It’s Sunday morning in the Waterloo, Ont., Christian Reformed Church. A lone microphone is standing at the front of the sanctuary and during prayer requests an elderly man in his sixties walks up to it and shyly clears his throat. His shoulders are stooped slightly and he peers out at the congregation through wire-rimmed spectacles that frame his bewildered, pain-filled eyes: eyes that smile softly even as they bespeak the sadness I know he feels.
“I want to thank God for bringing me here today,” he says, his voice trembling slightly, tentative, as if unsure if he should proceed or just go back to his pew and sit down. He continues: “I know that he loves me just as I am and that Jesus died for my sins.” Then he returns to his seat and a warm, sympathetic applause breaks out. Everyone there knows how difficult it was for him to do what he just did. For many of them the mixture of pain and joy he exudes reflects their own quandary. It is the last day of the International AWARE (As We Are) conference and most of the participants are precisely like him, struggling to situate themselves as gay and lesbian Christians within a church tradition that most believe wants nothing to do with them.
“The Christian Reformed Church is my home,” the elderly man tells me over a pancake breakfast just one day into the conference. “If I were to come out to my church community,” he sighs and shrugs his shoulders. “All of my friends are there. I would lose everything.”
He is retired now but for over thirty years he worked as a Christian school teacher in the small Prairie town where he still resides. He hid his homosexuality not just from the Christian community, but from his wife and children as well. It wasn’t until he retired and all of the children were out of the house that he separated from his wife and faced the implications of his sexual orientation.
“Did you choose to be gay?” I ask him.
He laughs with chagrin. “Of course not. I’ve always known that I was gay, ever since I was a child. I just kept it hidden, suppressed, hoping it would go away.” It never did of course, and his struggle to keep it all under wraps led to a hellish personal life and an anguished spiritual odyssey. Like most people -gay or straight- he had to work through his own homophobia, his inbred fear of homosexuality which not only his church, but society in general had taught him was unnatural, repulsive and even vile: an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.
The problem for him was that on a practical, physical level, none of these things were true. His natural sexual attraction has always been towards men, not women. It had been a constant painful struggle for him to maintain normal conjugal relations with his wife, so unnatural was heterosexuality for him.
Yet, what of all the biblical prescriptions condemning homosexuality? He shakes his head in bewilderment. “I know that Jesus loves me as I am,” he says. “I know he created me this way.”
It is a dilemma that most Christian homosexuals face as they struggle to reconcile the apparent chasm that exists between their sexual orientation and their faith. If one is to believe the popular rhetoric on the subject, there can be no bridging of the gap. “It’s an oxymoron,” says one Canadian Baptist official. “How can one be both a Christian and a homosexual? The two are mutually exclusive. Homosexuality is a sin. It’s a perversion that goes entirely against God’s plan.”
Not so, says Rev. Mel White, a Fuller Seminary graduate and former ghost-writer and confidante of such contemporary evangelical giants as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham. Addressing the Saturday evening banquet of the AWARE conference, he declared that “sexual orientation is a gift from God.” For him the issue is not homosexuality, it is fundamentalism.
“There is a purging going on in the world today. Islamic fundamentalists are shooting moderate Muslims, Christian fundamentalists are shooting abortion doctors and gay people,” he says, all of it in the name of moral cleansing.
A child of Christian fundamentalists, White was weaned in the highest corridors of the Christian Right movement before “outing” himself as a gay man in 1991. He has now become one of North America’s most outspoken Christian gay rights activists, traveling the world preaching a gospel of love and militancy. Drawing upon the non-violent civil rights campaigns of both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., White describes his own struggles with mainstream Christianity as a battle of truth versus untruth, and a question of soul-force.
“Gays and lesbians are going to transform the Church. I don’t think we know what our souls are capable of until we unleash their power,” he tells his AWARE audience, “We can win this battle if we learn to out-love them. We must love the sinner, but hate their rhetoric.” It is the anti-homosexual rhetoric of the Christian Right that White sees as the main obstacle to Christian gays and lesbians gaining legitimacy within the mainstream Christian church.
“Homosexuals have become the new scapegoats of Christian fundamentalists,” he says. “The latter are engaging in politics of blame. They blame the earthquakes in California for that state’s tolerance of homosexuals. They blame gays and lesbians for the breakdown of the family unit, for destroying heterosexual marriages, for molesting little children. They’ve got to find an enemy. Demographics show that if you create a threat, people respond with money.”
For White, the struggle with Christian fundamentalism is more than political. It is deeply personal. During his first year as Dean of the Cathedral of Hope Metropolitan Community Church in Dallas, Texas, he had to assist at the funerals of twelve members of his church who had been killed in episodes of gay-bashing. Statistics show that 26% of all hate crimes in Los Angeles are directed at gay men. White believes that there is a direct link between these crimes and the rhetoric of Christian fundamentalists.
“If you take Leviticus 20 literally,” says White, “then killing gays and lesbians is divinely ordained. I’ve had Christians stand up in meetings and tell me as much, that there should be capital punishment for homosexuality because God says so in the Bible.”
For many moderate Christians, the Bible is itself the greatest stumbling block to open acceptance of gays and lesbians. What does one do with the many texts that overtly condemn homosexual practice?
“It’s all a bit of a smokescreen,” says Hendrik Hart, a professor of philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. “These texts can be treated in the same way as we treat the Apostle Paul’s prescriptions for women to wear long hair. Instead, people use them to absolve themselves of their responsibility to interpret these passages and to know what the Spirit is saying to the Church today.”
In other words, Christians could ignore those passages just as they ignore numerous others that don’t particularly fit into contemporary lifestyles or theologies. The fact that they don’t reveals more about their hidden biases than their adherence to the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, according to Dr. White.
“You can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place,” he says. Most people have a strong visceral reaction to the mere thought of same-gender sexual intimacy.
“I just think it’s disgusting,” says Carmen King, an evangelical Christian singer and songwriter living in Toronto, “and that’s independent of what the Bible says about it.” Her reaction is typical of most heterosexual people, Christian or otherwise. But does that visceral repugnance to the homosexual act in itself justify taking such a strong theological stance against it?
“I once tried making love to a woman, just to prove I could do it,” William Markus, a gay friend of the family once confided to me a few years before his death from AIDS. “That was disgusting.”
Mel White concurs. “The issue is no longer even an issue. The American Medical Association has stated that any doctor who tries to convert a gay person from homosexuality should be tried for malpractice. It is as natural to be gay as it is to be left-handed.”
It is precisely this notion, however, that has Christian fundamentalists seeing red. When Dr. White first published his autobiography, Stranger at the Gate, he received 75,000 positive letters from people saying that was the first time they had ever heard anyone say that God loves gay people. He also received about 100 hate letters written on clerical stationary. “To say that God loves homosexuals is the worst,” White says. “They go crazy.”
Listening to the soft-spoken school teacher from the Prairies though, it is hard to argue otherwise. “I know Jesus loves me,” he says with quiet conviction. Behind his soft gaze I can sense a steely determination to hang on to that belief in spite of the storm raging around him on the issue, a storm not likely to abate anytime in the near future.