Does Jesus Really Love Me?

By Jeff Chu  (a summary by Pat Evert)


Of all the songs we sang when I was five, ten, fifteen, “Jesus Loves Me” is the one that has stuck with me.  Why should it be more complicated? But as I got older, the Bible felt more and more like reading someone else’s mail—interesting, no doubt, but ultimately second-hand and indirect.  But I longed to hear it for myself. I wanted to know faith for myself.  What would it feel like if I believed that Jesus really loved me?  For some people, it is and should be no more than a demographic fact. For others, it’s an indication of divine blessing and a call to action.  And the single most explosive issue today is homosexuality.  Praying for her “lost” homosexual son and wondering what she did wrong.  My goal was to understand why those who call themselves followers of Christ start from the same point—a god-man who lived two thousand years ago and left behind a church with his name on it—but end up in such radically different places on the issue of God, the church, and homosexuality.  I travelled with baggage: I grew up Southern Baptist. I am gay. I have a boyfriend. I’m relatively conservative.  I doubt – a lot. And yet I can’t not believe in God.  In that season, I clung to God. He had to exist in my mind, because I had to believe that someone bigger and more powerful would someday make this all okay.  What I found was a country that deeply wants to love, but is conflicted about how to do so. I encountered a church that’s far more divided than I imagined, led in large part by cowardly clergy who are called to be shepherds yet behave like sheep.  And I saw the many, many faces of God in America.


I – BEGINNINGS: In the Capital of Christian America Nashville, Tennessee. At the epicentre of battles over social change for two centuries, Nashville is the Protestant Vatican.  This much I know about Baptists: Their roots run deep, and whatever the official rules say, there are often stubborn, invisible standards, too.  Beginning in the 1970s, the conservatives systematically worked to elect like-minded men—and they were always men—to the denominational leadership. By the end of the 1980s, their takeover of nearly all the denomination’s high offices and committees as well as the six Southern Baptist seminaries was complete, a rightward move that foreshadowed the denomination’s rise as a political force.  Our culture has spawned a great sexual rebellion, which has permeated the church.  I make note of the societal trend lines as he sees them, which are moving in a more liberal, less devout direction.  But in addition to their reduction of gay men and women, they layer on their belief in the need to elevate their Christianity, not just in society but also in government.  We’re not uncomfortable with power and we are not used to being in the minority. Southern Baptists still aren’t convinced this culture can be turned around, but we are convinced it can’t be turned around without Southern Baptists.  Augustine was more deeply engaged with the internal life of the church than with “secular” politics.  What made this interesting is that this friend, he is more Christ-like than me in every aspect of his life—the way he loves people, the way he helps people, the way he has served the church. And he is the one who helped me realize: He isn’t an issue. He is a person.  We definitely didn’t all agree at first. We had to be honest and say that this was a grey issue. There is nothing in the Bible to help us deal with this.  The question was how to respond in a Christ-like way to a family who is seeking guidance from the church.  I could be wrong. Let’s be honest! Christians have been wrong about many things over the years, and they’ve used the Bible to back up their wrongness.  But then I fell in love.  St. Augustine Episcopal Church, which sits on the Vanderbilt University campus here, even threw a baby shower for her and her partner. Maybe it’s ironic, because most people come out and ditch the church.  Yes, I do believe God had a hand in all this.

II – THE AGNOSTICS New York; Bangor, Maine   First, any half-decent business book will tell you that failure matters; we learn from it. Second, in the context of my journey, I want to understand how gay people may have been pushed out of the church. Belief grows or dies for all different reasons; John’s choice of the term self-acceptance is apt on two levels. There’s the obvious—his acknowledgment that his sexuality could not be prayed away.  “They are going to try to change my mind first, and if I don’t change, they have to cut me off.”  And from there, nearly every relationship I had in the church community virtually stopped overnight, with a few exceptions of people who tried to change my mind. Not a call, nothing. It was like I ceased to exist.  There’s a lot of pain from being rejected by so many people who were supposed to have these Christian values.  Enough—even though he grew into love with Lady Gaga, he grew out of love with Christianity: The expectations weren’t the same, nor could they be.  But churchgoing is different than faith, and churchgoing to prove something to someone else is different than churchgoing to feed your soul.  Why do so many good people experience intense hardship, when they’ve done nothing to deserve it?  I’m basically more comfortable thinking that God might exist in some form, but it doesn’t intervene, and it doesn’t take sides.  Homosexuality is nature, not nurture.  ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

“I have to be a different person with everyone,” he says. In Charleston, life revolves around home and church: I wish my parents understood. I don’t want to disappoint them. In Bangor, it’s classmates and gay friends: “I wish my gay friends understood—some of them call me the Bible Thumper.  “It’s easy to believe something when everyone around you believes it,” he says. “I doubt when what I believe gets challenged.”  I’m tired of people who say things and don’t show them.  But he’s been very impersonal. That’s not what I believe inside—it’s what I’ve experienced.

“What does the Bible say about this? What does the church say about this?”  I left that church with a deep feeling of distrust for people who benefit by using other people’s faith.  If healthy faith is telling us anything, it’s “be responsible to each other and the world. Take care of each other and the world.”  But I definitely hold a lot more bitterness for people who go out and force people to conform to their idea.

III – YES, JESUS HATES YOU: Westboro Baptist Church Topeka, Kansas   But gradually over the last few decades, the word Christian has become associated with condemnation.  Why do they hate gay people so much? Why do they believe homosexuality to be worse than other sin? How did a church with just forty members manage to gain such outsize influence, “If the Lord hasn’t given you the heart to hear, you just won’t understand.” The reason they preach anyway is that you never know who has that heart and who doesn’t. Spreading their gospel is their duty and their gesture of kindness to a hell-bound world.  How many nights did I spend, in sleepless anguish, praying that God would take these feelings from me?  “There is one who speaks rashly like the piercing of a sword, but the tongue of the wise heals.”  Words that heal are “comfortable, cheerful, and refreshing words to the injured and abused; especially the tongue of a wise minister of the Gospel is health, or healing, to wounded souls.”

IV – THE POWER AND THE STORY: The Scandal of the Harding University Queer Press Searcy, Arkansas   While the 1.1-million-member Churches of Christ is an adamantly nondenominational denomination—it is entirely congregationally governed, with no central hierarchy, no headquarters, no bishops or presbyteries, no constitution apart from the Bible—Harding is occasionally referred to as its Vatican.  It’s nearly impossible to sin significantly without everyone finding out.  Homosexuality is seen as thought and act—lust and fornication—not a valid identity.  We weren’t trying to create controversy. We just wanted to create some dialogue, to the point that Harding can’t just turn its back on this.  Moreover, they are questioning the right of the Church of Christ and Harding to interpret the Bible the way they do.  I was sad that there were so many people who felt so alone.  Before that, “the Church of Christ was named in the list of recognized ‘peace churches’:  “Right now, the political climate here is right-leaning, reactionary, and quite frankly scared. It seems like hardheartedness. It seems like hatred and phobia. But fragility is the key elephant in the room.  The stance seems to be more often “anti”—anti-society, anti-liberal, anti-godlessness—than pro-anything.  “Everybody here is struggling with their place in the world—what you believe and what you don’t,” she says, “but they can’t do it openly.”  They’re still wrestling with their identities, their faith, and their homosexuality.  It is only when the average white, Southern Christian heterosexual wills to lower himself and be counted among his despised and stigmatized brother that the foundation for real conversation can be established.  To have homosexuality discussed in a way that sets aside the question of the gay person’s (potential) sin and instead addresses the question of the allegedly Christian community’s (potential) sin is perhaps unprecedented here. Do these students even have the capacity to process what was just read? Is the silence in the auditorium guilt, or sadness, or discomfort, or all of the above?  “The world assumes all Christians hate gay people,” she says. “We have somehow sent this message to the world . . . because we have made it a dividing line of fellowship. Shame on us for sending that message!” She continues: “The followers of Christ must be a safe place for all who seek refuge here. The church ought to be the safest place there is.  They need to feel pain for those who are crying out, and I don’t think they do.  “There are things about Harding that I really love, and just because there are some things I don’t like doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a major part of my life. There are teachers I love. There are classes I have loved. This is home.”  By a sea of people who think being gay is the lowest thing someone can be, I want to be honest with everyone with who I am; even if that means total rejection from the ones I love most.


V – EXIT STRATEGY, PART I: Exodus International’s Reorientation Ministry Orlando, Florida; Irvine, California   I was  called “undisciplined” and “sexually unruly.”  “To say I should accept who I really am and come out and leave my wife and family is like telling me to rip out the core of who I am and”—and this is the important part—“who I want to be.”  “I lived a portion of my life trying to pursue homosexuality, trying to pursue gay life; trying to make that work . . . [but] I was more than that attraction. What I have found in my relationship with my wife is a pure attraction, a pure desire, a more satisfying emotional, physical, spiritual, relational connection than I found when I was pursuing gay life.”  Fear isn’t always hate-based and hate isn’t always fear-based. Homophobia isn’t the same as anti-gay sentiment; they can accompany one another, but they don’t always.  It will always be difficult to have a real dialogue when there’s a fundamental disagreement with what homosexuality is.  Is it an expression of what God has made—and therefore an element of human diversity that Christ calls us to embrace? Or is it a manifestation of the world’s brokenness—the very thing that Christ came to heal?  God’s unlimited love allows us to be deeply involved with the suffering of the world without being swallowed up by it.

VI – EXIT STRATEGY, PART II: A Visit to an Exodus Group Kirkland, Washington God has made all of us to be heterosexual, and some of us are just broken in this way.  “It’s really hard for Christians to think in greys,” she says. “Black and white makes God small and manageable. It squeezes the mystery out of God. It makes him easy to follow. But Christian maturity is partly about living in the tension of not knowing, and it’s okay not to be sure.”  Today, he says, his same-sex attractions are almost irrelevant. “It used to define me, and now it’s just not an issue for the most part, especially when I’m abiding in the Word.  “I learned a lot, but I wouldn’t say I came out of it a free man walking out of the homosexual situation,” he says. But he did buy into the “father wound” theory of homosexual origins:  It basically says that God is in control, that He made me who I am, that He knew me from the get-go, that He ordained the circumstances in which I find myself.”  “At the highest level, I want to live a life that pleases God. I want to finish this life and be called ‘good and faithful servant.’  At the heart level, I honestly just want to be happy. And I know that’s not necessarily guaranteed for the Christian life.  “I feel like I really want a significant other. At this time, the only gender I think I’d be satisfied with is a guy, and because I won’t let myself pursue that right now, I do feel somewhat lonely.  The core of my identity is that I’m a sinner redeemed by Christ.  This isn’t something I can just switch off. So I have to preach the Gospel to myself: God sees me as so much more than my sexuality.”  Just as Jesus met the adulterous Samaritan woman at the well before she stopped sinning.  There’s always a danger of pigeonholing; humans are masters at it.  The church is such a toxic place for the gay community. It’s very painful; the legalism, the rejection, the theological arguments.

JOHN SMID: “Things I’ve taught have been wounding. Scripture really is not clear in favor or against same-sex relationships. It is very clear about immoral relationships—selfish, idolatrous, inappropriate, serially unfaithful relationships—being harmful and not healthy. But when it comes to loving relationships, I just don’t see it.  I’ve been married now for twenty-two years to my wife, but I have not had any diminishment in my same-sex attraction. I have a good marriage.  People don’t want to admit that their marriage isn’t everything it should be.

VII – FREEDOM TO MARRY: Jake and Elizabeth Buechner A city in the northern United States  His loneliness grew into depression of the soul-rending, sky-blackening, cry-yourself-to-sleep-every-night sort.  It’s so core to who we are as humans.  He began to believe that his sexuality was something to be managed, not changed.  He recalled instances where even the slightest prospect of physical intimacy made him recoil, which was depressing for him and insulting to her:  My greatest fear was getting married to a homosexual. Whenever I’ve read stories about that, it has resonated with me. I was crying out of fear that I was making the wrong decision, but I was also crying for Jake and the struggles he had gone through.  Love, which he defines as primarily giving, not receiving. Giving is the highest expression of potency. . . .  “God explains to Jonah that the essence of love is to labor for something and to make something grow, that love and labor are inseparable. One loves that for which one labors, and one labors for that which one loves.”  My sexuality is such a big part of my life. To not be able to share that with my wife would seem like living a lie.  What is it that keeps a marriage going? What is the substance?  Jake expressed that he wanted to be with me in particular, not his ideal of me, but me.  Is this going to be the best decision or the worst decision of my entire life? And then I realized that the answer to that question is, it’s not one or the other. It’s a mixed bag: There’s blessing and there’s struggle, but that’s not something to be scared of. “What a woman does—what my wife does—is different. But it satisfies me,” he says. “You know, it’s been very different from what I expected. It’s less intense but it has felt very good. It’s not like pizza or french fries—it’s more an acquired taste that I’ve come to like even better.”  Their sex life has been, by both accounts, not just functional but enjoyable and real—and who can fact-check that?— this raises the question of whether Jake has experienced any kind of reorientation. His answer is no.  “If in the future, he does struggle with pornography or attraction, I have to remember and keep it all in perspective: It’s not because I’m not good enough. It’s not about me.”   He doesn’t really think much about homosexuality these days, nor do they talk about it, except when people like me ask. While he’s still attracted to men, the urge to act on those attractions—by watching porn, say, or masturbating. “I don’t know why the pull to it has been less strong since we got married,” he says.  Anyway, there are other things to think about: Jake and Elizabeth are now trying for their first child.  “I see my sexuality as a gift from God. I don’t think it’s just some sort of strange thing that happened to me—like a part of creation where God just wasn’t really looking out for me or paying attention.  One of the most meaningful things my wife has said to me was when she said that she was grateful for this in my life because it has made me who I am.  It’s difficult for me as a gay man to hear my sexuality described as a wound, as an imperfection.  And yet hear the long version, sit with them, listen to their struggle, understand the incredible work they’ve done to unpack and analyze and process and re-evaluate, and things look different.  “For who would not easily understand that it was absurd,” he says, “but who would understand that one could then believe it?”

VIII – CHOOSING CELIBACY: Kevin Olson St. Paul, Minnesota   “Our hope is focused on God’s glorious future, in light of which the affliction we now carry—a disordered sexuality and the loneliness that goes with it—will appear slight and momentary,” Hill writes. “We long for the end of longing, the end of our loneliness.”  While same-sex desires may not be a choice, how to handle them clearly is. In other words, this temptation may not look like yours, but it’s not fundamentally different—no better, no worse.  “The real question is whether or not someone can live an unrepentant life and still be a Christian. And the answer to that is no.”  But there’s something especially profound about the loneliness of someone who believes that this life will bring no partner to share its burdens and its joys; that you’ll attend every wedding knowing that you’ll never have one of your own; that the space next to you in bed will always be empty.  It’s entirely another to stand by that decision thirty years on.  “I am defined by who I am in Christ, not by my homosexuality,” he says. “My relationship with God is stronger than my feelings.”  “Yes. There’s the feeling of being cheated out of being intimate with someone,” he says. “Of course you long for that connection.”  “Male friendships are a particular challenge for me. Because that line exists, for accountability, I make sure they know.  “It’s never talked about in the church.”  “I don’t want to cross that line of having to explain myself to them.”  “So,” he says, “I’ve lived pretty much on my own.”  “If we don’t figure this out, we’re going to war—a social war. And we’re going to be killing a bunch of people along the way. But the church ought to be leading the charge to talk.”  But I don’t necessarily believe you’re born gay—the jury’s still out. I do know I didn’t choose this.  Pleasing him is more satisfying to me than pleasing myself or being happy.  There’s a life to come. That will be a happy time. So a little suffering here isn’t agonizing. It’s just a minor inconvenience.”  If you haven’t come out yet, find someone you trust to come out to. It may be hard to do that. It may be someone outside the church. But get it out. Talk to somebody.  Every day is a day closer to being with Christ.”  The choice to set aside his perceived physical wants in favor of his perceived spiritual needs; the choice to sacrifice his earthly happiness for the eternal joy that he is convinced has been promised to him by his God. To him, celibacy hasn’t been an act of fencing himself off; rather, it has been one of opening up, of embracing the sanctuary that he believes his Lord provides.  If there is a “remedy” for loneliness, surely this must be it. In the solitude of our celibacy, God’s desiring us, God’s wanting us, is enough. The love of God is more valuable than any human relationship.  Maybe my desire for God is too small. Maybe I chose the easier road.

TED HAGGARD: “I am being resurrected.”  Christian leaders have a responsibility to do image management and damage control, and that leads them to a natural tendency toward Phariseeism.  If a Christian is kind to me, they’re just acting Christian. If a Christian leader is kind to a guy like me, they’re accused of compromising. I understand that.  Here’s another one: Judas and Peter both denied the Lord. Judas repented and in his grief he killed himself. He built a pillar to his failure. That’s what he is remembered for. Peter, on the other hand, repented and received forgiveness and continued preaching. Peter’s denial is just a small part of his story now.  If someone looks at you as a gay man and he feels superior as a heterosexual, that person has fallen from grace.  Lovelessness is a huge sin in the church.  Many of the Christians who come to St. James are persecuted. It’s an authentic meeting of believers—saints by faith, sinners by fact.

IX – THE MINISTRY IS THE CLOSET: Ben Dubow Hartford, Connecticut  There was another participant in the conversation.”  They started their own church, St. Paul’s Collegiate, with ten people meeting in a living room.  “Having vision is being able to forecast the future and spark passion in the followers.  By the time Ben was leading St. Paul’s, he was in full double-life mode.  How can a guy be in a community loving Christ and they find out there’s sin in your life and you gotta go? You’re gay and you’re out? That’s not Jesus!”  It was the hiding, the attempted compartmentalization that had screwed everything up.  How many people he has maintained ties with, he says softly, “less than a handful.”  Not only did he not get the forgiveness he sought, but he also almost walked out. “I was thinking, I will never speak to anyone in this room again.”  “I believe sin is real. There are consequences to it. And Jesus paid the price for our sins.  Ben, now a self-described “progressive evangelical,” believes “the Bible is not black-and-white.”  These days, I’m pretty much an open book, the opposite of how I lived my life for seventeen years.  The first is that pastors are called to counsel and support their flocks, yet they don’t get care and guidance themselves. “It is a lonely profession,” she says. “Who pastors the pastor?”  He knows the evangelical world so well, and I think he’s equipped to help reform it.”

X – AGREEING TO DISAGREE: The Evangelical Covenant Church Chicago   He could either choose a lifetime of chastity or live a double life.  ‘How can we turn away from the Table those who Christ has already made welcome?’ he wrote in his first post. If Christ has already made room for us at his Table, must there not, then, be a place for us in his Church?  Coming Out Covenant has compelled hundreds of members to declare their stance on the gay issue in the church.  Covenant Affirmations, a 1976 booklet that summarizes church teachings, says the key to this unusual freedom is to be ‘in Christ.’ By his grace he is able to make a person, as Luther says, into a perfectly free ‘lord of all, subject to none.’ At the same time, he is able to make that person a perfectly dutiful servant of all subject to all.  People over forty would tend to stick with the more traditional view of how we understand sexuality. Those under forty and especially under thirty would be much more likely to see sexual relations, so long as they’re in a marriage or a committed relationship, as more acceptable.  We’ve watched many denominations do this, and every one split down the middle. We’d like to not split. We don’t see the need.  When she was eight or so, she realized she was drawn to girls, not boys, and that “I had to hide what I was.”  What I mean is, there is no Biblical and theological consensus in this church on homosexuality. There are some who hold very traditional understandings, and there are others who hold a more open theological position.  Their sexual orientation is different from the rest of us, and that is a challenge for some of us, but we are still us.  The Covenant’s official position is that homosexuals may serve in the denomination as long as they remain chaste.  “One friend said to me that they’d almost rather be excluded and that religious rejection is preferable to religious persecution,” Andrew continues. “Better to be told to go away than to be treated as second class, like a defective heterosexual.”  If God made people inherently sinful, that would be unfair. He has to give us a choice between right and wrong. And if I didn’t have a choice to be gay, how could it be wrong?  They are taught that they can only choose their love for their Creator or for their same-sex loves, and that they are unworthy of God’s love.  She told me I couldn’t come out publicly. She would get fired. So I just shut up about it.  Neither side is truly interested in dialogue. Both sides want to establish whether you’re on their side before they want to talk.  Can I develop a relationship with Christ and his body in this place?  Quite frankly, right now, the church is perceived as the last place you’d want to go.

BENJAMIN L. REYNOLDS: “Brothers, I think the church needs a season of prayer.”  I think I was more attracted to becoming Daddy than I was to being married.  I want to be in a denomination that accepts the totality of who I am. So I am in the process of transferring my credentials to the United Church of Christ. In the end, the white church is who affirmed me. I no longer have a desire to be in an all-black church. I need to be in a setting that more resembles the reign of God, more of a multicultural setting.

XI – WHAT PRICE, UNITY?: First United Lutheran Church San Francisco   The Southern Baptists walked away from their northern brethren in 1845 over slavery. The Presbyterian Church in America seceded from mainline Presbyterianism in the early 1970s in response to growing theological liberalism. The Church of England has the most spectacular split story: king wants son, queen can’t produce, church won’t annul, king creates new church.  Today there are at least two thousand Christian denominations in the United States, and the fastest-growing part of the American church is the nondenominational, in which each congregation could be seen as its own little stand-alone denomination, answerable to no one else.  Conservatives see the liberals’ position as heresy and the liberals see the conservatives’ as hate.  There are few things everyone, no matter where they are on the theological spectrum, can agree to be true, but one is this: These splits have caused pain. People who used to sit next to each other in the pews every Sunday have found themselves in rival congregations and denominations. Families have been split along theological lines. Any semblance of church unity has been eviscerated.  Of course they declined, and in 1995, both congregations were expelled from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.  What does it mean to be the church in this day and age?  Today it meets in a Unitarian church, drawing about twenty-five attendees on a typical Sunday. It’s about a third gay, a third straight families, and a third straight singles and couples. It’s “a little bit too white,” Strouse says.  In the summer of 2009, after two decades of contentious debate, the policy did change. The new statement on sexuality passed by one vote.  We will send you with our blessing. The door will always be open to you.  If people feel they cannot accept this interpretation of Scripture, this interpretation of theology, then you have to say, ‘You go with our blessing! You need to be where you’re comfortable.’  But sometimes divorce on good terms is the right thing to do if you can’t live together.  Yes, sometimes remarriage is right.


XII – NEW COMMUNITY: The Gay Christian Network Raleigh, North Carolina   I would have done anything to become straight.  I was thinking about suicide all day, every day.  I wanted it to be a space where people felt welcome, wherever they came down on the issue. There are so many misconceptions in the LGBT community about Christians, and so many misconceptions in the Christian community about LGBTs. It’s important that the groups understand each other a little better.  It’s not always clear what we mean by homosexuality.  We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other.  It’s okay. Don’t worry about who is right or wrong. Continue to learn and listen.  What it’s really going to do is turn people off Christianity.  If the church doesn’t learn how to be loving to gay people soon, the damage will have been done. We’ll see a generation of young people who want nothing to do with the church. And that would be a great tragedy.

DAVID JOHNSON: “My answer is always the same: God loves you no matter what.”  “Here’s why I am talking to you. I need a supervisor to help me stay in the boundaries,” I said.  There are a lot of hurting men and women. There’s a large gay community in the Greenville-Spartanburg area, an artsy community with lots going on—don’t ask me why. But nobody—nobody!—is reaching out. I can reach out and say, “God does love you.”  And Christians who are judging, who aren’t trying to bring that about, who are ignoring this group of people in America—they are the ones who really need to consider where they’re at.  I meet with two men on the phone each Thursday, and we do a short Bible study. Neither is out, and they are scared to death that they may be outed. Both have said they would never attend a Bible study for fear of being outed and is hurting their respective businesses. We are currently talking about forgiveness and grace.

XIII – KEEPING IT TOGETHER: The Schert Family Valdosta, Georgia   There was just this discrepancy between Jesus’s love for everyone and what I saw around me.  I know what it looks like when someone is in love.

I had this unspoken contract with God. If I did everything right, everything would be right. And I had done everything right. Then this thing called divorce hit me. And what I learned is that pain is part of life.  Her relationship with Judy wasn’t working, but more crucially, her relationship with herself wasn’t working. I felt so alone in the universe. I’d consciously, maybe arrogantly said to God and to myself that I really wanted to know myself, to the depths of who I was.  “I love you,” he said. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He said he’d had his own demons to fight.  My human condition needs a human God.

XIV – RETURN OF THE EXILES: Lianna Carrera and Jennifer Knapp Hollywood, California; Nashville, Tennessee  Both women went into wildernesses of their own. Jen, a college-era convert to the faith, was a star of the contemporary Christian music scene until she disclosed that she was a lesbian, while Lianna, a cradle Baptist and comedienne, walked away from her faith as she embraced her sexuality.  Lianna’s coming out, at seventeen, was a transformational moment for her family. For her dad, it was the end of his career as a church-planting pastor and as a proponent of organized religion.  For her mom, it was a sign that she had failed as a mother.  “I love you.  As big as the sky!”

Jen’s coming out, at thirty-three, was a transformational moment for her.  ‘Either you’re in the club or you’re not.’ And I understand that the road I’ve travelled has separated some people from being able to have a genuine relationship with me and my music.  “For most Christian artists, your survival and your reward are in the Christian retailers. You’re supposed to represent what it’s like to be a good Christian. You’re the paragon, and their association is your endorsement. But if you fail to measure up to what they want to present, they just don’t stock you,” she says.  They were tickled pink that I was a lesbian-bar virgin.  I have to build a new fan base in a new market.  “What’s funny about faith is that you can leave it, but it doesn’t leave you,” Lianna says. “And I am not going to leave the church—they are going to have to leave me.” And she bursts out laughing.  They want that sense of belonging to a community, but they want to do it as people of substance.  But now we are taking ownership. People aren’t just taking that no as the answer.  My reputation precedes me.  “I don’t have that easy place where I can come into the sanctuary,” she says. “I just don’t.”

MARY GLASSPOOL: “God said to me: I am bigger than the church.”  “This makes clear to all that the American Episcopal Church leadership has formally committed itself to a pattern of life which is contrary to Scripture.”  The very thing I was wrestling with was love: whom I loved and how I loved. I knew I loved God. And I knew I loved this woman in college.  Homosexuality was wrong—that it was not of God.  I am bigger than the church. Do not equate the institutional church with me.  They had prepared a report to be given to the General Convention, saying that homosexuals were children of God and entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof.  Some people say to me, “How can we get more people into the church?”  I say, “That’s not your job. The job is, How do you meet the needs of the community? The church exists to meet the needs of the world, not to build up the institutional church.  Don’t criticize. Try something harder.  There are three kinds of evil. The first is cosmic evil. The second is systemic evil—I talked about racism, sexism, and homophobia. And the third is personal evil, which we call sin and individual temptation.  I am passionate about the Gospel. I continue to grow in the Christian faith, and I take Scripture very seriously. It informs my faith. I learn from it daily. It has authority over me. But we are going to disagree about interpretation. It seems to me that it’s a heterosexual analysis to think it’s all about sex and not about relationships.

XV – A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL PEOPLE: The Metropolitan Community Church San Francisco; Las Vegas  The Metropolitan Community Church met for the first time on October 6, 1968, in Perry’s Los Angeles living room. Twelve people showed up—nine friends and three strangers who had seen an ad that Perry bought in a local gay paper.  One of Perry’s goals has been to bring joy to a marginalized population that craves but lacks it – A House of Prayer for All People.  The lesbian community really stepped up and accepted the responsibility to care for the men. They cared for the people and they buried the ones who needed to be buried.  It didn’t matter whether they were Christian or not—this was a mercy ministry of the purest kind.  Ninety-nine percent of the MCC-SF congregation is gay. Sexuality is exalted in this congregation, which calls itself a “home for queer spirituality.”  People raised in religious traditions who were told they weren’t worth anything if they weren’t traditional, fundamentalist believers. Those people who felt badly treated in their traditions.  Pastor William says as he shows me around the church, “This congregation is full of people recovering from religious abuse.”  “One day in Sunday school, we were questioning the Virgin Birth,” he says. “I couldn’t believe they were doing it! It was just different and a little uncomfortable at first. The main thing was that I was surprised it was okay to question that in church.”  But still, we have this special call, having experienced being shut out.  The appeal was not just of acceptance but also of embrace?  But here, you can focus on your relationship with God. We can’t stay away. There’s still a place for a truly affirming voice, a congregation where people can feel at home and themselves, and they’re not just a token presence.  Instead of honoring and celebrating who you are, they tolerate you. And I don’t accept toleration. It’s like you’re somehow less-than, thereby requiring their tolerance.  Metropolitan Community Church is and has always focused on those (many) people whom the broader church alienates.  Faith does not seem to be its unifying element—sexuality does.  And while I don’t want alienation or exclusion when I’m in the pews, I’m also not there to celebrate other people. I thought the whole point was to celebrate God.  A bad experience with one congregation can color a person’s sentiments about an entire denomination forever—or not.  Many of those on the more conservative end of the theological spectrum said that they had attended MCCs but had been turned off by the theology. A significant minority also reported an oversexualized atmosphere.  It confirms the suspicions of many people—including my parents and some of my childhood churchy friends—that gay men think first with their penises and then with their brains, more focused on people than on God.

XVI – FEELS LIKE HOME: Highlands Church Denver    It has also been a quest to find a church that feels right to me, a congregation that can begin removing the emotional and spiritual barnacles of the past years: the cynicism, the doubt, my insecurities, my fears of letting people know who I am and what questions I have.  The denomination that had ordained him in 1984, the Christian Reformed Church, defrocked him for violating doctrine with his views on sexuality.

Married, divorced or single here, it’s one family that mingles here. Conservative or liberal here, we’ve all gotta give a little here. Big or small here, there’s room for us all here. Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here. Woman or man here, everyone can here. Whatever your race here, for all of us grace here.

The importance of fearless transparency – If Jesus did that for me, he must love me.  The name Highlands strikes me as particularly apt given an accusation often directed at more liberal churches: that they go for lowest-common-denominator, people-pleasing theology, something that Mark and Jenny have strived to avoid.  They also are unafraid to ask the congregation for contributions—not money, but time and prayer and physical and spiritual investment.  “Of all the places I have called my spiritual community or faith home, [Highlands] is the only one I’ve been to where they do not throw the theological baby out with the bathwater, saying, ‘None of this matters. It’s all about inclusion.’ It’s the only place where I’ve felt people wrestling honestly with a lot of tension. It stays in the tension and lets people ask the hard questions.  The cross is big enough for all our misconceptions—Jesus covered it!  “Highlands really tries to live out unconditional love,” Tara says. “We’re all human and we all fail.” Highlands, says Christina, “is what church should be.”  Highlands is less its theological position on homosexuality than its stance on humanity.  They are called to do what is uncommon in the church: question boldly, without fear and in confidence. “Can we live and love without labels?” Mark Tidd asks. “Can we help each other do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?”  We’re having conversations that the broader church is having—hard conversations that can break up churches—but it’s the ethos that is different. We’re not in pursuit of people. We’re in pursuit of God, and through that pursuit, people like us end up coming.  It’s compassion and sensitivity and listening and just being present in the life of a person who maybe hasn’t had that before.


XVII – I THINK GOD UNDERSTANDS: Gideon Eads Kingman, Arizona  “I wasn’t sure what to expect. Other people think anything gay is dirty or raunchy or sex-driven, so I guess that’s sort of what I expected,” he says. I sat there for like six hours, and I just listened to the people talk. If I hadn’t known it was a gay bar, well, I wouldn’t have known!  “The one thing I do want is to follow God,” he says. “I want to do that with integrity. Some traditional Christians make it seem like every gay community or event is filled with terrible people and lifestyles, but I’ve learned that the majority of people just want to live like everybody else. They don’t want bad relationships or bad things.  ‘We’ve got your back, no matter what. If you need a place to hang out, let us know. If you need more advice, let us know.’ They said, ‘We’re honored you told us.’ And they treat me exactly the same as they did before. That’s all I want from people: to treat me exactly the same as they did before.”  I think it’s the way he asks questions—big and lonely and difficult questions that would be easier not to ask, because the answers could mean so much loss. I think it’s his fearlessness, his open stance to the future—it’s his faith.  It’s to live according to the same standards you’d expect of straight people in the church.

CONCLUSION   “I am not a Christian and I am not trying to be a Christian,” the first major lesson of my pilgrimage is that the church in America is neither holy—by which I mean entirely devoted to God’s work—nor catholic; in other words, one.  A church that is ill-equipped for honesty is not a church worthy of the Jesus of the Bible.  If the church is supposed to be the body of Christ, then what I saw on my trip were our Lord’s dismembered and terribly dishonored remains. Those of us who care at all about the concept of “the church” should look at these ruins and weep.  So many of the pastors I approached were afraid even to discuss the h-word. It’s not that they don’t have opinions—in fact, many of them have preached on the subject.  The real unfortunates are those who do not get the nurture they hope for and need, and then find themselves marginalized from the family of faith, believing that there is no place for them in it.  Words are bricks, which, depending on how you use them, can pave pathways or build high walls.  We can—really, must—be firm in our faith and yet kind and open. We must personify grace. We must recognize our limitations and leave to God what is God’s.  It’s not my responsibility or my job to push people out of God’s story or tell them there’s something they have to overcome to be part of it. They are part of God’s story—as they are.  How important it is to distinguish between the church and the God that it purports to represent.  I would say that my old conception of the love of Jesus was the mark of a selfish fool. It’s not to be kept private. It’s to be shared. It’s not just for me. It is for all. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity, especially in a world where so many have been told that the love of Jesus is off-limits to them.  My God isn’t simply the God I believe in but the God I want to believe in and need to believe in – a God of unimaginable grace, a God of patience, a God of justice, a God of unconditional love, a God whose wisdom and mercy are incomprehensible to our feeble minds.