HAMLET — Charlie Heeley, a native of Rockingham, is stepping out on faith and leaving his cherished home state of North Carolina for the New England state of Connecticut to attend the prestigious Yale Divinity School in the fall. While Heeley refers to his acceptance to Yale as an “accident”, God makes no mistakes and it seems that all of his steps in his journey have been ordered and timed perfectly.
Having been raised in the Episcopal church, Charlie recalls a deeply religious experience at the age of 12 in which he felt an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance that made him consider a life of ministry. Although he has been an AP history teacher for the last two years at Richmond Senior High and will miss it greatly, he says, “the call to ministry was just overpowering for me. You can ignore that for a little while, but it just sort of jerks you in one direction.” His family joined the Catholic church while he was in high school which made the idea of priesthood less desirable because he would not be able to marry.
Charlie started his college career at Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic school outside of Charlotte. While there was the issue of marriage that was causing him to ignore his call into ministry, there was a much deeper issue Charlie was struggling with: his sexual orientation. He came out as gay in college and struggled, at first, to reconcile his faith and his sexuality. He mentions having a crisis of faith during this time, saying, “I was having trouble with self-acceptance. Is this a part that God can love too when everyone else seems to say it’s not?” As a result, he went through a period of depression, but was lucky to meet people who really helped and supported him along the way.
It was when he arrived at a little Episcopal church outside of Gastonia, sharing the same name as his current church in Hamlet, All Saints, that he rediscovered his faith and who he was.
“The ministers there really helped me reorient myself and think about things differently and really reminded me that the whole point of Christianity is that God is Love, and that is really the defining principle that we start from and everything else kind of flows from there,” he said.
Charlie transferred to UNC- Pembroke in his last year of college after taking some time off and studying abroad. It was during this time that he met his husband, Christopher Heeley, an exchange student from England. They wed in 2014 and Charlie says that his journey into ministry and their shared journey in Christianity is what brought them closer.
Just as the stars aligned and timing is everything, after a three year long wait of processes, evaluations, immigration, relocation, and a meaningful career in teaching, he finally received the approval from his bishop to apply to seminary school. Originally, the plan was to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and there was even a scholarship in place which made it an even more practical and obvious choice. Nonetheless, Heeley did choose to apply to other places, Yale being one of them. He regarded Yale as an unattainable goal and never considered that he “would really be accepted”. In the midst of setting up another visit to Alexandria, he received a confirmation email of his acceptance into Yale.
Heeley says he thought it was a mistake and emailed back to confirm. Once they validated his acceptance, and asked for his deposit, he knew the unimaginable was real. Upon visiting Yale, his fate was sealed. Everyone was so welcoming of him and especially his spouse which made them feel comfortable and supported. He recalls one of the professors being a decisive factor. She validated that he was not there by accident and that she reminded him of the prestige of being accepted to Yale, and that what he learned there would help him combat many of the world’s problems, today.
He says he was moved to tears after her talk and that both he and his husband knew Yale was the best decision for them both. He is excited about studying amongst a diverse body of people, living in a new city and enjoying the coolness of the New England climate. He says he will mostly miss the smell of North Carolina pine and his students.
Heeley describes his journey into ministry as “a long one compressed into a few years.” He continues to say that it’s been a process of self-discovery and that teaching has helped immensely.
“I think teaching is a calling. Everything that I loved about teaching, I think I began to realize, they were things I loved because they were what I could see myself doing in ministry.” He is fond of history and activism, which is evident in his founding of Co-Exist, a LGBTQ support group at Richmond Senior High, and feels both can be used as transformative tools in the ministry. Heeley states that there are real struggles tearing apart communities right now, including injustice, race, and sexuality and these are things that the church should be talking about regularly.
When asked what is the role of the church in the community, he responded, “I think the first thing is to be a witness that there’s a better way of being people and being in relationship with each other.”
In his twenty-six years of living, Heeley has learned that it is so easy to see the bad and have hate in your heart and that evil will continue to happen until we call it out for what it is. He references John 14:30-31, “I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. Come now; let us leave.”
Heeley will be delivering his final sermon at the 9:00am service on July 30 at All Saints Episcopal Church located at 217 Henderson Street in Hamlet. The service will be followed by a reception. He is slated to be on Yale’s campus by the first week of August.