On Sunday, while I was in Denver to see my brother and sister-in-law, I visited House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS), one of the most well known queer-inclusive churches in the country, I suppose. But that reputation wasn’t the only reason why I visited, despite my obvious personal investment in those matters and my intense curiosity on that front. Mostly I chose to visit because I’ve been pretty powerfully affected by Lutheran preaching—with its law/gospel dialectic—and HFASS’ pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is preaching some of the most potent Lutheran sermons around these days. I first heard about HFASS and Nadia from this article by Jason Byassee, I think, and then I read Nadia’s book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. Suffice it to say, since then, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to hear this tattooed, foul-mouthed preacher in person, and this last Sunday was my chance.
Now, I disagree with Nadia Bolz-Weber pretty seriously on a whole host of things, many of which I take to be urgently central matters of Christian faith and practice. As a theologically conservative believer who thinks that traditional Christian moral teaching on (say) gay sex can’t be neatly separated from creedal orthodoxy (as if the former were revisable, with the latter able to be preserved intact), I don’t want to offer unqualified praise in this post for what Nadia Bolz-Weber’s ministry is about. Still, though, I find myself agreeing with Rod Dreher that I have something—or more than one thing!—to learn from her about what it means to be a Christian. As I sat there on Sunday night watching her interact with her congregation, and listening to her preach, I found myself wishing that what she models were more characteristic of the conservative churches and communities in which I live and minister. In short, I’m provoked and instructed by her, and I expect to go on learning from her in the coming years.
I’m often asked, when I speak about homosexuality at various churches and Christian gatherings, what individual Christians and congregations can do to be more welcoming to LGBTQ people. I often feel at a loss as to how to answer, keenly aware of the great responsibility it is to address a question like that in the abstract. Often I just give illustrations from my own experience, stories of how I’ve felt welcomed (or not) in churches I’ve belonged to in the past.
Sometimes I mention relatively little things, like when a pastor of a church I attended was preaching on Romans 1:16—“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”—and he said offhandedly, almost as an aside, “This verse means that the gospel is for everyone who believes—no matter whether you’re black or white, upper- or working-class, gay or straight, Israeli or Palestinian, young or old—everyone is welcome.” He didn’t flesh out any of those contrasts, but the fact that he mentioned sexual orientation as a marker of varying identities spoke volumes to me at the time. It made me feel that my particular sexuality had been on his mind as he had been preparing the sermon during that previous week, and that was a small but very real encouragement.
(Here I’d like to echo my friend Brent Bailey’s counsel not to underestimate the significance of those small gestures: “Without a doubt, someone’s willingness to broach LGBT issues in any sort of positive or empathetic tone is the clearest and most visible indicator they might be prepared to listen to me talk about my sexuality.” Even an occasional Facebook post or tweet saying that you read an article about some LGBTQ matter can go a long way.)
I sometimes mention bigger things too, like varying your sermon illustrations to include more single people and/or sexual minorities. Or, along the same lines, I sometimes encourage pastors to think about the unique challenges facing gay people when they’re preparing their sermons and then mention one or two of those from the pulpit. My priest did this recently: In the course of a sermon about Jesus’ redefinition of family as the community of his disciples, he mentioned how encouraging this may be for gay people pursuing celibacy—people like me, in other words—in our church, to know that we belong in the kingdom of God as spiritual “eunuchs” (Matthew 19:12).
(I could multiply examples here. Think how easy it would be, if you’re preaching from Romans 8 on our “waiting for the redemption of the body,” to talk about the longing to be sexually whole, freed from shame and guilt and lust. Or think how little extra effort it would take, if you’re preaching from John 11 on Jesus’ relationship to Martha and Mary and Lazarus, to talk about the universal human experience of and need for familial friendships, including same-sex friendships.)
Or I often suggest that churches forego yet another Sunday School class on parenting or strengthening marriages and instead feature a class or a retreat on friendship, hospitality, or community life—things that every Christian, regardless of his or her marital status or sexual orientation, can glean from.
But last Sunday, sitting and trying to be unobtrusive on the back row of the circle of chairs at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver and watching the eclectic crowd gathering around the central altar, I thought of another thing I might say to pastors and churches about offering a welcome.
Apart from any specific programming or practice that a church might implement in order to be more hospitable to LGBT people, I think I’d suggest that churches would simply do well to ask themselves: Do we want—do we really want—queer people walking through our doors and sitting in our pews and sharing in our post-service potlucks? Are we asking about how to welcome them because we feel that we must, or is it that we really do want these people among us because they’re our neighbors and friends?
I watched Nadia on Sunday walking around the room greeting people who were there. I saw her giving long, tight hugs, high fives, and warm smiles to dozens of folks, lingering to talk with them and (it appeared) hear their stories and concerns from the past week. I watched her during the ten-minute interlude after her sermon, as she cradled one of the infants of the congregation on the edge of the room. And my main impression was, This woman just likes this ragtag bunch of people here. She liked them. She was happy to be with that crew. And they, in turn, seemed happy to be in her company. They seemed to want to talk a bit longer with her, and they didn’t resist those hugs and high fives at all.
After the service was over and I drove away, I found myself thinking of one of my favorite quotes from the theologian Karl Barth. An aspiring minister once asked Barth, “What one thing, sir, would you tell a young pastor today if you were asked, is necessary in this day and age to pastor a Church?” and Barth answered:
I would ask you… are you willing now to deal with humanity as it is? Humanity in this twentieth century with all its passions, sufferings, errors, and so on? Do you like them, these people? Not only the good Christians, but do you like people as they are? People in their weakness? Do you like them, do you love them? And are you willing to tell them the message that God is not against them, but for them? That’s the one real thing in pastoral service and that is the question for you.
I feel that I saw Nadia Bolz-Weber embody Barth’s words last Sunday. She seemed to like the queer people who were there in that church service. She hugged them and sat down next to them. She talked with them. And it didn’t seem like a chore for her, like a polite gesture she was having to perform on the way to doing something more pleasant.
Speaking for myself and my own individual gay celibate life, I’ll say that that’s what I feel is sometimes missing when I go to church. It’s not that there aren’t enough programs or small groups or Bible studies or retreats or sermons aimed at my particular needs. It’s not that I don’t feel supported and instructed and offered forgiveness and nurtured and held accountable in church. Rather, it’s that I’m sometimes left to wonder, Am I liked? Is my presence enjoyed? Am I wanted for the person I am? And I don’t think I’m alone in wondering these things.
If more of our churches extended the same fondness Nadia Bolz-Weber offered to the queer folks in her congregation, I think we’d be moving in the right direction.