By Lauren Means | Photos courtesy Pastor Dawn Bennett & The Table
I grew up in the Church of Christ. I was never taught to hate but I do remember hearing the phrase “hate the sin, not the sinner” frequently. As I grew older, I started to question what that meant exactly. When I came to terms with my own sexual orientation, I realized I was the sin. This has led to much time reflecting on my personal relationship with religion and spirituality.
This is common for many in the LGBT+ community. We’re inundated with it in the news, on TV, on social media, and often in our families. We’re told we are broken; that there’s something wrong with who we are; that we need fixing.
Luckily, there are numerous affirming faith communities in the Middle Tennessee area. Many are in Nashville but you can find them in outlying areas too. In the South, being affirming to the LGBT+ community is a bold stance to take. We’re fortunate to have organizations that go out of their way to let us know we are loved as we are. The Table is a welcome addition to the list.
Finding Her Truth
The Table is described as an organic faith community by its founder Pastor Dawn Bennett. Pastor Dawn was raised with her siblings in the Catholic tradition. “Strangely, from an early age, I was driven to go inside with my feelings and questions, which included my bisexuality. As a kid, I began talking to God in a conversational way,” she said. Pastor Dawn explained while she didn’t learn this in Sunday School per se, it’s what developed for her. She also shared that, over the years, she learned about abuses her siblings endured — especially her brothers — within the church. She kept talking with God about how this could be and eventually found the Catholic doctrine wasn’t a maintainable faith tradition for her.
Embracing Her Truth
In the mid-’90s, when her children were young, Pastor Dawn and her family moved to Tennessee. She’d transitioned to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and began working in lay ministry, teaching and Vacation Bible School.
As time passed, her children wanted a youth group with all the buttons and bells. “Enter [the] big-box evangelical church,” she said. “A few years in, my middle child came out as lesbian. Or, actually, was outed by the youth pastor’s wife…..no way! Yes, way. Well, family and church life blew up and before I knew it, none of my kids would go to church and divorce was right around the bend,” shared Pastor Dawn.
As the years progressed, she said her conversations with God turned more to rage and questions. “But still, I couldn’t seem to separate myself from either my lived experiences or ministry. Over time God began talking back to me in answers like, ‘if you want something to change, change it.’ So, I did,” she said. She went to Vanderbilt Divinity School and Luther Seminary. Now, she works to help people and families heal from religious trauma as well as find and create meaningful ways to engage with their faith as they understand it. “I’m ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament — which basically means if we can dream it, I can do it, as far as the Church is concerned,” she explained.
Cultivating her Truth
Pastor Dawn said, “As Pastor, there’re really only two questions I seek to learn: 1) what do you need, and 2) how can I help. That said, some of the greatest needs I know about involve safe places for us to ‘be us,’ whatever that looks like for a person.”
She’s learned that most of us practice some sort of faith and many of us come from Christian traditions that have, in some way, harmed us. One of the most important needs she sees is what she calls bridge-building. “That is, building bridges to span the gap between the hurt and the healing. My Bishop, Rev. Kevin Strickland, gave me permission to ‘get as radical as necessary to help those who have need.’ He knows what the needs are, perhaps better than I do in fact. Before becoming Bishop he was a pastor here, in Nashville. By calling me as a pastor to serve here, he’s helped create an opportunity for the ELCA Lutheran church to become part of the remedy,” said Pastor Dawn.
She continued, “The ‘Church,’ that is the whole Christian church, all denominations, has done great harm to LGBT+ folx over the centuries — this we know. The Table aims to help heal some of those wounds.” She said they aim to be a place where one’s authentic self, in all their beautiful mess, can come together and create something new and beautiful.
Sharing Her Truth
When asked for advice for someone who is struggling with balancing being true to their identity and their spirituality, she said, “God, created you AS you are. You’re loved and beautiful in your Creator’s eyes. I believe this so deeply and my claim is evidenced by the Prophets of old; Jeremiah 1:5 says, ‘I knew you before you were formed.’ There’s no expectation on God’s part for us to be anyone other than who we’re led to be. We all know our truth. It sits deep within us. Some call it a gut feeling, some inner knowing, some intuition, some the Spirit within. All of these are correct and they all speak the same Truth.”
She went further to say, “If you know how you are called to live, lean gently into it. If your faith tradition does not lead you deeper into yourself and further toward love, you have likely outgrown that part of your faith journey. God has not made any mistakes and God does not make any junk. God is love and we are love. The risk and reward is in keeping on the path of learning how to carry those realities in tandem. And, for me, that’s why we call ourselves the Beloved Community.”
Faith is Like a Garden
Some groups are more vulnerable than others when it comes to finding a welcoming spiritual family. Pastor Dawn said, “The Table provides ‘grace and a place for you.’ What this means is, wherever you find yourself on the path of faith, you are welcome. But more importantly, you are affirmed.” She points out that welcoming and affirming isn’t the same. This is an important distinction when someone of the LGBT+ community is looking for a faith home.
“It can be a slow crawl back to a sense of safety. Many of us, particularly in the trans* community, have been so hurt and harmed it feels impossible to heal. But as scripture says ‘nothing is impossible with God,’” she said.
The Table will be a place of healing and reconnecting back to a life-giving place to practice faith. She wants to tell people that it’s okay to talk, rage and inquire; that God can handle it. The Table will provide a place of freedom to explore those areas of life and death where faith is concerned.
“Pruning is a spiritually sound principle. I hope to illustrate an example of faith like a garden: some things have to die before others can come to life; sometimes weeds and flowers grow together in the same plot; something is always in bloom. At the minimum, The Table hopes to be a place to work the soil of your faith. At most, we hope to be a garden,” stated Pastor Dawn.
She planted the roots and really started growing the community at the beginning of this year — and then COVID hit. That hasn’t stopped The Table from moving forward. On December 4, at 7 pm, they’re hosting “Drag Wership – Live” in collaboration with Mac Productions. They also have the Community Hope Chest which provides free clothing and accessories to transgender individuals who experience a barrier to resources. In January, they plan to begin live Queer Mic Nite.
They’ll soon begin a Wednesday evening adult scripture study twice monthly via zoom. It’ll be a place to bring your doubts, fears, questions and hopes. Rainbow Connection is an LGBT+ youth group via zoom (for now) aimed at providing a place for youth who have more questions than their current youth group serves and a place where they can be more fully themselves. Pastor Dawn has begun posting a monthly newsletter on social media and all events are on The Table’s website. “Since our activities grow out of need, we create new opportunities to meet people where they are to help them make meaning of life and faith,” she said.
If you have a dream, Pastor Dawn urges you to talk to her to see how she can help make it come to life. She equated a pastor to a cruise ship captain saying, “I only drive the boat. Everyone knows it’s the crew who runs the place and the people on board who make it a collective life-giving experience.” She does need your help in however God moves you to be involved. Most importantly, she wants you to know: “God loves you as you are, for who you are and where you are. Wherever you are, it’s okay. You are beloved.”
The Table always needs volunteers and funding. For more information on how you can help or how to get involved in the services, visit https://www.thetablenashville.org/.