A Twist of Faith

From her small-town Baptist roots to her run for public office, Jeanette Mott Oxford has relied on her religious convictions to overcome fear and prejudice -- including her own.

Harrisburg, with a population of 9,000 people, could have been New York City, for all the 18-year-old girl from Elizabethtown could tell. It was only a 30-minute commute from the farm to Southeastern Illinois Community College, but the city was full of traffic and chain stores and people who weren't white and fundamentally Christian. It was new spiritual stomping ground for Jeanette, who picked up hitchhikers on her daily drive so she could explain to them, trapped in her car, the importance of accepting Jesus as their personal savior. She also studied journalism, because she wanted to help change the world, and if she could spread the word of the Gospel through her writing, then her calling would be defined.

Her growing passion for civil rights only increased when her father was caught in a cave-in at the mines. Because it was a low-wage, nonunion job, he carried no health insurance, and when he was rushed to the only hospital in all of Hardin County, he was told his crushed leg would be fine. Only it wasn't. Three days later it turned black, and big knots and clumps, formed from blood clots, would partially cripple him for the rest of his life. For his daughter, who had grown accustomed to her father's coming home every night in work clothes stiff with sweat and dust, the incident was heartbreaking. It didn't seem fair that poor folks in the country should not have access to union jobs and quality, affordable health care.

Meanwhile in Harrisburg, differences assaulted her from all sides. It was like swimming in a sea of change. For one thing, she met more and more people who didn't believe in Jesus Christ but who seemed just as upright and moral, be they Buddhist, Muslim or Jew. For another, she sensed unusual feelings rising within herself, feelings she couldn't define until suddenly they swelled up and breached the protective levy her parents had so carefully built up around her. Although she had never heard the word "lesbian," she fell in love with another woman. And the other woman loved her back.

In Elizabethtown, Ill., Jeanette lived insulated from the rest of the world, protected from its troubles by Raymond and Marie Oxford’s strong affection and the ever-watchful eyes of God. "Look inside," Raymond Oxford would say. "Look inside you."
In Elizabethtown, Ill., Jeanette lived insulated from the rest of the world, protected from its troubles by Raymond and Marie Oxford’s strong affection and the ever-watchful eyes of God. "Look inside," Raymond Oxford would say. "Look inside you."
Jeanette Mott Oxford as a child
Jeanette Mott Oxford as a child

For the first time in her life, there were no answers supplied by family, community or church. Not even prayer seemed to help. How, for instance, could God condemn all these new people around her just because they hadn't been baptized in the General Baptist Church, and why hadn't anyone told her that love came in more packages than one?

Because she didn't have any kind of map to follow, the anti-homosexual sentiment that began seeping from the pulpits of fundamental churches caused Jeanette to hide her sexual discovery like the sin she thought it might be. She and her new partner clung to each other like castaways in dangerous waters. Even when the relationship eventually turned abusive, with Jeanette on the receiving end, she still hung onto it like a waterlogged buoy, because she didn't want to drift alone. She soon stopped going to church, because she didn't feel welcome, and for the next five years, she prayed for help and guidance even though she wasn't quite sure to whom she prayed anymore.

After graduating from junior college in 1974, Jeanette moved to Marion, Ill., where she took a job as a reporter for a small daily newspaper. But, like everything else in her life, her purpose lost definition, and she soon dropped the idea of journalism and became a telephone operator instead. She continued hiding her "difference" and, consequently, the fact that she was being abused, and she found herself driving through the countryside each day, crying for God to get her out of the mess she was in. She was living a lie and, because of it, had nowhere to go for help.

Jeanette decided, eventually, to go home. Maybe if she explained to the people she loved most, she could then "come out" to the rest of the world. But her parents, with little comprehension of homosexuality, didn't seem to understand a word of what she said when she tried to explain. And she explained more than once. But even years later, her mother didn't quite get the message.

"I heard Denny was going to a gay church," Marie Oxford said one day to Jeanette about a former high-school classmate. "What does that mean?"

"It means that he's like me, Mom."

"No." Marie Oxford stared at her daughter in disbelief. "I thought he was a Methodist."

Jeanette often longed for the comfort of her childhood, for the unadulterated version of life where her parents and God had answers for everything. But her parents were simple people, unable to grasp the trouble that she saw, and God, well, God didn't seem to be anywhere she looked these days.

But eventually, across the years and distance, her father's words about looking inside herself for the difference between right and wrong drifted into her mind. She realized, as if she'd just found the road sign she was looking for, that she hadn't looked in the right place.

She thought about being a lesbian, about what the Holy Spirit living inside her thought about being a lesbian. It felt normal. It felt right. It wasn't guilt that drove her to hide it or to leave the church, it was fear -- fear of human retribution. Being lesbian wasn't a sin any more than being a Buddhist hitchhiker was, so although she had never really worried that her life was sinful, she had worried that her life would be perceived as sinful. That in itself was the real sin. It was denying what was real and was therefore like denying God.

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