When I went to seminary to prepare for the ministry I looked at all those charming young men and women and decided that if I had been God there were several of them that I wouldn’t have called to be ministers under any circumstances. Two and a half years later when I was graduating I shared that memory with a graduating friend who told me, “Yes, Ray, I had the same thoughts, and you were one of the people I wouldn’t have called to be a minister.”
His statement shocked me. I had thought I was one of the in-crowd as far as God was concerned. But now another person was telling me that perhaps I shouldn’t be so sure, that maybe I could be mistaken about God wanting me to be a Christian minister. However, I was sure that my intentions were in line with God’s desires for my life, regardless of what anyone else had to say about the matter.
A man overheard me speaking to a friend at the Mall recently about a sermon I was to give that weekend at Metropolitan Community Church of Knoxville. “So you are a minister?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, in part regretting the beginning of a conversation I knew was going to be difficult. He asked what church I belonged to and I told him, which brought up the question of denominational beliefs. I told him that MCC was part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, founded in 1968 by the Rev. Elder Troy Perry, to minister primarily to the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender community.
Soon we were involved in a discussion of whether or not homosexuals could be Christians and what the relevant Biblical passages meant. I must say that I was able to defend my understanding of scriptures, and my work with the GLBT community as a Christian minister to the admiration of my friend who was present. However, the other man, also a Christian minister, embarrassed us with his detailed description of gay sex (this in front of a mixed crowd of men and women), and his accusation that the only reason he could think of for me not believing like he did was that I was demon possessed, and most likely not a Christian, at least in the way he understood that to mean.
When I came out to my family three years ago, after my former wife had decided to divorce me for reasons that had nothing to do with my sexuality, my sister, who is a converted and devout Catholic, burst into tears declaring that I would not go to heaven when I died. My youngest brother, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist pastor, was so appalled he told me I couldn’t attend my nephew’s wedding lest I use it as an opportunity to promote the so-called gay agenda. Exactly how I would have disrupted my nephew’s wedding he never explained. He later asked me to not contact him at all. I suppose this is his way of shunning me into admitting I am as sinful as he believes me to be.
Interestingly enough, though my father did utter some statements to others about his dismay at my coming out, when I talked with him he had two important things to say. One was that the only thing I ever did to surprise him was to marry a woman after I graduated from college. In other words, he already knew I was gay. Secondly, he said that he only wanted love between the two of us, and that everything else was unimportant. So far he has kept his word about what he wanted from our relationship.
Yes, much of this family conflict was distressing, but I had the advantage when I came out of knowing that my belief in God and Christ was sure and real and that God had not rejected me because of my sexuality. I had worked through the theology for myself over many years. That doesn’t mean it was easy, just that I had a firm foundation upon which to build my new life as a totally out gay man.
I can only imagine the agony that others go through when they have come out to their Christian families and churches and have been met with hostility and rejection. I was privileged to hear Justin Ryan a young gay Christian musician in concert this past weekend at MCC Knoxville. Justin related how, at the age of seventeen, he had be thrown out of his home by his parents when he told them that he was gay. Perhaps this is what fundamentalist Christians like James Dobson mean by tough love, but I personally can’t understand tossing my own flesh and blood out on to the street with no means of financial support at such a young age. What kind of parenting is that? There is a crisis of homelessness among gay teens and young adults because of this kind of tough love which leaves vulnerable boys and girls out on the streets where they become prey to unscrupulous exploitation.
This kind of behavior can only be compared to that of the older brother in the story Jesus told about the “Prodigal Son” in Luke 15:11-32. The younger brother asks for his inheritance while his father is still alive. The father gives him the cash and the boy goes off to live a life of pleasure in a far city. His money runs out and he is left homeless, working on a pig farm, eating what the pigs eat to stay alive. Coming to his senses he decides to go back home and ask his father for a job knowing that even his father’s workers are treated far better than he is being treated.
But when he is still a long way off, his father, who has been watching for his son to return, sees him and runs to him, embracing him. Even before the young man can say anything to his father, the father welcomes him home, not as a worker on his farm, but as his child with all the rights and privileges that go with being the child of the owner. He even orders a celebration so everyone can rejoice in the return of the young man to his home.
However, the older brother finds out about the return of his younger sibling and he refuses to come into the party. The father goes out to talk to him and bring him into the party. The older brother states how loyal he has been, how hard he has worked and how his father has never thrown a party for him. The father is overjoyed at the return of the lost son, but the older brother doesn’t get it. He’s more concerned with the fact that though he has remained faithful, as he understands faithfulness, he hasn’t gotten rewarded for it. Jesus doesn’t finish the story, but I’ve always wondered if the older brother stayed outside or decided to go into the party. Somehow I think he pouted outside and refused to go into the celebration.
Our fundamentalist Christian families and friends cannot believe that God loves us the same way God loves them: just as we are. To God it doesn’t matter if you are Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender, or straight. God already knows what your sexual orientation is because God created you exactly the way you are. God isn’t surprised because you grew up to be gay. It never was a secret to God.
James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, my brother and sister, and all the others who claim to have a special knowledge from God about gays and lesbians are all like the older brother in the story of Prodigal Son. They can’t believe that God welcomes us into God’s family and keep trying to tell us that God wouldn’t act that way, even while God is clearly running past them out into the world and claiming God’s lost children back to God. And when they can’t understand how God could act that way, then they claim that ministries like Metropolitan Community Churches must be demon possessed. It’s the only explanation they can come up for why God is acting far differently than they thought God would act.
But now the question is put to us, will we accept that God’s house is broader and bigger than we thought it could be? Is there enough room in God’s house for me, my gay brothers and sisters, and for our fundamentalist right-wing brothers and sisters? Will we welcome them into God’s house, or will we also be like the older brother in the story and stay outside pouting while the celebration is going on?
It’s easy for me to accuse those who condemn me for being gay as modern day Pharisees and Sadducees. I could call them names as easily as they seem to want to call me names. I could condemn them for their non-loving ways as easily as they condemn me for being gay. I could refuse to commune with them and refuse to share God’s love with them just as easily as they refuse to allow me in their churches or to share Communion with them. But at some point I have to ask myself exactly what is being accomplished by my acting just like them? Nothing.
It would be far better for me to try to speak to them in love – not in anger. When, like the man who spoke to me in the Mall, I can dialogue honestly with them about my beliefs and my understanding of God’s love for everyone, maybe we will make some headway in coming to a point where both sides are more willing to at least listen respectfully to the other side. They may never change the way they believe, but they might. I’ll never know if I don’t try. And I’ll never try if I refuse to join the party because they are there.
Indiana native Rev. H. Ray Neal served as associate pastor of MCC Knoxville and pastor of MCC Seattle. He earned bachelors and masters degrees in elementary education from the University of Indiana and a masters in religious education from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.