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from the inside out

This January, my significant other and I boarded a plane and headed to Portland for the Gay Christian Network (GCN) conference.  Attending this event has become what I hope will remain an annual tradition for us; catching up with old friends and making new ones in this unexpected and indescribably holy space is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

While there, I co-facilitated an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) lunch and breakout session with my friend Kris*, a gay college student and Bible study leader with a large parachurch ministry whose official stance on same sex relationships is strictly nonaffirming.  Before we ate, Kris and I asked everyone in attendance to introduce themselves and briefly outline their church and work affiliations.  My stomach twisted into thick knots as one of the men in our group shared that he was a decades-old staffer with an organization that I have experienced significant hardships with.  The last time I felt my insides curdle in this way was at another LGBT Christian conference this fall, where I met Brent*, an openly gay man and longtime staff member for the same ministry.  Both of these men, I was surprised to learn, are seeking to create positive change for the LGBT people in their midst, trying to reform Cru from the inside out.  While I would literally rather eat a live beetle than ever return to an event affiliated with their employer, I couldn’t help but appreciate their example and marvel at their staying.

catching up with old friends at GCN

catching up with old friends at GCN

There is something innately subversive and special about discreetly inhabiting a religious space from which you are unjustly excluded.  My friend Morgan, a Methodist minister, has written about the inexplicable glee and bliss he receives from attending Catholic mass, dwelling on the sufferings of Christ on certain holy days, taking outlaw communion when he is feeling bold.  I too know the pleasures of worshipping in the pews of churches where no one knows me. The anonymity can be liberating.  Dipping my fingers in holy water that isn’t mine, praying with people who don’t know what a screwup I can be, this is profound.  Yet I’ve also kneeled in my local church, surrounded by warm faces, and thought to myself “if these people really knew how I felt, they would not accept me.”  That’s probably the loneliest I’ve felt, in the house of God or just about anywhere else.

For those of us who have been deeply wounded by religion, the prospect of re-entering these spaces strikes us with debilitating anxiety.  In the two years since I was hurt, I’ve never rejoined a college ministry, never reinvested in meaningful relationships with a church community.  This is why I can’t help but gape at – and struggle to trust, at times – the examples of friends and colleagues who are capable of doing the kind of advocacy work I want to do, from within nonaffirming environments.

I’m talking about people like the woman who wrote this article.  People like my friend Stan*, the gay lawyer-in-training at Harvard, and my friend Manuel*, the young transgender humanitarian and nonprofit leader, both of whom advocate for the full inclusion of gender and sexual minorities from the pews of their beloved Catholic church.  I’m talking about people like my friend Allen*, the gay triathlete and community leader at Tim Keller’s church in New York City who runs a support and visibility group for LGBT worshippers at Redeemer, or Amy*, who is queer and starting a safe network to help connect LGBT and LGBT-affirming InterVarsity students who are seeking to change the organization as a whole.

These people prove that one can do the hard work of changing minds and hearts from within constructs that are not entirely welcoming.  And yet, for me, and perhaps others who have been lacerated by cutting conversations and in-pulpit condemnations, these spaces feel too dangerous. We have been bled out by too many tight smiles, barbed emails, impassioned shouts, whispered indictments, sharp glances.  We cannot picture going back.

a photo of the wonderful AAPI lunch we shared at GCN

a photo of the wonderful AAPI lunch we shared at GCN

When I finally changed my mind on same sex relationships, it my worldview lurched ninety degrees counter-clockwise.  My core theology, my campus ministry, my churches, all my favorite authors, and many of my closest friends, I realized in a series of mental nuclear strikes, were all completely wrong.  I quickly began to see all their teaching as questionable, their every statement morally bankrupt.  My personal litmus test on which trust depended became: what does this person think of LGBT people?  A wavering or cruel answer in this arena was often enough to write the person off as unsafe, thoroughly untouchable.

I’m not one of those people who spends eternities mourning my past.  This was a developmental stage I had to move through.  Yet I lost a lot of relationships.  I had to leave my church.  Worse happened.  And then I heard Julie’s* story, how she is serving as the worship leader for a large nonaffirming evangelical church, where she openly advocates for LGBT people with the full weight of her position.  Baffled, I wondered – what did I do wrong?  Why was I so brash, so impatient?  Still, I ask, could I have done things different, better, and have remained connected and respected on the inside of my church and ministry while I subtly tried to further our cause?

When I am feeling cynical or hurt, I tell myself that the Julies*, who work from the inside, must not be doing all they can, or else they would have been pushed out as I was.  On my more responsible days, I own part of what happened to me, and my Catholic roots harken me back to Vatican II, where the church first encouraged its faithful to “recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found” in other faith traditions.

In other words, I don’t have the fullness of truth in my corner and real good is being done outside of my post-evangelical camp.  There are plenty of folks faithfully grinding away with access far beyond my own, carefully advancing human dignity and the kingdom in the closed settings in which they labor.  These people remain an important part of organizations my finger has left the pulse of, serving as conscientious objectors against broad currents that refuse to affirm the dignity of LGBT persons.

Others of us, of course, cautiously inhabit the outer fringes of these circles, where we continue to stand as interested observers and passionate advocates for those who, like us, have been expelled from religious communities and been scarred deeply by these experiences.

We are owed an apology by somebody.  Probably, by a whole group of somebodies.  We are due reparations we may never receive, so instead, many of us innovate, fight for the survival of our faith.  We shore up our own resources, building tangled coalitions of perpetual outsiders: Gay Christian Networks, Despised Ones, AnaBlacktivists, Killjoy Prophet Collectives.  We lay claim to a number of improvised saints.  Rachel Held Evans sings our stories with unique talent; Merton captures our doubts, Baldwin and Hedges our pent-up rage, Lewis our curiosity.  Hozier is our prophet.

Really, I shouldn’t speak for each of us, so I’ll only speak for me: I would do well to learn from the example of those who are inhabiting the spaces I am too terrified to let myself get close to right now.  Change is possible on this and a number of issues, and each of us has an important role to play; we need folks in the trenches and nurses and doctors outside of the fray, applying salves and patching wounds.  My hope is that I am able to heal, slowly and surely, and one day get to the point where I can have these conversations in person rather than spilling my insides out online.  Until then, I’ll be here on the outside, cheering on my friends who are doing the work from within, and ministering to my fellow wanderers.

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