June 28, 2023

God be in my heart

My name is Westley Art Hodges, my pronouns are he/they, and I am the Director of Music Ministries at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Evanston, IL. I am honored to be asked to share my experience as a queer person in our church.

I found the Episcopal Church when I was 22. I found the Episcopal Church out of desperation, which with queer folx, seems to be a common theme. My 22nd year of life was a big year for me and my identity, or should I say—owning my identity. In June of 2007, I had just been fired from my third position as Director of Music in a Baptist Church in South Mississippi. Now I have your attention!

Let me rewind a bit. Music has always been a part of my life. I am so grateful that my parents saw my gifts at an early age and encouraged me to practice and perfect them. Church has also always been a part of my life. We never missed a service—if the doors were open, we were there. When I was 15, I accepted my first job as a Director of Music in a Baptist Church, and I have been employed by a church ever since.

I always knew I was different, but with my upbringing in the Baptist Church, I didn't see it as my identity; I saw it as my sin. So I lived in the guilt of that sin my whole life and felt I was broken. As I grew older, hiding my authentic self became harder and harder, and within a year's time span, I was fired by three churches on the allegation that I was queer. Everyone was telling me I was queer and couldn't be in the church, but I wasn't ready to process that yet. I just hid it. I concealed it.

After the third church fired me, I finally told myself if everyone was going to tell me I was queer and I couldn't participate, I should just be queer and be myself. So, that is what I did. I came out as queer on July 3, 2007, and it was the best day of my life. It was the start of my life.

Now, back to my opening statement. I found the Episcopal Church out of desperation. My calling from God is to lead music and to help people connect to God through music. After applying for a position at St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Long Beach, MS, I accepted the position and worked there for seven years. I have worked at six other Episcopal Churches in my career, and I love that I found this community that loves and accepts me as I am.

As I reflect on that love, I reflect on the mission of my vocation—to include all in the song. So often, we (choir directors, choirmasters, directors of music...) want to dismiss someone if their voice isn't trained or they can't read music. I have made it my mission never to turn anyone away from music. If someone wants to sing in our choir or participate in music, I will help them find a way to make music with us. My job is to include everyone and encourage everyone to participate in our community's song.

When I lived in Atlanta, we had a choir member in her late 70s, and her age hadn't been the greatest to her voice. Her voice had become very weak, and she had trouble matching pitch. When I took the job, I noticed it immediately, and choir members started talking to me about why I needed to "retire" her from the choir. I prayed about this and reflected on it, and I decided to take her to lunch and let her know that she could step down from the choir and join the congregation.

THANK GOD I started this conversation with the following question because what happened next was the biggest learning experience of my career. Why do you sing in the choir?

That is the question I asked first, and she answered: I sing because it is all I know. I have been in a church choir since I was 7, and it is all I know. It is my community, it grounds my faith, and I don't know how I would survive without it. It keeps me going. It is my life.

I hugged her and said you are an amazing human; your voice is so important to our community. There was no way I could tell her she couldn't sing—it meant everything to her.

This exchange taught me that acceptance and love are more important than the perfect choir sound. So often, we look at the big ways to accept all—and those are important, but we also could be looking at the ways to make sure all are fully included within our communities. Acceptance is neverending, and usually, it means putting our pride aside and allowing others to shine.

The Episcopal Church is a gift to me, and I am so grateful for its impact on my life. I recently got married to my partner Joseph in New Orleans, and I know that my life as a queer person is loved and respected by my church.

In this video, I am singing a song that I wrote. The text is God be in my head which comes from the Book of Hours, 1514.

God be in my head, and in my thinking.
God be in my eyes, and in my looking.
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking.
Oh, God be in my heart, and in my understanding.

God be in my head, and in my departing.

If you would like to use this composition, please contact Westley at: music@stmarksevanston.org.

****** Photo credit: Photo by Joseph Doyle (my spouse!).