Liz Fulmer performs in the WITF Music studio on Monday July 17, 2023
WITF Music: Liz Fulmer
"I think where we most often meet God is in each other, in the relationships we establish, in the work of loving people."
For Liz Fulmer, the teachings of the Bible are not separate from everyday life. She feels the divine in her interactions with people and through her music. From her toddler years, growing up in church and at Berklee as a voice major, music has been a constant in Liz’s life. It has helped her to understand herself, her faith and the world. After she and her band performed two songs in our studio from her latest release, The Bible Tells Me So, she sat down to talk about her music, the intersection of faith and sexual identity, her work as a pastor at Grandview Church as well as favorite apps, pets and podcasts.
Joe: Tell me how you got into music and how this project came to be.
Liz: I feel like I was always in music, starting in diaper stages. Family would put me on the table, and I would sing songs for people when I was like two, and then would be paraded around to my grandfather’s Sunday school classrooms when he was a preacher, and I would sing for the adults there.
But I really began to grow as a musician in the church. I grew up Catholic. And then I started to write songs and realized the piano is really hard to carry around, so I learned guitar, and then went to school for music. It’s just always been this traveling companion.
Joe: What did you study in school specifically?
Liz: I was a voice major studying songwriting at Berklee. There’s a million and one people that did exactly what I did, and it felt more competitive than collaborative, and I love music for the way it brings people together.
Joe: Growing up, was there a particular musician or a particular song that really made you want to be a songwriter?
Liz: This maybe sounds corny. “The Sound of Silence”, lyrically and the chord progression, and the arrangement. Then probably Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. And I especially like Jeff Buckley’s version. When I began to find my own musical voice, Sarah Bareilles was the person that I just gravitated to.
Joe: Tell me about the songs that you picked to play today.
Liz: So “The Beatitudes” song was written because we were reading that passage from the Bible for church. The text itself had a sort of lyrical, almost built-in rhyme the way it’s written. And so, I grabbed a guitar and just began humming along to what it could sound like as a song. The song just really popped out pretty quickly after that. And I love the Beatitudes, outside of the song, just for the message they convey.
I love how the arrangement is gentle and driving at the same time. I just really love how it turned out on the record and singing it with Chelsea Reed, who is one of my absolute favorite vocalists. She hummed in the studio when we were recording it, just casually, not thinking it was going to be part of the song. And for whatever reason, the way she hummed just felt like that’s what the song needed. It was like this sort of hug or like an embrace.
And then “All Good” is a song I’ve been slowly writing for the past several years. I think that what I’m trying to do lyrically is just broaden what it means to be inclusive, and I think especially in the church world, so often churches or people of faith will use their faith to divide people and it becomes in and out and us and them. So, the song was trying to use a sense of belovedness as the thing that draws people together.
Joe: You have some direct experience with that kind of situation.
Liz: I will say I’ve never had rough times with the local church that I’ve been connected to. I never set out to be in professional ministry. I didn’t have that kind of aspiration, but I’ve always been in church, and I got connected to the church through music and then my role evolved. I began to lead classes, and I began to participate more in the services outside of just music. And then I was asked to preach, and that sort of snowballed pretty organically.
I went to seminary and really found a passion for the way that, in that pastoral role, I get to walk with people and be with them in their mountaintop moments and in their roughest moments. My job is to listen and to be a presence. And I think that pairing music with that is often really effective too.
But this being Lancaster County, where the church is located and where I’ve lived most of my life, the idea of there being a queer pastor, there is pushback you get when you show up in the world as you are and when you don’t fit into the box that the world expects you to show up in.
I’ve gotten direct hate messages. And then you can’t really get away from the more general atmosphere of intolerance and non- affirming attitudes in this area. But showing up in my job and showing up every Sunday and continuing to just be I think is important. I’m surrounded by a community at the church who support me and who, in turn, are more themselves too.
Joe: If you could redefine Christianity, and the big “C” church, how would you define it?
Liz: I think church is community. Church at its best celebrates the diversity of the community and helps people to grow more fully into who they are. I think that when you love people the act of loving draws people more genuinely to themselves, which then makes them show up in the world gentler, kinder, more loving themselves. So, the way I think of church is it’s a place to practice being in community and being in relationship and not a place to go to digest a belief system, but to be in practice of living out the things that you say you, you believe … I didn’t say anything about God.
Joe: I noticed that. But if you are feeling fellowship with people in a community, in some ways it almost seems inevitable you will feel some sort of connection to something that’s otherworldly.
Liz: That’s exactly it. I often don’t use obvious religious language because I think sometimes that, when you bring that in, it’s like it’s saying that there’s a separation between relationship and community and then there’s God over here. But actually, I think where we most often meet God is in each other, in the relationships we establish in the work of loving people.
Joe: Growing up realizing that you were gay, and then at some point, I assume, reconciling that for yourself, how would you describe that whole process?
Liz: I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve met people who have had experiences that are just from hell, so much pain and suffering. My story doesn’t involve a ton of that. I have an older brother who kind of paved the way. He’s also gay. And so, when I came out to my family, it was like, okay, here we go again. But there was a recognition that, because of this aspect of who you are, your life is going to be harder. And also, we’re here with you.
Until I came out to my closest friends, it felt like this impossibility. But then, as I began to tell people, as they began to receive it well, it felt like, oh, I’m still me, and people are seeing that. There were some who did not receive it well, and I have family members who still don’t receive it as well as I wish they would.
I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at establishing boundaries where I need to and believing that sometimes the most loving thing you can do is break off a relationship when there can’t be genuine love and acceptance.
I often don’t use obvious religious language because I think sometimes that, when you bring that in, it’s like it’s saying that there’s a separation between relationship and community and then there’s God over here. But actually, I think where we most often meet God is in each other, in the relationships we establish, in the work of loving people.
I remember being very young, talking to a priest in the midst of confession, and I asked him about gay people and is that okay? And the priest said to me, “God doesn’t make junk.”
And it taught me two things. One, that God creates people as they are. And that no thing that God creates is trash or is not good.
The more I’ve grown in my own faith and in my own study and as a pastor, the more I am drawn to the Genesis story where over and over again the insistence is that the things God makes are good. We can all grow. We’re not always at our best. But I think ultimately, inherently, we’re all good. I haven’t had to reconcile it too much in part because of that early childhood experience. And then, going to Grandview when I was a teenager, they’ve been preaching this goodness for a long time.
Joe: So, the album, The Bible Tells Me So, you just released that this past May. Tell me about the title.
Liz: Grandview at large, and the leadership of the church sometimes are described as not caring about the Bible. Or we throw away the Bible and that’s the only way we have this affirming viewpoint. And I just wholeheartedly disagree.
The more I read the Bible, the more I am convinced that we’re called to matters of justice and we’re called to celebrate all that God has created. And so, I wanted to make it very clear that all the different things I talk about on the CD, all the messages are drawn from or inspired by the Bible. I’m not making these things up and they’re [not] just coming from my experience alone. I think experience is really important, but holding that in relationship with the text is, I think, where the real fun happens. I didn’t mean it to be snarky, but I believe I am good as God made me, and the Bible says so.
We covered “Jesus Loves Me”. And I think there’s something powerful in hearing queer voices saying, “Jesus loves me”. I think of all the people I know who, if maybe they had been exposed to that, they wouldn’t be coming to me in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s with so much work to do in order to accept themselves.
The way I think of church is it’s a place to practice being in community and being in relationship. Not a place to go to digest a belief system, but to be in practice of living out the things that you say you, you believe.
Joe: And some of the proceeds from the album they went towards the church?
Liz: Yeah. Grandview Church used to be Grandview United Methodist Church. That denomination has gotten increasingly hostile towards LGBTQ people. And Grandview went through a very long, very expensive process of disaffiliating from the denomination. The figure was somewhere around $700,000 that we had to pay in order to leave and to keep our building. We’ve received a lot of support from people within the church and beyond who want to contribute to the debt that we took on in order to leave.
And so, this CD is just one more way to share what I think is good music and also throw some more financial support to the church, which is doing just really good work.
Joe: How important has writing and performing music been to you throughout your life?
Liz: I often feel like I don’t know how I feel about something until I’ve written it into a song. Or I’ll listen to a song written years ago and only in retrospect am I able to understand what I was saying in the song.
It’s become also this place of encounter, of fostering connection, and I thrive on that.
I used to be a regularly gigging performer. And it just feels like you never can go quite as deep when you’re just singing songs at people. And often the gigs are in bars, and there’s noise, and you’re more there for ambiance. And there’s a fun to that.
But I became a mom right around the time that I went to seminary and had to figure out time and schedules.
Joe: Does Lancaster County or Central Pennsylvania itself play into your music?
Liz: I’ve never really thought about it before, but I do think that I always aim for beauty and warmth in the songs, and probably that comes from the environment that I’ve been surrounded by. When I’m writing something and thinking about how it’s going to be heard, I often want people to, in the act of listening, feel good and at ease. I’m thinking about the people of Lancaster County in particular because I’m not trying to take the music really much further beyond Lancaster at this point. There are references made to the things that we have around us, the back roads and just getting lost driving down. Measuring time by the corn.
Joe: What kind of trends in music are you particularly interested in?
Liz: I feel like on the whole there’s been a decluttering of arrangements or a simplifying. I feel like the most popular songs are typically now the ones that have less going on in them. And you just get to hear the song itself without all the distraction.
I really love Billie Eilish. When I was driving home from a gig, and it was late, and they played “When the Party’s Over” it’s all just voices and a little bit of piano. It’s a transcendent song.
Joe: Some of her music is real sparse and yet the production is actually very heavy. There’s both a lot of space, but also a lot of like heavy production.
Liz: I think the word space is a really good one. The use of space in songs and rest in songs. I think that’s becoming more popular. Which makes sense to me given the state of the world.
Joe: What else are you into outside of music? It sounds like you’re probably pretty busy.
Liz: Yeah, with church world and a five-year-old son and a pretty cool wife. I coach the throwing events for McCaskey High School. Especially because I exist in sacred spaces where things are so abstract, when you go out and you’re working with high school students and you’re teaching them something that is so black and white. “I’m telling you, if you put your foot here, at a 90-degree angle from the toe board, and if you put your elbow up…” It’s just really nice to have that clarity.
Joe: Are you a big podcast listener?
Liz: I am. I really love Glennon Doyle, We Can Do Hard Things. And Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. It goes through all the books, chapter by chapter. And they incorporate more traditional spiritual practices into how they read. So, things like Lectio Divina, Chavrusa, Florilegium, these are all ways of reading that are typically found in church settings, but they’re doing that with Harry Potter.
And the whole idea is that what we call sacred is a small amount of things. But the argument of this podcast is that sacredness is a lens. And so, if I look at reading this book as a sacred act, or I look at running, or I look at making music as something that’s sacred, then it can actually be more life-giving and generating than if you just treated it as any old thing. If we treated each other as sacred how much loving would we be?
Joe: And how would you define sacred in that way?
Liz: I don’t know exactly. Like immensely valuable. Sometimes they say like “having sacred worth”. So, it has to do with the matter of whether or not a person matters. So, if you have sacred worth, it’s this untouchable, always and forever, immense value.
Because I exist in sacred spaces where things are so abstract, when you go out and you’re working with high school students and you’re teaching them something that is so black and white, it’s just really nice to have that clarity.
Joe: Who’s your current favorite musical artist?
Liz: I’m really into Boy Genius right now. Such a cool project. I really love tight harmonies. I really love when there’s women doing great stuff together and they are the front men. Brandy Carlisle is another that is just unbelievable.
Joe: What was the first concert you attended?
Liz: This is so embarrassing. Aaron Carter. And the A*Teens were his opener. It was like four bright and shiny blonde haired kiddos singing Abba songs. Yeah, I wish I had a better story.
Joe: Do you have a favorite app?
Joe: Do you have a favorite local business?
Liz: I really love The Fridge. The Fridge is a bar. It’s the kind of place where there’s enough of a clientele build up that you’re gonna know somebody every time you walk in. And the owner’s often behind the bar. It’s just good people and good music, good space.
Joe: Favorite book or author?
Liz: I haven’t read it in a long time, so I should probably reread it so I can make sure that my answer is true. But favorite book is, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I think I wept the last hundred pages of the book.
Joe: Do you have any pets?
Liz: I have Numa. She’s a Black Lab/Great Dane rescue mix. She’s goofy. Her ears are never in the same place. She’s a good girl.
Joe: Do you have a favorite show [on WITF Radio] that you like to listen to?
Liz: I really loved 1A when Joshua Johnson was on. And I really love Terry Gross.
Follow Liz Fulmer: