Bishop Phyllis’ Story
I spent nearly two decades separated from the church because I was unable to reconcile my sexual orientation and my gender with the theology and doctrine that I had been taught as a child. For me, being anything other than a lesbian was simply not an option and being anything other than a woman of integrity was also not an option. I stayed away from the church because I believed there was no place for me there. I had been tricked and brainwashed into believing that God did not and could not love me as a lesbian and that there was no place for me in the family of God. I had been told, through everything that I heard and saw in church, that I was an abomination and destined to hell. In those years that I spent separated from the church it felt as though something was missing.
At one point in my life, I began to truly lament and long for the ability to be involved in church in some of the ways I had been as a child and in my youth. But that seemed impossible because I was a proud, out, feminist, womanist, bi-racial living as black, lesbian, and I was not willing to deny or compromise who I was and what I had come to believe. I wanted to be in relationship with God but I didn’t think it was possible and there were no models, that I knew of, that mirrored back to me all the pieces of myself. I had attempted to be in relationship with God “by myself,” but there was something that was lacking and missing. I felt a tremendous yearning to be in relationship with God and with a community of other people of faith.
It was through this event, and the people who had been sent into my life during that time, that I became exposed to the fact that there were African-American people of faith who did not condemn me to hell and did not think it impossible for me to have a relationship with God because of my sexual orientation. While training a group of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) students at Trinity Hospital, I was invited to attend a revival being held at Trinity United Church Of Christ.
After some leading and prompting by the Holy Spirit, I reconciled my relationship with God and chose to be reunited in Christian fellowship in 1994 under the pastoral leadership of Rev. Dr. Frank A. Thomas of New Faith Baptist Church. During this time I was, and had been for some years, working in the field of violence against women in the arena of sexual assault and domestic violence. With this work as a vehicle, I began to hear the voice of God connect my life’s work to ministry. While discerning God’s call, I initially faced some opposition in my attempt to enter into the Deacon Ministry at New Faith. Accepting my call to ministry, as well as my sexual orientation, which I fully disclosed, proved difficult for some to embrace. However, it was during that time of challenge and through that opposition that I heard God calling me to ordained Pastoral Ministry. With the encouragement and support of Pastor Frank, I began to wholeheartedly embrace my call and to pursue ministerial training.
In 1998, God had brought me full circle as I completed a CPE Chaplain Internship at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I had no idea when I was training CPE students that I would one day be a CPE student!! It was an incredible ministry experience that pointed me in the direction of further pastoral training which led me to completing a one year CPE Chaplain Residency at Advocate Christ Hospital. At Christ Hospital, I was assigned to the Surgical & Neurological ICU and the Cardiac Care Floor. As a result of my experiences via my CPE training, I began to intensely deal with issues of death and dying and providing pastoral care. In fact, during one pastoral call (at Northwestern Hospital) for an African-American woman in her early fifties whose family was facing the decision of disconnecting her life support,
I heard God calling me to “feed God’s sheep.”
While completing my CPE chaplain residency at Christ Hospital, I applied and was accepted into Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) where I studied until completing my Master of Divinity in May of 2004. I chose CTS for many reasons but there were three things that primarily sealed my decision. CTS promised to not “teach me what to think theologically but how to think theologically,” Also, CTS was acutely aware and voiced to me (through Dr. Susan Thistethwaite) that
“who one studied with was as important as what one studied” and lastly, CTS encouraged students to ask the question, “who made the rules and how do I change them?” With these philosophies, CTS seemed like a perfect fit and it was!! In 2002 I was the co-recipient of the Carlos Castenada Scholarship for the LGBT seminarian who shows the most promise for ministry. And in 2003 I was the inaugural recipient of Chicago Theological Seminary’s G. Campbell Morgan Award for Preaching.
For several years while at CTS, friends and others asked me if I knew Rev. Flunder from San Francisco. On several occasions I attempted to seek out this woman of God who many said I had much in common with, not the least being our Pentecostal COGIC backgrounds. Finally, in 2000, I met Rev. Yvette A. Flunder at her church,
City of Refuge United Church Of Christ in San Francisco, CA. Rev. Flunder went on to become Dr. Flunder and eventually, Presiding Bishop of TFAM;
The Fellowship Of Affirming Ministries. Meeting Bishop Flunder and seeing City of Refuge was truly an epiphany-like experience for me and I cried the entire time
as I heard God speak to me saying, “I have shown you the vision of your heart, now, go back to Chicago and replicate it.” For me, meeting Bishop Flunder was like looking into that mirror, that I longed for. For the first time it seemed like I was, through her, seeing all of myself. Bishop Flunder invited me to attend the upcoming “Fellowship 2000” conference to be held later that year in Philadelphia. It was there that I met a cadre of like minded people of God from all over the country who had found their way back to God and who were starting ministries that were open and affirming to LGBTQ people. Soon after our meeting, I asked Bishop Flunder to mentor me, which she agreed to do. I am incredibly blessed to be one of her children, that she is my beloved Bishop and that over the years we have developed a deep and loving relationship.
After several Jonah-esque moments on this journey, including a short term as Associate Pastor at Church of the Open Door, I joined Trinity United Church of Christ under the pastoral leadership of Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. In January of 2003, while on spiritual retreat with Bishop Flunder, God spoke Pillar of Love into my spirit and Pillar of Love was conceived. In June of 2003, Bishop Flunder’s first official action, after being consecrated Bishop, was to ordain me at The Fellowship’s annual conference in California and to receive Pillar of Love Fellowship Church into The Fellowship as the first Fellowship affiliated church. Since that time, I have served by appointment by Bishop Flunder to the office of Ministerial Protocol for The Fellowship and Iam currently a member of the Executive Committee and
Lead the was consecrated in June of 2005 as one of four Regional Administrators for The Fellowship. In 2014 I was consecrated a Bishop for TFAM’s Midwest Region.
I am further blessed ministerially in that as my pastor at the time, Pastor Jeremiah A. Wright consented to be my “covering” in Chicago and has also provided me with pastoral guidance and mentoring support. Additionally, although there are so many who have participated in my spiritual and pastoral growth and development, I credit my former Spiritual Mother, Bernice Parham with being a God-sent parental figure and spiritual guide who helped nurture me into my destiny. I also thank Dr. Iva Carruthers for being one of my Spiritual Mothers who holds the distinction of being the person to tell me, that she heard the Holy Spirit tell her, I was going to Divinity School. After finishing our breakfast together at Northeastern Illinois University, where she told me this, I promptly went to the parking lot and sat in my car and wept. I knew it was God speaking through her and I could no longer deny it or ignore it.
And though God has indeed been good to me in many ways, one of the greatest gifts and blessings of all is the covenanted relationship of 18 years with my partner,
Vickie R. Sides and that we are a family with her biological nephew, Brandon, that we raised as our son. Vickie is the love of my life and God has blessed our relationship to grow sweeter over the years. I believe God has helped us learn to navigate being in relationship so that we can model to our congregation what a healthy, loving, spirit led and God ordained relationship looks like so that we can help our congregation to pursue and realize healthy, loving, spirit led and God ordained relationships as well.
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From Bishop Phyllis
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