Carol Vanderstoep

We need to be brave with our stories so other people can be brave with theirs. Catherine Center

My deep belief is that stories are sacred and have the power to cultivate empathy and justice. Brene Brown

I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, went to Christian elementary and high school, Redeemer College and then Calvin where I became a Christian School teacher and spent my career in that system.  My husband, John, has a similar story, graduating from Kuyper College then Calvin Seminary, a CRC pastor/missionary/church planter. Our first three of five children also went to Christian Schools. We’ve been immersed in the CRC. We are your poster children. 

Growing up, we didn’t talk about homosexuality and my blinders made me believe that there weren’t any gay people in my church or school.  As a young mom, I wanted to be the best mom I could be. I believed Focus on the Family when they said the “gays” were going to destroy the family as we’ve always known it and when they talked about “Exodus Ministries International,’ saying it was a place where any Christian who suspected they might be gay should go for healing. I personally didn’t know any gay people or so I thought. I was told (so I was certain) that homosexuality was a choice, and a bad one at that.  When a dear CRC friend who had two gay friends began questioning our church’s stance on homosexuality, I became concerned she had lost her way, not realizing then she was offering me a gift to learn how to listen and understand.  

During John’s years as a pastor, even though he found himself unable to help parishioners who identified as LGBTQ, we failed to learn or examine our beliefs because we trusted that the church must have had it right.  When Canada approved same-sex marriage, we failed to listen to affirming friends who gently invited us to humbly listen and learn that we might be wrong.  One night, at a fundraiser dinner for an organization that supported LGBTQ Christians, the speaker, Tony Campolo, shared his humble posture:  “Maybe I am wrong?”  

Might we be both faithful and wrong, and if wrong, humble enough to learn and change? 

Our second daughter Kristin was born in August of 1994. She was a vivacious, lively, animated and fun-loving little girl and there was never a dull moment with her around. 

She was also a girl with a huge heart, putting the needs of others before her own. When she was eight years old, she found an adoption agency flyer at church with pictures of kids who needed to find their ‘forever families.’ Kristin pleaded with us to adopt all of them or at least one or two. She knew all their names and faces. She has always loved kids and is good with them. Already as a young girl, she was looking forward to the day that she could be a mom. She was a much loved babysitter in high demand. She was twelve years old when my youngest son was born and she was my right-hand lady.  She has always been a ‘baby whisperer.’ 

When Kristin was about twelve years old and entering puberty, she started to realize that something did not seem ‘right’. She was attracted to girls rather than boys and confusion set in. We didn’t talk about being gay at home but she did get the message through home, church and Christian school that homosexuality was a sin. She assumed she couldn’t be gay because she didn’t choose this and was told that being gay is something you choose. She begged and pleaded with God during those years to change her and she suffered in silence with all of her wondering and questioning. 

She had decided that she would try dating guys to see if it worked out for her. It didn’t. She dated three guys over the next few years. When she finally came to the conclusion that she must be gay, she decided that she would marry a man and keep her secret forever and tell her husband on her death bed. 

She wondered what would happen if she ever shared her deep dark secret. Would she be rejected by her family and/or Christian community? What should she do about her deep longing to get married and her longtime dream to be a mom someday? What should she do with her faith — her love for God? Did God still love her? So many questions and struggles … ALONE. It still pains me deeply to share that part of the story knowing how much she was going through and not sharing it with anyone. All of the inner but unshared turmoil led to depression and self-harm during high school and left us as parents devastated and confused.  

Kristin took a year off after high school because she was not emotionally ready for university. At the end of that year off, Kristin chose Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg where she discovered a group of LGBTQ Christians and was able to admit for the first time that she was a lesbian.  It was possible to be both gay and Christian. Prior to sharing this with us, she took time to learn and study and listen to the stories of other people who were both LGBTQ and Christian. She wrestled with coming to a point where she was at peace with being a Christian and gay.  Meanwhile the church that she grew up in was telling her that this was not possible. She came to a place of accepting herself for who she was made to be. 

I will always remember the evening that Kristin came out to us. We sat in the living room together and she read a beautifully written letter to us. After the initial “I am gay,” she went on to say that it had nothing to do with us being ‘bad parents.’ Her words were a shock to me. She didn’t seem gay (whatever that meant!). Although her words were initially jarring to me, her letter was so caring and thoughtful, truly emulating her beautiful personality. She has always been one who puts the other person first and she wanted to assure us through this letter that being gay was not our fault. We hugged her and told her that we love her no matter what and that we would figure this out. We told her that although in this moment everything changed, nothing changed. We would never stop loving or supporting her. 

The three months after Kristin came out were a blur. I was in the process of wrapping up my teaching year and John was wrapping up a 10 year pastor position just prior to our family moving to Haiti for a year as missionaries. The year in Haiti, though, was a gift to me as I used much of my spare time to study, pray, journal and learn. I realized that identifying as LGBTQ is not a choice. If it was a choice, I doubt people would choose it since it usually involves so much heartache, pain, and loss especially in the Christian Community. I immersed myself in stories and sadly heard the most horrific and painful stories of LGBTQ people and my heart broke.

While we lived in Haiti, many of our family members (also mostly Christian Reformed) came to visit us. On a number of occasions, we sat on our deck together with our visiting family and Kristin came out to them as gay. We were surprised and thankful by their responses. They too told Kristin that they would love and support her no matter what. I will never forget my dad’s response — my dad, a leader and elder in his church for years. He stood up to hug her and through tears said, “Kristin, I am so sorry that you had to go through this alone all those years.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the group. 

On boxing day of 2015, now back in Ontario, we met the person who is now our beautiful daughter-in-law, Kimberly. She had also spent a year at Canadian Mennonite University and, although they didn’t meet there, they had common friends who introduced them to each other. They were married on May 12, 2018. They are both so happy, thriving in their true identity instead of hiding who they are. 

There have been many days over the past several years that I have felt guilty for not being able to ‘be there’ for Kristin during her darkest days. Her response to me has been so gracious. “Mom — you did the best you could with what you knew at the time.” It is my passion to let other parents know my story so their kids will know that they are a safe place to come out, if necessary. I know that this journey will be harder for people who are faith- based. 

I wonder where Kristin would be if we had rejected her that night? I thank God that he allowed us to express love instead of fear, and faith instead of judgment. Has this journey been hard? Yes! Do I feel the judgments of people who don’t understand? Yes! Does this journey feel lonely sometimes? Yes! Would I change anything? NO. This journey has helped me to see the deep love of God for ALL of his children. 

Two key things I have discovered on this journey: 1) Having gay relatives and friends introduces me to learning I couldn’t experience without them; and 2) How the church has interpreted the Bible about homosexuality might be wrong — like our mistaken views on Jews, slaves, and women in the past — it is at least worthy of being questioned so that we can accurately know God’s heart for LGBTQ people. Because of this, over the past couple of years, my passion has grown for doing something to spread the word that people who identify as LGBTQ are loved by God and that LGBTQ followers of Jesus are part of his church and welcomed at his table. Like all of us, they need to be loved and supported. Several years ago, John and I (along with four others) started a group where we live, which offers support for people who identify as both Christian and LGBTQ and those who are supportive allies. We have been richly blessed to know and love LGBTQ people whose faith in Jesus has persisted despite their churches not being able to extend God’s welcome to them. 

When the CRC’s 2020 Report on Human Sexuality was released on October 29, I told Kristin about the report. She told me that she didn’t really want to talk about the report and was tired of hearing arguments about whether or not she can fully belong in the church. She acknowledged her confidence in knowing that she is loved by Jesus no matter what a denomination might say.

One of Christianity’s key teachings is that people are made in the image of God. Yet, that portion of image-bearers who identify as gay are finding themselves squeezed out of the church by heterosexual Christians insisting that LGBTQ people fit into a heterosexual image. May God forgive us for standing in his place and withholding welcome where he would extend his love. I’ll end with part of a quote from Brené Brown. “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” My hope and prayer is that the church will rise with humility, compassion, love and justice for all image-bearers. 

To listen to Carol’s story, click on this link. Undeserved Grace – A Journey to Becoming Fully Affirming

To listen to a message that Carol gave in early 2021, click on this link. Love Your Enemies