As I began my interview with Debbie Ottarski, she was admittedly nervous. She told me that many things were going through her mind about her life story: her children, her past pain, her present walk with Christ.
Sensing her nervous state, I stopped what we were doing and asked her if we could pray together. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, and I knew that God could prove himself to be a God of comfort in the midst of any storm.
Debbie Ottarski did not grow up in a Christian home. Her parents were divorced when she was five, and her father, who raised her, remarried when she was seven. There was very little in Debbie’s early days to give her a solid foundation. Throughout her childhood, she was taught she was a mistake.
As a young girl, she was never boy-crazy as so many young girls are. “I knew I was different, but I had no real idea of what that meant. I knew I was more intrigued by women, but again, what does that mean to a young child?”
As Debbie got older, she still had no Christian influence. Eventually, at the age of 23, she married a man who introduced her to Christ in a Catholic environment. What attracted her to this man was that he was an incredibly positive influence.
“I was still rough around the edges, but he never judged me. I saw acceptance from him. This in turn would urge me to learn more about his faith. And it is there, that I began my journey to Christ.”
When Debbie picked up the Bible, her perspective was very different than those who grew up in the Bible Belt. “If you’ve not grown up around it, you hear with a different set of ears.”
Debbie heard the biblical stories many have heard all their lives with freshness and inspiration. The story that seemed to make Debbie light up the most was when Jesus called Peter, one of the twelve disciples. Peter was a fisherman. He, like Debbie’s early life, was rough around the edges.
Debbie recounts, “So along comes Jesus, who walks up to Peter and taps him on the shoulder. Peter, who had to be busy at the time, turned around and with all kinds of frustration said, ‘What do you want.’ And Jesus, with all the authority and compassion of heaven replies, ‘Follow me.’ And without blinking an eye, Peter drops his fishing nets, drops his career and follows Christ. That is the Jesus I fell in love with.”
Like many couples, the early years of her marriage saw many highs and lows. “What makes me sad about my marriage is that when you are on a journey of discovery, you often do what is expected…what is acceptable in society. That isn’t a justification for what I did. I selfishly took my former husband on my journey. It wasn’t fair to him. However, I got two beautiful boys out of it. And I love them with all my heart.”
When Debbie and her husband moved to Nashville, her faith deepened.
“We became active in a non-denominational church. There was a passion for Jesus clearly expressed from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday. It was a ‘come as you are’ kind of place. The worship was spirit-filled. There was a beautiful safety because everyone was there for the same purpose…to love the Lord. The focus was not on what our differences were or where anyone fell short.”
Eventually Debbie became a group leader in her church. A group leader, in this church, carried the same responsibilities a pastor would carry. She was responsible for conducting Bible studies and encouraging a deeper walk with Christ to those who were a part of her group. These responsibilities led to more speaking opportunities and teaching.
Despite her involvement in the church, despite her marriage and despite her passion for God, Debbie couldn’t ignore her gay feelings. She tried to shove it aside and become more involved in Godly things.
“I had made a commitment. I was going to live this life. But I was being dishonest with God. I was dishonest with myself and with my family. I couldn’t make feelings that weren’t happening in my marriage happen. And I couldn’t make the other feelings go away.”
Seeking answers to her situation, Debbie went on a personal retreat to the mountains. It was an intense time of talking to God.
“I talked and talked and talked! I was asking God, ‘What do you want me to do with this? What am I supposed to do with these feelings, my responsibilities and my family?’ And when I got done, God was there waiting for me to hush. Quietly, God spoke to me and asked, ‘What about your husband?’ He wanted me to think of someone other than myself. My husband had the right to have someone is his life who would love him in the Lord the way a wife should…someone who would provide a beautiful Godly connection.” And it was at that point, Debbie felt their marriage should end.
Oddly, Debbie had already come out to her husband by this time. They had discussed the issues she was having long beforehand. It wasn’t anything new to him. He knew she struggled with this but remained faithful to her and to their marriage. But Debbie’s decision hurt him deeply.
Debbie continues, “I often tell people I traded peace on the outside and chaos on the inside, for peace on the inside and chaos on the outside.”
Her husband, seeking counsel, in turn told the elders of their church about their situation. A few months later, she received a letter from them.
“The letter said I had no biblical basis for my choices. They wanted me to come in for counseling, to repent and reconcile with my husband. If not, then they asked me to never return to the church. I had attended and served in that church for 10 years. I expected there would be a series of phone calls from various church members. But there was nothing. No one called.”
The months that followed would be challenging. With no church family around her for support, a difficult relationship with her soon-to-be ex-husband and broken relationships with her children, the silence was deafening. But thankfully, the silence exposed the one who had been there all along.
“At that time I felt the purity of meeting Jesus for the first time. The same Jesus I fell in love with, the one who called Peter with all the compassion of heaven, I met again.”
During the next few months and even years, Debbie prayed a lot. Understandably, she wanted little to do with organized religion. She was hurt.
“But once you have worshiped with other believers like I had with my former church, you never forget it. God’s Spirit calls you back to be with his people.”
Debbie visited many churches for a while. During this time, she met her partner Amy.
“Amy has a huge love for God. Her faith is such an inspiration. She was looking for someone who is a believer, and I was too. It has to be a priority. We eventually visited Holy Trinity Community Church. Amy had been before, and wanted to return again. I had never been but was willing to give it a try. I didn’t want to attend a church where being gay was the focus. That is only a small part of who I am. I am first and foremost a child of God, and that is what is the most important to me.”
As Debbie and Amy sat down together at Holy Trinity Community Church, the Spirit of God was already at work. Within minutes, Debbie was moved to tears.
“These weren’t light tears. These were heavy sobs of joy! The people around me must have thought there was something wrong. I was so moved by the Spirit of God! The choir’s facial expressions in worship, the music, the faces of that church family turned up to God, moved me beyond words. Despite their situation in life, whatever that might be, this church family was there for a common purpose…to love the Lord. And you know, to those who say our worship (as gay individuals) isn’t real, it is a little hard to think God has difficulty with us when He is so clearly present! It filled a tremendous void I had had in my life. As Amy and I had discussed so many times before, I wanted to live my life and find a church where I could live unapologetically for Christ.”
As if the praise and worship time wasn’t enough, God had even more in store for Debbie and Amy. As Pastor Cynthia Andrews-Looper got up to speak that Sunday, she began by saying, “I am going to speak with you today about living your life unapologetically for Christ.”
Debbie thought, “Here’s a sign!” And within weeks, she and Amy joined Holy Trinity Community Church where they are happily and actively involved in many areas of ministry.
“Every role I had in the previous church, I have here. God opened these doors and I feel so honest with God and with others. It feels pure and holy…like there is no ceiling, no limit to what God can do. I look forward to every Sunday. This is what I’ve been looking for.”
I asked Debbie what she might say to those who struggle to reconcile their faith and sexuality. Her face lights up as she replies, “That can easily be answered with one of my favorite verses of Scripture. Psalm 139:13 says, ‘For You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.’ I prayed for years to be changed. And finally, I woke up and realized that my prayers were a slap in the face to God. I was asking Him to uncreate me…to undo what He had done. I couldn’t pray it away anymore than I could my right arm.”
As the interview came to a close, I asked Debbie about her former church. Thinking there could be some animosity toward it or the people there, I was curious to know her thoughts.
Debbie replied, “I get where they are coming from. They are doing what they feel is right and following their convictions. I am not out to point fingers at them. My prayer is that I walk my life focused on God, seeking Him and giving every struggle to Him. I pray that their hearts will be opened and they come to an understanding of the Scriptures as we understand them.”
“I’d love to go back and worship together…we will in heaven someday, so why not now?”