By Forrest White
Looking back across the darkest times, Jay Timmons remembers waking up panicked in the wee hours of countless mornings, unable to escape what haunted him.
Because it wasn’t a dream.
It was reality, a hellish fight fought alongside Rick Olson, his husband, for parental rights of their son, Jacob, who was born via surrogacy.
“We felt hopeless and alone, even though we fought like we had never fought before and even though we were surrounded by boundless love and support from family and friends,” Timmons said. “To be honest, we also wondered if God had forsaken us.”
But there were reminders of God’s love, too, even in the darkest nights, made manifest in part through the people of Walker Chapel UMC in Arlington, Va., where their daughters attended preschool and where their family – all five of them – now worships, basking in the light of their new reality.
To appreciate the beauty of that light, you must first try to imagine the depths of their darkness.
Already parents to daughters C.J. and Ellie through previous surrogacies, Timmons and Olson, who married in California in 2008, opted to have their son delivered by a surrogate in Wisconsin, where the state Supreme Court had upheld surrogacy and other same-sex couples had breezed through the process. At the time, Virginia didn’t allow surrogacy unless a parent had a genetic connection to the baby.
“Jacob is a product of an embryo we rescued from potential destruction,” Timmons said. “We were offered the embryo by a couple who had four children through in vitro fertilization and they didn’t want to risk the remaining embryos being destroyed.”
A Wisconsin judge granted the couple parental rights on an interim basis six weeks before Jacob was born in August 2015. The surrogate and her husband were happy with their arrangement, so everything seemed fine.
But another judge in Wisconsin took issue with the embryo having no genetic ties to Timmons or Olson. (Their two daughters are genetically related to one of them.) He opened his written opinion on the case with this statement: “Human trafficking comes in many forms.”
“We kept (temporary) custody of our son, but the judge (and a hand-picked guardian) tortured us with the thought we could lose him at any moment,” Timmons said. “Ten months after the ruling where we were granted parental rights, this new judge took them away, left Jacob an orphan and branded us ‘human traffickers’ for bringing the embryo to life.”
That judge resigned in May 2016.
“Another judge quickly restored our rights,” Timmons said. “We fought for justice against the resigned judge and the guardian for another three years until, after numerous hearings (before) judges in the Wisconsin Circuit, Appeals and Supreme Courts, we won everything.”
Married in a Unity Church, Timmons said the couple had struggled to find a church in the Northern Virginia/District of Columbia area that “spoke” to them. Both were raised in the Christian faith, Timmons in a United Methodist Church in Ohio.
“We weren’t sure that Christianity was willing to accept us for who God had made us,” Timmons said.
They continued to search because “we felt strongly that any children we had should have the opportunity to be exposed to the faith community and the values that religion teaches,” Timmons said.
With their daughters attending Walker Chapel preschool, Timmons and Olson met Pastor Jim Earley and “were impressed with his warmth and embrace of children,” Timmons said.
So, they attended the church occasionally.
“When our horrible journey to obtain our parental rights began four years ago, the Rev. Earley was one of the first to offer assistance,” Timmons said. “He immediately wrote a character reference letter (which the judge refused to accept) and made sure he kept our family in prayer.”
The battle for Jacob became “all-consuming,” Timmons said.
Olson left his job to manage a team of 14 lawyers. The family faced financial doom, taking out two additional mortgages to help with legal costs in the hundreds of thousands.
“We withdrew from many activities to focus solely on our family,” Timmons said. “We stopped attending church. We were physically and emotionally drained.”
When their legal battle for Jacob was finally won, the couple turned their attention to advocating for a change in Virginia law “so that no family would be subjected to this same heart-wrenching, emotional torture,” Timmons said.
Sullivan filed a bill to protect parental rights of same-sex couples and single parents who use surrogates. HB 1979 passed the Virginia General Assembly in February and became “Jacob’s Law” when Gov. Ralph Northam signed it in June.
The signing ceremony was held at Walker Chapel, where Jacob now attends preschool.
“When we were successful, we knew we wanted the preschool to be a part of the victory, because so many parents of our children’s classmates had been advocates too,” Timmons said.
The Rev. Lynne Alley-Grant was new to Walker Chapel when the signing ceremony took place in late June. She offered a prayer of unity for the nearly 300 people who witnessed the legislation becoming law.
“For us, this was our public acknowledgement that God had, indeed, not forsaken us and that Romans 12:21 was speaking to our hearts: ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,’” Timmons said.
On Alley-Grant’s first Sunday at Walker Chapel, Timmons and Olson and the children were there, too.
During children’s time, she read a book entitled A Church for All.
“We knew then that we were back home,” Timmons said. “In the United Methodist Church at Walker Chapel, we have found love and care and concern for families of all types.”
-Forrest White is a news associate with the conference Communications Office.