t come asking us to worship him, he came to introduce us to (and he talked about it in scriptures) an ethical life, but even more about building justice and peace wherever you can and however you’re given to do that.  Being a part of the queer community made me a stronger Church leader because I really know what it’s like to be on the outside and to need an authentic, loving and justice-making community. Being LGBT gives us a lens that is needed and helpful.

And you know, there are a lot of people in religion thinking like this, but just don’t have that media microphone. Since the rise of the 24 hour news cycle, media loves to put competing voices, side by side, to yell at each other. For instance, my office brought in a speaker last year, a retired Episcopal Church bishop, and one of the leaders to first ordain LGBT people in his tradition. Bishop Spong very often was asked to debate Jerry Falwell, and other religious right-winged people. A few years ago, the bishop made a very public statement that he will no longer do that, go on TV, because he does not want to give the other side the airtime for something absolutely wrong. For him, the debate is over.

Boone: Do you feel Christian groups were more anti-LGBT in your time?

Brink: I’ve seen a huge change, and I feel like we hit the tipping point. I think it’s all over but the shouting in this country. Even Evangelical Christians are watching young people in their churches saying “you’re nuts.” And then there are the scandals like Ted Haggard, who are making anti-gay teachings even more unbelievable to people. Early on, it just wasn’t talked about, or it was considered a sickness.

Boone: Did you feel that it was harder for you to come out because of your faith?

Brink: I felt it was harder to come out because of my job. I think my faith makes it easier for me to come out. If Jesus is about loving your neighbor and loving yourself, then nothing should be more important.

Boone: Could you elaborate why it was hard to come out because of your job?

Brink: It was hard to come out because there’s this huge debate that is a church dividing issue. I watched the Catholic Church subtlety and sometimes not so subtlety pin pedophile scandals on gay priests. I was nervous I would lose my job and I loved serving a church and I was pretty darn good at it.

Boone: What drove you to become a minister?

Brink: My experience growing up and taking a hard look at my strengths (relational, public speaking, love God, believe that change is possible in life). Ministry fits my gifts.

Boone: Did you come out to your parents? How do they feel about you being LGBT and a minister?

Brink: I did not come out to my mother. I didn’t have the luxury because I didn’t come out to myself before she died. When my dad found out, he was shocked. He tried to change his orientation in the 50s through therapy. He was terrified that my brothers would be gay, but it never crossed his mind that I would be lesbian – not once. But he got over it very quickly.

Boone: How is your relationship with your father now?

Brink: It’s really, really strong. If he needs perpetual care, we would love for him to come live with us. My wife’s father died while she was still in utero, and so she feels like she got a dad for the first time in her life in marrying me.

Boone: Is your child religious at all?

Brink: She was very bonded with the church that I served and was really angry when I left. Of course she’s in a household where it’s really ok to question her faith. She goes to church with us, and tries to act like it’s awful, but she usually leaves with a great, big smile on her face. My prediction is that she will go back to her roots (she’s Vietnamese) and explore Buddhism – just my gut feeling. And that would be ok with me.

Boone: Did you ever experience negative feedback from religious people for being LGBT?

Brink: Mmhmm. I have received lots of hate mail. Nebraska is not far from Kansas, so Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” crew often came through town. My daughter, a couple years ago, googled my name and found a site in which people were praying for my former church and my soul because I was leading them to hell.

Let me tell you a story. The day I came out to my congregation, one of the elderly women of my church who I adored, left crying – her name’s Millie. The next morning I woke up, and I kept feeling this nudge to call Millie, so I did. She answered, “Nancy?! You’re calling me?”  And I said yes. “Oh Nancy, I love you Nancy!” And I burst into tears.

She heard my crying and said “Are you crying? Why don’t you come over?” So I took a shower and a little over an hour I’m at her door. She sits me down at the pink linoleum table and pulled out some of her famous cinnamon rolls and a hot pot of coffee. She didn’t really want to talk about it, but she had been praying about it. And that morning, she had awakened, and said “I have seen the Holy Spirit in you, and the Holy Spirit does not lie.” For her, it was about a type of “heart wisdom” within her. She could tell that I was coming from a place of love and authenticity.

Six weeks later, she had a heart attack, and we stood around her bed and sang to her as she passed away. I’m so grateful we were in a good place together before she died.

Boone: Did you ever experience negative feedback from LGBT people for being religious?

Brink: Mmhmm! I think there has been some resistance here from this campus. It hasn’t hurt my feelings but I know it’s there and I understand why. And it comes from students who have been wounded by the church or by very religious people. But I try to drop everything when somebody is in a crisis, or just wants to talk.

Boone: How often do you feel like your two identities (being LGBT and religious) collide with each other?

Brink: I don’t think they collide at all. That’s what I worked on in my studies at seminary – I made peace with that. Theology and biblical studies are no different than any other study – it’s always evolving. My father and I keep saying how blessed we are for living in such interesting times. I think there are a lot of values in common. In socially active LGBT communities, there’s values of inclusiveness, passion and community, justice – wow, those sound pretty Jesus to me!

Boone: Do you think it’s understandable that a lot of LGBT are atheist?

Brink: Yes. And I’m not one that thinks atheists are lost. I will talk about my faith, but I only seek to nurture someone in that faith if they show an interest in it. To me, it’s about respecting each person’s walk.

Boone: Do you think that there will ever be a time when there’s unity between Christianity and LGBT?

Brink: I think there is increasing unity. Boy, it is different now than it was in the 80s. The church I joined 2 years ago maybe was 10% LGBT on a Sunday morning – now it’s more like 35%. Increasingly, straight people dislike homophobic teaching that puts down their brother, co-worker, or best friend. They will want to be in church with all kinds of people.

Boone: Thank you for your time and thank you for sharing all your stories!

Brink: No problem!

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Michael Boone is a student at Chapman University, aiming for a Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Sciences. Although his emphasis is on human biology, Michael also is passionate about studying humans through a different lens.

Since his college career began, Michael has had strong ties with the social justice community, a community that explores and questions why our society functions the way it does. They do not take and appropriate everything that our society tells us. On the contrary, they challenge it. They deconstruct it. Why does our culture assume everyone is straight? Why is religion such a powerful force? Why are there unofficial regulations of how men and women are supposed to dress and behave?

Michael loves to explore the different identities that define us, such as race, gender, sexuality, and more. His dream is for a world in which people can embrace and take pride in their various identities without the discrimination and unjust punishment that some of these identities receive.

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