Melissa Tidwell grew up in the military. She was born in Germany, but by the time Melissa was nine she had lived in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Panama. While many military kids feel they missed out on a lot, Melissa loved the variety and adventure she had as a child.
“I lived one hundred yards from the jungle," she explained. "It was paradise!”
Her parents were from Alabama, so when they went “home,” they went to visit the grandparents. “My mother’s family was from Friday’s Crossing and my father’s was from Oneonta."
Having lived in Alabama for seven years, I thought I knew the area pretty well. But I had never heard of Friday’s Crossing, so I asked Melissa the obvious: “Where the heck is Friday’s Crossing?”
Without batting an eye, Melissa responds with, “On Sand Mountain of course!”
Anytime Melissa went home to Alabama, she felt it was wonderful to be surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the entire extended family. Most of her family was either Methodist or Baptist, so there were many lively conversations about which method of baptism was correct or how often a church should observe communion.
In sharp contrast to this, is how Melissa observed religion in the military. “There was one multi-purpose building that could be set for a Jewish Sabbath, a Catholic Mass or a Protestant worship service.”
Even the cross that hung in this building was multi-purpose. According to Melissa, “One side was flat for the Protestants. You could flip it over and have a crucifix for the Catholics, and since it was on a pulley system, it could be raised out of site for the Jewish Sabbath! So religion, at times felt a little schizophrenic, but it was still very organized.”
Quite different to what she observed at home in Alabama where the family simply argued over baptism and communion.
When Melissa’s father retired from the military, they moved to Anniston, Alabama to be close to family. It was a very profound culture shock since Anniston was integrating schools for the first time. Integration was an odd concept for Melissa since she had been raised around the military where everything was already integrated.
Around the age of eleven, Melissa realized her mother was very ill. Unfortunately, it was never discussed. According to Melissa, there was never a time when she and her two sisters were taken aside and told what was going on. So when Melissa was 12, her mother passed away from lung cancer.
“My father was left with the challenge of raising three girls. My oldest sister was 17; I was 12 and my youngest sister was three. My military father just wasn’t prepared for this! So many responsibilities fell to my older sister.”
One day, a friend of her older sister’s came over. Feeling the need to offer some sort of comfort, this friend asked Melissa if she knew about the four spiritual laws…the first of which is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
Melissa said, “I don’t want to hear about a wonderful plan…my mom’s death screwed up that wonderful plan for a bunch of people.” An understandable frustration. Even at this age, Melissa was showing herself to be someone who could easily narrate her way through mindless theological niceties. Not backing down, Melissa went further by asking, “So, explain to me, who the plan was wonderful for?”
Her sister’s friend responded by saying, “Perhaps you depended too much on your mother, and God needed you to depend on Him. So God took your mother from you so you would depend on Him.”
Melissa, with the wisdom of someone three times her age, responded by saying, “That is not a loving God. That is a monster, and I want no part of it.”
What followed is what Melissa would describe as years of being somewhat hot with anger and resentment toward God and religion.
While Melissa was in college, she went to Atlanta one summer and attended her first gay pride event. Someone placed a tract in her hand. On the front side, the tract read, “What Jesus had to say about homosexuality.”
At this point, Melissa knew the tract would be another one of those tracts full of condemnation and judgment. To her surprise, when she opened the tract, it was blank. And on the back side it read, “That’s right! Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. But He did say a lot about loving your neighbor and not judging them. And that is what we believe.”
Finally, Melissa had come across someone who could offer her a true picture of Christ.
Eventually Melissa moved to Atlanta where she lived with a lesbian couple. One of them attended a Presbyterian seminary and invited her to Clifton Presbyterian Church. She was told this particular church had a strong ministry to the homeless. This kind of ministry appealed to Melissa, so she went.
Upon arriving, she had what she calls a conversion experience. Melissa saw a small cinder block building with folding chairs in rows and mattresses stacked in the corners. The homeless guests slept in the sanctuary throughout the week.
“It was such an amazing authenticity…having a beautiful church didn’t matter. What mattered to this church community was the fact that Jesus said ‘feed the hungry…clothe the naked…and whatever you do to the least of these, you do to Me.’”
Out of that experience, Melissa became an active member. She volunteered with the shelter, became an elder and often was invited to preach.
Her ease of preaching, her fresh perspective and her passion for truly ministering to people caused many in the congregation to ask her if she had ever considered going to seminary.
Due to her experience at Clifton Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, and out of a true passion for God, Melissa attended Union Seminary in New York. Eventually, she found herself in Nashville. For five years, Melissa was the editor of Alive Now, a magazine of creative spiritual expression published by The Upper Room, an ecumenical ministry that encourages prayer and spiritual growth. Currently she is serving as marketing director for the organization, which publishes in more than 70 languages around the world. She hopes to return to the editorial work in the near future and is writing her spiritual autobiography.
Melissa says, “I attend Second Presbyterian here in Nashville where there is a wonderful mix of people who are theologically left, right and center. We are a More Light Presbyterian Church, which means we have made a public declaration that everyone is welcome here, regardless of sexual orientation.”
When I asked Melissa what she feels her story can offer our readers, she responded by saying, “I am glad I had a rebellious period where I questioned God. It gave me the opportunity to truly dive in and explore my faith and not just swallow someone else’s faith. When life gets hard, oftentimes, that kind of faith is of no help. Going through the trenches strengthened my faith. God clearly loves variety…it means there is a place for you and your struggle. God is willing to meet us anywhere, so don’t give up.”