A hug at a time: One woman’s way of advocating for the Valley LGBTQ+ community

By Nicole Hostetter, contributor

Christine Jones gives great mom hugs. They’re warm and strong, the kind that causes you to instinctively release all your worries. 

A mother’s hug is a singular thing. It’s not just arms around you. It’s not just a big dose of that feel-good oxytocin that you can get from engaging in a hug from a friend or partner. 

Mom hugs give more than a natural chemical boost. In their purest, most elevated form her hugs impart a reassurance that someone loves you without qualification or expectation, someone cares about your basic well-being, someone wants very much to see you happy. 

A recipient, who doesn’t even know Jones’s name, might cry because her hug becomes a bridge over which an outpouring of vulnerability rushes forth, previously hidden in the deep recesses of their heart to protect themselves from the pain of rejection and judgement. 

Christine Jones.

Jones takes those feelings in and tries in the span of a few seconds to create what she calls “a space of unconditional love.”

“When I give that hug, I am thinking about all of the painful times in that person’s life where they didn’t have someone to give them that comfort,” Jones says. 

“I see you,” she might say.

“You’re beautiful.” 

“I’m proud of you.” 

Sighing, Jones explains, “I try to think of things that I would want my child to know.” 

To understand the power of Jones’s hugs, you need to know that she’s a mom. 

And it’s that power of motherhood Jones channels when she puts her arms around any young stranger in the LGBTQ+ community who has taken her up on the offer written on her shirt: Free Mom Hugs

Free Mom Hugs are what she gives, and it’s also the name of the organization Jones represents as she offers hugs, high-fives, and handshakes at area Pride events. 

Currently, the organization’s Virginia chapter is in the process of finalizing its non-profit status. Jones has been raising money for the effort, which is aimed at demonstrating to people in the LGBTQ+ community that they had someone who “would positively love them to pieces.” 

Jones is one of the driving forces behind that effort, and the coordinator for the local Shenandoah Valley chapter. And Jones has added her voice to the conversation about acceptance and understanding individuals for who they are, including as a guest speaker at Monday evening’s program, “The Community Listen” from 6:30-8 p.m. at Pale Fire Brewing.

“I didn’t feel as sure as I was supposed to feel.”

Founded in 2014 in Oklahoma by a Christian mother who wanted to show support for her gay son and his peers, Free Mom Hugs now has chapters in all 50 states, supported by an army of moms and allies who stand ready to advocate and support LGBTQ+ people in any way they can, with the goal of offering encouragement to anyone who might need it and education for anyone who wants to learn more.

When Jones isn’t working full time as a teacher for visually impaired students at the Valley School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton, or conducting research for her master’s degree, or fulfilling the infinite job of motherhood, she spends her time on advocacy and equality initiatives. 

Jones wasn’t always an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. She grew up in a small town in Alabama and her family attended a conservative Christian church. 

She attended an evangelical-affiliated college, partially paying for her tuition by singing in a gospel group where altar calls were a part of every show. Each altar call provided a new opportunity for Jones to witness a person become saved from “the bondage of sin,” as she puts it. There were many sins a person could fall into. 

At her church, Jones had learned about them. And she saw people be delivered from those sins by putting their faith in the Lord. 

And still, there was one sin Jones quietly grappled with. 

“This wasn’t a question, that being gay was a sin,” Jones says of her early understandings of homosexuality and the church. “You were sure. And I never felt that sense of being sure that the people surrounding me seemed to have… I didn’t feel as sure as I knew I was supposed to feel.” 

Proximity as “The Cure”

The journey from that small Alabama church to the Shenandoah Valley Pride Festival wasn’t instantaneous. 

The seed of doubt might have been present early on, but it was an experience with someone close to her that caused the roots to unfurl.

Jones’s mother-in-law from her first marriage came out as gay in the 1970s. Pam and her partner, a college professor, were together for more than 30 years by the time Jones met her. During those years, Pam had been rejected by her father for her sexuality. She had also been rejected by her church. 

“In spite of those facts, she held fast to the idea of a God that might still want her,” Jones says. “If for no other reason than she wanted him.”

Pam developed an aggressive form of Parkinson’s disease. But Jones recalled the beauty in her death as she was surrounded by the members of her new church, a church that accepted her and her partner unconditionally.

“Seeing her grapple with her own death when it came so gracefully, in a way that really honored her faith, even though she had been pushed out of her [original church], but finally found a place at the end of her life that was affirming.” Jones tears up recalling the pivotal moment in her faith journey. 

“It just … opened my eyes. And made it very simple for me,” she says. “It showed me that all of our journeys of faith are unique and beautiful, and they’re not supposed to all look the same and that’s okay.”

Being close to a gay person for the first time in her life had solidified Jones’s view about being gay and how that fit with the religious teachings of her youth.

“When you get close to people who have a lived experience, and you see it up close and you hear their story, and you hear their pain, and you see their tears…  you cannot argue with that. There is no way to be that close to that and then just cross your arms and say, ‘Well that’s not real,’” Jones says. 

“It is just almost impossible to do. It’s about that proximity,” she adds. “It’s about getting in the spaces with subjects and people that scare the crap out of you and being willing to say there is just a teensy tiny little chance that I might not be right about everything.”

So Jones began to work at developing her own understanding of the rules in relation to God.

“You know, all of the people that Jesus picked to hang out with were the people that the religious community says ‘They’re a sinner! Don’t hang out with them, Jesus! What are you doing? You’re going to ruin our good name!’ Well, he specifically chose those people,” Jones says.

“And I think that was purposeful. I think everything he did had meaning.” 

She eventually came to believe that Jesus had come in order to make a connection to God easier. No animal sacrifices. No rituals or rules. Simply put, Jones felt that Jesus was saying to her: ‘This isn’t the way we’re going to do it anymore. I’m taking all those rules and I’m throwing them away, and I’m only giving you one: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor. And that’s the only rule you need.’

So as for Pam’s spiritual fate: “I knew I would see her in Heaven,” Jones says. 

The reach of Free Mom Hugs

Jones poses with Genesis Knight.

It wasn’t until last spring when Jones made the decision to actively advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. She recalls standing in her kitchen when she learned the news that the Methodist Church had voted to split over the issues of gay marriage and gay and lesbian clergy. 

“I felt genuinely heartbroken without fully understanding why I felt so invested,” Jones says.  

Crying, Jones had turned to her husband and told him a line had been drawn in the sand for her. “And I want to make sure we’re standing on the right side of it,” she says. “I want our children to remember the day we made the right decision, chose the side of Love, then fought like hell for it. So, here I am. Fighting like hell.”

Organizing events for Free Mom Hugs is one way. Jones says she’s already gearing up for Pride season in the Valley, recruiting new volunteers and finding funding to support the organization and its presence at as many events as possible.

Earlier this month, Jones and a group of advocates from the Valley traveled to the Capitol to meet with Del. Tony Wilt to promote protections for LGBTQ+ Virginians in the workplace and in public spaces. 

Monday night, she will be a special guest at “The Community Listen,” a program sponsored by Pale Fire Brewing and Rhinestone Productions, which is the force behind Miss Gay Harrisonburg and January’s successful Charity Drag Brunch.

Six members of the local LGBTQ+ community will share personal stories of how they’ve encountered adversity, bullying and discrimination — both subtle and overt. Chad Sager, known to many attendees of Rhinestone’s drag events as Jayda Knight, will be one of the speakers at the event. He said that in addition to sharing stories of adversity, he also hopes to bring stories of optimism.

“It will be an opportunity [for the panel] to just share some roadblocks, and also share the positive,” Sager said. “I think sharing both gives a different perspective, and it creates dialogue and encourages people to ask questions, and to learn and get involved.”

The event is open to the public, and both Sager and Jones would love nothing more than for a broad cross-section of the larger Harrisonburg and Valley community to attend. Positive interactions are sorely needed, Sager said.

“I’m putting myself out there,” he said. “But honestly, more intimate experiences like this will open up people’s eyes and perspectives, and it gives an avenue to connect. We’re creating this vulnerable empowering environment to educate and have honest conversation and I think the sky’s the limit with this.”

Christine Jones (left) joined a group of advocates for a picture with Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, during the Day of Action in Richmond on Feb. 4, 2020.

“You can change people’s hearts”

When Sager came out as gay at age 15, there were no events to attend or advocacy groups to seek out. His family was supportive, which was incredibly valuable, but he acknowledges that not all young gay people have that support system.

“That’s why I created Rhinestone Productions,” he said. “And now with Christine,” he continued, “we’re going to create this for the generation coming up. I really want to empower the younger generation to empower themselves and be who they are, to be there for each other, and love each other.”

Jones adds having these opportunities for conversation and connection isn’t just important for those in the LGBTQ+ community — but for everyone.

“I’m sure there are huge swaths of people,” Jones says, “who go to church every Sunday and sit in the same spot in their pew, and have their potlucks, and they keep doing that because it’s comfortable, it doesn’t really impact them. ‘My kid didn’t come out,’ they say. ‘And we’re OK, and I have my community, and I’m happy and my kids are happy.’” 

 “That was how I operated for many years,” she continued. “I had those thoughts and I believed that. I didn’t like the way that people in the church talked about people in the LGBTQ community. I thought it was wrong. But I still went to church and sat with those people every Sunday.”

Experiencing a relationship with someone gay changed things for Jones. And she hopes that it can change things for others too, if they have even a seed of curiosity or doubt.

“[First-hand experience] is what’s going to change people’s hearts. You can’t change people’s minds most of the time. But you can change people’s hearts,” Jones says. 

“If you can make them feel something for you as a human being, then you actually stand a chance that they might care.”

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