Dec. 23, 2011 -- Marilyn Bowens, a professor of law turned Christian minister, remembers how hard it was to celebrate the holidays with her large African-American family.
"My mom would host a big family gathering with my sister, nieces and nephews – everyone," said Bowens, now 56 and living in New Haven, Conn. "She always wanted me to come home with my children, but not invite my partner to come."
Bowens is a lesbian, coming out well into adulthood after a heterosexual marriage that produced two boys, now age 20 and 27.
Today, she ministers to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and challenges the church in her new book, "Ready to Answer: Why 'Homophobic Church' is an Oxymoron."
"It was very tough," she said. "We were actively involved in our church and other traditions like inviting a few people who didn't have families. It was a full house."
She says the social divide is "mute" now -- her mother died last year and her father, who finally reconciled her sexual orientation with his faith, died in 1995.
But as an evangelical Christian and a lesbian, the memory still stings and Bowens asks why Christianity and what she calls the "accusers" turn a back on those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
"You don't have to understand. You don't have to approve. You don't have to 'condone.' Just love your child, and be open to the possibility of growing to love someone else who loves your child," she said.
"And, next holiday season, give your son or daughter what Jesus will give him or her for Christmas (and every other day) -- unconditional love. Just be like Jesus. He is, after all, the one whose birth we celebrate."
Bowens said she "totally understands" her parents homophobia -- one that is endemic in many evangelical families, particularly among socially conservative African Americans.
"It was the indoctrination she got in the church," she said. "I am fighting against that. It's based on the misreading of a few verses that are plucked out of context to support homosexuality as a sin. It was my experience in my black church."
Bowens said she struggled spiritually and emotionally with her sexual orientation until she came out in her early 30s.
Before that, "I was living the life that was scripted," marrying and having two children. "I went to college and married the first man who asked me … I didn't get into it from a place of self-awareness and authenticity."
Her father, who was a pastor and presiding bishop of the United Holy Church of America in Washington, D.C., held out an olive branch just before his death, which heartened Bowens.
"It was an experience I will never forget," she said. "He was sick and bedridden and I went to visit him. He was sitting and watching TV and when the commercial came on, he glanced over and was starring right at me."
Her father didn't speak at first then "out of the blue," he said to Bowens: "You belong to the Lord, Marilyn. Whatever you are doing and whoever you are doing it with -- male or female."
She said she felt his acceptance. And eventually her mother's, though unspoken. She traveled to North Carolina for Bowen's ordination as a pastor then to New Haven when she was installed as pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church.
"I knew she loved me," said Bowens.
Jay Lowder, an evangelical Christian from Wichita Falls, Texas, agrees the church has been "hypocritical" in the way it treats gays and lesbians.
As president of Jay Lowder Harvest Ministries Evangelistic Association, he works with denominations around the country preaching about the "core issues" of the Gospel.
His sister is a lesbian, which caused an "estrangement" in his family. "But a lot has changed in 20 years," he said.
"I found out when I was 17 ... it was devastating," said Lowder, now 42, and the father of three children. "It created a real chasm between me and my sister."
"I was bitter and angry," he said. "We grew up in a conservative Christian family and my parents had strong beliefs. It just seemed so random for people who grew up Baptist in Texas."
Holidays Are Special Times For Families
But this year, his sister joined the Lowder family for Thanksgiving and will be back for Christmas -- the first time in 15 years. "She had such a great time, we begged her to come back," he said. "These are special times."
In hindsight, Lowder said he regretted his reaction, for which he apologized later.
Today, he takes the church to task for the judgment it casts against LGBT people -- even if doctrine still considers homosexuality a sin.
"You should love and accept people regardless," he said. "Believers in Christ say they hate the sin and love the sinner. But that's hypocritical. You have no reason to hate someone else's sin. You need to worry about your own sin… We are all sinners."
"We say we love the drug addicts and the unwed mothers and the Muslins and people who practice homosexuality, and yes, you should do that, but when the rubber meets the road, what are you doing about it?" Lowder asked. "That is absolutely meaningless until you do something to reach out to them."
He said the Christian church can do more than pay "lip-service" and still maintain its conviction on the issue.
"The problem with the church, is it's trying to figure out how not to compromise my beliefs and at the same time not come across as judgmental, castigating or negative," said Lowder.
Bowens, too said she doesn't judge her mother for her religious convictions, but wants parents to think before turning away their gay children -- and their partners.
"Take a minute and remember every interaction we see in the Bible involving Jesus and some person who in that time or place was deemed to be a sinner or undesirable," she said. "He went to their homes and had dinner with them. He hung out with the sinners of his day."
"Be kind to your children and their partners," said Bowens. "Christianity mandates kindness and it mandates hospitality. Just love your children and be open to those who love your children -- like Jesus."
As for her own two boys -- "the eternal loves of my life" -- she said they had no problem with her homosexuality.
"When I finally came out to them in their teens, they cracked up laughing at me," she said. "My older son said, 'Mom, we've known since fifth grade.'"