As a queer woman in touch with her faith, Mads Benishek wanted to create a space where LGBTQ could get in touch with their spirituality without judgment.
A 2017 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary with a master of divinity degree, Benishek interned last year at Plainsboro Presbyterian Church, which calls itself “A Multi-cultural Congregation.”
Along with Anita Milne, pastor of the Plainsboro Presbyterian Church (part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination), and several others, Benishek was involved in creating the idea for the Abundant Grace Dinner Church, which its Facebook page calls “a worshiping community formed by and seeking to serve the LGBTQ+ community.”
“The core group had the sense that there were lot of LGBTQ folks who maybe wanted to grow in their spiritual life but didn’t have a supportive place to do that or felt isolated and wanted to meet other LGBTQ people in the area,” says Benishek, now president of the board of Abundant Grace Dinner Church.
Now 10 to 15 strong, the dinner church meets weekly around a light supper of bread and soup or stew for an evening that combines singing, sharing the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper, reflecting on Scripture and personal sharing.
“We know all too well how it feels to be hurt by the church, but we believe that God created us just as we are—of all genders and sexualities—and that God calls us ‘good,’” Benishek says.
‘God created me, realizing my queerness, and God works through that part of who I am as well.’
Abundant Grace Dinner Church will support LGBTQ individuals who may have experienced discrimination in the past, even in church settings. “Our goals are to provide a space where LGBTQ people can support and encourage one another as we seek to know and follow God, and to lift up and celebrate the unique and important voices and perspectives that LGBTQ people bring to faith and to life,” Benishek says.
Benishek explains that community is essential for LGBTQ people to develop and grow. “Even coming out requires a few people who are supportive and see you for who you are and love you for that and can reflect God’s love to you in the midst of that time that can be very confusing and disorienting.”
A Presbyterian throughout her life, Benishek says that once she understood her gender identity, her religious understanding also evolved. “My spiritual life definitely grew and developed hugely once I realized that as a queer person I could bring my full self to God,” she says. “God created me, realizing my queerness, and God works through that part of who I am as well.”
Benishek writes in an email about why she self-identifies as “queer” in terms of gender and sexual identity. “In the past, ‘queer’ was used as a slur against LGBTQ+ people but is now being reclaimed by some of us as an umbrella term to refer to anyone whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth and/or to refer to folks who are not exclusively heterosexual (straight).” She likes that because the term is broad, it can encompass a diversity of genders and sexualities.
Unlike the stereotypical story of a sudden realization of LGBTQ identity, Benishek says for her it was a gradual unfolding. Reading Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, whose main character is a queer person, helped give Benishek the perspective she needed. “Someone else’s story allowed me to see myself,” she says, adding that “coming out publicly is not something people do just for themselves. When one person is coming out, they are living out a possibility of lighting the path to others, in a way.”
Role models were also critical for her. “What enabled me to put words to my experience, to realize that I was not the only one who had the experience of being queer—I was able to name that because I saw others naming it and living it in a way that brought life, thriving, and wholeness,” she says.
Before moving to New Jersey, Benishek spent time in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. She earned a bachelor’s degree in linguistics at Macalister College in 2013 and then went on to Princeton Theological Seminary.
It was her childhood Dutch Reform Church that ultimately motivated Benishek to seek the ministry. “It was very social justice oriented, very welcoming, and for me they really painted a beautiful picture to see the kingdom of god, which is about wholeness, restoration of justice, and thriving, and beauty,” she says.
Benishek is now day-to-day manager of The Feed Truck, a ministry created by Kingston United Methodist Church. The truck raises income by selling largely locally sourced food at the West Windsor Farmer’s Market and catered events, and uses the proceeds to support an provide free food for nonprofits like Good Grief, a grief counseling organization, and Homefront.
Milne says that her congregation’s “evolution in terms of coming to welcome all people, regardless of sex or gender identification, has been long.” But the question has been coming up at the denomination’s biannual conferences since the 1970s and finally passed, she says, “many years ago.” Four and a half years ago the denomination” also changed its definition of marriage “so it is not exclusively a man and a woman; it is two persons.”
But even though her church is now welcoming, Milne says, “being welcomed into a community where you are still the minority” is still imperfect.
When she had already begun thinking about creating the dinner church, a congregant told her about an experience he had while at a conference with other gay Christians. When someone asked people to stand who had had the experience of worshipping in a room where they felt fully accepted, most remained seated. “It was that comment that stuck in the back of my head,” Milne says.
Although they had been working on the idea of the dinner church for a while, this comment made her realize that “it needs to be an LGBTQ community that is led by LGBTQ people.”
Milne’s church is small—about 100 members—but she muses that the church’s smallness may have enabled them to move forward more quickly on becoming a welcoming institution. “The need to maintain your bonds with each other can overwhelm your biases—I love these people enough that I will work through how uncomfortable I am with what I just heard,” she says.
Benishek summarizes the role she sees for Abundant Grace. “Helping to create this space at the dinner church is a way to encourage others to also seek God and to include their own experience as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, or queer—to see that part of their lives as a gift as well—something beautiful, created by God; something not just accepted or even welcomed, but is a unique gift, and it provides insight,” she says.