I became a Christian at the end of my high school career through Young Life. Because I came into the church through the back door so to speak, I made a number of assumptions regarding what the Bible said. None of these things were explicitly taught, but neither were they ever explicitly talked about. So without even realizing it, I assumed the unspoken weight of a Christian reality that told me being gay was a sin.
My parents, on the other hand, are Democrats. The raging liberal kind. They are not overly religious people either. Before she was married, my mom’s career was in musical theater and I grew up hearing her sympathy and outrage regarding the plight of the gay community. No one would choose that kind of life, she would tell me, before detailing stories of AIDS, rejection, and abandonment of the gay people she had shared a stage with. Those people had become like family to her and she carried their stories as her own. In hindsight, I see this as the task I am called to as a Christian. At the time, I was too uncomfortable with the topic to really hear what she was saying.
I lived between these two worlds: a faith that (by omission) told me one thing and a family that (outspokenly) taught me another. A religion that preached differently than my parents. I kept these opposing ideologies in separate compartments; I think wanting to believe it was okay to be gay, but also convicted that, as a “good” Christian, I had to claim some sort of harsher Biblical line.
When I first heard the saying, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” it sounded almost utopian to me. It was the only thing I had heard spoken about Christianity and homosexuality. Now here was a way I could finally make peace between my social and religious ethics. It wasn’t long however, until I started to hear pushback to this idea of hating sin and loving sinners. Perhaps this works with sin in a general sense – I can hate lying without hating the liar, or even hate murder without (if you’re holy enough) hating the murderer – but you cannot, or so I heard people claim, separate a person’s sexuality from their identity. In other words, to hate homosexuality as a sin is to hate a gay person as a person. There was an inherent contradiction in applying this hating sin credo to homosexuality. Perhaps a step towards a more integrated and holistic understanding of faith and sexuality, I quickly realized it was not enough to carry the complexity of the conversation.
I was leading Young Life in college as these conversations were happening in Bible studies and leadership meetings. I was lost in the debates, at the whim of the larger ideological dialogue that was going on above my head. When I overheard a mentor say, If you don’t have a personal relationship with someone who is gay, you don’t really belong in the conversation, I felt as confused as ever, with a new dose of shame added in. While I could name a few people throughout my life who I assumed were gay, I couldn’t claim anyone in the gay community as a friend. And the last thing I felt comfortable doing was befriending someone for the sake of having a token gay friend as my ticket into the conversation.
I can’t recall one conversation or belief I publicly, or even privately, claimed for myself or my faith during this time. Out of fear of being told and having to accept “hard truth,” I don’t think I ever asked a single question about homosexuality and the Bible.
A few months before I moved to California to enroll as a full-time student at Fuller Theological Seminary, I took a week-long intensive ethics course (through a Young Life/Fuller partnership). We spent an entire day talking about homosexuality—the first time in my faith life that I had been invited (in this case, more like instructed) to open the Bible and explore what it said about being gay.
I was shocked, absolutely floored, to learn that the Bible only explicitly references homosexuality six times in both testaments combined. What!?!? How had no one ever told me that? I felt slighted by my faith communities and by the guidance and teachings they had offered me. When we watched For the Bible Tells Me So, I was moved to tears by the hatred and intolerance the gay community had suffered in the hands of the Church and I was inspired and encouraged by stories such as bishop Gene Robinson’s. Two big ideas stood out from that course that has shown itself to be a defining moment in my life.
First, was the plea on behalf of our professor that as humans we all need safe spaces to share and explore who we are. This is as true for me – a straight woman – as it is for my gay neighbor. I thought through all the people in my life that have unquestioningly filled this role. Who take me to coffee and ask good questions about what I’m doing and thinking. Who call, send emails, and write letters to let me know they’re thinking about and praying for me. Who listen to my decision making processes and the highs and lows, joys and disappointments that make up a life.
Second, was my professor’s awareness that the gay community has been stripped of this basic human necessity. An entire community has been shunned, if not outright rejected by the Church. We have pushed the gay community to the margins where they remain largely ignored, overlooked, or harassed.
The class ended with the invitation – regardless of how we may personally interpret Biblical teaching on the topic – to offer the gay community space. Space to share who they are and explore where their faith meets their sexuality. Space to grieve, mourn, and vent. If we couldn’t become these space-offering people ourselves, my professor urged us to connect gay people in our ministries and communities to other people and places who could become safe spaces for this kind of discovery and dialogue.
I went back to my Young Life ministry with eyes ready to see the gay community; wanting to offer myself to someone as a safe space. By accepting my professor’s simple invitation to do so, I somehow (and only, as I imagine it, by God’s divine networking) became the co-president of OneTable – the Evangelical seminary community’s first officially sanctioned LGBTQ student group. I no longer live in a world in which my social and religious ethics remain at opposite and untouching ends of my mental spectrum. I no longer have to remain silent and ashamed in the conversation. I no longer have to admit that for me, the gay conversation remains an idealogical, faceless debate. I do still live in the tension of believing, feeling, and knowing with regards to questions of sexuality and faith, but I no longer keep this tension quietly and privately locked inside myself.
An invitation and my meager response—which consisted of asking a Young Life kid I vaguely knew to get coffee—has changed the way I think not just about homosexuality, but about engaging my faith in all facets of life. I found a way in to the conversation through my professor’s invitation to become a safe space for others to share and explore their own identities. As a result, I have explored and experienced my own identity, sexuality, and faith in new ways. I have become friends with people who are different from me and have heard their stories of what it means to be pushed to the margins. I have become a better follower of Jesus with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
I do not think – as individuals or the Church – we will ever find our way out of this conversation. Nor do I think we will each choose the same path once we find our way into it. But my sense is that many of us remain on the outside, too fearful, too stubborn, or too hurt to enter. And my firmest belief and source of hope is that we must (and can) find a way in. This is where my story and the passion I have for Level Ground intersect. I believe art creates a way in to polarizing conversations and provides a space where we can safely meet the other. My story, and Level Ground’s work, is not about changing or improving ideologies, but finding safe space to learn how to listen and speak with one another.