Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
--Isaiah 56:8 NRSV
Last week I saw the headline “There’s Room For Everyone In The Church Of Brandi Carlile” and I simply had to read the article. I can’t turn away from a sentence that includes the words “everyone” and “church.” I read the piece about the Grammy-winning Country star and I heard a story both familiar and new to me.
Carlile’s music defies categories. The list of Grammys she has won reveal this truth: “Best Americana Song,” “Best American Roots Song,” and “Best Country Song.” Her success in Nashville’s music industry which is dominated by heterosexual male music is groundbreaking since she is a married lesbian. Her embrace of faith despite organized religion’s rejection of her is remarkable. She has a new memoir which reveals the complexity of her music and her person.
Here’s the paragraph in the aforementioned article by Elamin Abdelmahmoud that stood out to me:
One of the book’s most painful points is Carlile’s description of her botched baptism when she was a teenager. With all her friends and family gathered in church, a man she only names as Pastor Steve asked her if she “practiced homosexuality.” When she answered in the affirmative — something Pastor Steve already knew — he declined to baptize her. It was humiliating and life-altering for Carlile. She writes about how this moment pushed her further into music. (For days after, she could only lie in bed and listen to Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.”)
This kind of story is familiar to me because I have heard countless tales of people being rejected by churches, especially LGBTQ people. It’s new to me, because I’ve never heard about such a rejection occurring at the moment of baptism—the symbol of both Christ’s and the Church’s acceptance of a person. I have no words for this kind of cruelty. Stories like this make me want to cuss, quit my job as a minister and never walk into a church ever again. But then, Carlile defies categories again, and instead of pointing the finger of judgment, she offers grace even to the minister who rejected her.
Humiliation like this could be anyone else’s supervillain origin story. But not Carlile’s. Her description of the episode urges restraint before judgment. I told her it read as almost protective, as though she were holding up her hand and begging the reader not to judge the pastor. Her face softened again, and she said, “No one but me saw his face. I saw what he was going through.” She means that in her deepest hurt, she allowed the inflictor to be fully human.
Grace offered to the one who hurts you is truly Christlike. It is a sad irony that the people rejected by the church so often are more Christlike than the Christians who reject them. The history of Christianity is one long list of people doing the wrong thing for what they believe are the right reasons.
As a minister, I’ve spent most of my time in churches struggling to be more inclusive and less of the rejecting sort with more failures than successes, so I wonder if I’ve missed out on what’s been happening all along outside church walls among the church’s outcasts. In Brandi Carlile’s case and apparently many other cases too, God has been gathering together all the outcasts for a different kind of church—one where there’s room for everyone. It’s as if God got tired of waiting for church as we have known it to catch up with what God has been doing all along: gathering the rejected and outcasts to create a community where none are turned away.
At the conclusion of this article, its author Abdelmahmoud describes the ending of a concert by Carlile at Nashville’s sacred Ryman Auditorium. Knowing Carlile’s history of rejection makes her moment of triumph in this cathedral of Country Music all the more sweet. This is the kind of church I want to go to, a place where the rejected ones take center stage to praise God.
That January night at the Ryman, Carlile ended the show and wrapped up her encores and the lights went out. But just before she disappeared backstage, she darted back to the center of the stage like she forgot to do the most important thing in her life.
In total darkness, her silhouette visible only by cellphone lights, she stretched out her arms.
Without a microphone, she started belting out “Amazing Grace.” Her hands invited the crowd
to sing along, and soon, the Mother Church was glowing with uplift and tenderness. Carlile
closed her eyes, lowered her voice, and let a choir of thousands take over.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851