A young man who survived "ex-gay ministries" taught me what it means to be a Christian

The campaign against marriage equality sent me fleeing from the church. Here's what brought me back

Published April 19, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)

Cover detail of "Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church"
Cover detail of "Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church"

Excerpted from "Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church"

One muggy summer morning, when we’d roused ourselves in enough time to pull into the church parking lot just a few minutes late, we noticed a half-dozen red, white, and blue lawn signs growing from the strip of grass between the highway and the freshly paved blacktop. They said “VOTE YES ON ONE” across the top and “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman” across the bottom. In the middle was a stick-figure family holding hands.

I groaned.

It’s no secret that the Tennessee state legislature has kept itself busy over the last decade producing mountains of wholly unnecessary legislation designed to protect what it considers to be Tennessee’s most threatened demographic: white evangelical Christians. One proposed bill would have made practicing Islam a felony, punishable by fifteen years in prison. Another sought to ban middle school teachers from even mentioning gay relationships to their students. House Bill 368 (signed into law in 2012) encourages teachers in public schools to “present the scientific weaknesses” of evolution and climate change. In 2013, panicked rumors among legislators that renovations to the capitol building included the installation of a “Muslim foot bath” were assuaged when it was revealed that the fixture in question was, in fact, a mop sink.

That particular summer, Tennessee lawmakers were busy amending the state constitution to include a ban on same-sex marriage. Churches and conservative organizations across the state had organized a campaign to remind voters that if they wanted to say no to gay marriage they needed to vote yes on proposition one and the Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment. Nearly every church in town boasted several signs on their lawns, and now ours did too.

“We might as well hang a banner over the door that says ‘No Gay People Allowed,’” I muttered.

I didn’t have a lot of gay friends at the time. I hadn’t met Andrew or my friends Justin, Jeffry, Matthew, and Kimberly. I hadn’t yet reconnected with those high school classmates who, before they came out, got as far away from Rhea County as they could. I wasn’t even sure what I thought about same-sex relationships at that point in my life, but I had no intention of voting yes on prop one because I didn’t see why my religious concerns should have any bearing on whether my fellow citizens enjoyed the same rights and privileges as I did under the law. When you grow up just a few miles from 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and when you move to a town situated on the old Trail of Tears where a man was once prosecuted and fined for teaching evolution, you get a little sensitive about constitutional amendments designed to restrict rights rather than protect them. Sure, the Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment sounded like a good idea to a lot of folks at the time, but how would it sound in twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years? I just wasn’t convinced we had this one right.

Of greater concern to me was the way these signs were sprouting up like weeds in every church lawn in the county. If Christians in East Tennessee wanted to send the message that gay and lesbian people would be uncomfortable and unwelcome in our churches, that their identity would be reduced to their sexual orientation and their personhood to a political threat, then we’d sure done a bang-up job of communicating it. We’d surrounded our churches with a bunch of stick-figured families who, with linked arms and vacuous smiles, guarded our houses of worship like centurions. If you wanted to get through, you had to know your place in the chain. You had to assimilate.

During the announcements, a man I didn’t recognize invited us to attend a meeting that night to discuss the “radical homosexual agenda in America and how Christians should respond to it.” He spat out the word homosexual the same way others spat out the words liberal, feminist, and evolutionist, and it occurred to me in that moment that maybe I wasn’t the only one who brought an uninvited guest to church on Sunday morning. In a congregation that large, there was a good chance the very people this man considered a threat to our way of life weren’t out there, but rather in here—perhaps visiting with family, perhaps squirming uncomfortably with the youth group in the back, perhaps singing with the worship band up front. How lonely they must feel, how paralyzed. Sitting there with my Bible in my hands, twisting its silk bookmark nervously between my fingers, I realized that just as I sat in church with my doubt, there were those sitting in church with their sexuality, their race, their gender, their depression, their addiction, their questions, their fears, their past, their infertility, their eating disorder, their diagnosis, their missed rent, their mess of a marriage, their sins, their shame—all the things that follow us to church on Sunday morning but we dare not name.

The words from Anne Sexton’s poem “Protestant Easter” floated into my brain:

Jesus was on that Cross.

After that they pounded nails into his hands.
After that, well, after that,

everyone wore hats . . .

And smiles. And masks. And brave fronts.

I didn’t stop going to church after the Vote Yes On One campaign, but I stopped being present. I was too scared to speak up in support of LGBT people, so I ignored my conscience and let it go. I played my role as the good Christian girl and spared everyone the drama of an argument. But that decision—to remain silent—split me in two. It convinced me that I could never really be myself in church, that I had to check my heart and mind at the door. I regret that decision for a lot of reasons, but most of all because sometimes I think I would have gotten a fair hearing. Sometimes I think my church would have loved me through that disagreement if I’d only been bold enough to ask them to. Like a difficult marriage, my relationship with church buckled under the weight of years of silent assumptions. So I checked out—first in spirit, then in body. When our closest friends from Sunday night moved to California, our interest in the social events began to dwindle. After a few months, Dan and I began sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

* * *

Seven years after the “Vote Yes On One” campaign sent me fleeing from the church, I discovered church again in an unlikely place: the Gay Christian Network’s annual “Live It Out” conference in Chicago.

Founded by Justin Lee, a young gay man who grew up Southern Baptist and survived the destructive effects of “ex-gay ministries” to eventually accept and embrace his sexuality, the Gay Christian Network offers community and support to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians, along with their friends, family, and allies. The group is ecumenical, but attracts a lot of evangelicals, many of whom have been marginalized or kicked out of the churches in which they grew up. Some of the more than seven hundred attendees believed Scripture compelled them to commit their lives to celibacy while others believed Scripture granted them the freedom to pursue same-sex relationships and marriage. There was room at the table for all.

I spoke at the conference as an ally, but within hours of arriving at the Westin on the Chicago River, it became clear I had little to teach these brothers and sisters in Christ and everything to learn from them. I speak at dozens of Christian conferences in a given year, but I’ve never participated in one so energized by the Spirit, so devoid of empty showmanship, so grounded in love and abounding in grace. As one attendee put it, “this is an unapologetically Christian conference.”

Indeed it was. There was communion, confession, worship, and fellowship. There was deep concern for honoring Scripture and loving as Christ would love, even through differences and pain. There was lots of hugging and crying and praying . . . and argyle.

But what startled me the most was the degree to which so many attendees had suffered, sometimes brutally, at the hands of Christians trying to “cure” them of their sexual orientation. One young woman described undergoing an exorcism ceremony designed to cast the demon of lesbianism from her body. Another went to counseling where her Christian therapist insisted she must have been molested or mistreated by her parents when she hadn’t. One man followed the advice of his pastor and married a woman, hoping heterosexual sex would make him straight, a decision that led to heartbreaking consequences. Many at the conference had gone through evangelical ex-gay ministries, the largest of which had recently shut its doors when its president admitted that reparative therapy to change sexual orientation is rarely, if ever, effective. Person after person told stories about getting kicked out of their church or their family upon coming out. (Of the estimated 1.6 million homeless American youth, between 20 and 40 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.) Far too many described contemplating suicide as teenagers after begging God to “fix” them to no avail.

And yet here they were, when they had every right in the world to run as far away from the church as their legs would carry them, worshipping together, praying together, healing together. Here they were, being the church that had rejected them. I felt simultaneously furious at Christianity’s enormous capacity to wound and awed by its miraculous capacity to heal.

The final night of the conference was set aside for an open mic, in which participants were invited to share their stories in front of the whole group in the main ballroom. One by one, hundreds of brave men and women approached the microphone, took a deep breath, and told the truth.

“I’m Mary and I’m Jacob’s mom,” said a short woman with a midwestern accent who wore jeans, a white T-shirt and, like several of the parents at the conference, a giant button pin that announced “FREE MOM HUGS” in tall red letters.

“Tonight I want to ask Jacob’s forgiveness, and your forgiveness too, because . . .” Her voice began to tremble. “Because until this weekend I was ashamed of my son.”

She stifled a sob with her hands while we waited in a thick silence.

“I didn’t want the people at my church to know he was gay because I was afraid of what they would think, what they might say,” she finally said. “But not anymore. I’m so proud of my beautiful son, and of all of you. I’m so proud that I’m going to shout it from the rooftops!”

A gentle laugh rippled through the room.

“I’m so sorry,” Mary said, first looking to her son on the front row and then to the rest of the audience. “I’m so very sorry. Please forgive me.”

“We forgive you!” shouted a woman behind me.

Jacob ran to front of the room and embraced his mom. They held each other for a few minutes before the next person approached the mic.

“I remember the first time I was called a . . . homophobic word,” said a young woman, no more than twenty, who wore a flower in her hair and kept her eyes on her shoes. It took her a few moments to form the next words.

“It was at church.”
 Around the room, people hummed in sad ascent.
 “This is the first time in a long time I’ve been able to be around Christians without totally freaking out,” she said, without ever looking up. “So thanks for that.”

“From the time I was a teenager, I’ve started every day the exact same way,” said a handsome man who wore a fedora and spoke with confidence.

“First, I look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘Does this outfit look too gay?’”

The crowd chuckled.

“After I’ve changed,” he said with a wry laugh, “I go back to the mirror and say to myself, ‘Mike, watch your hands. Mike, be careful with your voice. Mike, don’t laugh too loud. Mike, don’t walk that way. Mike, whatever you do, don’t act so gay.’”

His voice suddenly cracked.

“I didn’t want to lose my job in ministry,” he said, after collecting himself. “But I’m so tired of that routine. After twenty years, I can’t keep doing that. I’m done. I’m done pretending. I’m done faking it. It’s time to tell the truth: I’m a Christian and I’m gay.”

The crowd applauded.

An African American man in a wheelchair followed and brought the house down when he approached the mic, waited a moment, and declared, “I’m black. I’m disabled. I’m gay. And I live in Mississippi. What was God thinking?”

He was followed by a college student who said he finally worked up the courage to come out to his parents.

“It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped,” he said. And in the painful silence that followed far too many understood.

And then there was the young man who had attended the year before in the midst of a deep depression, but who had returned this year with a new church, a healthier family dynamic, and a boyfriend. “It gets better,” he said.

Near the end of the session, a slight, middle-aged man in a dress shirt approached the microphone.

“I’m here to ask your forgiveness,” he said quietly.

“I’ve been a pastor with a conservative denomination for more than thirty years, and I used to be an antigay apologist. I knew every argument, every Bible verse, every angle, and every position. I could win a debate with just about anyone, and I confess I yelled down more than a few ‘heretics’ in my time. I was absolutely certain that what I was saying was true and I assumed I’d defend that truth to death. But then I met a young lesbian woman who, over a period of many years, slowly changed my mind. She is a person of great faith and grace, and her life was her greatest apologetic.”

The man began to sob into his hands.

“I’m so sorry for what I did to you,” he finally continued. “I might not have hurt any of you directly, but I know my misguided apologetics, and then my silent complicity, probably did more damage than I can ever know. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent of my actions. Please forgive me.”

“We forgive you!” someone shouted from up front.

But the pastor held up his hand and then continued to speak.

“And if things couldn’t get any weirder,” he said with a nervous laugh, “I was dropping my son off at school the other day—he’s a senior in high school—and we started talking about this very issue. When I told him that I’d recently changed my mind about homosexuality, he got really quiet for a minute and then he said, ‘Dad, I’m gay.’”

Nearly everyone in the room gasped.

“Sometimes I wonder if these last few years of studying, praying, and rethinking things were all to prepare me for that very moment,” the pastor said, his voice quivering. “It was one of the most important moments of my life. I’m so glad I was ready. I’m so glad I was ready to love my son for who he is.”

By the end of the open mic session, I understood exactly why they say not to bother with mascara at this thing. It was two of the most healing, powerful, grace-drenched hours of my life. It was, at last, church.

I had a conversation with someone the other day who said he wondered if perhaps LGBT Christians had a special role to play in teaching the church how to more thoughtfully engage issues surrounding gender and sexuality. I told him I didn’t think that went far enough, that ever since the Gay Christian Network conference, I’ve been convinced that LGBT Christians have a special role to play in teaching the church how to be Christian.

Christians who tell each other the truth. 
Christians who confess our sins and forgive our enemies. Christians who embrace our neighbors.
 Christians who sit together in our pain, and in our healing, and wait for resurrection.

* * *

Sometimes people ask me if I believe in faith healings.
 What I think they’re asking is if I believe a pastor can lay hands on a man and cure him of alcoholism, or if a religious shrine possesses the power to coax the paralyzed out of their wheelchairs, or if rallying around a little girl with twenty-four hours of prayer can reverse the progression of her cancer.

I don’t know. I’ve watched too many people of strong faith succumb to illness and tragedy to believe God shows any sort of favoritism in these matters. (And yet, inexplicably, I always pray.)

So when I’m asked about faith healings, I tell people about Thistle Farms. I tell them about the Gay Christian Network. I tell them about the widows I met in India who haven’t been cured of their HIV but who are healing from their poverty and hopelessness by loving one another well. I tell them about the Epic Fail Pastors Conference, and the abuse survivors I’ve met through the blog. I tell them about my own journey away from and back to church. Then I shrug my shoulders and say, “I suppose anything’s possible.”

Excerpted from "Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church" by Rachel Held Evans. Copyright © 2015 by Rachel Held Evans. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved

By Rachel Held Evans

MORE FROM Rachel Held Evans

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Christianity Lgbt Religion Tennessee Vote Yes On One