Many years ago, I was a young man just out of my teens attending a Pentecostal church in Sydney’s southern suburbs. As often happens at these things, there was a call from the preacher that anyone who wanted prayer could come to the front and someone would pray for them. I noticed a youngish guy come out to the front. I had never met him before, but when no one else went out immediately, I walked out and (as is the tradition) put my hand on his shoulder.
We’ll call him Dave, though that wasn’t his real name. I can’t remember what Dave said he needed prayer for exactly; and I don’t know if my prayer had any effect on whatever it was. But after that, I would always say hello to Dave and go over for a chat when he came to church.
Dave was obviously someone who had encountered his share of difficulties in life. He was nervous, awkward and a bit lacking in personal hygiene. He didn’t make friends easily. I slowly got to know him a little bit. He worked in the city doing IT. One day he told me there was something he really didn’t want to but had to tell me. Could we go out for dinner?
Dave built up this conversation quite a bit. He was even more nervous than usual. But eventually when it came time to cut the small talk, he told me he was gay. That was it.
Now I shouldn’t downplay this. Dave had told very few people this – especially inside churches. He never stayed very long in any church partly because he was afraid of this information being found out. For my part, looking back I’m pretty sure Dave would have been the first (somewhat) openly gay person I had ever known. Only a decade or so later this sounds hard to believe, but you have to understand I came from a country town and my social life at the time consisted mostly of church and sporting clubs – neither of which are known as havens for the out and proud.
But even so, I remember feeling a bit surprised that Dave had built this up to be such a big deal. But I learned more of the story as the evening went on. He had been sexually abused as a boy, had little contact with his family, and had attempted suicide several times (over the years, almost every gay Christian I have met has at one time been suicidal. I think it’s partly an ontological issue – when you are something you don’t want to be, not being seems like an appealing option).
Dave’s relationship with the church was a difficult one. He loved God and wanted to be part of a church but he had been hurt in the past and lived in constant fear of being too open about himself. The idea many have of church as a place where you can feel accepted as you are, and a place where you could possibly meet a romantic partner; were not part of Dave’s experience.
The pastor of the church we attended would sometimes say anti-homosexuality things from the pulpit that would make me cringe a bit, but to his credit when Dave approached him and came out, he responded that everyone was welcome in his church.
Still, Dave didn’t hang around long there. I stayed in contact with him though; we would call fairly regularly and chat. A few years later I came across a church that was openly gay-affirming and found out they were running a conference. I told Dave, he went along and loved it.
At some point though, I stopped being able to get onto Dave on the phone. His facebook profile had disappeared somewhere along the way too. I tried contacting everyone I knew (and some I didn’t) who might have had contact with him. Nobody knew anything. Occasionally I still have a look online to try to find a trace of him, but I have for a long time assumed the worst. Dave was a guy with a lot of troubles, and some of them might have just seemed that bit too insurmountable.
It was a friendship that had a lasting impact on me though. I had grown up immersed in the casual homophobia of boys in our society, and mostly accepted the complicated “hate the sin, love the sinner” theology of the mainstream church. Meeting Dave was a window into reality for many same-sex attracted people. Quite simply, he would have done anything he could to not be gay. He had done the gay-cure prayer programs. I can’t imagine he had ever been in many relationships – his sexuality existed just as a burden around his neck. The idea that Dave, this person whose life had been so unfairly brutal when compared to mine, was committing some wrong by carrying this inclination he had done nothing to cause just didn’t make sense.
I wanted Dave to feel comfortable to make friends and be himself without fear. I wanted him to be free to use his gifts and personality to better the world (he would always ask me how the youth group was going – he did scouts as a kid and would have loved to be a scout leader but said he wouldn’t be allowed to). I wanted him to as, as Jesus promised, have “life, and life to the full” (just one of the two would be a good start). I wanted him to be able to fall in love and have the same kind of deep, caring relationship we all hope for.
My friendship with Dave set me on the path to be an active supporter of the cause of sexually and gender diverse people. Not that I claim any special status or reward for this – it’s just a normal part of what someone who cares for the well-being of those around them would do. I don’t claim it’s very much either, but I hope that in my friendships and my private and public acts of solidarity I have made some positive impact.
Because I believe in the transformative power of the message of Jesus and the value of communities built around his teachings; I have also put effort into trying to make the church a more welcoming place for LGBTI people. Again, I don’t claim to have made a world of difference.
But after discovering an obscure photocopied zine made by gay and lesbian Christians in Australia I took it upon myself to make and distribute hundreds of copies. We had a lesbian Christian stay with us at my house a few years ago. She didn’t come out straight away to us, but she told me later that the first day she met us I was distributing that zine and it made her feel safe.
Once, some kids in the youth group I was leading asked about homosexuality and the bible. I knew a talk on the topic would be difficult but important ground to tread, so I nervously gave it my best. One day later on I was brought to tears when one of the kids present that day came up to me at a marriage equality rally and proudly introduced me to his boyfriend.
After many years of working it out, I sat down one day and wrote in full my analysis of the biblical texts on homosexuality and what we should do with them in today’s world. It’s hard to gauge the impact of things you put out there on the internet, but certainly many people have read it; I hope at least it has provided something to think about. What I really hope is that it has also maybe reached a few people who, like Dave, live in conflict between their religion and their body. People who were maybe feeling on their own and reaching out to the internet for answers.
Last week, the news was full of Christianity and homosexuality. It was the release of details of a government review into religious freedom, which affirmed the rights of Christian schools to reject gay teachers or students. It was one of those times you wonder if all that work has just been swept away like a sandcastle in a king tide. I was hurt (I wish I could say shocked) by the news story and the amount it was shared in the media. And I’m not even gay. I can only imagine how it felt to those people who are gay or lesbian – many of whom are dedicated Christians. Many are caring and dedicated teachers. All were once school students, and quite possibly bear the scars of trying to navigate that difficult age and place knowing that no matter how hard they try they will never just fit in with the other kids.
It hurt because I don’t want to just separate myself from the church and say “I’m not with them”. I know some in the church would probably happily disown me at times, but I happen to believe in this idea we call the Christian church. Not just in theory either. I believe in the power of our churches to be a force for good; for everyday Christians equipped with the extraordinary message of Jesus to change the world.
Yet for all the beauty and power Jesus has to offer, all the very real good things Christians do every day; it seems the only thing Christianity is ever in the news for is to publicly come out against homosexuality in some way. It’s mind-blowing that people can think this is an effective way to show love or pursue justice or stand up for Godly principles.
For the average Australian, the church has zero moral authority. Deservedly so after the horrific revelations of sexual abuse within the church, but not limited to that. What does the church have to offer morally? Those Christian private schools so precious about defending their Christian morals are like fortresses for protecting and enabling the wealth and privilege of the elite in our society. The church is hardly distinguishable from the world around us when it comes to caring about the fact we are destroying our planet (God’s creation), or about the injustice of poverty and immense wealth disparity (“whatever you did for the least of these…”). The social services the church once set up as an expression of love are now professionalised and funded by the government.
The cynical might suggest that the reason Christians seem to be so caught up on the homosexuality thing is because it’s the only “moral issue” where we can actually find any difference between ourselves and the world we are told by Paul “not to be conformed to”.
I know this: no random observer sees the church’s public discourse and thinks “I know they are the Christians by their love”. They mostly just see a bully, using our immense wealth and status to harangue people who have already been abused and cast aside by our society.
The lack of self-awareness is astonishing. Look at that report from last week. This is an institution who has schools we set up to promote our own values, funded by the secular government. We have the lobbying clout to get the government to run an inquiry into “religious freedom”. The Prime Minister is a Christian who speaks in favour of existing laws granting the church special legal powers. Yet the church claims it is us who are being persecuted, while we join the queue of people wanting to inflict psychological trauma on young kids struggling to find themselves in a confusing world of sexuality and social norms. The people who actually do know what it means to be persecuted in 21st century Australia.
I can understand why Christians like Scott Morrison, Lyle Shelton and the many who support their views believe what they do. I’m not one of those people who will shout that they are all bigots. I can sympathise that theirs is not an especially popular position and it takes an element of courage to do what they do. I can even agree that some of the actions of those on the “yes” side of last year’s plebiscite were hardly great examples of love and understanding either.
But I can’t believe that every time an opportunity comes up to show the great love of Jesus (love for our neighbours, love for the outcast, love for our enemies?), many of our most prominent Christians are instead jumping out of their skin to wield state power like a club and show for the world their insensitivity not just to those different to us, but to the many like Dave who are in our church pews every week.
One of the most famous and beautiful stories in the gospels is that of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In that story Jesus comes across religious puritans intent on hounding to death (or at least threatening with death for their own purposes) a woman with no social power to defend herself (women’s testimony was apparently not accepted in Jewish courts of the time). He intervenes not by overpowering the mob, but by calmly inviting them to see the commonalities between themselves and the woman.
Sometimes I worry Christians have forgotten this story. Sometimes I worry we have remembered it, but forgotten which character we are supposed to be imitating.