Conversation with Elizabeth McDonald-Zwoyer


Elizabeth just graduated from Smith College with a degree in sociology and women and gender studies. She is trying to make her way in the world. She has just agreed to serve on the Pastor Nominating Committee at her church.

How has your personal journey to coming out as lesbian strengthened or challenged your faith?

It has both strengthened and challenged my faith quite a bit, especially recently. The church I attended as a small child was a More Light church in action if not in name and my parents were really involved in Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. I didn’t question my place at the table until I worked at a Presbyterian church camp.

The church camp staff environment is a very insular one — everyone knows everyone else’s business. In some ways that was wonderful because we knew how to care for each other, but in other ways it was terrible, since this was a pre-10-A world. I was dating an amazing woman, we met as cast members of The Vagina Monologues at school and she grew up American Baptist, but by the end of the summer I had only told half the staff that “my best friend from Smith” was really my girlfriend. I started holding my cards more closely to my chest that summer, for better or for worse.

Claiming Christianity at Smith College was a challenge. It’s a place that sees patriarchy and the violence of God in Scripture. It was difficult to acknowledge fierce love of a God who has been used as an excuse to exclude queer people from the church and even do violence to deeply committed individuals.

I am much more serious about the words we use in worship. Perhaps this has nothing to do with my understanding of myself as a woman-loving woman, perhaps it has everything to do with the fact that I am 22 years old and taking responsibility for my faith — paying attention to what we say, how we love and how we communicate love.

Is there a prayer or meditation that helps you make it through trying times?

Yes. My older brother died during my first year at Smith and a friend gave me a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry called Thirst. She wrote it after the death of her partner of over 40 years. The poem I particularly love and constantly return to is titled “Heavy,” about the way we carry our grief.* My favorite part is when she addresses her surprise at laughing, presumably because it has been so long since she laughed.

*Full poem is below.

What is one of the defining moments in your life as a Christian?

When I was fifteen I went to the Presbyterian Church (USA) Youth Triennium and we were doing a small group meditation on our brokenness. The leader asked us to close our eyes and stand before God and in that moment I was standing with Jesus on a mountain. He was in Birkenstocks, jeans, and a purple polo shirt and He said it would all be okay.

How could I not trust and love a God who comes in a purple polo shirt and Birkenstocks?

Do you have a story of a person who embodies Christ’s teachings?

My best friend in high school was Abigail. Her dad and my mom are both Presbyterian ministers; we met at a junior-senior high canoe trip in northern Indiana. She cares for others deeply and unabashedly. She studied abroad in South Africa and is continually unpacking her privilege as a straight white woman. She is the definition of an activist, understanding the true meaning of solidarity, fighting alongside people — with them rather than for them. In the world, she is a person we need to watch because she will do amazing things. She is doing Teach for America as an elementary special ed teacher in Nashville, TN.

In your mind, what are the Biblical foundations for LGBT inclusion in the church?

The Great Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. When I learned it, I actually learned, “Love your neighbor as you love your brother.” I think this is a good way to think of it because we often don’t love ourselves very well, but my brother and I were incredibly close — it is much easier for me to understand my duty to the world through the way I love him. I am much more forgiving of others than of myself. It’s important that we give ourselves and others some slack.

Another verse comes from the Scriptural theme of the last General Assembly: “Out of the believer’s heart flow living waters,” John 7:38.

For the YAAD’s [Young Adult Advisory Delegates to the PCUSA General Assembly], one of our advisors helped us get through such a complicated week and continues to help me by pointing out those lines that came directly before the Scriptural theme: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Anyone. It was important to remember over the course of that week, and I still do.

What would you say to those Christians who have a different view on inclusion?

It depends on the day. I talked with my mom about this. She reminded me that none of us are worthy but all of us are invited. None of us is perfect but our God is perfect and made each of us the way we are.

What can we do to foster dialogue and build bridges with people with different views on inclusion?

This is hard for me. I feel like I have to cop out and say I am too young. I haven’t had enough experience in the world yet. I would rather run out of the room.

I don’t know that I’m strong enough to have that conversation and not leave it with a few bruises. My skin is pretty thin these days.

Mary Oliver is a favorite of mine, too. I trust you will be touched as I am by these examples of her poetry. Peace, Reverend Janet Edwards


That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled—
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

—Mary Oliver

One Response
  • Kayla West on August 20, 2017

    I am only just now discovering this precious interview with someone I remember as a baby and a little girl! Elizabeth, how proud your Mom and Dad must be of you. How touched I am for having read your thoughtful, eloquent and profound words. You do not need to convince others to learn how to come together–you can lead by lending your voice so that others may see, feel and learn for themselves. Transformative change comes from within–you can move people by your example, open, vulnerable, compelling. When they let down their defensive armor, they feel a crack in that hard exterior, a crack through which daylight can enter and the goodness that is within them can break through to their consciousness. More light is not a debate–it is cultivating the conditions that foster redemption.

    On this sad day, I have discovered your words as I have received news of your Mother’s fight with cancer, a fight that she may lose, so, so early in her life. I can see her living within you, too, and I hope that gives you and your family some tiny bit of comfort through these difficult days.

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