Day 9: Making the Church Community Safe for All Who Enter

My name is John. I am an elder in my church, Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, Michigan, and a Regional Elder in the Michigan Region of the Disciples of Christ. I feel called to be an ally of the LGBTQ community. For me the question of LGBTQ people in the church is not a “single issue” for me but part of the larger issue of how to be Church.

For most of my life I resisted the notion of “accepting” LGBTQ people. I thought I was quite progressive and contented in merely tolerating them. I don’t know what precipitated my change. The notion of conversion is a mysterious thing. As recently as 1999 in a church meeting I rejected the idea of a gay minister at my church because I thought it would be disruptive and that it would draw undue attention – let someone else, let another church, take those kinds of risks. (Issues of “open and affirming” aside, I didn’t really get the idea of missional imperative.)

I think the first step in my conversion experience was intellectual, realizing that my opposition was theoretical, merely an abstract point of view, formed in isolation if not insulation from any tangible reality. I was not gay and I wasn’t aware that I had any relatives or known associates who were gay. So it was easy to take such a theoretical position, I mean, after all, whatever my position, it would have no impact on my life or on the lives of anyone I knew (at least anyone I thought I knew?!?).

But in conversations with church members and especially with my feminist wife and teenage daughters, I came to understand that for gay people the matter was life defining and anything but theoretical – and not because they chose to define their lives that way, but because society forced upon them a definition by sexual orientation. Everyone else (I mean, every like me) gets a free pass, and we can define ourselves anyway we choose. Eventually, I came to understand that even my abstract point of view and my disinterestedness were nothing more than arrogant presumption on my part – presumption that I was “normal” and blind acceptance of the fiction that anyone defined by society as LGBTQ (and thus not like me) was not “normal.” I ignored the fact that they did not choose the definition any more than they chose the resulting social consequences.

Then there was the dawning of several truths: first, I could no longer ignore the fact that sexual orientation, whether conveniently heterosexual or inconveniently LGBTQ, was not a matter of preferential choice, but it was fixed by nature, even for the “questioning.” While I always knew this to be true, I had never examined the consequent sociological ramifications of this truth. Second, there was nothing inherently unhealthy about having a sexual orientation we would classify as LGBTQ. Third, that it was just as possible for LGBTQ people as it was for heterosexual people to lead healthy and productive lives with their LGBTQ sexual orientation fully and healthily integrated, and that the only barrier to LGBTQ couples leading socially healthy lives, was the disapproving judgment of society. Finally, the Church was intended to be a place of sanctuary, for everyone.

As those notions were percolating through my psyche, so too was the growing crystallization of the certainty that the core teaching of Jesus of Nazareth was that compassion is THE one non-negotiable core value of Christianity. In all things and in all circumstance we are called to be compassionate. We were shown how to live compassionately, and even shown the role that forgiveness plays in a compassionate life. We are taught that consistent expressions of compassion are the marks of a truly Christian community, that indeed, compassion is the hallmark of the Kingdom of God. Finally, we are taught that compassion, on several levels, is the principal determinant for salvation. After all, it’s all about sheep and goats isn’t it?

Also, I noticed that while issues of sexuality (including sexual orientation) were not a primary concern of Jesus, these issues seem to be an obsession of the church founded by his disciples. Consider that Jesus didn’t accuse the woman caught in adultery. He knew her circumstances, not just what she was doing, but why she was doing it, and with whom she was doing it. Apparently those things matter. Yet he did not waste his time accusing her of sinfulness. Instead, he indicted those who would accuse, judge, and punish her; he pointed the finger of judgment at those who failed to see her as a person or to show her any compassion.

Genuine compassion includes not just how we treat one another, but how we value each other, on an intellectual and an emotional level. Lip service isn’t enough: we cannot do compassionate service while holding our noses. Meaningful compassion requires that we embrace the “other” as a brother or sister, that we value and not merely tolerate the other. We must honor not only who and what we think the “other” is, but what they contribute to the life of the community. I don’t have to share someone’s sexuality for me to embrace their personhood. In other words, I know a whole lot of people who like foods that I can’t imagine eating, but I don’t value them any less. I know a whole lot of people in relationships with people I can’t imagine being in an intimate relationship with, but I don’t think any less of them. I know a whole lot of people who abstain from sexual relationships altogether but I don’t think any less of them. I don’t define people by the fact that they eat differently than I do and I must not define them by how their sexuality may differ from mine.

With all of those various points of awareness growing within me, my previous judgments about the sexual orientation of others simply could not survive. And when in the last five or six years a number of LGBTQ people started appearing out of nowhere right smack dab in the middle of my world … I was ready to embrace them as brothers and sisters. Perhaps even more important for me, was the realization that God had been knowingly and intentionally working hard on my heart to convert me, and to prepare me to welcome them.

The Holy Spirit moves into me and out of me into those around me. Now, the possibility that my church family would recognize, approve, participate in, and welcome my marriage and my family life, and not Rick and Wes’s marriage and their family life is unthinkable. Rick’s love for Wes is no less worthy than my love for my spouse, and I am wholly committed to working towards sharing with others what I have learned along the way.

The idea of church as sanctuary, not the building, but the people who form the congregation, not the place but the community, has become central to my understanding of Church. We must work to make certain that our community is a safe place for all who enter, that belonging is a matter of choice for the stranger, not the congregation – the congregation knows no strangers.

God works in such astonishing ways!

Why do YOU think the church should care about marriage?