In 1980 I was pretty sure I didn’t know any gay folks, and had no sympathy for them when I first heard of GRID or AIDS. In my self-righteousness I figured it was a good way for God to get rid of the homosexuals. Born in 1954, and raised in the home of ardent fundamentalists, I was pretty sure we represented The True Church. And, The True Church preached that gays were evil. I figured I would be able to recognize gays by their cloven hoofs, pointy tails and horns.
Then a few years ago my wife, Cindy, was reading a book called, “Stick a Geranium In Your Hat and Be Happy!” The author, Barbara Johnson, wrote about her gay son whom she loved. Cindy shared a paragraph or two with me. I didn’t like what I heard. I figured Ms. Johnson must not be a good Christian if she loved a gay person. Gays were sinners, right? Wouldn’t loving them connote approval of their “lifestyle?” It bothers me to realize how homophobic I was, but it also gives me hope for other homophobic people. If there was hope for me, then there might be hope for them.
More time passed and a friend of mine died. At his funeral I discovered he was gay. I had been friends with a gay man! I had loved him, hugged him, sat with him at every community committee on which we served together. How could I have loved a gay man? This gave me pause for thought. I had to do some soul-searching. Now, the seed which Barbara Johnson had planted in me earlier (through Cindy) began to grow.
While doing the research for a new novel I was writing, I studied gay and lesbian issues. This was mainly because a major character in the new book is lesbian, but also because I wanted to learn more. I researched from a socio-political view, and then from an in-depth biblical perspective. The Scriptures and other information I found taught me that I had been wrong in nearly all of my beliefs about gay people. However, I made this journey alone. My wife did not study with me. Perhaps I made a mistake in not sharing the information I was finding, but, instinct told me she was not ready to hear these things. She was as firm in her beliefs as I was in mine.
In our twenty-five years of marriage we have had few issues on which we differ this much. This is a big one. Cindy feels that because I am an ordained minister (Ecumenical — Nondenominational) I should know that homosexual relationships are immoral. She believes that when I officiate at a wedding for gay people I am wrong because gays should not be able to get married. She believes any gay sexual relationship to be a sin. She said she prays to God to show her if she is wrong in her beliefs, but she’s heard nothing new from Him.
Yes, I am an ordained minister with a Masters Degree, and a Ph.D. in religion. I also hold an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. In my continued studies of the Scriptures I have learned that sex for gay (or non-gay) people, within the context of a devoted, monogamous relationship, can be a blessing from God. Like my wife, I have prayed to God to show me if my beliefs are wrong. God says to me, “It is not a sin.”
It is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile these differences between Cindy and I. But we do look for common ground. Since our religious beliefs are so different, we decided to look for common ground in our secular beliefs. There we met with success. For instance, we both believe that it is never right to deny housing to someone because he is gay. It is never right to deny a job to someone because she is lesbian. Gay folks should never be mistreated. It is good to agree on these things. But, because our faith plays a major role in our life, trying to ignore our differences is like trying not to notice an elephant sitting in the corner of our living room. Pretty difficult. We needed a bridge over which we could comfortably meet.
Where could we find a bridge that would span the great divide we still felt? Our biggest differences were in our religious views, and that is where we found the bridge. In Christ. We both love the Lord. Through Christ we are united and affirmed in love. We have amicably agreed to disagree on the issue of gay and lesbian relationships. We do not enter into a gay-related conversation without first reaffirming our love in Christ.
Over the last couple of years we have learned more and more not to try to convince the other one of our “rightness.” We are still honest, and say what we think, but we don’t speak from atop a soapbox. There were times in the beginning of the split in our beliefs when I feared there might be a split in our marriage. It is scary to feel so opposed to a loved one’s beliefs. But, I no longer feel it my duty to decide what other folks believe. That is their business. It was with sweet relief that I discovered I do not have to embrace another person’s beliefs in order to respect their right to have those beliefs.
I have met a few people who have learned to spend their time building bridges instead of tearing down their opponents. This gives me great hope, but is hard for me because my emotions get in the way. I, too, want to arrive at a place in my life where I can find a comfortable balance between what I know and what I feel. In my prayers I ask the Creator for wisdom in my reasoning, compassion in my actions, and justice in my assessment of others.
I am dedicated to being a champion for religious freedom and diversity. To be successful in my endeavors I must overcome my passionate feelings that sometimes get in the way. If I let my emotions rule, I wind up saying things that are not helpful at all. My brain says, “Stand up for equal rights for all people!” But my emotions step in the way and interpret the message as, “Put those religious bullies in their place!” I hear the manipulatively loaded language of an opponent and am tempted to duplicate it. While my opponent calls me a “Godless, liberal activist,” or “An enemy of The Church,” my emotions want to label those people with names like, “The Radical Religious Political Extremists,” or “modern-day Scribes and Pharisees.”
When I hear someone making statements I consider to be hurtful, inflammatory and false, it is hard not to respond without going on the offensive. As my wife will tell you, “Jim Bilbrey has strong opinions.” How can I learn to consistently state my beliefs calmly, quietly and simply? The methods I have learned to help maintain peace and love in my home are not so easy to practice in the public arena. I am motivated to maintain a sturdy bridge of communication in my home because I am in love with my wife. I am not in love with The American Family Association or The Christian Coalition. It is hard for me not to think of groups such as these as The Enemy. But, as the saying goes, “It is hard to shake hands with a clenched fist.” Only God can help me maintain Christ-like communication with them.
This journey I have made from a place of fear and ignorance to a place of love and truth has been an adventure of one discovery after another. I think it began when God planted a seed in me through the words of Barbara Johnson and Cindy Bilbrey. I pray that He will use me to plant seeds, too. I am grateful that God is still in the business of miracles.
Jim Bilbrey has been married to his wife Cindy since 1972.