“I thought God was for other people”

A lesbian couple in Tyler received a certified letter from their pastor telling them not to come back to church when he learned they were married. It was this kind of response to the LGBTQ community that led Rob Jerger, a member of St. Francis’, Tyler to establish Just As I Am. It is one of three diverse missional communities Jerger has started.  Just As I Am welcomes gay and lesbian people and their allies at weekly gatherings for a meal and worship, an alternative to traditional “church.”

Jerger, 51, was born in Tyler, but not into a family “that knew God or spoke of God,” he said. “I always thought God was for ‘other’ people.” As a child, his Roman Catholic stepmother told him not to take communion when she sent him to church with his step-siblings. When he came out as gay in the 90s, he remembers seeing picketers with signs that read: “God hates fags.”

In 2003, Jerger began to seek an understanding of faith and God. He tried a number of churches before attending St. Francis’ at the invitation of friends. There he felt welcome but still limited his involvement to the choir because he thought that was all he would be allowed to do. Jerger was “shocked” when someone asked him to be a reader, so much so that he asked the rector if it was okay.

The priest’s “Why not?” led to some very open and honest conversations between the two and as a result, “My relationship with God was transformed,” Jerger said. “Because of my active engagement in the life of the church, I realized I could partner fully with Christ,” he added.

But the treatment of gay people in other communities of faith continued to make him angry.

“Growing up gay in rural East Texas, I was well aware of the challenges that plagued the LGBTQ community [here]. I began to have coffee with members of the community, and I heard their stories,” he said. Besides the lesbian couple who had received the certified letter, he spoke with a 78-year-old man who spoke about his life in whispers, looking over his shoulder, afraid someone would overhear their conversation. A 27-year-old had been made to apologize for being gay in front of his congregation before being sent for conversion therapy. “Somebody should say something, someone needs to do something,” Jerger told St. Francis’ rector, the Rev. Mitch Tollett.

You are somebody,” Tollett responded. Once Jerger made up his mind to be that “somebody,” he sought out diocesan resources and attended a “Cultivate” conference at Camp Allen, where he learned the basics for starting a missional community. He received coaching from Jason Evans, the diocesan missioner for missional communities and applied for a Strategic Mission Grant from the Diocese.

Jerger started Just As I Am in June 2017 with 12 people and now has more than 100 members in the Facebook group with an average of 20 at weekly gatherings. Not everyone is gay, some are supporters of the community and want to see it succeed and thrive. Each Monday evening, the group shares a meal, an educational or inspirational activity and closes with Compline. They have Eucharist monthly and do regular outreach projects.

A three-year Strategic Mission Grant from the Diocese helped to secure a storefront home, named The Well, for Just As I Am, and allowed Jerger to begin two additional missional communities of St. Francis’.

“There is a new awareness of our neighbors,” Tollett said. “Some of our perspectives have been changed engaging neighbors who we think we do or just don’t understand … and in that interaction we have gained respect for each other.”

For Young at Heart, Jerger partnered with several local and state agencies to offer programs for seniors on safety, nutrition, legal issues and much more. Lisa Kraus, a member of St. Francis’, is finishing a doctorate in geriatric studies and helps Jerger lead the group. Victoria Bennie, who began attending Just As I Am, now leads a young adult community called Two or More at The Well.

Jerger continues to deepen his faith life even as he offers the same opportunity to others. He is in the discernment process to become ordained and wants to empower others to lead communities in Tyler for people who, for many reasons, are not comfortable in a traditional church setting. “My focus now is to continue to seek out new leaders and support them in creating their vision of how to bring people closer to God,” Jerger said.

Get more information on Missional Communities

* The Strategic Mission Grants program is funded by three foundations of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas: the Bishop Quin Foundation, Episcopal Foundation of Texas and the Great Commission Foundation.
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