Mary Lou Wallner

Mary Lou Wallner
Mary Lou Wallner no doubt provides the most tragic story in For the Bible Tells Me So. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, she recounts in the film how her judgmentalism toward her lesbian daughter, Anna, drove a wedge between them. The two were estranged when Anna committed suicide in 1997.

For the next two years, Wallner underwent a spiritual crisis that led her to re-examine what she considered to be the Christian response to homosexuality. Wallner and her husband, Bob, have since founded TEACH Ministries in order “To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia.” Based in North Little Rock, Ark., they now travel the country to make public appearances and to demonstrate for the church’s full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

How has the film affected your life?

It’s just allowed us to get our family story out to thousands of people instead of tens and twenties. And that means a lot to us.

We’ve been told that it’s our story that has impacted so many people. We’re the only family in the film who lost somebody.

We started TEACH ministries before the film came out, but it was the film that pretty much put our ministry on the map, and the invitations just came rolling in. We were too busy for me to work, so I retired from nursing three years earlier than I’d planned. So I’ll get less Social Security, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunities. It’s been a great joy to be able to do the things we’ve been doing.

An awful lot of what we do now is go to film screenings. I think I’ve figured out I’ve seen the film 44 times. And then we do a question-and-answer afterward. Last fall [2008], we did seven screenings in three days in Colorado Springs, and Dan [filmmaker Daniel Karslake] was there with us. That was a lot in a short period of time, but we just do whatever we’re asked to do. We do not charge to speak, but we do ask that our gas, food and lodging be paid for.

Our story was in People magazine in November 2007 as a result of the film, and we got about 350 emails from that. I had emails from people who said, “If you hadn’t told your story in the film, the same thing that happened to your daughter could very likely have happened to mine.” One lady wrote and said, “I read your story in People magazine getting a pedicure, and when I was done reading the article I went out and called my son and told him I loved him and asked him about his partner, and I’d never done that before.”

I’m still emailing people every day. I’m listed as a counselor on, so I get some emails through them from hurting people who are trying to get some answers on what to do.

Have you received any negative reactions because of your activism?

We’ve had a few appearances where some Bible thumpers have literally had their Bible in their fist and shaken it in my face. I’ve had to be very careful. I have steadfastly refused to ever get into a debate about Scripture. What I say when people start in on me is, “I’m not here to debate Scripture. I’m here to tell my story.” I point them to other resources, because there are a lot of good ones out there.

We don’t beat people up with this. We don’t use the word “should.” We just let them hear our story. They have to be on their own journey. I get so many emails – questions like, Would you send my parents your book? Would you call my mother? Unfortunately, I have to write back and say, “I’m sorry, but until your parents are ready to hear what we have to say, for me to initiate contact with them could make things much worse for you.”

We just encourage people, especially the GLBT people who email us, to be open and honest about who they are. We encourage them to be willing to answer any questions and have a number of resources if they ask for them. My mother always used to say, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” You do not get anywhere by shoving this down people’s throats. They have to want information, and that’s what happened to us. We wanted to understand. We had to. There was some God-shaped vacuum in our souls from what we’d been taught.

Where have you found the strength to share your story so many times to so many people?

I had 6½ years of counseling after Anna died with a wonderful Christian counselor, and I’m telling you, this guy saved my life, because there were a lot of times that I just wanted to go be with Anna. But God, in God’s wisdom, knew what I needed. I had someone to guide me along the way without telling me what to believe. He really encouraged me to be open. He encouraged me to do research and to figure it out for myself. What really had been taught to me and why, and was it true? He helped me with my very first talk at an event organized by Soulforce [a Christian group dedicated to inclusiveness] in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1999, and he was just kind of my champion after that.

What were some of the resources you turned to that really helped you see the Scripture in a different light?

I read [Soulforce founder] Mel White’s book Stranger at the Gate, and that was probably the beginning of my journey. After that, I studied the scriptures. I went back to what the original Greek and the Hebrew said. I talked to people on both sides of the issue. I didn’t just talk to gay-affirming people. I read practically everything I could get my hands on – Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, Roberta Kreider’s From Wounded Hearts. I just read and read and read, and I prayed.

I spent more time on my knees than I did on my feet in that period of time. I kept praying to God, Are you sure I’m supposed to change what I’ve always thought about this? Are you sure you want me to change my beliefs about this? And the resonating answer in my soul was always, “Yes, I’m sure.”

It took two years for me to get this figured out. But have I ever wavered or doubted once in the last nine years? No. I have not. I have never gone to the place where I’ve said, Maybe I didn’t do the right thing here.

There’s a little story I don’t tell often. In March and April 1999, I took a leave of absence from work, and Bob and I went to a little town in Arkansas on Bull Shoals Lake to try to heal. It was two years after Anna had died, and I was in such a bad place. One morning I went for a walk along the lakeshore. It was all rocks – no sandy beach – and all of a sudden, the rocks started to disappear. There was water on one side and a huge, steep hill on the other. The rocks were loose, and there was dew on everything, and I thought, Oh my gosh, what am I going to do? I couldn’t go forward because there wasn’t a path and I really couldn’t go back because the rocks were so loose and slippery. I envisioned that I would fall into that lake and drown and no one would ever find me.

So I prayed and I yelled. I saw a boat on the lake, but of course they didn’t hear me. Finally I looked at the hill and I thought I had to climb it somehow. So I started, but everything I grabbed on to – every little tree branch, every clump of grass – just came loose in my hands, and I slid back a few steps. Then I would go forward another few steps and slide back again. But somehow I did make it to the top.

It was probably a year later when I told this story to a friend. And she said, “That’s just like the journey that you’ve been on with homosexuality.” And I knew immediately that she was right.

In the companion study, Brian McLaren writes about all the fears that surround the issue of homosexuality and faith. Do you think fear was at the root of your original convictions?

At the time I don’t think I would have labeled it fear. Peter Gomes says in the film that the definition of homophobia is “the fear and loathing of homosexuals,” and I think I was way more on the “loathing” side than the “fear” side. Until after Anna died, I never studied the topic at all. Ever. My mind was made up. “Don’t convince me with facts,” you know. It’s pretty awful.

So do you think the loathing came from just not knowing?

The “not knowing” part is really true. Once you get to know people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender – once you get to know them as individuals and hear their stories and hear about their lives, you can’t hate any more. You just can’t. We couldn’t. Maybe some people can, but we couldn’t any more. These people had some of the same struggles that we have had. They’re just like we are in so many ways.

It sounds like the process has almost been an awakening of your soul.

I think so. That’s a good way of putting it. My soul was buried under a bunch of fundamentalist preaching. But I try not to be too harsh on the fundamentalists. I love what Larry Keene says in the film: “I have a soft spot in my heart for people who take scriptures literally because I used to be one.” When I responded to all the negative emails I got from the People magazine article, I was able to say, “I understand where you’re coming from because I used to be there.”

What is the most important message of the film to you?

I think Dick Gephardt said it well: I believe what we need to have for our children is unconditional love. From wherever you’re coming from, that is the message. Whether it’s your child or your brother or whoever, the main message of the Bible, in my opinion, is one of love and grace. You can’t fear or hate those you get to know.

There are a couple of words that give me pause – first, “tolerance,” and “acceptance” is pretty close behind that. I want to use the words “affirmation” and “compassion” and “love.” So many other words imply, “Okay, we’ll bear it if we have to.” I don’t go with that. I think GLBT people should be affirmed and loved completely. That’s what Jesus would do.

So many of the film’s viewers have been affected by your story, but is there someone else’s story in the film that affected you?

It’s really weird, because the only place I ever cry is at the end where the Reitans and Jake are at Focus on the Family, and Jake starts to cry. I cry at that part of the film almost every time I see it. I don’t cry at our part, but the part with the Reitans really moves me.

You were of course at the Focus on the Family event with the Reitans, but have you met any of the other families in the film?

We’ve never met the Gephardts, and we haven’t met Gene Robinson’s parents. We have met the Poteats. We were at a screening in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and they were invited, too. Brenda Poteat sat next to me for the screening, and she held my hand the whole time – it was just amazing – and I cried through almost the whole thing because I had another mother who was there beside me and who understood. Even though her daughter is still alive, she had that intense compassion.

The photograph of Anna’s body is among the most shocking images in the film. Why did you give permission for such a graphic image to be used?

Because that’s the only thing that really brings it down to the nitty-gritty of what this is all about, and about what conservative fundamentalist Christians are doing to their kids. It’s the only thing that makes it real to people – to see that four-second clip.

Where do you consider yourself now to be in the grief process?

I don’t like the word “closure.” That’s not ever going to happen. Do I miss her still? Absolutely. Do I spend the hours crying about it that I did in the first six or seven years? No, I don’t. Will I ever get over it? No. People who have lost a child or someone very close to them never get over it, but I have learned to integrate it into my life.

For me it’s a matter of living in the present and realizing I am doing some good. I have my moments. Holidays are hard. Birthdays are hard. The anniversary of her death is hard. Just last week, on our way back from Washington State, we drove through Lawrence, Kansas, and that [the University of Kansas] is where Anna got her master’s degree in social work. I’d never been there before, and I had this unutterable sadness realizing that she had gone to school there, and she was so brilliant. She got a 4.0 in her master’s program. Yeah, I have my moments. They come. But then they go.

I think God has been very gracious to us to give us this ministry. On the way to Anna’s funeral, I said to Bob, “I don’t want her death to be in vain,” and it has not been in vain. We do believe that there have been some lives that have been changed because of our story.

Your ministry seems like an incredibly brave thing to do.

“Brave” and “courageous” are the words that people throw out often to us, and we take that as a compliment. But I don’t necessarily feel brave or courageous. What I feel is that I’m doing what God has led me to do. If I stop doing that, my life would be miserable.

Do you think your ministry has helped you feel a connection to Anna in ways you didn’t feel before?

I think so. Many people say, “Your daughter must be smiling,” and I believe she probably is, from whatever vantage point heaven looks like. I think she’s tinkled pink that we’re doing what we’re doing. I don’t know it for a fact, but it does give me some comfort to think so.

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