Tragedy Changes Mom's Life

The following news article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on April 23rd 2004

Speaker urges churches to abandon anti-gay stands
By Sean D. Hamill
Special to the Tribune.

AP Photo by Neemah Aaron
AP Photo by Neemah Aaron

Since her lesbian daughter's suicide, nurse Mary Lou Wallner has dropped her belief that homosexuality is a sin and urges churches to do the same. She is shown talking to patient Richard Eby in Arkansas. "I don't change people," she says. "I just tell my story."

In the years since Mary Lou Wallner's lesbian daughter committed suicide, believing her mother would always see her sexuality as sinful, Wallner has dedicated her life to changing people's views.

Speaking at churches and other gatherings across the country, she seeks to persuade Christians to stop considering homosexuals as sinners.

She has no illusions that her role will sway wide swaths of public opinion. And she doesn't want to get into debates with those who disagree--not when they send her hate mail, not when they confront her, not when a pastor cuts her off during a speech at a church.

"You're not going to change people by debating them," said Wallner, 59, a former Wheaton resident who's coming back to the Chicago area next week for three speaking engagements.

Instead, she's content to focus on individuals.

"I think God changes people. I don't change people. I just tell my story," she said.

Even those who oppose Wallner's position concede that her story is a powerful one.

Raised outside of St. Louis as a fundamentalist Christian, Wallner, a registered nurse, in turn raised her eldest daughter, Anna, in a strict, Christian home that taught, among other beliefs, that being gay was a sin.

So it was more than a shock in 1988, when Anna, then 20, wrote her mother a letter to announce that she was a lesbian.

"I responded very poorly," Wallner said. "I was very frustrated because I had been taught all my life that [homosexuality] had been a big, bad sin.

"So I sent her a letter that told her I would always love her, but I hated this."

Over the next nine years, mother and daughter struggled to reach an uneasy truce over the issue, with Wallner holding to her "hate the sin, love the sinner" approach.

Their relationship deteriorated in 1996 as Anna, a social worker who had graduated summa cum laude as an undergraduate, was beset by depression.

Anna eventually sent her mother a letter announcing that she wanted nothing to do with her because "I had done colossal damage to her soul with my 'shaming words,'" Wallner recalled.

Six months later, in February 1997, Anna committed suicide at age 29, leaving no note.

'It was a journey'
Wallner couldn't help but blame herself, and she began to re-evaluate her position on homosexuality. "It was not an immediate thing," she said. "It was a journey."

She began to read about the issue voraciously, including going back over the Bible to review what it said about being gay, as well as talking with friends and church leaders.

Over the next two years, "I came to understand that what we had been taught and what we had believed was not true," she said.

In 1999, Rev. Mel White, an evangelical pastor who is gay and has been trying to get Rev. Jerry Falwell to tone down his view of homosexuality, invited Wallner to speak at a joint meeting between 200 of his supporters and 200 of Falwell's.

Despite butterflies, Wallner delivered a well-received speech and began what is increasingly becoming a second career. She has completed a book, "The Slow Miracle of Transformation," and formed with her husband a not-for-profit group, TEACH Ministries, an acronym for To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia.

Since that first speech, she has spoken to 30 churches, clubs and conferences, earning a reputation as a passionate speaker.

Not that every speech has been well received.

Three years ago, while giving a speech at a Baptist church in Aurora, Wallner was cut off halfway into it by the pastor, who told her she had one minute to wrap it up. When she finished, the congregation sat stone-faced and no one clapped, she said.

"My throat immediately went dry. I wanted to fall into a hole," she recalled.

But those have been rare moments--a fact that Wallner accepts, even if it means she's often "preaching to the choir."

"It's one of our goals to reach some of those not in `the choir,'" said Wallner, who now lives in Cabot, Ark., a Little Rock suburb. "But there are always people in the congregations we talk to who can benefit from my story."

Visits to churches, school set
Rev. Larry Pickens' First United Methodist Church in Elgin invited Wallner to speak Thursday for just that reason. Wallner also will appear May 2 at Universalist Unitarian Church in Joliet and May 3 at Naperville North High School, where she will talk to the Gay/Straight Alliance Club.

"This story of how Mary Lou struggled with her own issues, and how it caused her to rethink her position--I know there are a lot of families with similar stories," Pickens said.

Pickens' denomination is among those debating the issue of homosexuality--amid a nationwide cultural and legal debate over gay marriage.

This year a United Methodist jury acquitted an openly lesbian pastor in Washington state of violating church law, but the denomination is expected to begin a heated debate over the issue at its national conference beginning next week in Pittsburgh.

The United Methodists' debate is part of a "snowballing" effect for the issue of homosexuality in the church, said Suzanne Holland, chair of the religion department at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.

And Wallner is part of "a cultural shift going on," Holland said. "One of the ways you can tell it's a cultural shift is that it's not organized. Different groups are bringing it up themselves. It's very organic and happening from the ground up."

Presbyterians, Catholics and, perhaps most famously of late, Episcopalians have all been debating the issue. The Episcopal Church is still struggling with the fallout from the appointment of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire last year.

Wallner said she doesn't try to gauge whether she has played a role in the larger debates.

"We have surrogate kids all over the country whose parents have rejected them," she said. "We get tons of e-mails and calls. And we've said that even if one life is saved, it's been worth it."

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

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The Slow Miracle Of Transformation"The Slow Miracle of Transformation" has been revised and updated and is available here.

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