“Hey, ‘str8apology lady’, tell ‘em. Tell her what you told me. Tell her Jesus loves her too.” So, I did, over and over throughout the day at Pride Charlotte on August 27th. I have gone to pride events for years and the extremes seen in Charlotte that day tell the greater story of how the Christian church engages, or not, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (glbt) community.
As in any group, there are extremist Christians who intensely dislike, and even hate, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. At the other end of the spectrum, are affirming Christians and denominations who welcome equality in both ordinations and unions. Then in that big, middle, majority space are the ones who are still trying to decide where they land on the issues of inclusion and reconciliation of faith and orientation. Those are the ones I am challenging. The vocal ones are on the edges, but the ones in middle decide. And for the most part, those in the middle are also the silent or whispering ones.
Hopefully in sharing this three part series on Pride Charlotte, those of you trying to balance your theology, your understanding of Jesus and your information (or lack of information) about the glbt community can see that inaction and ignorance also have consequences. As you are silent or do nothing, people are damaged by the ones so passionate about exclusion. And, the most vulnerable of all, glbt youth are the casualties.
I see these kids; I really see them — and I am concerned that they feel they must make a choice between faith, which is an option, and orientation, which is not. These are the ones I spent most of my day with at Pride Charlotte.
Statistically, over 80% of these kids come from Christian homes. By around age seven, they already feel “different.” It takes about five more years until they label the feeling and then struggle for another 3 ½ years in confusion and self acceptance. All of this is navigated through a predominantly Christian lens. (Hey, Bible Belt) So, at Pride Charlotte, as I talked mostly to 16- to late-20-somethings, they’ve known for ten to twenty years that they were “different.” Eventually, they labeled the feeling as “gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender,” and then begin to wrestle with how and if they fit into the Christian culture in which they were raised.
An overview of how the Christian church at large engages the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community played out in a microcosm of three city blocks in downtown Charlotte. About six open and affirming churches were present, hosting booths and inviting Pride participants to come join them for worship and activities. Sadly, with over seven hundred churches in the Charlotte area, only a handful of churches welcome the queer community.
Unique to Pride Charlotte is an action that has been repeated three times, called “God Has a Better Way” (GHABW). This year, two hundred Christians marched into the public festival area under the leadership of Michael Brown, with the agenda to “reach out in love,” and “resist the radical gay agenda.” The group handed out water, postcards, rainbow bracelets and concert invitations, all directing the recipients to a website calling for either orientation change or celibacy. The “better way” suggested by these heterosexual Christians, many with children in strollers, was this: “God has a better way for you than homosexuality.” That’s right; deny your natural desires to love in the way natural to you; deny yourselves the blessings of a family (“but, oh look, we have ours right here, see how cute they are”), and come have a relationship with God and us. Bless your heart, leave your orientation at the door of the church because the opposite of homosexuality is holiness, dontcha know. Happy Pride!
To be expected, there were also about a dozen very vocal street preachers who abused the Word of God for six hours and loudly condemned the Pride Charlotte festival-goers. I positioned myself near them most of the day and did not see one fruitful engagement. Another three dozen street evangelists were also spread throughout the crowd. Some were standing silently with sandwich boards; another reading the Bible aloud; and a group of “plain clothes street evangelists” from GHABW initiating conversations with people. Each of the conversations I had with them quickly migrated to “homosexuality is sin” in less than one minute.
This overview of a single event is a peek into how the church as a whole engages the glbt community: small pockets of congregations fully welcome them, a slice of the edge of churches tolerate them and require change in orientation; and fringe groups openly hate them. But wait, where is the representation of that big, moderate, mostly silent, still-trying-to-figure-it-out middle? Yeah, where are we?
The adults at pride ignored the crazy street preachers and the red shirts. Most of them have already come to a point of reconciliation between their orientation and faith. Some have miraculously remained in faith communities; others honor their faith in a more personal way, having not yet found a place that will respect who they are; but most, unfortunately, have walked away from Christian roots because we heterosexual Christians tell them that being gay and Christian are mutually exclusive. In the midst of this clash of religion and culture are the kids, fresh in the knowledge and acceptance of orientation at varying levels, yet still being barraged by the “what do I do with Jesus” menu presented. They are still trying to figure it out, just like the big middle of the Christian church: we are still trying to figure it out.
Hopefully, those of us in the deciding middle know that hate is neither productive nor seductive. Some Christians may find it acceptable to engage in an action such as “God Has a Better Way.” It looks lovely and kind from the outside, but manipulative love does not take long to sniff out; it reeks. Thank God for the affirming and welcoming churches at Pride Charlotte. May you each prosper as you extend grace and hope to those cast out. Perhaps my experiences with the precious gay and trans youth who are caught in the middle can help you decide where you think Jesus would stand; and then you can allow your faith to follow Him and so also stand where He would.
When I talked to the youth at Pride Charlotte, I heard over and over, “I love Jesus,” “I grew up X (denomination), but I am not welcome anymore,” and the heartbreaking, “I love God, why doesn’t He love me?” Wearing a shirt that says “Hurt By Church? get a #str8apology here” invites conversation. Most of the exchanges were as follows:
“Do you know that God loves you just the way you are? Do you know that He created you just the way you are and He sees your beauty? You are so beautiful to Him. Did you grow up in any faith? . . . What happened, why did you leave (if they did, which was the most typical answer)? . . . Let me help you reconcile your sexual orientation with the Bible. Go to my website and check out the VERSES link. If you have any questions, engage me there. There is also a link on the side that will help you find a church in your area that will welcome you, and if you can’t find one, write to me and I will hook you up with an online, streaming church in a denomination you are comfortable with. Here is a brochure for Gay Christian Network, an online community of over 18,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians to support you. So don’t feel like you need to walk away from God. He is crazy about you and would love to get back into your life. Okay? Don’t listen to all this conditional stuff, go figure this out. Talk to me, let me help you. And, you really are gorgeous just the way you are.”
What was I doing that was so “magical”? Why were youth running up to me even to the last five minutes saying, “Hey we saw you on YouTube. We can’t believe you came to Charlotte. Can I hug you? Will you just hug me?” Simple, simple answer. I was extending love and acceptance, no strings attached. None. Just like the love God extended to heterosexual me. And to middle majority you.
I handed out hundreds of cards with website information and flyers for the Gay Christian Network to mostly the youth, the searching ones, the questioning ones, the ones that want resources and help to integrate their faith and orientation. I was seen as a compromiser, an ear-tickler, a deceiver by the street preachers and GHABW folks. All this was in plainly annoying view to them. My goodness, if we honestly believe God can speak to people directly, then let Him. These kids will never get to the Banquet Table of God if you lock the Dining Room door and make the secret password “heterosexual.” I just wanted to let them know the door is still open for them too.
Had Jesus been at Pride Charlotte, He would not have been in a “Repent or Perish” shirt or even a conditional love red shirt. He may not have been in a “str8apology” shirt either, but He would have been telling these gay and trans kids how precious and dear they are to Him. He would have been swarmed by the masses; Jesus the smile and hugging magnet. Real love does that; it attracts. That other cheap stuff stinks and repels.
If we believe we are reflections in our culture of the Lord we say we follow, then I think Jesus did show up at Pride Charlotte. Put the following incident in whatever context works in your religious view or your worldview. This is my language in the context of my faith: the Spirit of God would not be silent. God says rocks will cry out if His people are silent, asses will speak to get people to listen, and prophets will make their proclamations when hearts are hard. I guess I can easily fit somewhere in that grouping.
I had been standing in front of the street preachers and listening to the insane, aggressive, offensive rhetoric for about an hour. The red shirts clumped together in shady spots gawking, having now handed out all the “free” water they had brought. I can only describe it as a “snap” in me when I looked out at the crowd of mostly youth in front of me. The sense of injustice and anger at what my fellow Christians were doing to God’s precious gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people started rising from within me and I could not have stayed silent. One hand went up, my eyes closed and I was screaming louder than all four of the hate-filled voices behind me.
“Jesus came to fight oppression. Jesus came to fight injustice. Don’t listen to these people. They do not speak for God. Jesus came to bring equality. He loves you just the way you are.” And, more that I cannot remember. It was not me speaking
A crowd gathered and they were hooting, clapping and screaming back:
“This is the Jesus we want.” “This is the Jesus we love.” “We want her Jesus, not yours!”
It was the stuff of religious films and Scene Two should have shown the stone throwers putting down their rocks as the silent judgers skulked away. Of course, that did not happen.
When I turned to the side to talk to a group of young women, I looked back and in the same space I had just stepped out of, Michael Brown, head of the red shirts stepped in to speak to the amassed crowd. He called out:
“You want Jesus, let me tell you about Jesus. God has a better way!”
It was surreal, as if someone turned off a microphone, his voice disappeared and so did the crowd within the minute. I went on to spend the rest of the day talking to mostly youth. People will interpret this incident with varying filters. Brown has already publicly denounced me as “misguided,” a “false prophet,” and “in need of pity and prayers.” The street preachers were aggressive in their language to me for the balance of the day. Even at the end when they refused to shake my hand. “Witch!” ”Devil!” “Jezebel!” they accused. (Thank you gents.)
Which group was reflecting your revelation of Jesus? The challenge is to consider what qualities of God drew you to Him and keep you near Him. If those same qualities are not emanating from you toward others, especially this group we have cast aside, why not? If you can’t be that Jesus to other people, especially the glbt community which has taken the brunt of our destructive theology, then stay out of areas set aside to shelter people from your harassment. Got that, Mr. Brown? Got that, street screechers? Stop doing damage.
If you can reflect Jesus’ love, why are you letting the vocal and damaging edge groups be the voice and face of Christianity? Jesus did come to fight oppression and injustice. We have been enlightened in recent history that the equality He spoke of included women and slaves, former targets of our ignorance. Equality has no boundary. Until all are equal, the work of Jesus is still happening.
So, show up. If you haven’t taken the time to decide where you are on this issue, stop being lazy and allowing the minority to be the voice for all of us. You can start on my blog at VERSES and try to see the possible validity of affirming theology. Listen to glbt folks, especially the Christian ones that will tell you their own stories about orientation and faith. In your complacency, as you ignore the issue of orientation and faith, glbt people are being shut out. Sadly, these kids that are asking for help, resources and direction, are walking away. It breaks my heart to hear a darling little boigirl in her flat-beaked ball cap and drooping shorts say, “I love God, why doesn’t He love me?” He adores you, sweetie. More of us just need to start telling you that, because it is the truth.
[Thank you to both Steve Knight and Andrea White who joined me in the str8apology action that day; I hope they will tell their own stories. Also to Lisa Salazar, who has her own trans-reconciliation project burgeoning. I am thrilled that she is on the Board of Canyonwalker Connections.]
Series on Pride Charlotte :