By Tom Holmes
Gy and Sylvia Menninga grew up around Pella, Iowa. It is a Dutch community and a stronghold of the very conservative Christian Reformed Church. At every meal the Bible was read and Sylvia recalls being "comforted with the thought that God would take care of me."
But her faith also had a different side. "The fear of God far outbalanced God's love. My behavior was motivated by the fear that God would not approve of me," she said.
And decades later, after Gy and Sylvia married, quickly had four children, one of them gay, that fundamental matter of God's approval, of God's approval of a gay son, helped lead the couple on a decades long evolution of their faith, of their understanding of God to them.
Today they live in Oak Park, are active members of First United Church, and Sylvia was a founder of the local chapter of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians. And this weekend they are likely to march once again in Chicago's Pride Parade.
"Walking in the pride parade every year is one of the most wonderful things we do. It's just amazing and wonderful, because the kids out there are just hungry for parents to accept them. They just want to hold your hand, to touch you. It's totally exhausting and totally exhilarating."
That their second child, Gysbert Menninga III, or just Bert, was gay was not a profound surprise even back in the 1970s.
"From early on we didn't think he was a normal boy," Sylvia remembered with a laugh. "He had very effeminate interests. He liked to dress up in girls' clothes and liked dolls. He would sit on women's laps and say, 'I just love your lipstick.' We were worried about him to the point of talking with each other about taking him to a psychiatrist."
But Gy and Sylvia decided to do nothing, because their son seemed to be handling who he was very well. "He was always very self-confident," said Sylvia. "He came out to us while he was still in high school which, in the 1970s, was quite early. He never seemed to have any problems with the way he was. He was just who he was." Gy described their son as always having a "powerful feeling of self-worth."
Bert's "aha" moment came while reading Rita Mae Brown's semi-autobiographical and explicit coming out novel Ruby Fruit Jungle published in 1973. "When I read that book," Bert told his parents, "I said 'that's me.' I know who I am now." When he went to the University of Illinois at Champagne, he met a Presbyterian chaplain who had a gay group and found friends there. Now 53, Bert was married in 2000 and lives in Sweden with his husband.
Although Bert later acknowledged to Gy and Sylvia that the coming out process was more difficult than it had appeared to them at the time, Bert's parents freely admitted that the road from Iowa to the gay pride parade was not that easy for them either.
"We gradually began to look at our religion quite differently," Sylvia said with an emphasis on the word gradually. "It was the same God but we were beginning to view that God through different lenses."
The first step was their decision to join a Presbyterian church while they were living in Highland Park in the 1980s. "It was a big step for us and very disturbing to our parents," Sylvia recalled, "even though it was still a pretty conservative church."
Then when they moved to Burlington, Vermont for a short time, they went to a Presbyterian church that referred to itself as being More Light, an association of Presbyterians whose mission actively welcomed the full spectrum of the GLBT community.
"It was just amazing," said Sylvia. "I didn't know there was something like this very liberal little campus church in Burlington. They were just wonderful."
Then, following Gy's work assignments, the Menningas moved to Boulder, Colorado where they worshiped with a United Church of Christ congregation which was Open and Affirming, a category similar to More Light in the Presbyterian Church. "What was especially attractive about that church," said Gy, "was that the pastor there had a gay son."
"It took a long time," said Sylvia. "Just joining the Presbyterian church in Highland Park was a big step. A member there was a wonderful woman named Betty Werrenrath. Her father had been a liberal Presbyterian minister, and she had her theology down. She got me reading the Christian Century, and gave me a copy of J.B. Phillips' Your God is Too Small. She also gave me my first taste of social action, of getting out there and doing some of the work that Christ wants us to do."
In Vermont Sylvia continued to participate in social action by volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House there. The pastor in Boulder helped them interpret Scripture in a way that did not throw the baby out with the bath water when he said, "I take the Bible seriously. I don't take it literally."
"He exposed us to that thinking," Sylvia said. "We just gradually grew into it."
She said what taking the Bible seriously but not literally means to her by sharing a pamphlet she received from the Shem Center in Oak Park. On the cover it states, "What Jesus Said About Homosexuality." When you open the pamphlet the pages are blank.
She said, "If you read the Bible at all, what keeps coming up is that God cares about the poor, about widows and orphans and the hungry. We hear that all the time from the prophets, and Jesus was very, very concerned about this. I don't know how you can miss that. There are maybe half a dozen anti-gay verses at the very most. There's no possible comparison to the number of verses about worship of money and care of the poor. It's not worth fussing and fighting about."
Although the Menninga's spiritual journey involved moving away from the Christian Reformed tradition, Gy hastened to emphasize, "There were certainly some positive things about our growing up there. My parents very much cared for the poor people in the community. We had a couple of widows who lived in our area, and my parents sort of looked after them. There were a couple gay guys—people referred to them as "bachelors"--that my father looked after. They never talked about them being gay, but I'm convinced that my father knew they were.
"One of the reasons why we are so caring about the food pantry and are involved in the CROP Walk is that we were taught that when we were kids. The Christian Reformed Church does a lot of that, even though their theology is very conservative. I mean they're wonderful people. It's a wonderful community to live in."
Gy summed up their spiritual journey by saying, "The church has always been important to us, and First United here in Oak Park has been important to us as well. The congregation is a strong part of our social connections in addition to the theological thing."
Sylvia agreed. "The spiritual life at First United keeps us centered. We feel like we've finally found the perfect church [because of its balance of spirituality and social action]."
What has been remarkable to Gy and Sylvia is that they "haven't caught a lot of flak" about Bert from their relatives in Pella. Part of the reason is that they have broached the subject with them "very carefully, one family at a time."
"Regarding Bert and our extended family in Pella, we have one big thing on our side," Sylvia said. "Bert is very popular with them. He was loved by aunts and uncles. His girl cousins still go crazy over him. He was always accepted, and I'm sure that it was apparent to many that this kid is quite different. He was/is a very appealing person. He's delightful to talk to and has great stories to tell. He's a great singer, an excellent pianist and a writer. He's one of our most interesting kids."
Sylvia summed up their experience of having a gay son by saying that she and Gy have grown because of sharing their son's life. "It's a positive, wonderful thing in our lives. It has made us understand the need to be tolerant of other people. It's broadened our horizons immensely and introduced us to so many wonderful people. It's not been like a stone in your shoe but more like a flower in your hair.