When my brother came out as gay in 1990, I buried my head in the sand. I was too anxious to hold the tension between my conservative evangelical beliefs and the reality that my brother no longer fit in my paradigm – so I simply ignored the intersection of human sexuality and faith.
God had different plans.
Over the past decade or so we’ve had a number of people in need of housing come and live with us, from a few weeks to a few years. They included a woman returning from non-profit work overseas, a college student, and an undocumented immigrant. Each of these turned out to be gay, a fact that we did not know before they moved in.
About the time we started having housemates, we moved to Long Beach, California. As we started to meet my neighbors on the block, I noticed a significant trend. Sergio & Mark, Tonette & Augusta, S & D, Andy & Eddie, and Jaime… all were gay.
And then there were two truly pivotal moments. Each of our beautiful kids, Timothy (21) and Caris (19), came out as gay.
This was simply not my plan.
I was a nice straight evangelical pastor just trying to follow Jesus. I was very clear about who I was afraid to shepherd. It’s just that God had very different ideas than I did.
So what do you do when God relentlessly keeps pounding on your door? Ideally, I would have sensed the Spirit’s leading and followed. If you’re a slow learner like me, maybe a bit more convincing should do the trick, like Peter finally accepting Gentiles. But ultimately I suspect I’m more like Pharaoh, giving in only after repeated defeats.
Fast forward a few years and our church plant looks a lot different than I’d originally envisioned. Now I spend time every day – although in Covid a lot of it is online – with LGBT people trying to find some clarity about how to connect with God as well as with pastors trying to find some clarity about how to connect with LGBT people.
Perhaps because of all the repetition, I’m slowly growing comfortable welcoming whoever God brings my way. They keep coming one way or the other, after all.
As I reflect on it today, I’m seeing a remarkable gift in it all: LGBT people are teaching me how to be me. I know that’s not their job, but it’s been a game changer for me. Though I’m scared to peek out behind the confidence I project, they’ve been gracious when I finally name my ignorance. Though I hide the rage I see in myself, they’ve revealed a relationship with anger that’s far more nuanced and healthy than anything I learned in church. And time and time again they lead me back to Jesus by their prayers, their self-awareness, their kindness, and their passion for justice.
Because of who’s shown up, our church has started to lean progressive. There are a lot of gay couples here and a dozen or so transgender people involved – and so many others who’ve felt excluded from what they’ve experienced as a rigid form of Christianity. But to keep me – and us – on our welcoming toes, some of those gay couples call themselves conservative. And that’s not to mention the trans friend who has de-transitioned, the queer friend who’s living celibate because of their traditional interpretation of sexual morality, and multiple couples in mixed orientation marriages. It’s a strange mix.
Some conservatives think I’m going to hell and have told me so. Some progressives think I’m a sellout for letting the conservatives in like wolves amongst the sheep. I’ll have conversations with either if they are actually open to it. But I know well that internal resistance is often part of the spiritual journey, and I figure I don’t have to change minds since God will pester them if that’s part of the plan.
The other surprise on the journey has been the open doors with other pastors and leaders, particularly those coming out of conservative churches. To fact check myself, I just looked back on my calendar for the past one week.
My calendar told me this: I met with an pastor of a large evangelical church who’s seeking to shift their culture to one of welcome towards LGBT people; I took a walk with a gay missionary who’s transitioning out of his missions agency before they find him out and fire him; I sat on a panel for some Christian leaders in South Carolina who are exploring what it might mean to advocate for full inclusion in their churches; I connected with a gay elder who has told me “no one in my entire state knows I’m gay;” I zoomed with a woman who wants to plant an affirming, anti-racist church in Orange County; I talked with two former youth pastors who quit ministry because they couldn’t manage the tension of staying in their churches with their changing views around this issue and others, and I had a socially distanced dinner with the gay daughter of missionaries who has rediscovered her faith after a couple of decades of wandering. I didn’t seek out these people. Every one of them, besides one of the youth pastors, sought me out. And it’s not because I’m a fancy consultant (I don’t do consulting, I’m just a pastor). I think it’s because I’m open to the conversations that they want to have.
And maybe it’s because God keeps bringing them.