I walked swiftly through the double doors, dressed in my suit jacket toward my seat. A couple to my left clasped hands as they silently prayed. A pastor and his colleagues fervently discussed some theological issue. Yet, among all of the activity, several pairs of eyes turned and stared at me. For a moment, I wondered if I had something in my teeth or toilet paper dragging from my feet. But it wasn't that kind of stare. It was disgust.
Among all of my Christian brothers and sisters, they were staring because they assumed I was gay. Yet where was this unexpected religious battlefield taking place? In my own university cafeteria at Andrews University.
The first time I sang for church, I was 3 years old. I naively waltzed up to the platform, grasped my mother's hand as she held the microphone for me, and sang a worship hymn for my church. Between the OOHs and AWEs, all the congregation saw was an innocent child's love, remembering that Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mathew 18:3).
Yet as I grew up, things changed. The once welcoming atmosphere of my church became uncomfortable, then difficult and, before long, even hostile. Even before I publicly came out as a bisexual man, my church family had suspicions, then answers and finally judgments. Where I once was welcomed to praise my Lord and Savior on a platform, I was no longer welcome. Like an estranged cousin, my church family whispered in each other's ears and stared, wondering who allowed me of all people to stand on that platform.
Religious educational institutions simply mirror what their sponsoring denomination teaches and models (implicitly and explicitly) about the minorities and marginalized groups within their membership. We often forget at our conservative, private, religiously affiliated colleges that we are first and foremost educational institutions and not churches. Yet our intuitions have only recreated the same hostile environment LGBT people face at church.
I am not trying to stereotype and say all Christian churches or even Seventh-day Adventist ones are unwelcoming to those most on the margins at churches. I will say, on an administrative and general congregational level, the majority of Seventh-day Adventist churches are not welcoming of LGBT people. There is something about the Seventh-day Adventists official stance on homosexuality that has led its pastors and church members to believe that the way we as Christians have interacted with LGBT is acceptable. That is, that singling out LGBT people for ostracization, marginalization and condemnation is OK -- even a Christian duty.
Last week a good friend and colleague and I spoke about a recent occurrence in his home church. He has been dutifully attending this church for years and, especially recently, has been eagerly taking an active role at his home church singing and leading out in Friday afternoon vespers. Last week, he found out that the regional conference and the pastoral staff had met about him. He was no longer able to take a part of the worship service. He could only attend church and sit in the pew. The only reason for this sudden alienation? While he is a loving and compassionate Christian who loves God, he is also gay.
Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. I know story after story after story like my friend's.
What does this say about the Seventh-day Adventist church's narrative? What has allowed for our pastors to preach hate and bigotry from the pulpit instead of love and compassion? When did our religious institutions become battlefields?
As a church we have roots in fellowship and community, and, ironically, we have viewed ourselves as a persecuted remnant among other Christian denominations because we keep Saturday as Sabbath, which puts us in a minority position among other Christians. So it's especially sad to realize that we have created such hostile environments for the minorities in our own midst.
Regardless of my religious affiliation of the Seventh-day Adventist church, I cannot walk through most of our churches without having to duck at the stones that are thrown in the form of whispers, verses and stares. If looks could kill, I'd be dead. And this doesn't just affect the LGBT community but many minority groups marginalized by the church. If someone were to wear too "short" of a skirt, if a person were to come into the sanctuary in jeans, if we were to -- God forbid -- quit openly practicing segregation in our church and had a true melting pot in our congregations, what would happen? When did a church service become such a minefield to maneuver through?
What's even worse is that our educational institutions have mirrored this mindset, thus creating yet another generation of likeminded "Christians," who seem not to have taken Colossians 3:12 as seriously as they like to take other verses:
"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience."
This past week at Andrews University, I was hanging out in the student center with a friend. After we parted ways he got a message from a friend that saw us together saying:
"Why you like hanging around gay ppl so much? Lol every time i see you you're with them. What does that say about you?"
Luckily, my friend, regardless of our theological differences about homosexuality, is just full of Christ's love, and carefully and intelligently replied to the hateful message. This just goes to show, it is one thing to have theological disagreements. It is another thing completely to alienate, discriminate, hate or "other" a group of people -- of human beings.
Back to my friend, the young gay man who was just told he couldn't do anything in church but sit in a pew. He posted this on his Facebook timeline in response:
As Jesus was ascending into heaven he looked down from the clouds at his disciples and spoke these words: "Go into all nations and create a church manual, to which you will refer for all appropriate forms of conduct and worship. Make sure that you impose a Western, sexist, hetero-normative form of life on all my future disciples. I will send you my Holy Spirit, but he is often unreliable. Please don't pass up any opportunity to tell your brethren that they are living in sin and may go to hell. Make sure to specifically single out a particular sin that I forgot to mention while I lived here and form a second class church membership for those you think are participating in that particular sin. When you think a brother may be sinning against my Father, avoid all meaningful contact with that brother and instead contact the regional church conference office. They will know what to do in every occasion."
Maybe if we looked to the Bible for what it has to say about treating one another instead of our regional conferences will we once again have churches and schools that are spiritual homes, havens for those on the margins that Jesus so clearly cared the most about. Never once did Jesus cast out a child of God that the society around him had deemed a sinner. Those were the people he spent his time with, those were the "least of these." The only harsh words from Jesus were saved for the religious establishment who claimed to speak for God in shunning and rejecting. Author and activist Derek Penwell recently raised the question in The Huffington Post: What if Gay Kids had a church that loved them? Would it be possible to have such an environment where LGBT seventh-day Adventists felt loved at their churches? Could it be possible to save our LGBT kids' lives religiously and literally? What devastating, end times, phenomenon would occur to love and be loved?
When Jesus said, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35), that doesn't sound like a battlefield. That doesn't sound like the minefield that my fellow LGBT friends and I have to navigate if we want to worship God with our faith community. That sounds like the sort of love that would die on a cross before it would use the church manual as an excuse to other, reject or condemn.