Katie Ricks- A Divine Motherhood
I met Katie my second year of seminary. Our entire campus adored her right away. She has this beautiful, calming presence while simultaneously acting as a fierce catalyst for change. When I struggled to understand my own sexuality, Katie took me under her wing and offered a safe space allowing me to question and explore who I was and how I operated in the world. Katie, it is my sincere pleasure to have you on the blog.
Name: Katie Ricks
What are your pronouns? She/her/hers
Hometown: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, so I claim Wisconsin as home. I really only lived there for a year and six months of my life, but I’m still going to claim it (Go Packers!) My dad was in the Army so we moved every 2-3 years. Later I lived in North Carolina for 14 years, so NC also feels like home, but I’m not necessarily ready to claim the South as home.
How do you identify? We’ll go with Lesbian. That’s the term I use for church purposes to make things simpler. I don’t think it’s necessary, however, to sign a label on the dotted line. We’re just humans falling in love.
What do you do? I work at Columbia Theological Seminary and I'm a Presbyterian minister. At Columbia, I’m the Associate Director of Vocation & Spiritual Formation.
Do you have a favorite queer resource? No. Back in the day I would have said More Light Presbyterians - I value their insight and if I did need a resource I would most likely go to them.
The Heart of It:
What was your experience like coming out?
Well, we didn’t talk about relationships in my family. I think there was a general assumption that when you grow up, you’re straight. Growing up, I dated a couple of men in high school and college. Falling outside of heterosexuality was something I didn’t realize about myself until the summer after I graduated from college.
I went back to my alma mater and became a coach. Originally, I went back to coach with the person I played for, but she left and I found myself coaching under the first “real lesbian” I met. I say that in quotes because I obviously had known people who were gay, I just didn’t know that they were. Anyways, coaching with her brought about an awareness about myself that felt like putting on glasses. Things just suddenly became clear and my life suddenly made sense. Like how in the 10th grade I dreamed about kissing some girl in my class. Once everything finally made sense, I started to date women.
After graduate school, I moved to Georgia with someone. I didn’t have a job yet but she was moving there so I thought, “Why not?” My parents weren’t thrilled, but I wasn’t out yet so I couldn’t say, “Well, I'm actually moving to be with this woman.” I moved to Barnesville, Georgia and was completely closeted there. Ironically, while I lived there, I decided to come out to my parents. I wrote them each a letter and a picked out a book that would be a good fit for them. I don’t remember what those books were, but that was how I came out to my parents.
Growing up, I remember that my mom had lots of gay friends. So I thought she was going to be totally cool with it - that coming out to her was going to be easy. My dad, who I thought was going to be horrendous about it all, pulled me aside and said, “You’re my daughter, I love you.”
My mom started going to PFLAG (PFLAG is the extended family of the LGBTQ community made up of LGBTQ individuals, family members and allies). And I was like, “How in the world are you not okay right away, Mom?” Watching her, though, showed me that she had to come out as a parent. That’s why PFLAG is so important. When they march in the PRIDE parade, that’s why everyone stands up and gives them an ovation. They’ve helped so many people whose family members have come out. In the end, my mom was great.
Apparently my brother found out when he was in college and I was in grad school. Several times, we traded cards. One of those times he found a letter that a woman had written to me. He didn’t say anything about it until years later.
What was your experience like living in Barnesville, Georgia?
So, when I moved to Georgia, I didn’t have a job. Within two weeks of moving, I found a job in Barnesville (which is about an hour outside of Atlanta). I accepted the position and became the Director of Residence Life and Counseling at Gordon College. Gordon College was a fascinating place and I imagine it still is. At the time, they didn’t offer co-ed dorms and they only allowed an hour and a half for visitation to the other genders’ dorms and this was only on occasional nights. Even then, you had to sign in and all the doors had to be open.
I worked there for three years, during which I had to live on campus. I wasn’t allowed to stay off campus because I was in charge of residence life. It was honestly a challenging experience. Even in such a conservative environment, I had some students who were gay that nobody knew about. I had no idea how someone 18-22 years of age could struggle with that without having something to lean onto. For me, faith was the only language I had for that. Experiencing my own difficulty there, while also watching them go through that, was really my call to seminary. I didn’t want people to feel like they were alone.
I loved the people at Gordon College, but they didn’t know anything about my life and that was very intentional. They were solid, wonderful humans who would have fired me in a second had they known I was gay. I think the fact that Gordon was as conservative as it was and how closeted I was there played a part in me not wanting to be closeted once I moved to Atlanta.
I remember I was in a small, cute, Presbyterian Church in Barnesville and during worship I heard God say, “This is your home and I want you to be here.” I'm a lifelong Presbyterian, and this actual sound from God was undeniable.
Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS) offered classes for lay people and I took a Reformed Theology class that made it clear that CTS was the place I wanted to be. And I really sensed a call to be out in seminary.
People in my church teased me that it was an interesting time to come out. In 1996, the Presbyterian church had put into place G-6.0106b which banned LBGTQ folks from serving in churches. And I went seminary in ‘98 so I knew I had to write my application and be out. That was just a feeling I had. I remember thinking “I can’t keep watching behind my back.” I just couldn’t live that way anymore.
What do you remember about your experience coming out in seminary?
I remember the time I met Janie Spahr. Janie Spahr is a lesbian evangelist who started an organization, That All May Freely Serve, to advocate for an inclusive and welcoming church and for the ordination of qualified lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) candidates for ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA) back in the day. She was the lightning rod for the church. She was willing to travel anywhere and share her story about being out in the church. It just so happened that one day she was preaching at my church and my job was to pick her up and take her to our church.
Well, the previous night, I was trying to write these stupid application essays for CTS and I honestly didn’t know how to write them. I’m not a person that says, “Hi, I'm Katie and I’m a lesbian.” But I also knew I had to be open about myself from the start. The whole thing was really frustrating so I got in my car and started yelling and screaming at God, which in the city of Atlanta probably wasn’t a great plan. I was driving around until 1am in the morning when I felt this amazing comfort and I heard God’s voice say, “Go back home. Everything will be okay.” Within minutes I went from hysterically crying to feeling calm. So I went back home and fell asleep.
The next morning I picked up Janie and we talked about whatever you talk about with someone you don’t know, and we went to church. When it was time for her to preach she stood up and said, “Well, I was going to talk about the patriarchy, but at 1am this morning God woke me up and told me that I needed to tell stories about people who have come out and served in the church.”
That moment was the first stepping stone that showed me how God is active and present in the world. So naturally, I talked to Janie after the service - then went home and wrote the essays and sent in my application.
When it came time to interview at CTS, I was told that they would have to tell the committee that oversaw ordination that I was a lesbian. And I said, “Obviously that’s fine. I’m going to tell them when I start the ordination process.” At the time, CTS was not known as an affirming institution and the ordination of LBGT people was really contentious. The ordination of LGBTQ still is today, but not in the same way.
My first class at CTS was Greek School, which was a summer intensive language course. No one knew me yet so they didn’t know I was a lesbian. Well, people say a lot of things before they realize who they’re talking to. It’s like a bumper sticker I saw that said, “Be careful about the people you hate, they might be your family.” There are a lot of people in the church who are now known for being the biggest advocates for LBGTQ people, but they scared the shit out of me that summer with the stuff they said.
But the administration was the hardest part of being out in seminary. A lot of people on our campus were supportive of queer folk, but not publicly. I know it’s a hard line to tow, but I also know that's part of my calling - standing in the places that are hard for people until it eventually gets better. So after my first year we started Imago Dei, a campus organization that promotes the welcome and inclusion of all people, especially those who identify as a part of the LBGTQIA+ community and their allies. We tried to plan a Coming Out worship service but were prohibited from doing any form of worship on campus. So we met in secret in affirming faculty houses. (This is ironic because the faculty houses were seminary property.) The president of the seminary at the time was told that he was censoring worship and he said, “You’re right, I am.”
Outside of the administration and the Board, people were fabulous. I learned every step of the way that I was able to slowly start relying on people. I couldn’t have ever imagined that I would return to CTS once I graduated. My time there was really hard.
Despite everything, when you graduated you received a call to a congregation, right?
Yes. Once I graduated, I sent a whole lot of letters out there and explained that I couldn’t be ordained under G-6.0106b and those people didn’t want anything to do with me. The church I ended up becoming an associate pastor for was the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill. They’re known for their front line activism. To this day they still tell me they didn’t hire me because I was an out gay, but because I was the best candidate to be a pastor at their church.
Finding churches that are affirming today is still a challenge. I know people that searched for jobs in the church this past year who’ve been rejected from serving - years after G-6.0106b has been rescinded. I also know people whose call have been rescinded. Over and over again, these are stories of so many people I know. It’s still happening. LBGTQ clergy are rejected again and again from serving.
So you ended up back at CTS on staff. Did you have any reservations about returning?
I didn’t know what to expect coming back to work at CTS. The job description was perfect and I heard that CTS was better, but didn’t know what that meant. Before my job interview, I cyber-stalked the Dean of Students who I would be working with and I found out that he was gay. I couldn’t believe they had an out gay dean! My interview was a great experience. They didn’t ask me about being gay and I felt abundantly called here and they thought the same.
Leaving NC to come back here was a call. My daughter was attending the best school and my partner was serving a church in North Carolina. I owned my house and had established myself in this place for 14 years. To leave all of that behind, I can only describe it as a calling. And coming back was really challenging at first. I knew the current president was publicly and privately committed to queer folk and that so much had changed since I attend CTS as a student. But I had to keep reminding myself that it was 2017 and not 1998. I kept having to tell myself that I was welcomed this time around. It was almost like PTSD from the church.
Tell me about your daughter.
I’m happy to talk about my daughter. Her birth was one of the places where there was literally no barrier between heaven and earth. When she was born and they held her up and passed her to me, she was shiny, like glowing. I remember that someone said, “Oh it's kind of like Moses when he went up to the mountain and had to cover his face because it was glowing.” And I was like, “Yes, that’s it.” The air was heavier and felt like everything was moving slower and I couldn’t breathe as easily. It was such an amazing experience that I was inspired to become a birth doula later on.
My mother says that I became a nicer person after I had a child. Having Jordan is single-handedly the one thing that has changed me more than anything else. Part of it is that I like to have control, and there is nothing about pregnancy or parenting that allows you to have control of anything. In many ways Jordan is just like me, in other ways she’s the complete opposite. I love that with her, I get to experience the world with a newness and wonder that you forget about when you’re older.
She constantly teaches me. And I love that Facebook shows posts from years before so I can read about the silly things she said at the age of 3 all the way to now.
Did you ever have to have conversations with Jordan about how your family looked in comparison with how other families looked?
No. It just was. At the church we went to, she knew friends that had two moms. It was just normal for her. Jordan would get statements, like “Everyone has to have a daddy,” and she would say, “Obviously not.” And that was that. It was a normal part of her life.
What coming out advice would you leave readers?
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that “coming out” has more to do with claiming who it is that God has created me (or you) to be, rather than signing on a dotted line about what label I am choosing to claim. When I came out, it was a big deal to say that I was a lesbian. Now I’m more interested in the relationships that I have, rather than any category. Having said that, community is a huge piece of “coming out.” Coming out is something that happens over and over and over again, and having people who you know will always love and care for you is the key to the journey. Don’t try to do it without a community. And, once you’re good with the coming out piece of your life, be ready to help someone else through that journey. The more we care for one another, the more we embody an abundant, gracious, unconditional love. Everyone is better when they’re surrounded by that.