Sally Gary, the founder of CenterPeace Ministries, visited Oklahoma Christian University Feb. 5-6 to discuss gender and sexuality during Oklahoma Christian’s Safe at Home and big chapels.
Since 2006, CenterPeace has worked to help “churches, schools, and families all over the world have conversations about faith and sexuality in a more Christ-like way. We provide a place to belong for LGBTQ+ people, and we welcome grace-filled dialogue and respectful disagreement with all who come to the table, acknowledging Jesus as the CenterPeace of our existence.”
Q. I loved your talk in Safe at Home; it was super powerful. Is that how the idea of CenterPeace came, from attending ACU (Abilene Christian University) and not having a safe place?
“My whole life, really. I didn’t come out until I was in my second year of law school. I was thirty-five years old, so I had thirty-five years of secrecy. I knew [I] couldn’t continue like that. The secrets were really devastating to me, much more so than everything else I was facing. So yeah, it grew out of my own wrestling with my sexuality and who I am.”
Q. Was there anything you were able to find comfort in that helped you when you were in the closet going through your life?
“I tried to read some things, but it was hard because there was no Amazon. You couldn’t order things, so you had to go out in public spaces to buy a book. I didn’t do much of that, because I didn’t want to take it to the counter and have someone see I was reading something like that. There was no one who knew until I was thirty-five. [I] talked to God a lot; He was the only one who knew.”
Q. Who was the first person you came out to?
“David Lewis. He was a counselor that I worked with. I didn’t know him, but he had done some work with one of my favorite professors at ACU. And I thought, ‘OK, if my professor trusts this guy, then maybe he can know some stuff that maybe could help me.’ So I went to him. I had to drive from Lubbock to Dallas.”
Q. Was it nerve-racking?
“Oh, it was the only time in my journey that I truly contemplated ending it all. It was a snowy day, there was ice on the road and I could hear that voice going, ‘Go ahead, drive off the road. Go through the guardrails, no one will ever have to know. You won’t embarrass yourself, you won’t embarrass your family. Just think of how disappointed everyone will be in you, Sally. They’ll be ashamed.’ Amy Grant had just come out with a Christmas album, and she had this song “Breath of Heaven” on there. I had it on cassette, so I kept having to rewind it. I really heard God’s voice through hers that day and I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment since where I felt that close to that point.”
Q. When did you get the vision for CenterPeace?
“I was practicing law in Belmont, TX, and I just kept hearing things and getting these messages like,‘Hmm, this isn’t right.’ I had these friends I had grown up with and gone to ACU with, who had all walked away from God. Many of them are atheists now. They have really no faith now, and why would you, when your whole family has turned against you because of this God? That coupled with stuff I would see on TV and heard, I remember going to this small group at church, and they made this statement, and everybody laughed, and on the inside, I was both hurt and indignant at these people. They had no clue they were talking about me, and if they did, they wouldn’t say that, but would they still think that? If you would’ve told me at that time that I would be doing what I’m doing now, I would’ve told you, ‘You’re crazy.’ I started keeping this legal pad full of all of those little messages from God, and when I got down to the bottom of the sheet I thought, ‘OK, if You want me to do this, I ask You to not let me lose that zeal.’”
Q. Has your family been supportive since the day you came out to them?
“Yes. Now would they initiate conversation, did they know what to say? No. Did we have knockdown drag-outs? Yes. Once I remember just sobbing, and my mom saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and me saying, ‘I know you are, but not only do I have to be the one going through this, I have to teach you, too.’ So it wasn’t smooth at all, but they were extremely supportive. Friends were supportive. The counselor I had gone to, I started sharing this dream for ministry with him, and he thankfully kept me reined in. Because, it just wasn’t time, I wasn’t ready yet. That was in ’99. I started dreaming about this, and we didn’t become a 501C3 until 2006. But along the way, I got a job at ACU teaching, and I told them from the get-go, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I want to do eventually, and if that doesn’t fit what you want to do with the university then you need to know that now.’ And everybody from my dean to the president was fine. They asked me to not share for a year, so I didn’t. I kept quiet for a year. Then I kept insisting to let them let me share my story. Finally, on March 26, 2003, at 11:00, I shared my story for the first time. I went from about five people knowing to 5,000. That was terrifying. I thought I was having panic attacks the month before that. From then on, my elders at my church asked how they could help, and I said we needed to put a team together to start exploring what this would look like. So, in 2004 we put a team together that met for nearly two years before we became a 501C3 in 2006.”
Q. What is the main goal of CenterPeace?
“To create space for conversation. Just like we did this morning [at Oklahoma Christian], and just like we’ll do tomorrow.”
Q. Is it just schools you go and speak at?
“Schools and churches. We do spiritual formation retreats for LGBTQ people. We just did one for college students. Kelsey [Herndon] and Porsha were both there. It was amazing. I think it was one of the most exciting things we’ve ever done.”
Q. Where was it at?
“It was at Watchtower Ranch in Texas, between Fort Worth and Abilene. It was out in the middle of a cow pasture, but it was the most beautiful ranch. We do retreats for parents also, and we do a couple of those a year. We do tapestries for all ages. We do a big conference every other year. We had nearly 500 in attendance this year. That’s the second one we’ve done in Dallas. We’ll do another in 2020.”
Q. One of my friend’s dad told her that if she were to marry a woman, he wouldn’t attend the wedding. Do you experience cases like that, and what has been the biggest backlash you’ve had since starting CenterPeace?
“Have I had people say ugly things? Have I had people when I was teaching at ACU, and I came out to chapel that day, who wrote Dr. Money and said, ‘Why do you have a woman like that teaching there?’ Yeah, and there were probably a lot more things he got that, out of the goodness of his heart, he didn’t share with me. Sure, people say things. I’ve had people get mad in churches and just throw temper fits. There was this father at a parent retreat that just went ballistic, left and left his wife there. But you know what, four years later, that couple called me one night and said, ‘You know what, we want to thank you for loving us through a really hard time. And we want to ask you if you think it would be a good idea to move to where our son and his husband are moving?’ You see, you don’t give up on your friend’s dad, because I have talked to many dads who have screamed the same thing, and they have ended up officiating the wedding. You can’t ever give up on what the spirit is doing and how God is opening people’s hearts in ways we can’t even fathom.”