What Happens When a Pastor Goes Poly?
What Happens When a Pastor Goes Poly?
The leaders of the Metropolitan Community Churches have never been prudes. Born from the sexual revolution and gay liberation, MCC isn’t the type of denomination to suggest that the God only honors two-person monogamous heterosexual couplings. The church was founded in 1968 by Reverend Troy Perry as a place for LGBT Christians to worship. Perry is the kind of guy who has joked that he once told his long-term partner, Phillip DeBlieck, “I can be married or monogamous. Not both.” The two have been happily married for decades.
In that way, Perry has been less radical than some of his gay peers, but more reflective of the many LGBT couples who do want to settle into traditional marital bliss. That’s why some people within the church consider making Reverend Rachelle Brown MCC’s interim moderator a surprisingly radical move.
Brown grew up in Indian Bayou, a small, rural community in Vermillion Parish, La., in the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin, the world’s largest freshwater swamp wilderness. Nearby Indian Bayou National Wildlife Refuge is renowned for its beauty and its abundant fish, water fowl, and wildlife — like trout, crawfish, duck, and gators that sustained Brown’s Cajun ancestors for generations since the Acadians were deported from what is now Nova Scotia, Canada, following the French and Indian War.
Brown has described her people as being “chased and diminished,” and says the impact of their historical dislocation permeated the culture of her community. “It’s the narrative we grow up with. I grew up with of the historic story of ... the Cajuns being exiled, the Acadians being exiled from the land of Nova Scotia, kicked out by the British, exiled in 1755. This is like core narrative. When I was in junior high, we took a pilgrimage up to Grand-Pré in Nova Scotia to go see the place where all the names of the exiled are listed.”
Brown says there’s always been a racial element to the way Cajuns were treated by other whites in Louisiana.
“They lived in these very rural areas and the Klan didn’t like them because they were Catholic or they were mixed [race] and so there were narratives around Southern prejudice. My grandmother talked about that.… It’s a difference between the ‘high yellow’ in New Orleans — or the passing white — versus the people [of color]. Since we’re on this topic, even a phrase that’s so fascinating to me, to this day, is I will meet people from Texas who will immediately just call me a coonass. I just look at them and say, ‘You’re not my people and I don’t know you that well. You can’t call me that.’ The linguistic legend behind that phrase is… that folks just couldn’t understand [Cajuns], these folks were a little dark skinned, they spoke with an accent. It’s a completely racist term … there’s an underlying racism that exists.”
Like other minorities, Cajuns faced a bureaucratic state indifferent to their desire to retain their culture. Bent on assimilation, the government insisted that their children be taught in English, not their native Cajun French. “They forced them to speak English at school but they would all speak Cajun French outside of school. My grandparents spoke Cajun French until their death. They spoke English for others.”
While Cajuns learned to do what they had to in order to survive, they refused to give up their way of life. “It was just a narrative of people wanting us to change and be like they are but we’re not going to. We have our own culture; we have our own ways. That narrative, for some, especially in the rural areas, is still alive.”
Reflecting on southern Louisiana, Brown muses that it’s like New Orleans. “You don’t visit New Orleans, you experience it. It’s the kind of place you experience, you don’t just visit. That’s how I think life is — you experience it. It flows through every part of me in that way.”
Brown sees some see parallels between the Cajun and LGBT experience. “There’s a sense of belonging and desire for [mainstream] culture and pushing against [that] culture. Because you’re part of something, but yet you may not completely fit in. I left, when I was younger and you know, it’s still a part of who I am, [but] I don’t have the accent, so people don’t know. So you can kind of pass, just like LGBT passing happens. There are stereotypes about LGBT people that folks will say when they think they’re not around LGBT people. There’s a desire to be in community and realizing sometimes that that’s not completely possible, even though you think it might be. To me that’s the bigger issue in America right now. The big issue is about class and culture.”
Strongly religious in her early years, Brown felt called to the cloth by high school, but could see no path by which to reach that dream. After all, she wasn’t just a woman, she was a lesbian. She spent many years searching for a spiritual home where she would be welcomed. In a 2016 sermon, she spoke of being “baptized into the Roman Catholic faith, and again in full immersion during the Charismatic movement, then again by the Jesus-name-only Pentecostals, and yes, again by the Baptists. … The conflict between faith and my identity as a lesbian drove me from one church after the other.” Brown says she eventually stopped going to church at all.
“I felt a call to ministry in high school but the world I was in, that was impossible, so I just went along and you know, went to school. I got a job in high school at a country radio station in Kaplan, La., a little small Cajun town. I thought, Well, I’ve got a job in radio, let me just major in media.
"I really wanted to go into ministry and then I came out. Not really 'came out,' I got caught. That’s different. I ended up hanging out at little gay bars and trying to make my way in media throughout southwest Missouri. There’s not much down there, as you can imagine. From the Ozarks to Springfield, it’s pretty, pretty tough, so I just stayed in the closet and worked in media."
Eventually she got a BA in mass media and a master’s degree in communications and kept working in radio. “It was fun,” Brown recalls of the late 1990s. “I love going to SXSW [South by Southwest]. I loved hitting every Lollapalooza. I went to every Lilith Fair. You know, it was fabulous. As a young lesbian, you can’t beat that, I mean that’s perfect '90s living.”
But something was missing from her life. “I was struggling with the church because they were just still so violent and evil around LGBT people, in the churches that I was in, the evangelical, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches. That was just not a safe space for me, emotionally or spiritually.”
In 2001, when Brown attended her first gay pride event in St. Louis, she stumbled across a booth for MCC. Burned by the spiritual rejection she’d experienced at other churches, Brown could fight the urge to attend and told herself she was only going to mock the gays and lesbians who thought creating their own church would clear their path to God.
“When I got there, all these parts of me came alive in a different way and I really ‘came out’ to God.” She left a changed woman. “That was huge. That was life-changing.” She quit her job (by then she’d become a well-paid marketing professional) and told her boss she was going to become a pastor.
“I literally quit my job and walked out and put away the suits and went to seminary. It was a radical conversion experience.”
In 2014, Brown told Chicago’s Windy City Times, that MCC “allowed me to just be myself, not have to name which team I am on at any given time. I could just live a life of spirituality, a life of faith, and not feel like I had to apologize to one group or the other in order to be a person of faith and also be an open lesbian.”
MCC celebrates what Brown called "the queer holy day calendar," including World AIDS Day and Transgender Day of Remembrance. “When I talk to open and affirming churches,” she told Windy City, “they say that they welcome gay people. I say ‘That’s fabulous — and we’re gay and we welcome straight people.’ That’s the big difference.”
Brown’s journey to family mirrors her journey to faith. She’s always wanted to be in a committed relationship, but she’s never been able to make it work. “I was very bad at serial monogamy. It was just really painful and I failed at trying to create what I thought was the heteronormative family, … Every time I tried, I just blew it terribly. I mean it was just horrible. I thought, Why do people do this?"
Initially she assumed her massive fail was a sign of her own inequities. Everyone else seemed so happy pairing off in wedded bliss — why couldn’t she make it work? “I’m not one to get married. In the middle of all this marriage thing I’m still like, ‘That’s just not for me. I can’t imagine myself with one person for the rest of my life.’ Instead of feeling like a minister who’s a moral failure, I started exploring.”
Brown heard about people who were embracing different kinds of relationships. “I hear about open relationships,” she says. “That didn’t go so well either. I’m like, ‘Wow, maybe I’m just terrible at this.’”
Maybe the problem wasn’t her — maybe she was trying to force herself into a relationship box when she didn’t have to. It was like when she realized she didn’t need to decide between being lesbian and being a church leader.
Brown’s not a slacker. You can tell by her two master’s degrees and the Ph.D. in theology she’s completing that she likes to learn. She didn’t just decide one day that she wanted to be polyamorous. She did her research.
“I started exploring, what would be emotionally fulfilling and what kind of family do I really want to be a part of? What does that look like? We all know if you’re willing, you can find sex anywhere. That’s not the question. The question is, where do I want to wake up and who do I want around me?”
“I started talking to people … who were in different sorts of family arrangements and family relationships. I’d get their phone number and say, 'Can we just talk?' Some have been doing this for 30, 40 years, polyamory and open relationships and [they] tell me the pros and cons. I wanted them to give me the solution. 'Tell me how to build it. I’ll create it and then we’ll all be happy.' It’s hilarious.”
She started reading, “exploring what are queer families and queer family dynamics and just absorbed a ton of books, from The Ethical Slut on the secular side to queer families and all the struggles happening in denominational churches around the world.”
But it’s one thing for a reverend to decide she’s open to an unconventional relationship, and quite another to find the couple she’d want to join. Then she met Michelle Jestes and Dama Elkins-Jestes, a lesbian couple who had been together four years. “They were married,” Brown says. “And they’re very traditional, you know, get married, big wedding, that kind of thing.”
She liked them. They liked her. But even after they all agreed they were interested in the same thing, Brown says, “It wasn’t like immediately moving in or anything like that. We were just very intentional about what that would mean for their relationship. I completely honor their relationship, their marriage, their vows, the way they re-created their vows, understand their relationship.”
The three women (pictured above: Dama, Michelle, Rachelle. From Facebook) have been in this “intentional relationship” for about seven years, and Brown says she still honors the primacy of her partners’ relationship. “They go off and celebrate their anniversary. They have date nights.”
The church leadership hasn’t wavered in supporting Brown. “I’ve found incredible support in the MCC leadership,” she says. “All of the elders, everyone that I went to — I had to for my own professional credibility, you know, let somebody in charge know that if somebody sees me with one woman and then sees me with another, that, ‘No I’m not cheating on anybody. You all need to know so if a question comes, you can answer it.’ We need accountability, right?”
But not all of her parishioners are happy to learn she’s involved in a throuple. “We lost a lot of friends,” Brown muses. “A lot of friends. The most pushback I get are from lesbians who are in a coupled or a married situation. In a couple instances, it’s either jealousy or fear. They’re either jealous because they want that for their relationship or they’re afraid that their spouse or partner will want that for their relationship. It has nothing really to do with me; it’s what they’re afraid of for their own relationship.”
And she believes that LGBT people sometime police each other’s behaviors because they want societal acceptance. “I think the whole marriage equality thing has an underlying ‘but I want to be accepted as real’ element in the narrative. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s important to have some ritual of validity. As a Christian, I believe in ritual, obviously. We do a lot of ritual. There’s ritual that validates and ritual that presents you before God in really powerful ways, and I think those are very meaningful and very important.”
But she adds, “I understand, personally, marriage as a construct, a social construct and that there are many ways to make vows and make commitments.… This is a way of making a covenant and keeping it.”
For decades, the leaders of MCC have either been single or coupled. Even those who weren’t always monogamous, like the founder Perry, usually only had one other adult in their family photos. But when Brown shares her own family pics, people tend to fixate on the fact that there are three adult women in the frame. And the image they are usually picturing is perhaps more graphic than they’d care to admit, especially to their pastor.
“If there’s any struggle I’ve had in my faith,” Brown admits, “it’s been how some people, who may have been more conservative, would dismiss my role as a spiritual leader because I have a triad as a family. Because I don’t want to be a stumbling block.”
Reverend Brown tells me about a polyamory meme that’s going around. It has different images depicting what different people think polyamory is. Usually one of the images involves an orgy, a mass of naked bodies writhing together — what Brown thinks most people imagine when they hear about polyamory. Another shows the kind of patriarchal Mormon polygamy that most polyamorous folks want to distance themselves from. The final image — titled “What poly actually is” or “What I actually do” — is of a giant wall calendar signifying the highly scheduled way many polyamorous couples keep their relationships fair.
“I laughed,” Brown tells me about seeing the meme for the first time. “Because we have a big-ass master calendar in the hallway. Everybody’s got their own colored marker and you put your schedule on it. We figure out who’s going to be home when, because we all work different types of careers and different types of schedules.”
Just like the calendar, Brown, Jestes, and Elkins-Jestes have an agreement common to poly couples, rules that establish the ethical boundaries of their relationship. For example, Brown says, “We decided early on, when we met that it would be closed or a closed triad. We were very intentional for our own emotional well-being and our own desire for trust building and integrity and fidelity. The words we were looking at were fidelity and integrity and trust building.”
The intentional, almost cerebral aspect of some poly relationships may seem odd to outsiders, but Brown says one advantage of talking about relationships this way is “it takes polyamory out of a sexual framework, which is really hard for people. There’s a sexual assumption to everything that you do that really goes back to the body-shaming we’ve experienced as LGBT people, that we become sexual objects in the conversation. I try my best to not become sexualized in that way because this is really — it’s about love, it’s about relationship. I really love them. I really love the different things that I get out of the different relationships.”
And that’s something Brown believes she should be telling other people. “I believe God calls us to be people who are authentic, who are honest, and who try to come forward and say, ‘This is an arrangement that works for me and it works for the people that I’m with.’ You know, we pray together. We have fun together. We all go vote together, if we can, if our schedules match up. We’ve just decided to do this in a way that works.”
Of course, the seven-year relationship hasn’t always been easy. At the beginning of our conversation Reverend Brown told me she’d gotten permission to mention the triad’s couple counselor by name. Seeing a professional has always been a part of their commitment to the relationship. At first, Brown jokes, they saw “a ‘kink therapist’ up in Chicago, who was kind of like, ‘Of course you all went and got matching tattoos, right?’ We’re just like, ‘OK, maybe we don’t need to be going to a kink therapist. That’s not where we are. We just need some help navigating the dynamics and shifting the relationship.’”
That’s when they found Dana Erickson, LCSW, the family therapist Brown calls “the best woman in the world. She had never dealt with a polyamory family before. We went to her and she’s like, ‘You know, it’s like any relationship. Every relationship is a negotiation, so we just have an extra person that we need to bring into the negotiation.’ She got it and we’ve been seeing her for pretty much the whole time.”
It’s taken work, Brown says. “I mean, we’re human beings. You know, there’s jealousy. There’s times where we’re like, ‘How are we going to navigate this or that issue?’… We’ve even talked about, you know, what if someone dies? And giving ourselves permission as to what we would do and saying what we would prefer. I think that level of integrity and honesty is … powerful, and not a lot of people can do that.”
“We talk about these things, but we have this commitment to be under the same roof with each other and to love each other and be present and truly be emotionally and physically and spiritually available. That, right there, is what a relationship is, to me. That’s my definition of it.”
Although polyamory may seem a very queer kind of relationship, Brown says from personal experience, “Most poly folks I run into are heterosexually based. They are in a heterosexual marriage. They might be bisexual and so they have someone else in their life and it may not be a triad. It might be a hinge and the hinge might be the woman and not the man. Where [with] a man, if he’s heterosexual, he’s a hinge and he has two women and they all live together or one knows about the other but the two women don’t have interaction, you know, it’s not a triangle — it would be the polygamy model in some ways. Polyamory, I think would do best to talk about it as an umbrella of ways of building family formations and human sexuality and expression because it’s starting to be honest about people who say, ‘I’ve had multiple sexual partners, doesn’t mean I don’t love my spouse.’ Marriage doesn’t equal monogamy.”
While many Christians might have trouble rectifying a polyamory family structure with their faith, Brown sees no conflicts. “Professionally, the MCC code of ethics does not limit you in that way. As a clergy person at MCC we’re not limited to monogamous marriage. That’s a really important piece. It’s because we understand human sexuality. God made us in ways that are, I think, sexually and gender fluid. I don’t think we’re fixed in our sexualities and our gender and in our desires. We’ve been given desire and desire is real.”
Of course, monogamy and spirituality haven’t always been synonymous throughout history, not even American history. “This has been part of the American impulse, really,” Brown says. “When you think at the LDS Church formation and all their complexities around their openness in marriage for the matters of procreation.” Or New York State’s Oneida Community, a religious commune whose members shared all aspects of their lives and work, “This is in the mid to late 1800s,” Brown says. “They had something called complex marriage where people were not relegated sexually. There’s been an impulse that’s just part of human beings and an American identity as well. It’s just part of us.”
Going back to the intentional aspect of her relationships, Brown says she’s very concerned about, “‘How do I do this without doing harm to anyone and how do I ensure that I’m living with integrity?’ I would not do something to harm anyone emotionally or physically or even spiritually.”
Brown’s family also includes a 5-year-old boy, the biological son of one of her partners. “We’ve been in this legal guardianship for almost three years now. He’s been with us for four or five years of his life. We let him name who are the people around him. We just all co-parent. [We let] him figure out his relationship with us. My honey-do list involves power tools and fixing things and going to the hardware store. They jokingly call me, ‘Maddy,’ you know, mom and daddy. I’m not like super butch or anything but, you know, I’ll do the power tools and all that.”
The boy turns to the other women for other things. While Brown admits it was an adjustment opening their lives up to a child, she says, “He just calls us his family. I mean there’s no ifs, ands or buts about that.” He gets the advantage of multiple parents (four with his biological mom, who is still in the picture) and the financial security of a three-paycheck family. “That’s a real big deal, to have a three-income family.”
Like any parent, Brown proudly posts on Facebook, like when he shared his Christmas wish list with the mall Santa and it included both a pirate ship and Barbie dolls.
Like any child, “he’ll try to manipulate us,” Brown acknowledges. But, she says, it rarely works in his favor. “We know to communicate with each other: ‘Hold on, let me send a text.’ Sorry, the answer is ‘No.’”
Brown makes it clear that she’s not recruiting anyone to polyamory: Her triad is a closed, not open relationship, and she doesn’t pretend poly is the right option for everyone.
“I would never prescribe this to anyone who’s in a happy, healthy relationship or no relationship, if they prefer to remain stay single. Don’t feel like you have to be in some sort of coupled or family structure because everybody else is. That’s not emotionally healthy either. My life is not prescriptive.”
LGBT people have always defined family in a way that wasn’t the same as everyone else. Whatever permutation of family you embrace, it’s nice to know that MCC will too.