Sara Cunningham Gives “Free Mom Hugs” To LGBTQ Community

Episode 05

You spoke—we listened. Sara Cunningham was your nominee from the tribe for the last episode of our “Women Who Built It,” series and we couldn’t be more thrilled to hear about what she is building.  When Sara’s son came to her with the decision that he was going to live as a gay man on his 21st birthday, Sara’s life went into a tailspin. After 20 years in the church and actively “praying the gay away,” with and on behalf of her son, she was at a crossroads. Her search for resources as a Christian mom turned up very little, but her research on the data and statistics out of the LGBTQ community devastated her. The rejection she saw from families, churches, and communities was more than she could bear. She needed to begin the work of accepting her son, and she started by getting involved with Free Mom Hugs. Showing up at a Pride Rally with a homemade “Free Mom Hugs,” button, she simply gave out hugs—some to young people whose own mothers hadn’t hugged them in years. Whatever your beliefs, you will want to hear Sara’s moving journey and her mission of spreading healing—not only to a community who often feels marginalized—but to their families in the church who are looking for answers.  ?

Episode Transcript

Narrator:  Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.

Jen:  Hey everybody, it is Jen Hatmaker. Welcome to the show. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast. We’re super excited to continue with our series, For the Love of Women Who Built it. We’ve been talking to some amazing women who’ve built companies, and nonprofits, and ministries, and spaces that are just fascinating, and amazing.

As we do, on every series, we ask the tribe, “Who is doing something? Who do we need to know, that you know, that fits this series?” We crowd source one of our episodes, and so I asked you, “Who has built something important?”

I am thrilled to bring you today’s guest from within the tribe. We’ve heard from so many of you that we had to meet Sara Cunningham – that she needed to be on the show.

We’re about to hear about the nonprofit that she has built and the mission that she has personally taken on, essentially, to open her arms to bring more love, and kindness, and goodness to the LGBTQ community.

To give you a little background on Sara, in a video she posted online she says, “I’m a mom, I’m a Christian, I have a gay child. In figuring out what that looks like, I got involved in the LGBTQ community.”

?As she began to learn more, she was obviously horrified by the stories she was hearing of kids being kicked out of their homes, out of their churches, and the high suicide rate, and homelessness amongst gay kids, and self-harm–just such a mess. Her initial involvement, and we’re gonna talk about this, started by wearing button, a handmade button that said, “Free mom hugs,” to a gay pride parade in Oklahoma City, where she lives.

This is what she said about that, she said, “For me it just represented unconditional love. Everyone needs their mother. Everyone needs the love and understanding of their mother.” So, she stood in, as a mother, giving away free hugs at a pride parade and this started a whole thing.

It turned into this amazing space that she built after finding out that her son was gay. We’re gonna talk to her all about that and the Facebook group, where she found so much love and support with other moms of gay kids in the LGBTQ community.

We’re gonna hear about how her hugs are breaking down a lot of barriers for families, and kids, and some of the people she’s met along the way. Last year, she did a 10-city tour, the “Free Mom Hugs Tour” from Oklahoma City, all the way to New York. It had 10 different cities, we’re gonna … it’s really, I love it.

I’m gonna talk to her about that extensively. She’s doing another one this year, it actually starts May 4th. We’re about a month away from it. It is another 10-city stop tour, and you’re gonna wanna hear about it. Because if it’s coming to your city, it’s something that you might love to be involved with. She’s also written a book called, How We Sleep at Night, which is sort of her mother’s memoir. She’s gonna walk us through all of this and what her own personal story was like. What it was like to find out? What was hard? How she experienced rejection and ultimately, how she came to be such an amazing advocate for this community.

So you guys help me welcome, Sara Cunningham to the show.

View More

Sara, I’m so, so happy to have you on the show today. Thank you for being on here.

Sara:  Thank you, Jen. Thank you for, just the invitation, and to Adrienne, I gotta give a shout out. She nominated me, thank you so much Adrienne, you’re my favorite person in the whole wide world.

Jen:  I love that. As you obviously know, in every series, we crowd source one episode that fits the theme. So obviously, this series is “For The Love of Women Who Built It”. I put it out to Adrienne and everybody else paying attention; tell us about a woman that we need to know, that has built something important, something meaningful, something good, something useful. Listen, we had hundreds, and hundreds of nominees. All doing amazing things, but Adrienne nominated you and it just kept getting liked, and liked, and liked, pushed back up to the top, and pushed back up to the top. Apparently, she’s not the only one who wants to hear from you, because so many of my online readers, said, “Oh yup, we want more of this story, we wanna know about Free Mom Hugs, we wanna know about Sara.” So here you are.

Listen, we’re gonna get into all of Free Mom Hugs and everything that you do and all of your amazing work. But, it’s interesting because you’re literally fresh off the streets from another demonstration in Oklahoma called The Time is Now Official Teacher Walk-Out. This is so crazy because just yesterday I was writing this big online piece in support of the walk-out.

Sara:   I saw that.

Jen:  Did you see that? Yes, I’m so with you on this.

?My husband and I went to college in Oklahoma and then our first jobs were in Oklahoma and I taught in Tulsa at Jenks East Elementary. I sure do know. I do know. I have a deep and abiding love for teachers and I know that they are underpaid, and under resourced, and undervalued.

I wonder … I just wanna start there because it was yesterday. Second of all because, you’ve got a son with a dog in this fight. Here you are, this mom who deeply advocates for your kids. The things that they are fighting for. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your son, the teacher, and why you think (and you obviously live this way) that the support of a mom is such a big deal in a kid’s life, whether they’re 5 or 15, or 30.

Sara:  Absolutely. Well, first of all we have two boys, Travis and Parker; Travis being our oldest, our first born. Travis has always been very independent, very reserved. Both boys are just like night and day.

He’s very private, so I don’t share a lot. I mean I’m on social media, I have no secrets or no filters. But when it comes to Travis, I’m very careful because he is a private person.

Jen:  Got it.

Sara:  And I appreciate that about him.

?Now he’s teaching at the same school that he graduated from. Teaching at the very same class that he took Spanish there. He’s a wonderful teacher. He’s got a pulse on the students. He loves just everything about being a teacher. It’s just definitely what he was created to do.

So, when the strike talk, or the demonstration talk started brewing. He just started getting kind of stressed about it and things.

When it came to the teachers’ demonstration, I really debated. I almost didn’t go, because he is so private. I thought, “Well, I’m not gonna make a social media thing out of it.” Because I would have been front and center.

So, the morning of the demonstration, I said, “How are you doing? Where are you gonna meet at? I mean what are the details? You need to let me know.” He goes, “Well, we’re at the Indian statue, where are you?” I said, “I’m on my way.” So, I took that as an invitation, I did.

Jen:  Yup, of course.

Sara:  So, that’s what I did. I stood there with him. It was a wonderful experience.

Jen:  Good for you.

Sara:  Just profound. I think being part of a demonstration, especially of that magnitude is just sending a message loud and clear. Not only to my child, but to the community, to our community, to our legislators.

Jen: It’s interesting because that was never a part of my life growing up. That’s just not … I don’t know, we just didn’t do that or we didn’t see that, I’m not even sure.

Sara:  We didn’t question authority. It’s like-

Jen: Yeah, maybe that was part of it too. I was a status quo-er, I guess. Demonstrations and marches have deeply been a part of our adult life. So, it’s been a part of our kids’ lives, as long as they can remember. You’re right, they are so … they make me cry, every time because there’s just something so visually and emotionally powerful about-

Sara: It’s comradery.

Jen:  Yes. Just arm in arm with so many of your neighbors and fellow citizens and friends. It’s so peaceful, it’s so beautiful. I think it matters, I think you’re right. I think it sends exactly the kind of message that we’re looking to send. I love that you were marching. You were marching, I was writing on the internet on your behalf.

Sara:  Thank you.

?Jen:  I gave the briefest overview of Free Mom Hugs at the top of the show, during the intro. But, I wonder if you could take me and the listeners backwards. All the way back to the beginning of Free Mom Hugs, and how and why it got started? If you wouldn’t mind sort of rolling out the story for us a little bit.

Sara:  Well, it wasn’t such a long time ago. Our youngest son, Parker, he spent his whole life coming out to us. But when he turned 21, he said, “Mom, I met someone and I really need you to be okay about it.” That’s the day that he faced his biggest fear, and that’s me. That’s the day that I had to face reality that my son is gay.

Jen:  Yes.

Sara:  We raised our children in the church, we spent 20 years serving in a local church here, serving our community, doing wonderful things inside, outside of the church. When our son came out, we just experienced alienation and separation. Some of it was self-induced, some of it not. We can talk about that later. But, as far as getting me from point A to point B. I call it a journey that took me from the church to the pride parade without losing our faith.

Jen:  That’s great.

Sara:  So, the journey did take us from the church to the pride parade.

It was…2015 is when we went to the pride parade. I stood on the corner with my son and my husband. It was a pivotal moment for me. In fact, in my book, How we Sleep at Night, the last chapter was inspired by that moment. That’s where it all began. I met and was introduced to a beautiful, spirit-filled community that on a strip in our city not too far from where we live.

Our gay district here is 39th Street. If you used to live here, you’re familiar with that.

Jen:  Yeah.

Sara:  It’s a place that I would beg my son not to go to when he became of age to go. I said, “Parker, please don’t go there.” I knew that there was a hate crime waiting to happen or an orgy. That’s where I was, literally, in my thought process.

Jen:  Right. It’s one of those two things.

Sara:  But that day, my eyes were just open. It’s like the scales were removed. It was a beautiful, pivotal, profound moment in my life.  The next year, I made a homemade button. I wrote in chicken scratch, “Free Mom Hugs.” I pinned it to my dress, and I went down to the Pride Festival and I stood there and I simply offered free mom hugs. By the end of the first day, I was covered from head to toe with glitter.

It was again, just a beautiful profound moment. I heard stories of great grief and separation and … you know the stats, the homeless rate here, the suicide rate, the sex trafficking rate, the self-harm, all this. I was just devastated by hearing that. I thought, “You know, we gotta have this conversation.”

A few moms and I, we got … I’m connected with moms in the national group, but we also have local groups. We call them “Mama Bears of Oklahoma”.

Jen: Yes.  I know, and you mentioned it, that faith is important to you.

If you could even, sort of come underneath the space with us. Did you ever ask hard questions that might have flown in the face of what you had been taught versus the work that you do now? Did you ever think that something about the way the church is handling the LGBTQ community feels wrong? Or did that sort of sleepily lie dormant in your life until it was presented to you in your own family?

?Sara:  Yes. First of all, my husband and I, we grew up; his parents were Catholic, but not practicing. We grew up in a conservative area. We live in Oklahoma City, but my mother was a single mother. My father passed, with five children, when we were young. Really, we didn’t go to church, unless the church bus ran by.

We really didn’t get plugged into church as adults until our oldest child Travis was invited to go to something at the local church. Then he just started going to be with his friends. Then we got plugged in. I jumped in with both feet. I loved the scripture, the fellowship, the prayer, the worship. I mean, I was in it to win it, you know. I was like if I met people, I would say, “Hey someone needs you here and you need someone here. So, get in this place.”

Jen:  Love it.

?Sara: So, when Parker … It was not an affirming church, but I would like to say and stress this–that I didn’t even know the difference between affirming or non-affirming. It’s like a whole other language to me. It’s like, “what in the world is that?” Now I know, and now I know the importance of it.

Jen:  Of course.

Sara:  But we didn’t have same sex couples, we didn’t have same sex marriages, certainly. No one ever talked about, we talked about “love says wait, lust says now,” the promise ring…

Jen:  Kind of just that purity culture. Yeah.

Sara:  Purity culture. Yes. Purity movement, definitely that. I preached it. I helped with the youth, I certainly was a voice to that movement as well, as far as when Parker came out to us. When he did, I would just share with our peers – women that I had long standing relationship with. At the time, it was devastating.

You know, when you hear the words “hate the sin, love the sinner…”

Jen:  Yes.

Sara: “…Parker’s just been turned over to a depraved mind.” I think … I don’t know if they were saying what they thought I expected to hear, or needed to hear, or I don’t know. But, at the time it was devastating, but now looking back at that time, they just didn’t know what to do with us. They didn’t know how to minister to us.

?We’d gone through funerals, and birthdays, and children being born. But, this was something new that no one ever talked about and the more I tried to talk about it, it was like what seemed like … it was just devastating, it was the most difficult thing I’ve gone through as a woman of faith. As a mother, I was devastated.

Jen: Let me ask you this. Going back to that season, did you know that Parker was gay before he told you he was gay? Did you suspect it?

Sara: Well, yes. There were moments definitely but I was more so in denial because we both prayed that gay away. I’m talking-

Jen:  Oh, he did too?

?Sara:  Oh yeah. Because we … I remember when he was at school, I would pray over his room, I would just pray over his bed. I’d burn the incense, I was desperate for some bolt of lightning to you know. ?We were in church, he never argued about going to church, never…he loved the people there, he was plugged in. But, when he came out, he just withdrew. It didn’t take long for him to withdraw. Then, I felt like I had to choose between our child, or my faith.

?Jen:  Yeah.

Sara:  I just was called upon less and less. I withdrew from the women’s group, and the Bible study, and all the rest. It just… ugh.

Jen:   Where did you go? What did you do? I know that at the time you weren’t able to find many resources in terms of, “Okay, I’m a Christian mom; my son is gay. What do I do?”

Where did you go? Who gave you some answers? Who gave you some help? Where did you finally find some compassion? I’m wondering if you and your husband were on the same page? Or did that sort of come later?

Sara:  Well, actually when Parker finally did come out, or when I finally had the reality check there, my husband said, “How could you not know, Sara? Everyone one who knows Parker, knows that he was gay.” But, I didn’t have any idea, I thought I was pretty open-minded until it was our son, okay?

Jen:  Sure. Yeah that’s very honest.

Sara:  But, I didn’t know where to look. It seemed like I looked online for some resources, but I found links to more of a conversion therapy type, and by then you were hearing horror stories about that.

So, I really didn’t know where to look, and where I really found what I call in my book, “glimmers of hope,” there were a few people in my life who were either linked to the church in some way or, in fact, one dear friend Kathy (I write about her in the book), she is a professing atheist, but she accepted my son in ways… I had people accepting my son, when I really didn’t know if I wanted to or how to. That’s really embarrassing to admit, but that’s how much of a bubble I was in.

Jen:  Totally. And you’re right, that is…when you are inside that space… Well heck, you didn’t have language for it, much less any tools to begin navigating relationally and to give him some … I mean you really were; you were pretty alone.

Sara:  You have your circles, you know, when you spend 20 years in a church. That’s your social structure, that’s your culture, that’s your people. I didn’t know anyone plugged into 39th street, our gay district here. I thought I was the only one in the world with a gay son.

Jen:  Right.

Sara:  That’s really how it felt and I just feel so ignorant about it now, but oh my goodness, it’s true. It’s really how I felt. I was the only one in the world navigating through this.

Jen:  It must have been so lonely. I wonder if you can talk about how your church and your community reacted to you and to your son, and how did they initially respond?

Sara: I had a few women, close friends in the church–and they would sympathize with me and of course pray for my family. But, like I said, they just didn’t know what to do with us, and it just was awkward. It was painfully awkward. Ultimately, I just alienated and separated myself. I didn’t feel safe. It wasn’t a safe place to talk about it, but again I don’t wanna just point the finger here, it’s just, I really … they didn’t know what to do with us.

Jen:  It gives us a lot of compassion and understanding for why the gay community at large is leaving the church because it’s what you just said, it’s not safe. You know, if I was sitting in church constantly worried that the theological shoe is gonna drop from the pulpit, and I’m gonna be sitting there with a spotlight on my head. I wouldn’t go. I mean … so you know there’s one thing to say is everybody is welcomed, but to your earlier point. Now that you know what affirming and non-affirming means, it’s another thing to mean it. It’s another thing for that to be true, and real, and unconditional. I think this matters. I’m so happy that we’re having this conversation because it’s so important, it’s so necessary. You sort of touched on it earlier, but the data and the statistics out of the LGBTQ community, it’s devastating. It’s devastating.

Sara:  It really, really is.

Jen:  And we have to care. We just have to care. This is not an opt out, we don’t get to just say, “well, this is messy and confusing and I don’t know what to do with it.”

Sara:  Yeah.

Jen:  I think all that is true. It’s just so important that we enter into this community with such grace, and love, and compassion. You talked about it, you mentioned your Facebook group, that it has been, it turned out, believe it or not, to be a lifeline. The internet can sometimes be amazing. Because not only were there people like you. You found out, “Hey, I’m not the only mom with a gay kid. I didn’t know.”

Sara:  Oh yeah.

Jen:  It was somewhere where you can safely have open dialogue about everything. Everything that you were walking through. Can you tell us a little bit about that group? What it offered you then? What it offers now?

?Sara:  Yes. I’m thrilled to share this with you because it’s like gold. It’s priceless, it’s a resource that is sacred. When I wrote the book, How We Sleep at Night, about our journey, because again I thought I was the only woman in the world with a gay son. So, I just started writing about our journey and I’m not kidding you Jen, almost to the day when the book–a self- published book–when the book was published and put onto Amazon, almost to the day I found the private online Facebook group of moms with LGBTQ kids.

I read an article about Linda Mueller Robertson,

She and her husband had one child who was gay, he got caught up in drugs and anyway, I found their story on a newspaper, and what caught national attention are the comments. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Jen:  Is it “Just Because He Breathes?” Was that the story?

Sara:  Yes.

Jen:  Yes. When I read it, I had to go into the bathroom and sob.

Sara: I found that article and I reached out to her, just like a mother. I had no idea about the group. So, I reached out to her, somehow, I guess they had an email or something. I just sent her an email saying, “I’m so sorry, I’m a mother too. I have a gay son.” Oh, my heart just broke for her. We visited for a while and she goes, “Would you like to be a part of this group?” I said, “Yes.”

There were 250 moms in that group at that time. This is late, this is late 2014, and there were 250 moms, that group grew so big and so fast. You have to know someone to add in, like I have to know you have a gay child, like “Hey, I know a place.”

Jen:  Right, so you keep it safe? Right.

Sara:  And I remember, one of the first days I was in that group. First of all, I thought I was the only one, suddenly I’m with 250 moms.

Jen:  What a relief.

?Sara:  Our children may vary on the spectrum, but we all have the same story. I had been in the group for just a little while and one of the mother’s posted, “I just found out, I don’t even know how to pray, I don’t even know how to breathe.” And you know how comments will, just like a magnet, all these moms, 250 moms just bolt on that comment. One of the mothers said, “Then don’t. You let us breathe, and let us pray for you.”

Jen:  Oh, I could cry my eyes out.

Sara:  I know, I know, I was gushers over here. But every day, every journey was like that. So, it grew so fast, and so big that the group split up into three different groups. I stayed in one, because that’s where my relationships are and we’re over 2,500 moms now.

Jen:  That’s amazing.

Sara:  We have moms who are just finding out, we have moms who are starting to have the conversation and figuring out that language, and we have moms going around with the Free Mom Hugs banner across the country.

?Jen:  Oh it’s so dear.

That piece of community is so important and that support.

?Sara:  I can’t imagine.

Jen: Even just having somebody ahead of you to go,” You’re gonna make it. Your kid’s gonna make it. He’s gonna be wonderful, he’s gonna more than make it. He’s gonna flourish, he’s going to be loved.”

Sara: Like to find out we’re not alone and you know our children feel the same way. When they find their tribe.

Jen:  Of course they do.

Sara:  “Hey, I’m not the only homosexual in Oklahoma City.”

Jen:  Right. Surprise. I think that is so wonderful. I’m so grateful for women who just know how to come together and know how to love each other well, and hold—there’s probably every kind of emotion in there.

Sara:  Oh my gosh, yes. That’s what makes it such a safe and sacred space, because you can share your fears. Your children don’t need to hear how you’re fearing that they’re going to be treated equally at their workplace, or beaten and left for dead on a fence post.

Jen:  Right. They can’t bear our emotional weight.

Sara:  Along with that, we also celebrate. We celebrate, we share pictures where a lot … and that’s why it’s private, and I wanna stress that because not all families are out.

Jen:  Of course.

Sara:  You know what I’m saying? We have people who lose jobs, who will lose their husbands if they’re affirming, who lose everything. I mean I was devastated, it pales in comparison what we’ve been through as a family. Pales.

I met Linda Mueller Robertson at a conference, and you talk about having to go to the bathroom and cry. I met her face to face and I knew that we were both at that conference and I knew what it cost her. I knew that I still had my child, and I practically dragged her into the bathroom at that conference and I bawled like an ugly cry.

Jen:  Of course, you did.

Sara:  Well I was a crazy woman, and that’s how big this is.

Jen:  Sure is. So, I love the image of you at that very first Pride Parade covered in glitter.

I can just imagine that having you there must have been really healing for a lot of the LGBTQ community that day because, the truth is, so many of those young adults and kids, well frankly, older adults for that matter, they lost the love of their parents when they came out. So, having a mom there, having the love of a mom, any mom, with their arms wide open giving just such affirmation and comfort and love. It’s so powerful. I read that you have … I bet that you have a million stories. You have to at this point. But, you do have a special story about a girl named Mary and I wondered if you would tell us about her a little bit.

Sara:  I would love to. First of all, Mary, is an older woman who I met when we first joined the church that we were alienated and separated from.

We worked in a kitchen together, we served meals at Falls Creek, you get the idea. We had a very dear relationship inside the church, but I didn’t know her family very well. But she knew mine because we were plugged into the church.

When Mary … when we left the church, I’m not kidding you, true story. I would see Mary at our local Walmart and she’d always ask about the family, but she would always ask about Parker. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but that’s the way our conversations went. She goes, “Hey Sara, how’s the family? How’s Parker?” It was like that, I’m not kidding.

After we’re devastated, we’re like licking our wounds from the church, I see her at the local Walmart. She goes, “Sara, where have you been? How’s the family? How’s Parker?” I–just on the frozen food aisle–gushers.

Jen:  Fell apart. Yup.

Sara: She tried to sympathize with me, and it was awkward, and she pats me on the back, and we hugged, and I said, “Look, we’re gonna be okay, but Parker thinks he’s gay, and I’m just, oh.” It was horrible. We get through that, and then I’m not kidding you, like six months or so later, I see her at the same Walmart, and she goes, “Hey Sara, how are you doing? How’s Parker?”

Jen:  Right.

Sara:  I said, “Mary you know, I think we’re gonna be okay. I’m getting educated, I think we’re gonna be okay, I’m gonna write a book about this.” She goes, “Oh great, well, let me know when you finish the book, I wanna read it.” I knew where she lived, I had her phone number. When the book was finished several months later, I called her said, “Mary I got the book.” I arranged to take it to her the next morning. I meet her on her front porch. She opens the door, I hand her the book. She starts crying.

I said “Mary, what’s the matter with you?” She said, “Oh Sara, I’m just so glad that I can’t believe …” She’s holding the book, and she’s caressing it. It’s like “Mary, we’re fine. Look, we’re good.” She goes, “No, Sara you don’t understand, I have a gay son.”

Jen:  Ah.

Sara:  And I said, “Mary, why didn’t you tell me that? We could have been helping each other out. We could have been blessing each other and walking this out together.” I just was shocked. She goes, “No, you don’t understand, we don’t talk about it, we don’t celebrate the holidays, we don’t celebrate his partner of over 30 years.” I said, “Mary, it’s alright to accept your son.” She said, “No, Sara, you don’t understand. You’re the second person I’ve told.”

Jen:  Wow, all that time.

Sara:  And yeah. And she was like in her 70s.

Jen:  Makes me so sad.

Sara:  I was just blown away by this and that’s when I thought, “We have got to have this conversation.”

Jen:  Yeah, we gotta do better than that. They’ve lost half a life.

Sara:  Yes.

Jen:  I’m dying to know what happened. Did she reach out to her son? And did they kind of reconcile?

Sara:  Yes, in fact, years later I went to an affirming church,

Jen:  He was at the church?

Sara:  Uh huh. I had never met him before. Never. He was at an affirming church while I was speaking out. He came up to me after the thing. He goes, “I know you.” He said the church that we went to … anyway, yeah he said, “You know my mom’s okay, we have a great relationship.” But, it was just very private. She couldn’t celebrate him is what I’m saying.

Jen:  No. You know what, I mean if … think about how difficult a road it was for you to navigate and how hard it was for you to find an entry point and that was in 2014. Can you imagine for her, like 40 years ago? I mean really talk about no resources.

There’s just been, we’ve come a long way in a short amount of time. I just find myself just sitting here so grateful for the gay community. The people that love them and their families. That this is not such a taboo, difficult subject anymore. The church is finding the courage to face it with grace, and with love and honesty. I’m so overwhelmed for men and women like her son who had to go so long.

Last year, when my husband and I said in a public way, obviously that we were affirming and that we had really deeply and for a prolonged amount of time examined theology, and our doctrines, and scriptures. It was just literally where God led our hearts. It was such a lonely time. I’m laughing at you when you say, “I thought I was the only Christian mom who had a gay kid.” I felt like I was the only Christian leader who was affirming.

That’s not true, that’s not at all true, it’s not even close to true, but that’s how I felt for a minute. For just a minute, I felt alone in the world. But your group, your Facebook group. When everybody else was rushing away, they were rushing in. It felt like CPR, it felt like CPR, you find all these women. Who were just-

Sara:  Are you crying right now?

Jen:  I didn’t even know how to …

Sara: Because I’m crying.

?Jen:  Yes. It’s so … it’s hard to explain to have a group of women love you, love you in this. Not in spite of it, not in a condescending way. But, in it and through it, and holding your hand and saying, “You’re gonna be okay, we’re all gonna be okay.”  It was just a really, nobody else was saying that to me. I’ll never forget it. I mean I will never forget how deeply I needed to be loved in that moment and in that way. You and your women were a bit of a lifeline for me. And I wanna thank you for it.

Jen: I wanna talk about the Free Mom Hugs Tour, because you’re just going for it lady, like you’re just-

Sara:  I mean, it’s like I’m gonna have grandchildren soon, so I’m doing everything I possibly can right now.

Jen:  Last year, you went on the road. You went on a Free Mom Hug Tour of 10 different cities. Can you tell a little bit about it because I think there’s two parts to them that are both really important and really special. I’m wondering, first of all, how did you get this to come together in the Bible belt of all places? How did you get people to come to it and to listen to what you had to say?

And what’s your assessment having that in the rear-view mirror now?

?Sara:  Okay. First of all, there was a time where I felt like if I really believe that Parker’s going to hell for being gay, then I need to stand up and fight for him like my hair is on fire. Since then I got educated and I realized that the only choice isn’t to remain in fear and ignorance of what it means to be gay. I’m fighting for my son and those on that spectrum, like my hair is on fire. I really will have grandchildren someday; Travis is engaged now. So, I really am doing everything that I wish someone would have done when I was going through it.

We offer resources to churches, colleges, anyone who will take them because look we’re not trying to change your doctrine. This is a resource, I wish–what I would’ve done to have had–to have seen a crazy lady walking around with a Free Mom Hugs banner. What I would have done, to have seen that.

So, about the tour it was … well the year I stood with the homemade button at that pride. The next Pride Parade, I made a Free Mom Hugs banner and some moms and I walked with it in the parade and we had people coming out of the crowd to get hugs. It had more social media hits than the concert.

I’m not saying that to boast, I’m just saying that’s how much of a need it is.

?After the election, I just heard great fear and anxiety from the group, from our community, and in fact the day of the election, I went down to the strip. Some moms and I met down there and we just offered free mom hugs. That’s all we did. We stood on a street corner in front of an Expressions Community Center at 39th and 10. We had cars lining up, we had kids pulling over, families getting out.

So, I laid in bed that night and I thought, “Lord”, I just prayed, “What can I do?” Like it’s all up to me right?

You know when you’re in bed at night, that’s why the title of my book is, How We Sleep at Night. This is how I sleep at night. I solve all the world’s problems. You pray, you give thanks, and, you know, you work it all out. I thought, “Lord, what can I do?” I really heard a voice in my head say, “Well, you’ve got that banner….”

I was gonna walk that banner to Washington DC, like I was gonna Forrest Gump it there!

I posted in the Facebook in the private group, I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about taking this banner to Washington DC.” You know everybody was in favor, the crowd went wild.

So anyway, I got to brainstorming and a very dear friend of mine, Laura Beth Taylor, she and I got to brainstorming. She reached out to me when she saw that post about me walking that banner. She goes, “I used to travel, I used to work with groups who travel. I used to make a living doing that. Let me see if we can get together.” Anyway, she didn’t live too far away. She lived in Texas at the time. We had met before; we were good friends. We just connected right away.

We thought, “You know rather than make a political statement out of this, we need to make it a humanitarian effort because we have moms on both sides.” We really do. We decided that we would take the banner, the Free Mom Hugs banner from Oklahoma City, where I lived and we’d leave from 39th Street – because I wanna put 39th street on the map. I think that it was celebrated as an important part of our history and our future of the ripple effect of that in our city and state would be profound. I’m talking going to rainbow crosswalks.

Jen:  Oh yeah, we have it here in Austin too, obviously.

Sara:  I want that here. I need to talk to those planners and get them all to light the fire here.

So, we devised a journey that would take us from Oklahoma City, 39th Street to the Stone Wall Inn in New York City. 10 city stops along the way during the day, we had a luncheon where moms along the way helped us. They invited their friends, their peers, their civic and faith leaders to say, “Hey, there’s Free Mom Hugs, they’re coming to town, would you consider having lunch with them?

?It was very successful, we had luncheons during the day, where we had conversations with civic faith and business leaders.

We’re just hearing our stories, we’re not trying to change your doctrine, this is happening, this is happening where you live, this is happening with the laws you’re passing, this is happening in your churches. We just shared our stories.

Jen:  Yeah, so interesting. Were people really gracious? Were they generous with your stories?

Sara:  Oh yes. I mean anyone who was there was invited by someone who really values them. Who really had a connection people are ready to have this conversation because everyone knows someone now.

Oh of course. You know what we just need to get in rooms together, like that’s the magic of what you did. That’s a really simple model, that’s not fancy, that didn’t require … put them in a room together and say, “Okay, tell me more about your story, let me listen to understand. Let me listen to develop compassion.” It’s not small. That’s not small work. It matters.

I think just simply being;  our exposure to one another, to one another’s children, to one another’s experiences and stories. It’s so moving and it’s very healing. It’s very conciliatory, I think it brings us together. There’s one thing to consider the LGBTQ community on paper or from a distance.

Sara:  Exactly.

Jen:  As an issue, or even as legislation. But it’s another thing to be in the room with them. To be in a room with their moms, and their dads, and their siblings and to look them in the eye. There’s something very human about that, that I think that can go where nothing else can go. I find your approach here to be incredibly wise and effective. So, you have these conversations during the day, and then in the evening you would have like a rally.

Sara:  Well, in sorts. We had two portions. One was “Let’s Talk” and the latter was “Let’s Walk.” “Let’s Talk” being the luncheon conversations. Those were happening, we had box lunches brought into a library where the room would be mostly educators or sprinkled with parents and faith leaders. Or we met at a local, just whatever was neutral ground, it wasn’t a bar, and it wasn’t a church.

Jen:  And then the walk part?

Sara: Yeah, the walk part. We would make an event. Moms who were in the area were welcomed to join us at both the luncheon, “Let’s Walk” and the “Let’s Talk.”

?We’d find the gay district or a good bar and we would go in there with our Free Mom Hugs button. ?The secret to approaching it, and we need to be sure and mention this, is that if you’re gonna offer Free Mom Hugs–because I’m not the only one–I might be the face of it here, right now. But, I’m hoping moms will just catch on and make their own banner and do their own thing in their own cities. That’s the goal, and they don’t have to have my permission to do that by the way.

Jen:  Yeah.

Sara:  So just put on a Free Mom Hugs button. Carry that banner, and you say, “Can I offer you a free mom hug? Or a high five?” Because not everybody’s a hugger.

Jen:  That’s true.

Sara:  You just make a connection, and I’ll say something affirming like, “I’m so glad we’re here. Are you doing okay?”

?I very rarely have been turned away. There was one young man, who said, “No, no thank you”, at the beginning and I just let that go, and I just kind of made my way through the crowd.  Do you know what? He came back and he goes, “Can I have that hug now?” He made sure I was a safe person.

Jen:  Did he? So precious. Tell us what you have planned for this year’s tour. It begins on May 4th right?

Sara:  May 4th, the goal was to start always from Oklahoma City, and then go to an historical site of sorts for … important to the LGBTQ community. So, the first being The Stone Wall Inn, and I do wanna add that we were the first group to be awarded a permit to exercise our first amendment right on those grounds. We had moms there, we served lunch, we had food there at The Stone Wall Inn; it was wonderful.

So, this year, we’re going to the Matthew Shepard Memorial in Laramie, Wyoming. To me it’s important because, again, having a gay son, that was my worst nightmare.

Jen:  Of course.

Sara:  So, we’re gonna go to his memorial and honor him, and of course his family. Spend some time at the memorial there.

That’s in Laramie. We’ll be there. But, we’ve got 10 city stops from Oklahoma City around to Laramie and then back down through Boulder, Colorado.

I hope you’ll post the sites there if we have any moms who wanna participate and be a part of that. We would certainly welcome that. Dads are welcomed too. You can imagine what a banner going down a pride parade path with dads in that behind that banner. Oh my gosh.

Jen:  Powerful. Yes, we’ll for sure post your schedule and your tour. I know that we’ll have some moms, and dads, and family members, who are gonna wanna see you when you come to their town. I read that you have a goal of giving 10,000 hugs away during that tour, is that right?

?Sara:  10,000, it’ll happen.

Jen:  I believe you.

The other thing I wanted you to mention, you’re being included as part of a documentary that’s really interesting and it’s a film maker…

Sara: Yes!

?Jen: …who’s been following your journey. The journey of other moms like you, who are advocating for their kids and other LGBTQ kids and people in general and this movement. The documentary is called Mama Bears, right off of your sort of moniker there. So, I’ve seen the preview. It’s very tender. It’s very eye-opening. There’s one story in particular, a clip of a transgender young man named, Cid. That’s a little bit heart wrenching. Can you talk about that for just a second?

Sara:  Liz is the founder of the Free Mom Hugs, I’m just part of the group, it’s not my group, although I will claim it. But it’s not literally my group. But, I’m definitely part of it. They found out about it and they contacted me and said, “Hey, we wanna follow you on this tour.”

So, they met up with us in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was the only place really where we didn’t have a luncheon planned. We didn’t have a gay district that we were visiting. We were just kind of at a loss. Because when I did search, trying to find something in that area, a homeless shelter kept popping up. So, I thought, “Well, okay God. That’s where we’re going.” And that’s where I thought, “Well, they didn’t wanna hear our stories, they don’t need resources”, I mean they do, but you know what I mean? It’s like, “What could we possibly bring to this group?”

It was a homeless shelter for adults. We made a meal. We just spent … it was a day before Mother’s Day. We went there and we didn’t publicize it because again, it is a homeless shelter and they’re at risk.

It was just a beautiful community there. So, we made chicken and dumplings for them, and the film crew was there for Mama Bears. It was just like kids coming home from college, I mean we were cooking in the kitchen, we had kids helping in the kitchen. I say kids, but these are young adults, while others were dancing and listening to hip-hop music in the living room. They’re having so much fun and you’d say, “I don’t wanna be cooking, I wanna go out there and dance.”

But it was wonderful. It was heartbreaking, and again the only thing that allowed me to leave that homeless shelter without just ripping my heart out is because, they had each other. They didn’t have enough silverware or plates to go around, but you know what they would say, “Let’s save Johnny a plate. Let’s save Tammy a plate.” They would wash and save it for the next guy. It was just-

Jen:  And that’s where you met Cid?

Sara:  Yes.

Jen: His story, will break any mom’s heart because his mother, obviously said she’d rather see him dead, than living as a male.

Sara:  Yeah, she planned a funeral.

Jen:  She planned a funeral and invited her family to mourn the loss of her child. Just something just cracked inside of me. So, I wonder how you, on the road, and in your work, and online, and all the ways that you connect with people. How do you support and counsel other moms or other families who are deeply struggling with their loved ones, their beloved person coming out? Or how they choose to identify themselves? How do you guide them toward acceptance and unconditional love, especially at the beginning?

Sara:  In the beginning, I try to be very sensitive. I used to say, “This is a sensitive subject.” You know, but now it’s like, “No, it doesn’t have to be.” We’ve made it that way, it doesn’t have to be a sensitive subject. It’s one that needs to be had.

I encourage parents to first and foremost make their homes a safe place. That again, their children shouldn’t have to check themselves at the door. To just have that conversation and if you don’t know what to say, just get educated. So, make your home a safe place, get educated. There’s too much information out there now to not have a better understanding.

Jen:  Totally true.

Sara:  To celebrate your child, because if you don’t, you’re gonna regret it. You’ll regret it. You will regret it.

Jen:  That’s so good.

Sara:  The difference between affirming and non-affirming and the way I explain that is an affirming church will celebrate the spiritual gifts of your child, and recognize same sex marriage as holy. That’s affirming plain and simple. They’ll celebrate your spiritual gifts and consider your marriage just as holy as a straight couple.

Non-affirming is you’re welcome, but you know that they’ll limit you in the nursery or prayer, things like that.

Jen: I always say … sorry in advance for this, “a non-affirming church is–we will take your tithe, but you cannot serve in the other…write us your check, but…”

Sara:  It’s an ongoing conversation in moms group, even today. It’s like why would you put your tithe, and your time, and your energy into a place that’s not going to celebrate your child?

Jen:  Well, you know what? This is how I think about it a lot, too. We’ve got an affirming church, my husband and I here in Austin. It’s very, very dear and I think about our gay couples and singles that come to church. I think in the same way that … well heck, now in some cases, but certainly 50 years ago in mass, that women were not deeply invited into the work of the church, in terms of leading, and teaching, and authority, and the full usage of their gifts. Their gifts were relegated to a very small category of “maternal” kinds of gifts.

The truth is, the church suffered for it. I mean the church was the biggest loser in that game because so many gifts were left on the table. We were not just operating at capacity when women were unable to preach, and teach, and lead as God has gifted them.

I think about the gay community the same way. The church is the biggest loser here, because they’re just as deeply gifted as anybody. So, when they are not welcomed to serve, and to lead, and to teach in all the fabulous ways that they’ve also been spiritually gifted, it’s actually the rest of us that miss out.

It matters, and I think there’s just this sort of flourishing that happens when everybody in the church is invited to the table in their highest capacity. In the fullness of their humanity and their gifts–it’s really something beautiful to behold. Really something.

Sara:  Yeah, and like I said before, it’s an ongoing conversation. Like, “Why would you put your tithe, and your time, and your energy into a place that’s not affirming?” But some people are called there, some people stay there and they serve beautifully, they know. You know what I mean? It’s like … I have to be careful because we have in Oklahoma City, that I know of, there may be more, but I personally have been to … I know that my child is gonna be safe and celebrated there – three fully affirming churches. Those I recommend, there’s probably others, I hope there’s others, but those are three that I personally know so I can recommend those three.

The affirming churches have a lot of work to do, but it’s beautiful, and it needs to be done, and it’s happening. I like to think of this as a rapture. It’s like when love just explodes, I always thought, “Man, I’m rapture ready.” I was ready, I was looking into the clouds, girl, I was like so ready. But now, it’s like this is an explosion of love to where you need to get so full and full it we’re gonna burst into spontaneous combustion.

?Jen:  What’s really compelling to watch too. I think Liz and I actually sort of embarked along a similar theological structure as we sort of sought this all out, is to watch the … to use the New Testament term, the fruit of the affirming church is so beautiful. It’s so abundant. It’s just abundant. Just to watch the gay community flourish, it’s the opposite of what we’ve been watching in terms of so much self-harm, and rejection, and depression, and suicide.

So, to watch them come to life in an affirming and spiritual environment. I mean it’s an explosion of love indeed. It’s really beautiful, it’s really, really wonderful.

I wanna thank you for your work here. I wanna thank you for facing your own fears and your own understanding, your own knowledge, and doing the work, the hard work that it required and the losses that came with it. I see that and I know those had a cost. I’m no stranger to that, I really, I deeply acknowledge the cost. But what a champion you are, for your son and all the sons and all the daughters, and all the Parkers. I’m just so glad to know that you are out there making this world brighter, and shinier, and kinder for the next generation. I believe in your work. I am really, really proud of you.

Let me ask you one last question as we close it up here. This is what we ask every guest on the podcast. It’s originally posed by Barbara Brown Taylor. I don’t know if you read her, but you would love her. She asked this question…What is saving your life right now?

Sara: Adrienne told me that you would end the podcast this way so I was ready.
Even, if I wasn’t this is what I would answer. I’m convinced, but it’s hope. Hope never disappoints and I found a poem by, and you’re gonna scream at me, Maya Angelou.

Jen:  Oh yes.

Sara:  Did I say her name right?

Jen:  Yeah you said it perfectly. I love her, she’s a muse.

Sara:  Thank you. I second guess myself every time I say that. I found a quote of hers and if it’s okay that I use it, I don’t know but, it says, “Love recognizes no barriers, it jumps hurdles, it leaps fences, it penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” Isn’t that beautiful? I know you’ve heard it before, but I hadn’t seen it before. I found it last year, and I carry it around in my wallet.

?Jen:  I love it. It’s like a perfect descriptor of your work honestly. Just like literally the leaping hurdles, and breaking down walls, and I mean it’s not easy work, but it’s wonderful work.

When I think about all the people who have felt loved and seen and affirmed on the other side of your hugs, and your advocacy. It’s a marvel, I mean really just a marvel. I’m proud of you and I’m proud of the way you’re using your life and your influence.

Will you tell everybody, I bet we have a lot of listeners who wanna know more. The truth is, I bet we have a ton of listeners who have a gay kid and they don’t know what to do and they don’t know where to go and nobody knows, or they’re at odds, or they just feel alone, and I want them to know that they are not. So, I wonder if you could just wrap it up here by telling us where to find you? What website to go to? Where to find out more about the tour? Just everything, for next steps, for anybody who wants one.

?Sara: For parents with LGBTQ kids, make your home a safe place, find the resources out there, and get plugged into a support group. Surround yourself with people who will love and encourage you and your child, and family. If you don’t have people who do that, then you find them.

We’ll post a link to the Facebook page, it’s Serendipitydodah. It’s at [email protected].

NOTE: The “Serendipitydodah For Moms” page is a secret Facebook page. Anyone interested in joining should send an email to Liz Dyer at [email protected] to gain access to the group.

Jen:  Perfect. Listen, listeners I’m gonna have all this on my website. So, if you don’t have a pen handy, if you couldn’t say that into your voice memo, we’ll have literally all these links. Like in one spot for you on the website, absolutely.

Would you know what the website name is for the tour? For the Free Mom Hugs Tour?

Sara:  If they can justfollow the Free Mom Hugs Facebook page, everything will be on there. Everything.

Jen:  Perfect. That starts in a month, and it’s gonna be amazing. I just would love to see all of the civic and faith leaders in those cities come out. That’s the conversation I love, right there. I think it’s so powerful, and so you can count on me to bang the drum for you, I promise.

Just thank you so much for being on today Sara. I am so, so grateful.

Guys, we will have all of this on my website at under the transcript page, under the podcast, and you can find Sara and her merry band of moms and all the amazing work they do and all her resources.

Thanks again for being on.

Sara:  Thank you.

Jen: Love it. I basically want Sara to be my mom. No offense, Jana, I love you too, Jana King; you’re my real mom, but … that’s a really powerful story. Powerful to hear about her work and I’m just reminded how much things that are good and important are also not easy, and they just never are. They really never are, and it requires a lot of energy and a lot of courage. I’m so grateful for how many people have been loved well. Even given permission to love well, from Sara, from the Free Mom Hugs group, from other moms and advocates like her.

Obviously, I think she’s great, and I would love for you to know more if you would like to hear more about her story or latch onto a lot of the resources that she has. Like I said, it’ll all be over at under the podcast tab. We’ve got a huge transcript over there, which is built out with; we’ll put up that picture she mentioned. Covered in glitter, plus other pics and bonus content, all the links and everything you’ve ever wanted.

So, head over there, if that is something that you are interested in. Thanks for listening you guys, thanks for opening your arms to so many different kinds of stories on this podcast. To so many different kinds of guests and their experiences. This is just, this space feels very sacred to me and safe, and wonderful, and for so many reasons we have our listener to thank for that. So, thank you for nominating Sara, for bringing her to my attention. I can always count on you. You guys are the best.

Subscribe if you haven’t already. We’ve got a new episode for you every single week. We love it and we work hard on them, and it is our joy to bring you, just amazing guest after guest.

Thanks for being here you guys, and I’ll see you next week.

Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!

connect with sara cunningham:


connect with free mom hugs:


  • evereve Check out Evereve and their handy Trendsend personal styling box service at
Shop Jen's Faves

From exclusive, limited-edition items to my must-haves, check out all my latest faves.


Take a peek around

If you’re not sure where to begin, I got you, friend. I’m always bringing you something new to enjoy.

Read More About Jen