And I love her.
Meet Sarah Jewelann. I met her 11 years ago at a small white steepled Church on a hill. She was hopping up and down with floppy ill chopped bangs and two front silver teeth. I inquired about her because I was the Children’s Church Director and her respite workers Kathy and Brent Besosa said she was available for adoption in foster care. Sarah Jewelann was born to a cocaine addicted prostitute and she was 4lbs and 6 ozs. Her mom was so high that she didn’t even know that her baby was birthed and so the nurses rescued her by placing her in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Three weeks later the Department of Social Services (DSS) called her grandfather to pick her up, since he already housed her two older brothers.
No one heard from her for four years until she started the head start program in West Asheville. Most of her teeth were rotten, she only said four words, and she grabbed the zipper area of her pants continually. The preschool teachers realized she was abused, but they didn’t realize how bad. It took us about five years to hear all her stories. Her grandmother had been a prostitute, too, and it was probable that the family had been incestuous. Her brothers touched and sexually abused her up to three times a day and she held onto her zipper so no one would touch her at school, too. She had strong biceps because she was so used to beating them off, and she kept her nails long so she could scratch them. She was four. She was a fighter. She was smart.
When DSS took her in she hid like a cat under a table and hissed at people that came close. They put her in a therapeutic foster home with amazing people, The Deytons and Wootens that started her rehabilitation. A Christian counselor, Debi White, worked with her twice a week to tell her story and the Besosas took her a few times a month to give everyone a much needed rest. At seven years old all three court cases needed to show abuse and neglect had been tried and Sarah was a ward of the NC state. Case manager Heather Reardon for DSS tried fifteen families and no one was right. Then Charlie Wilson called. I, Melissa, was a grad student and the Biology Lab Coordinator at Montreat College, a Christian college in the heart of the hometown of Ruth and Billy Graham, and two of my students Brittany Hicks and Christina Redman had been studying prostitution and sex trafficking. They asked me to have bible studies with girls on campus. The stories of sex workers kept me up at night and I would wake up and kneel in front of my bed, “Saying, here I am Lord send me” like Samuel in the Old Testament.
I thought I would be called to Asia to help with the international problem, but when Heather Reardon said, “Before we get to far. I need to tell you one thing. Her mom is a prostitute from Asheville and she was born a preemie that was cocaine addicted. She has had several years of sexual abuse and this is going to take extreme counseling. I just want you to know before we go any further.” I said, “Here I am GOD, send me.” President Struble and Dr. Karen Struble congratulated me, and Montreat alumni and faculty came to my adoption parties. Amy Sperry invited me to play group and Sarah became part of our community.
In ninth grade, I enrolled Sarah in Asheville Christian Academy so she could learn the ways of God. No one sat with her. They ridiculed her. They left her out. They gossiped about her. They made fun of her. She came home crying every day. I went to a parent meeting and the parents told me it took their kids a year or two to get included. I slammed my hands on the table in front of the Assistant Principal and said, “That is unacceptable”. (I learned that line from church planter Mary Worthy). “There is no church that any human would visit repeatedly for a year and be ridiculed, gossiped about, and marginalized and the human would come back. You expect me to pay $12,000 a year for my child to go to Christian school, and have my child (who has experienced greater pains than most of humanity) to deal with that. Well that is unacceptable”. No one said anything. Nothing. Pure silence.
One girl found out that Sarah was adopted and thought it would be cool to have her share her story. Sarah came home excited and then rethought it. She said, “Yeah mom. I am not doing that. Those people can’t even handle spaghetti straps!” (The winter banquet was coming up and we had received a note about appropriate dress). Sarah was sharp. She got that evangelical Christianity didn’t get her. What she didn’t get, however, was how her parents that loved her didn’t really understand sexuality. Sarah was gay. She says she always has been.
I had become a full-time instructor at this point at Montreat College. My counsel to her was, “Well, you don’t really know that you are gay. You experienced a lot of trauma. So let’s wait and see.” I thought I was being a good mother.
Then one day I came home from class and she was shaking. Foam was coming out of the sides of her mouth and her eyes were glossy and jittery. It took me a minute or two to put the pieces together-- the pills everywhere and her there afraid. I drove her to the hospital and we spent the night stroking her hair in the psych ward. Sarah was gay. Her parents hated her. Or so she thought. Because we let her think that. We were so tied to our narrow view of scripture and my job that we made her think that we (the only real family she ever had) hated her.
Three months later Montreat College announced that they wanted all faculty to sign the Community Life Covenant which asked faculty to uphold scripture as a literal text including its view on the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and the sanctity of life. I sat in my office on the floor and read the words. Sarah’s birth mom had chosen the sanctity of life. A drunken cocaine addicted prostitute had chosen to not abort her. She was born alive, not healthy, but alive. And then there was me the real mom. The thirty-seven year old teacher who loved to say that the Bible was the only way. Would I abort Sarah? Would Sarah be out of my life? She was gay. Jesus (yes, the real Jesus) and I talked there in that office on the floor. I would not abort her. She was alive. She was gay. I would stand at her wedding. I would not have another psych ward visit or come home from class with pills on the floor. I would quit my job.
This is Sarah Jewelann Wilson. She is my daughter. She is gay. And I love her.
PS- to anyone in the Montreat alumni group that wants to gossip about me and ask, “Why are you just telling this story now?” Well, you can take that up with an 18 year old foster kid whose mom was a cocaine addicted prostitute. I am sure Jesus would love for you to gossip about her. This is Sarah’s story and she wanted it shared today for #pridemonth.
The Montreat Academic Dean when I told him all the reasons I was quitting said something to the affect of, "Was it for gay rights or Hispanic rights or women's or your rights? Bc it is confusing on why you are quitting". And I said, "YEP!"
I wrote the Montreat admissions team in 2017 and asked them to stop sending us recruitment flyers and giving Sarah J. Wilson phone calls. I would NOT find my daughter foaming at the mouth with her eyes glossy in a Montreat dorm room someday.
I wrote the alumni and advancement team and asked them to stop sending me postcards for money. Though I am a two time alumni (2001 and 2015) and I had spent $120,000 in tuition there, I would not give money to an academic institution where other peoples' children at a place where they felt ashamed of who they are.
I wrote the Montreat cabinet and asked to NOT set a recruitment booth at the Montreat Conference Center. I would not want PCUSA children feeling ashamed of their faith or their upbringing that homosexuals have the right to be married, too.
Melissa B. Wilson, A.L.M. and M.S. is an active conservationist and environmentalist who happily lives in paradise (the U.S. Virgin Islands) working to create STEM career pathways and networks for Caribbean students. As a former evangelical, a current climate activist, gay ally, and descendant of the Bohemian Reformation (the first Protestant Reformation) she speaks about faith, life, ecology, and our current political climate on her blog www.ecotheologist.com. She graduated from Harvard University in May 2019. Her conservation research about wilderness, reaching Half-Earth, and STEM education can be found at www.melissawilson.net.
Photo by: Eva Appalachia