Recently I gave a talk to a group of folks who work for a campus ministry. They had asked me to come and speak on the theme of ministering to LGBT students at colleges and universities. I get a lot of requests like this, and, truth be told, in the days leading up to the event, I was thinking I would simply dust off a talk I’d given a dozen times before. But the more I thought about it, the more I kept combing back through my memories of being a—deeply closeted—college student and of the kind of ministry that meant the most to me. After a few days pondering these memories, I took out a pad of paper and started to write a list. I wrote down the characteristics of the people and the gestures and the conversations that helped me find grace and hope when I most needed it. I came up with a list of ten points, and I’d like to share them here. I’ll post the first five today and the next five tomorrow. And I’d love it if folks added to this list in the comment section.
The ministry that has helped me most has been:
- ministry that doesn’t underestimate the power of small gestures.
I recall listening to a sermon by John Piper on the word “everyone” in Romans 1:16 (“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”). And this is what he said:
O, what an exhilarating word to those of us in this room who feel that there is something about us that rules us out! Wrong family, wrong background, wrong education, wrong language, wrong race, wrong culture, wrong sexual preference, wrong moral track record. Then to hear the word, “Everyone who believes.” Everyone! One thing can rule you out: unbelief. Not trusting Jesus. But nothing else has to. The good news that Christ died for our sins, and that he rose from the dead to open eternal life, and that salvation is by grace through faith – all that is for everyone who believes. Not just Jews and not just Gentiles and no one race or social class or culture, but everyone who believes.
The only reference Piper made to sexuality in that sermon was that reference to “sexual preference”—to those in his congregation who might be ashamed of their same-sex attraction and who worried that it somehow disqualified them from living a Christian life. It was such a tiny, fleeting reference, but what it said to me was that this pastor was aware of gay folks in his congregation. They were on his mind and heart. They were visible to him, and he wanted them to hear the gospel as a word specifically for them. A small, almost minuscule gesture in the big scheme of things, but it landed powerfully on me at the time.
My friend Brent Bailey has described “safe people”—people with whom gay and lesbian Christians can be honest without fear of judgment or disgust—as people who aren’t afraid to raise the issue:
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. They may do something as noticeable as leading a Bible study about homosexuality or as simple as posting a link on Facebook to a story about sexual minorities; but in environments where nontraditional sexuality receives no attention, even the tiniest statement of knowledge or interest can communicate a loud-and-clear message (accurate or not) that this person is the safest person in the room.
- ministry that avoids assumptions about the causes of same-sex attraction and my personal history.
I recall a particularly difficult time in my life when I was trying to make an initial appointment with a Christian counselor to talk about my homosexuality. As we were emailing and comparing calendars, he asked me to describe briefly what I hoped to discuss with him. When I said that I was gay and was experiencing a great deal of confusion in a particular friendship, he immediately wrote back and asked if I could bring my father along with me to our sessions since, he said, he had never met a gay man whose sexuality wasn’t, at root, about a deficit of masculine, fatherly affirmation. I was dismayed. This counselor had never met me, had not heard me try to articulate what was drawing me to seek counseling, and already he was offering a diagnosis. I felt hemmed in, confined, as if the multi-shaded threads of my story were being bleached to a monochrome. No matter that I felt my relationship with my father was a far cry from this typical “father wound” story the counselor presumed.
Melinda Selmys has written very powerfully about how hurtful it can be when straight Christians offer a one-size-fits-all narrative of the origins of same-sex desire:
Where the animosity [from LGBT people] comes in, is when people try to aggressively project such narratives onto others. It’s one thing to say “My mother really was smothering, my father really was absent, and that really did leave me in a headspace where I feel driven to have sex with men in order to reconnect with my damaged masculinity,” it’s another thing to say, “That guy over there is just saying that he had a perfectly normal childhood because he’s unwilling to confront the pain of the deep wounds which his parents left on his psyche.” That guy over there has an absolute and inalienable right, for as long as he is alive, to wrestle with his own experience in his own way, to seek the Truth of it within himself, and to construct whatever narratives he requires to provide for his own spiritual and psychological needs.
Ministry that’s helped me most has been ministry that begins with the assumption that my story is unique, that my gayness isn’t the same as anyone else’s, and that that uniqueness is worthy of attention and respect and dignity.
- ministry that recognizes that my sexual orientation affects everything about me, just like heterosexuality does for others.
I won’t belabor this point since I’ve written at length about it elsewhere. Suffice it to say, in the words of my friend Misty Irons, the ministry that has been most consoling and helpful in my life is ministry that recognizes that “the experience [of being gay or lesbian] is nearly parallel to finding oneself heterosexual.” If you want to know what it feels like to awaken, during or even before puberty, to being gay and to understand what it feels like to long for intimacy and companionship as a gay person, your best bet is to reflect deeply on what it feels like for you to be heterosexual. Just as your (straight) sexuality suffuses much more than your overt romantic encounters, attractions, or relationships, the same is true for a gay or lesbian person: our sexuality is more like a facet of our personalities than a separable piece of our behavior; it’s more like a trait than a habit, more like a sensibility than an action.
I still remember reading this older post by Eve Tushnet for the first time and immediately emailing it to a dozen friends. “This,” I said, “is what it feels like to be gay and Christian.”
My lesbianism is part of why I form the friendships I form. It’s part of why I volunteer at a pregnancy center. Not because I’m attracted to the women I counsel, but because my connection to other women does have an adoring and erotic component, and I wanted to find a way to express that connection through works of mercy. My lesbianism is part of why I love the authors I love. It’s inextricable from who I am and how I live in the world. Therefore I can’t help but think it’s inextricable from my vocation.
Experiencing same-sex sexual desire isn’t just about who you want to go to bed with; it shapes your entire way of being in the world.
- ministry that recognizes that my sexual orientation doesn’t define me.
Many traditionalist Christians have written in recent years on what it means for Christian ethics and pastoral care that sexual orientation as we know it is culturally constructed. In other words, same-sex attracted people throughout history have not always understood themselves as having fixed sexual “orientations” and cultural “identities,” nor will they go on doing so forever. Those things—those understandings of what “being gay” amounts to—are a particular reality of our cultural moment, and same-sex attracted people like me are having to figure out how to navigate it.
But how does that help, in terms of ministry to gay and lesbian people? Well, for starters, realizing that my gayness isn’t some fixed script that I must conform to has given me freedom to explore historic Christian, chaste ways to express my love for men. What my culture defines as “gay”—the story my world offers me for who I’m supposed to be and how I’m supposed to live—isn’t something I have to embrace, and there’s freedom in choosing to try to express my love for men through friendship and service rather than through marriage or romantic partnership. Granted, opting out of the dominant way of understanding “gay” can often feel more like martyrdom than freedom. But if traditional Christianity is true, then self-denial—taking up one’s cross and following Jesus—is, in fact, regardless of how it feels, real freedom.
- ministry that takes the risk of speaking up about the topic.
One of the most dangerous things you can do right now, ministry-wise, it seems, is broach the topic of homosexuality in a church or campus ministry. You’re almost guaranteed to offend dozens of people, on every “side” and end of the spectrum, and probably even cause a firestorm. But consider the alternative: what if you stay silent? What if you never preach a sermon on this, or lead a Bible study on it, or ever mention it in your prayer group? Andrew Sullivan has written about the deadly consequences of silence:
In my adolescence and young adulthood, the teaching of the Church was merely a silence, an increasingly hollow denial even of the existence of homosexuals, let alone a credible ethical guide as to how they should live their lives. It is still true that in over thirty years of weekly churchgoing, I have never heard a homily that attempted to explain how a gay man should live, or how his sexuality should be expressed. I have heard nothing but a vast and endless and embarrassed silence, an awkward, unexpressed desire for the simple nonexistence of such people, for their absence from the moral and physical universe, for a word or a phrase, like “objective disorder,” that could simply abolish the problem they represented and the diverse humanity they symbolized.
The ministry that has helped me most has been ministry that has ventured to say something about how I might live my life, how I might go about giving and receiving love. The times when a Christian friend or priest has offered me some concrete, hopeful possibility of how I might shape my life—those have been lifelines for me. But they’ve required my friends to take the risk of speaking up and of committing themselves to learning along with me.