Gay activist finds spiritual home at Hillhurst United Church
It’s a cold Sunday morning and Hillhurst United Church is bursting with people — so many that extra seating is opened in an adjoining room. A small yellow-haired girl is handing out thin candles to those who have yet to take one. They come in every colour there is, and hers is pink.
Eventually the crowd settles, and after the minister speaks and songs are sung, the congregation erupts in applause as Pam Rocker makes her way to the stage. Her dark-blonde hair is swept into a soft Mohawk. Her suit jacket falls over a shirt featuring a crawling infant shaded with rainbow hues.
Produced by Hannah Kost and Danielle Semrau
It reads: “I was born this gay.”
Rocker is addressing the celebration of their fourth anniversary as an affirming church. This hard-won title is designated to United Churches that actively and publically support the inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons in their community.
“It’s not only the fourth anniversary of Hillhurst becoming an affirming church,” Rocker tells the congregation, “but also the fourth anniversary of me coming here, because I had to leave the church that I was a part of because of my sexuality.”
Rocker’s girlfriend, Jillian Daniel, watches her partner intently from the audience. They currently attend church together every Sunday. But this has not always been the case. The crossing that led Pam Rocker to the stage at Hillhurst United in front of hundreds of supporters has not been a direct or simple one.
Days before the anniversary, she sits on a balcony outside of her office that overlooks one of Hillhurst’s reception areas. She is discussing the way she was raised: as part of a deeply evangelical American family in Texas.
“I didn’t have really bad memories, especially in my early years,” Rocker says. “But the biggest thing that I always felt was that there would be judgment if I did the things that were wrong.”
Her childhood was a by-the-numbers paint palette of do’s and don’ts.
Having sex before marriage was a don’t. Drinking was a don’t. But homosexuality seemed to be in a category all of its own, considered so sinful it was rarely discussed.
“The language that I had [to describe homosexuality] was just, it’s evil and unmentionable,” Rocker says. “I wasn’t even sure for the longest time what exactly it meant — I knew that it was sexual. But it wasn’t about two adults loving each other and having a committed relationship, it was about guys having sex with other guys.”
As she grew older, the fear crept in. She knew that when she kissed a boy, she felt excitement, not romance, and her feelings for other girls were more complex in the simplest way. With this came a bleak understanding of what she was, defined by the beliefs that also defined her life.
“When I began to understand… that there were such things as homosexuals, it was even more difficult because then I did have words to describe it,” Rocker says. “But the words that went along with that were hell, eternal damnation, sin. And I almost felt like I didn’t want to have the words anymore.”
Those words served as a dark promise of what would happen if she allowed herself her feelings. And so instead, Rocker tried to carry on living as the person she believed she had to be.
She took writing courses in Los Angeles and Alberta. She married a man at age 20 whom she describes having loved, though perhaps with a different heart. They were together for eight years, eventually moving to Calgary to pursue job opportunities until something inside her broke.
“It basically came to the point where I was like, I have to tell somebody that I’m gay or that I think I am,” Rocker remembers.
Rocker went to a counselor who told her plainly she was a lesbian, and should start considering a divorce.
Rocker’s gaze seems to turn inward as she describes this memory. Her husband sat with her, unable to console her as she wept. She doesn’t remember saying the words that changed everything between them. But she did. She recalls his confusion, his anger, his hurt.
“I basically said, but if I were straight, I would want to be with you,” Rocker remembers. “Which I’m sure wasn’t much of a consolation. And it was a really long journey, because I saw how much hurt there was.”
It would be four more years before she came out to her family in an email in 2009.
“I said that without my faith, my life won’t be fulfilling,” Rocker says. “But without being myself, my life won’t have integrity. And so coming out wasn’t selfish, wasn’t sinful… For me, that was the moment where freedom was possible.”
Here she stops. And although time seems to have scarred this memory over, there is something raw in her voice when she continues.
“Their first response was three words,” Rocker says. And her blue eyes are electric with hurt or defiance or both as she recites: “‘Deep, deep sadness.’”
Eventually, they wrote her a second letter.
“They said, let us know when you want to talk,” Rocker says. “And I couldn’t write back for a really long time.”
While coming to terms with her sexuality, Rocker had grown away from her religious beliefs. Instead she explored the life ahead of her, and what it felt like to walk in the right skin. Channeling her creative energies into writing, she wrote a play called Heterophobia that explored sexuality and prejudice.
Photo by Hannah KostDuring a conference where the piece was performed, she met Joanne Anquist, who had worked at Hillhurst United since 2007. She invited Rocker to attend a service.
Rocker had not been to church in two years.
“I just started hearing about affirming churches, but I didn’t really know what that was,” Rocker says. “I couldn’t equate church with any positive talk around homosexuality. But I ended up going, and I was really, really nervous.”
Rocker’s original plan was to sit near the back during the service and absorb the experience from a distance. But Hillhurst United was characteristically packed, and she found herself forced beside an older couple in the second row.
Partway through the service, a woman stood to tell the congregation that Hillhurst United was the first church that allowed her to speak about her wife without feeling judgment.
“I was seeing this huge room of people, in this packed building, cheering for her,” Rocker remembers. “And I just felt something crack in my idea of religion.
“Even though I didn’t start coming here right away, [it was] this little treasure, this little nugget that I just kind of held onto and thought, okay. If I ever want to be part of a faith community again, I could be home somewhere.”
Hillhurst United was very different once. In 1988, the United Church first allowed gays to become openly and actively involved in the ministry. John Pentland, Hillhurst United’s current minister, describes this decision as divisive among their congregation. It was a time when homosexuality was not simply ignored.
It was reviled.
“This particular church in the ’80s was not gay friendly, in fact it was hostile,” Pentland says. “But through people leaving or death… things changed.”
Homosexuality eventually evolved into a non-issue within Hillhurst United as the years progressed, and eventually the congregation embraced it entirely.
“What I realized when I engaged in the affirming process,” Pentland says, “Was that… it challenged us, pushed us, and invited us to hear differently than we had before.”
Rocker began attending Hillhurst United more regularly. Slowly she got to know the ministry, and became their affirming and creative coordinator.
“My position developed somewhat organically,” Rocker says. “More and more people would contact me because they knew I was gay, and they would want to say, is this place really accepting? I was like the go-to gay person.”
Through this role, Rocker finds ways for Hillhurst United to embody its affirming values. She spreads awareness about LGBTQ issues and reaches out to others struggling with religion in the gay community. She helps to organize film screenings to raise understanding about gay issues within the church, and marches with Hillhurst United in the Calgary Pride Parade.
“[We] are paying, in a sense, for her to be our eyes and ears about issues in the city,” says Pentland. “Weekly I have people come to the church who are… experiencing religious abuse around this, or people who have no church experience at all, but are gay and wanted to be in a safe environment.”
Of the 28 United Churches in Calgary, eight have assumed an affirming status. To take on this title, congregations must go through an educative process that Bruce Gregersen, a senior program officer with the United Church of Canada, describes as thorough.
“It is an intensive process, and I think the affirming network in church has designed it that way knowing that these issues are still controversial,” Gregersen says.
For Pam Rocker, Hillhurst United’s affirming status is a public declaration of their commitment to the gay community.
“When you think about a church building… it’s called a sanctuary,” Rocker says. “But for so many people, it’s a place where you sit and you hide. I feel like it is a privilege and a responsibility to let people know that there are places in their communities where they can be accepted for who they are.”
At Hillhurst United’s affirming celebration, not only homosexuality is discussed but also slavery, racism, bullying and mental illness. This is a place that studies the divine along with what it means to be human, trying to understand our differences instead of allowing them to divide us.
Rocker steps down from the podium after her speech and finds her way back to her seat. And the packed congregation speaks together, in one voice, as they pledge their acceptance and support to all people, regardless of age, gender identity, economic circumstance, and sexual orientation.
In the middle of this sea of people, Rocker sits with an arm around her girlfriend. Her fingertips find the hairs at the nape of her partner’s neck and tease them gently. Their heads lean together to share a quiet, private thought. And in this moment, Pam Rocker looks home somewhere.
Read more about Hillhurst United here.