January 29, 2024
- Michael Sferro
- Generation to Generation
- 1 Samuel 18:1-4, 1 Samuel 20:12-17, 2 Samuel 1:24-27
- Bowen Family Systems
- Open and Affirming
- Medina United Church of Christ Congregational
Good morning. My name is Mike Sferro, and it is my pleasure to be with you today. I want to thank Pastor Luke and Pastor Meghan for generously offering me time to share my story, and I’d like to thank each of you for the gift of your presence. In addition to being a member of our church, I am also a member of the open and affirming committee. I’d like to take a moment and acknowledge my fellow committee members: Dan Daubner, Pam Branscome, Brad Rice, Vicki Marty, Lily Wolff, and Alan Parkhurst. I am grateful that they invited me to join the open and affirming committee, and I’m also grateful for their support and prayer in my time sharing with you this morning.
I’m here to share my story with you, that through my journey each of you may understand the why behind the work of the open and affirming committee, and what a formalized, congregational statement of support might mean. By day, I run a credit union. In my role I am required to speak in front of large crowds often. I talk with federal regulators and discuss legislative issues with elected officials. I also served as the president of the medina county arts foundation, where I welcomed audiences to our summer musicals and holiday pops concerts, always with a great deal of confidence assuredness. I share this because my time speaking with you this morning is profoundly more important to me. After preparing these words, I have a newfound respect and admiration for our pastors and the work they pour into their sermons for all of us, every single week.
My husband, Ryan, is here this morning. Those of you who know Ryan know that he is the kindest, most beautiful person in the world. If you’ve been able to hear him sing, you know that he is as talented as he is kind. And to answer the question that is most assuredly on your minds, yes, I married up. My mother, Palma Sferro, is also here. It means a lot to me to have her here this morning as she has always been a steadfast supporter of mine and a wonderful example of God’s love in all that she does.
Harmony is defined as: “the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect.” Harmony is also defined as simply “agreement.” On the other hand, the opposite of harmony is discord, which is “unpleasing, or requiring resolution by another.” In other words – a disagreement. For much of my life, I existed in a state of discord. There was constant disagreement between accepting myself and accepting God. In musical terms, the “God’ note, and the “gay” note were not pleasing together.
As far back as I can remember, I knew that I was gay. I certainly did not admit it to myself, but I knew. I remember when all the boys had crushes on the girls thinking that something was wrong with me because I just – didn’t. Even then, harmony illuded me.
I need to be clear; my family has been nothing but supportive and loving of me since I came out to them in 2013. My father, who passed away in 2020 gave an amazing toast at my wedding and my mom, well I think she likes Ryan better than me – who doesn’t!? However, I was so deeply entrenched in the closet of my own making that the very idea of ever coming out, let alone being married, seemed impossible for so many years.
I grew up Catholic and attended PSR, which stands for parish school of religion, regularly. The only time I heard the words “gay” or “queer” when I was a kid was in a derogatory sense. The sentiment was that God did not make people that way, because God does not make mistakes and those who are “that way” choose to be that way because they are sinners and disgusting. There were no positive, queer role models in the ‘80’s when I was a kid. The AIDs epidemic was devastating the gay community at this time, and all I can recall hearing was it was punishment for the life these people had chosen to live.
Coping with these feelings I could not help but believing that God did not make me this way, created in me a belief that something was wrong with me, that I was broken. I became determined to do whatever I could to deny my queer identity, to hide it, to erase it. The discord. Apparently, my attempts to hide who I was were not as effective as I hoped. I recall being called “la fruta” in Spanish class in 7th grade. I remember the way the middle school guys would talk about me, then look at me and laugh. My family moved from Akron to Wadsworth when I was in 10th grade. The silver lining to moving, I thought, was that I could start over, I could suppress the gayness better this time and no one would figure me out. Well, the bullies figured me out, and the discord only rang louder.
As I was not worthy to seek God, being “this way”, I didn’t feel that I could pray for help. I began tuning God out. If I were choosing to be like this, which I didn’t know how I was choosing it, I must not be worthy of God’s love.
I know some of this sounds dramatic, but I did have safe spaces and fortunately many friends in high school. The Wadsworth band and the Wadsworth drama club were my salvation during these times. I found community, I found people who liked me, and I found two things that I love to this day: music and theatre.
While in high school, I became very good friends with some kids who attended a non-denominational Christian church. They invited me to a Halloween event their church hosted called “Judgement House.” It was at this experience that I learned something amazing – Jesus Christ’s love and sacrifice was so much bigger than anything, and not only was I worthy of his love, but He sought me out. This was huge – but rather than have harmony between God and my queerness, I tuned my queerness out. It’s like a note that was playing on the piano simply stopped, and all I tuned in to was God. I thought, for sure, if I prayed hard enough or was faithful enough to God, He would not just keep that discordant “gay” note from playing again, but He would replace it with a resolved note, one what would be in harmony with Him, finally.
I was wrong.
During this time, and for many years, while I loved God deeply and pursued him, I began to absolutely hate myself. I believed, and I remember these feelings vividly, that if I was this way – a gay man – and God did not make me this way – since it was a choice- but for some reason He was NOT changing me, that there was something broken with me. This period of self-loathing is a time I look back on now with gratitude, because it makes what I have now so much sweeter.
After years of hearing the message from the non-denominational folks “you can be gay, but you can’t act on it” I decided that I couldn’t go on in the church. I knew I wasn’t going to change by that point, and that the messages of Jesus’ overwhelming love were meant for everyone but me. The “Christian” community was not my community.
I never stopped believing in God. I never questioned that Jesus Christ came to save us, that He was the begotten Son of God, and that He offered salvation to those who believed in Him. However, stepping away from the toxic church environment enabled me to tune out the dissonance and at least begin to love myself, even if I didn’t know why I was gay.
This finally happened after 32 years. I’m 43 now, so I’ve only been “out” for a quarter of my entire life. In 2012, I made a decision to become healthy. I lost 50 pounds. I began to date. I finally came out to my family. As a side note, I should have given them more credit. As I shared in the beginning, they have been the most supportive and loving family, and I am so fortunate for them. All of them, my late father, my wonderful mother, and my incredible brother Jeff and sister Maria. Coming out was incredibly liberating, I finally didn’t have to hide who I was. I can recall thinking that even if God stopped loving me, I had been in hell anyways all those years.
I found that the more people I came out to, the better I felt about myself. Most of them knew I was gay or had suspected it all along. When a giant lightning bolt didn’t come down and strike me dead, I began to I began to think: “maybe God and I could be good, maybe, it’s possible, that for some reason He has made me this way, and I might find happiness and joy. Maybe.”
Well, in 2014, when I was producing the musical “Rent” at the Medina Performing Arts Center, I met Ryan. He was then, as he is now, the most amazing, beautiful person I have ever laid my eyes on. He and I dated for three wonderful years before I proposed in Disney World during the fireworks over the castle. I wanted a guaranteed yes, and Ryan is a sucker for princesses and castles. We were married in 2017 on what was the best day of my life.
Harmony was happening, the chord, resolving.
God not only loved me, but I believe He brought me Ryan. By the way, I am very aware, as I stated earlier, that I married up. Further up than anyone has ever married up before.
One of the guests at our wedding, a good friend of mine’s husband who was always very kind, but I always thought may be on the fence with gay people sent me a text that read:
“I just wanted to share with you how blessed I am to have had the privilege of attending your wedding yesterday. I have never seen two people who are more genuinely in love than I did yesterday. I know it had to be difficult to follow your heart but after seeing the pure joy and happiness you both shared with everyone yesterday it is very clear that your love for Ryan and his love for you does not come with an asterisk. It is as pure and genuine as any love I have been able to witness. Also I saw the video of the closing song of the reception last night and I will forever associate Rent with you and Ryan. I have always loved that musical and I never really knew why…it just has always held a place in my heart and now I know why. It was opening me up to witness the most amazing love that this world has to offer. I can not thank you both enough for demonstrating such a pure genuine amazingly beautiful love to everyone around you.”
As a note – since Ryan and I met during Rent, at the end of our wedding reception, our dear friend Tom Bonezzi played Seasons of Love on the piano in the Renaissance Hotel Lobby, and everyone sang along. It was a core memory and the only time I would sing in public!
Harmony at last, or so I thought.
Ryan and I are happily married, but I sort of wrote-off the idea of church. I believed that no matter where we went, we might get looks or stares, and I had decided that I was never going to live in discomfort again because of how I knew God had made me. However, Ryan, being infinitely smarter than I ever will be, wanted us to try the UCC. His father is a retired police chief and now a UCC Pastor, so Ryan believed that if we were to be accepted anywhere, it would be here. We became members of this church in 2018…. Ryan is right again.
The note of who I am, and the note of God were certainly harmonizing much better than they ever had. I thought I had finally found the harmony I had been seeking my entire life, but it wasn’t until the Defense Against the Dark Arts class that Pastors Luke and Meghan led that I really “heard the music” for the first time. In this class, they went through each of the infamous “clobber verses” in depth, teaching us what they meant – and did not mean. This was profoundly impactful to me, and, somewhat infuriating. I became angry, angry that the words that so many have used to hurt and diminish people like me were being interpreted in a manner that was likely not at all what the authors intended. If only I could go back in time and tell my younger self this good news.
So, why is officially becoming a church that is open and affirming important? Everyone, I believe, desires community. Many people who are queer do not believe that they can find community at church. They don’t have a Ryan encouraging them to come. To them, church has stood for discord. They are not welcome. They must hide their true selves if they dare walk through the doors.
Supporting this initiative and becoming open and affirming means being a healthy community for those who are most at risk. Those who are isolated from community support are at a greater risk of harming themselves or being harmed by others. Isolation is created when we reject people for who they are. We are called, as Christ’s hands and feet, to seek out and care for those who are suffering. To exhibit the spiritual fruits of love, kindness, patience, and gentleness to all, even those we do not understand. Imagine being a healthy community for those who have none. Dare then, to imagine, extending extravagant welcome to those who seek a relationship with God, even if God’s people have harmed them. We can be that place!
When I was asked to share this morning, I was nervous. As I mentioned earlier, I speak in front of crowds often, but not about anything as important as this. This past week, I received a very nice professional honor. My bio, that was read to the audience, proudly shared that Ryan was my husband (it also mentioned our dogs Deacon and Sophie, of course). Someone said to me after how amazing it was that in 10 years, I went from barely being able to acknowledge I was gay publicly to being my full, authentic self in a professional setting. I understood in that moment that I am a very, very fortunate person. Fortunate to have found harmony that so many who are like me never get to enjoy.
The Open and Affirming Committee looks forward to dialog with you and does not seek to rush into seeking formal approval for this initiative. You may email email@example.com and everyone on the committee will receive your message. We plan to be available after church for discussion, potentially as soon as next week. We know that there will be questions, and we welcome them and encourage them. As you, members of this church, think and pray about this, please try to imagine what it might mean to someone who feels God is not a possibility. Imagine the young family whose child is gay or trans, searching for a church home where they know they will be welcomed, where they will find harmony. Picture a same-sex couple, longing for a church to attend, but not thinking it is possible after years of being told they are not welcome. Visualize, also, the person – maybe a kid, maybe an adult – who is struggling as I was. Maybe they won’t even come to church, but they may learn that a Christian church says that they are perfect the way they are, that they are not broken or vile. That God loves them, that Jesus is also theirs and they are His.
Thank you for making Ryan and me feel so welcome here. It is my hope and my prayer that as we take our time sharing and learning about the open and affirming designation, we understand not just what it would mean for our church, but for everyone enduring discord. How beautiful it will be to resolve the chord, sharing the harmony that only comes from God. Thank you.