I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist tradition. The only time I was confronted with "gay" was when it was being used as a derogative slur. I was a college graduate before I knew someone that publicly identified as gay, and was a graduate student before I had friends that were gay. I never had to wrestle with the theological or personal issue of homosexuality until it involved relationships with real people instead of just a constructed rational argument. When I began to get to know people on the LGTBQ spectrum, I realized that they weren't the "other" that all the rhetoric positioned them to be; they were people with the same needs and feelings as me.
It was an interesting time to be in seminary as the "issue" started receiving national attention, and ministry organizations started making statements. Our moderate seminary seemed caught in the middle, trying to protect students' interests while also relying on money from outside religious sources. There were conversations, meetings, and debates. It was discussed in classrooms. I remember one professor trying to take the middle line, using the "love the sinner, hate the sin" argument, saying that while it is okay to identify as homosexual (as it possibly might have a biological basis), it is wrong to live a homosexual lifestyle (i.e. homosexuals must remain celibate). Instead of relieving the tension for me, this only exacerbated it. It seems horribly unjust that this white male heterosexual could be making rules for another group that didn't affect him. It didn't seem fair that I could choose to marry and have a sexual relationship without anyone judging, while my gay friends could not have that opportunity. It seemed cruel to imply that there was a "choice" in this while also admitting that it could be something that we're born into. Who would willingly choose an identity and lifestyle that brings such stigma and persecution these days? Why is there so much pain for those that go against their innate urges and try to be straight?
And I know what the Bible says...and the Bible also says to love our neighbors. The Bible says not to judge. The Bible says that I shouldn't be a preacher. The Bible says that ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (not for who they are, but for what they do). My sins are many, and yet I can mainly hide them and people won't (often) bring them to light to scrutinize them. There are so many verses that have been thrown like missiles when it seems that the overarching theme of God's Word is love. God is love, and in Jesus, God reached out to those who were excluded, to those called "sinners" by the people of Jesus' time. I don't have to make the difficult choice of who to love and what that will look like as I fall within what is considered the "social norm" of heterosexual relationships. I don't have to struggle with wondering if I'm wrong or different or broken as so many of my friends have (at least in the sexual identity area...I certainly have those fears in different areas). But what I can do is be that sanctuary for someone who is questioning. I can hear them in love and hold their story as sacred. I can remind them that they were created by God in love and that they are beloved, just as they are. There is so much debate and rhetoric and hatred, and so little of the love we claim to profess. We need more Christian allies that are willing to be the voice of love, to be sanctuaries of trust and healing.
Recently, I organized an event that brought Christian recording artist Jennifer Knapp to the Hollins University Chapel to present her Inside Out Faith event, in which she shares her music and her story of being a gay person of faith. I hoped that it would be an opportunity to start a dialogue and bridge the divide between the LGTBQ and Christian communities on our campus and in our community (understanding that there are many who straddle the divide). Just as I was opened to new understandings as I begin to hear others' stories, I hoped the same for our community. But even as a devoted ally, I had my fears that it might create more dissension and worried that there could be people who would come just to start a fight. Selfishly, I worried about my own reputation. But with many prayers and lots of outreach, the event was scheduled to take place during Roanoke Pride Weekend. It was an awful rainy day. Our campus tends to flood with just a little rain, and it had rained all day. It moved an outdoor wedding inside, so we were in a rush to get the wedding guests and decorations out in order to set up for the concert. I was stressed and worried that many would not brave the weather. People started arriving eventually, and they shared anxious stories about how there had been angry protesters at the Pride event downtown, yelling hateful words at the participants, telling them they were going to hell. I worried that they would come to our event as well, as it was on the schedule and free and open to the public. I alerted our security to be on watch, and I went outside to check on the weather. I noticed a crowd gathered outside, pointing at the sky. The rain had stopped right at the time for the doors to open and there was a beautiful rainbow stretching out over the chapel to the bell tower--a reminder of God's covenant of protection and love. It was a comforting sign for me, and all my friends who had gathered who see the rainbow as their sign of connection and community.
I am a person of faith, and as such, I believe that my motivating goal should be love. To me, that means reaching out to truly hear and connect with someone. We don't have to agree on everything, and it's not my job to change anyone. Only God working in someone's heart can do that. But I think people of faith can change the perceptions of us being hateful people by listening more than we speak, by reaching out more than we push away, and by sharing words of love instead of hate. I may have a lot of things wrong (including theology), but I don't think God will judge me for offering a sanctuary of love and grace to all of God's people.