You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light standshine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
It’s a message that arrives too many times in my email box.
“Hi, I’m gay (or lesbian, or bisexual or transgender) and I’ve been told Im going to hell. Help me! Im scared!”
My heart breaks every time I receive that message, because it reminds me of just how powerful the message is that GLBT people receive about God and how God surely feels about them. It’s a message many in our community hear relentlessly. A Bible verse or two is quoted as proof. The person under attack may not know how to defend themselves; they simply hear the words of condemnation and fear overtakes them. Many, unfortunately, succumb to the darkness. They accept the condemnation and either bury their sexuality, try to change it, or forsake their relationship with God all together. Some write to me or other GLBT Christian organizations seeking support.
As someone who has put this issue to rest within my own mind (“No, I’m not going to hell because I’m a lesbian. Thanks for your opinion, though.”), it’s difficult to back up and give that helping hand to those still behind me on the path toward reconciling sexuality and spirituality. However, that is what Christ demands from us when he tells us to let our light shine in the world. Instead of cursing the darkness that keeps GLBT people from realizing the light of God within them, we are to strike a match and be beacons of light along the path for anyone who has not made it as far down the road as we have. We are to be like bodhisattvas in the Buddhist tradition, refusing to enter Nirvana until all have found the way there.
When we fiercely shine our lights into the world we may become frustrated that it doesn’t seem to throw much light into the deep darkness that is cast upon GBLT believers by the world and church at large. It seems that no matter how many issues of Whosoever we produce, no matter how many sermons I give on the sacred worth of GLBT people, no matter how many emails I respond to revealing the good news that GLBT people are made and loved by God, there are still so many more GLBT people who appear needing to see our light. It seems like an endless cycle. Just as the old story of the man throwing starfish back into the ocean, it can seem like we’re not making a difference overall, even as we make a big difference to one particular starfish that makes it back home.
What we are struggling against is huge – it’s a story about GLBT people that has been told so many times it has reflexively become “the truth” about GLBT people for so many – including far too many GLBT people. The story is familiar: GLBT people are somehow “disordered.” An absent father and overbearing mother (or vice versa) has caused this diversion from “normal” heterosexual feelings and behavior and has resulted in a “disorder” that can be cured if the GLBT person enters into “reparative therapy” and prays hard enough. Besides, the Bible says GLBT people are an abomination and deserve death. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality and Paul’s reiteration in Romans that homosexuality is “against nature” seals the deal, bringing an Old Testament admonishment into the New Testament.
Whew! That’s a tough story to overcome and it’s deeply entrenched not just in the church but in our society at large. For GLBT people, there is not a hint of good news. There is only condemnation, God’s wrath and fear of hell. Is it any wonder that many GLBT people simply walk away from their faith in God? Who would want to worship a God that hates them and seeks their destruction? Given that story, it’s no wonder I receive so many emails from GLBT people desperate to hear good news. It’s really quite miraculous that any GLBT person is able to put their faith back together and sustain it in the face of such hate and condemnation from church and society.
If we are to help more and more GLBT people come to that point of reconciliation between sexuality and spirituality our task is clear: we must change the overarching story about GLBT people. The only way to change the story that GLBT people are somehow sick, sinful, perverted, hated by God and destined for hell is to begin telling a new one the story of God’s unconditional love and grace. We have to proclaim the story that God blesses and loves GLBT people since God has made us this way. We are not bound for condemnation and hell, but grace and everlasting union with our God.
The good news is many have been working for years to change the over-aching story about GLBT people. Thanks to the research of biblical scholars we now know that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality, not homosexuality. We know that what Paul discusses in Romans 1 has nothing to do with the homosexuality we encounter today, and everything to do with worshipping false gods. We know that “reparative therapy” is akin to snake oil as far as reputable psychological and psychiatric groups like the American Psychological Association are concerned. We know that the “cause” of homosexuality is likely as much nature as it is nurture.
Despite that progress, though, there remains a strong undercurrent of homophobia in church and society. The battle in many states over marriage rights for GLBT people has brought back all the old canards from the stale dominant story about our lives. Our lives again came under scrutiny and the Bible used as a reason to deny us secular rights.
Here is another piece of shaping the new story – we must remove the Bible from being viewed as a legitimate “other side” of our issue. The Bible is no more the “other side” of the GLBT issue than flat-earthers are the “other side” of the global warming issue. People may have an opinion based on their beliefs in scripture, but those opinions should hold no weight in an argument about secular human rights. If we used the Bible to guide human rights, slaves would still be in shackles and women would still be property of their husband. The Bible is not the “other side” of these issues, although there was a time when it seemed to be. We must begin to tell stories that remove the Bible from the GLBT issue and make it just as irrelevant to GLBT civil rights as it is today to a discussion about slavery and women’s rights.
Debate over scriptures in a religious setting may be a valid argument to have, but again, no one will use the Bible to debate in favor slavery and returning women to the status of chattel within a religious setting. Once we make the Bible irrelevant to matters concerning GLBT civil rights, it will become irrelevant in the churches as well. This is why we must act with urgency – and let our light as reconciled GLBT Christians shine – to change the GLBT story.
To let our light truly shine, we must we must come out. If we are going to change the framing story about GLBT people, we must tell our stories. We must be vocal. We must step out of the shadows and shine! Too often, we in the GLBT community are afraid to let our light shine. As evidenced by the many messages of fear that I still receive from GLBT people, it’s often not safe for us to let our light shine.
If you come out if you begin to proclaim the story of grace and salvation for GLBT people will you face abuse? Yes. Will you face rejection and attack? Check and check. Will you be shunned or shut out by your church or your family? Definitely. Will you lose your job and livelihood? It’s quite possible, but not guaranteed. Will it be worth it? Hell, yes! Because by letting your light shine, you are changing the stories about GLBT people that have been told about us for ages.
Studies show that those who know GLBT people or have GLBT people in their families are more open and accepting of GLBT people in general. They have a GLBT person in their life shining a light on the path, exposing the lies to the harsh light of grace and justice and watching them melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West.
In 1996, when Whosoever began, not many people were telling their stories. There were the courageous like Mel White and Janie Spahr – offering themselves up as beacons to those who were still hiding their authentic selves under a bushel. These people are to be honored and congratulated for stepping out in courage and faith on behalf of GLBT people. Since then, even more have bravely stepped forward and let their light shine. There are now a number of GLBT Christian Web sites serving the needs of GLBT people who are determined to overcome the dominant story church and society tells about their lives. I’ve been glad to welcome them to the neighborhood. There is definitely enough work to go around.
However, it’s not just GLBT people who must shine their light to change the dominant story about GLBT lives. Straight allies have a role to play as well. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. knew African-Americans could not achieve their rights without their white allies, so too, the GLBT community needs the voices of straight allies. Jimmy Creech was an early ally giving up his ordination in the Methodist church rather than bend to a denominational edict that banned GLBT Holy Union ceremonies. Other straight allies include Mary Lou Wallner who lost her daughter to suicide because she believed the dominant story about GLBT people. Peggy Campolo and Jacob Reitan’s parents (highlighted in the excellent film “For the Bible Tells Me So”) are still other examples of straight allies who have pulled their light from under the bushel to light the path for other straight allies.
As we let our light shine, Jesus advises us to be open and generous with our lives. All the people named above, and many not named, have done just that. Even in the face of opposition, Jesus calls us to be open, bringing our God-colors into the world. As GLBT people, we know about colors – claiming the rainbow as our symbol of inclusion. As we remove the bushel that has hidden our colors for too long, let us shine. Let us strike a match against the darkness and be open and generous with our God-colors. As we shine forth, the story about our community will change and more and more people – within and outside of our community – will open up with God. Now, that’s Good News!
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.