COLUMBIA — Rejected by her fundamentalist Christian mother, a young lesbian woman ended her pain by hanging herself in a closet 11 years ago.
Now, her faith and worldview transformed by her loss, that mother — Mary Lou Wallner — has made it her mission and ministry to help other Christian gays and lesbians avoid the same painful ending that her daughter’s story had. It’s a message she’ll bring to Columbia this Friday night in cooperation with Missouri United Methodist Church’s prominent ministry to gays in the community.
Mary Lou Wallner of TEACH Ministries will speak in the multipurpose room at Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. Ninth St., at 7 p.m. Friday. Hosted by Open Door Ministry, Liberty Education Forum and the Columbia and Jefferson City chapters of Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the event is free and open to the public. For more information about TEACH Ministries, visit teach-ministries.org.
Wallner took her story and its message on the road under the name TEACH Ministries, an acronym for “To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia,” after her own faith-based homophobia drove a fatal wedge between herself and her elder daughter, Anna Wakefield.
Raised in a conservative Christian milieu where homosexuality was an abomination, Wallner was devastated when she received a 1988 letter from Anna at college that detailed her struggles to be “comfortable” and then said, “I am comfortable with women.”
“I will NEVER accept that in you...,” Wallner wrote back. “I do and will continue to love you, but I will always hate that.”
Years of tension followed, and Anna eventually broke contact with her mother in 1996. Several months later, in February 1997, Anna took her own life.
After Anna’s death, Wallner and her husband, Bob, began to look more closely at the issues that affected Anna toward the end of her life. After three years and a great deal of prayer, reading and study on homosexuality and Christianity, they concluded that the beliefs on which they had been raised, on which they had subsisted for many years, were wrong.
“We call it our transformation — our belief system was transformed,” Wallner said by phone from her home in North Little Rock, Ark. “We realized that what we’d been taught all our lives was not true. “
In 2002, at the urging of friends in a Bible study for gay Christians at their home, the Wallners founded TEACH Ministries. Since then, they have spoken to Christian groups around the country, frequently partnering with Soulforce, a national gay ministry that had a strong influence on their life-altering personal study. Wallner also has shared her story in People magazine and in the award-winning documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So.”
“We have had some mild criticism that we’ve been preaching to the choir, but we always feel like there’s a ripple effect from that,” Wallner said of TEACH Ministries’ tendency to speak to more progressive groups. She has received many e-mails of both affirmation and condemnation, all of which she answers personally: “You never know whose mind you’re going to change.”
More recently, Wallner caught the attention of Open Door Ministry, the gay ministry at Columbia’s own Missouri United Methodist Church. Open Door mentor Rev. Dick Blount jumped at the chance to spotlight Wallner and her story in Columbia.
“What we want to do with Mary Lou’s presence here this Friday night is to awaken our own church, awaken all of the Christian movement and all faith (traditions) ... to see what they’re doing,” Blount said. “The church is the biggest contributor to homophobia in our culture. The price we are paying for that in the lives of gay people is just tragic, and we need to stop.”
Since 2000, Blount, a retired United Methodist minister, has facilitated Open Door’s monthly meetings for study, prayer and fellowship. Under his guidance, Open Door has also expanded into a community ministry with involvement in Columbia’s annual Pride Fest.
“A lot of our ministry is to sit and listen and share love and make them know that they are a person of worth,” Blount said. “It is kind of a broad, diverse thing, but it really is focused on simply telling gay people that they are a child of God, just as worthy as any of us. Unfortunately, it’s hard for gay people living in our culture and in the shadow of our churches to believe us.”
It’s both Wallner’s and Blount’s hope, the goal of their ministry, that gays will come to believe that they are people of worth — that homophobia and its often tragic consequences will be replaced by unconditional love and acceptance of gays in the church and in the community.
“The question I’ve been most frequently asked is, ‘Dick, why do you do what you’re doing?’” Blount said. “I’ve had a simple answer: because Jesus is calling me to do that. Love has enabled me to do it. So it isn’t a complicated ministry.”
For Wallner, the answer is just as personal but is rooted in her own loss.
“We come from a place of total non-acceptance, and when Anna came out to us, that was the worst news she could have given us,” Wallner said. “If we can come from that belief and mindset to where we are now, we feel like there’s hope for others. We really just have one mission, and that’s to save lives. We just don’t want other parents to go through what we had to go through.”