I "Heart" Ron: Young Life, Youth Ministry, and Me

I "heart" Ron. He was the main reason I went to the local chapter of the evangelical Christian youth group, Young Life. Yes, I went because I loved--and love--Jesus. But the whole truth is that I initially went to Young Life because I fell head-over-heels in love with Ron in an adolescent, puppy-love kind of way. Sadly, I had no one to tell or express it to. Especially Ron.

Ron was the entire package: a young man in his early twenties, a senior at a nearby college, and very easy on the eyes. At almost six feet tall and weighing in at perhaps 175 pounds, Ron had broad, square shoulders, a slender waist and a nice bubble butt. A cleft in his chin, he had a square jaw line and piercing blue eyes framed by soft brown hair that was slightly wavy when it grew out. And then there was his hairy chest. A mat of body fur poked out over his v-neck sweaters. Sometimes I could see his pecs pushing against the fabric of his shirts that were just tight enough to let his nipples show. Aside from his handsome allure he had charisma and charm oozing out of every pore. As a gay boy whose testosterone was starting to surge in his growing, maturing body, I was smitten.

I was not the only one drawn to this attractive young man. His followers included both young women and men. After years in the Church as a child, a youth, and later in church leadership and teaching in a seminary, I am aware that men and women chosen to be leaders are often physically attractive. When I taught in a seminary, I poked fun at the "Bachelor Phenomenon", explaining to my Christian education classes that the "ideal" youth leader in a Christian group needed to play three chords on the guitar around camp fires, design creative hats and t-shirts in neon colors, know an encyclopedia of non-violent games, spout memorized Bible verses when one left the Bible at home, and be young and good looking enough to get married and make babies thereby teaching the young women in the youth group to be babysitters. I confess that I fit that exact stereotype myself when I led youth groups as a young closeted gay man. Young Life, Youth for Christ, mainline denominational and other evangelical groups seemed to purposefully choose handsome young men to attract young women into the groups while hoping the "fit" factor would bring in the jocks. What the evangelicals didn't plan on was the "Bachelor Phenomenon" snagging young closeted gay men into the groups too. The attractive young leaders were both "bait and hook". I bit hard and soon found myself actively involved with Young Life and later our Presbyterian Church's youth group because of Ron. Had I not been hooked at that impressionable age, there is a good chance that I would never have become the minister I am today.

Of course my active involvement in Young Life and church's youth group wasn't solely because of eye-candy Ron. Baptized as an infant in my dad's Congregational Church in Brooklyn, NY, raised in Sunday School in Maplewood, NJ, I was shepherded in the faith by none other than my maternal grandmother. Grandma lived with us in our house, and she doted over my brother and me. I tried hard to be a good Christian boy in my Grandma's eyes. Even when my brother wore red sneakers, she was nevertheless delighted that we accompanied her to church. When I was learning to play the organ at a small Lutheran church near my parents' house, Grandma came with me, turning the pages of the music during worship. She praised my musical performances no matter how poorly I played. And she encouraged me in my Christian walk, like going to Young Life and youth group. I discovered a passion for learning more about Scripture, and was proud of my young naïve thoughts about the Bible. But the one I wanted to hear from--and be near--was Ron.

For years I followed Ron's direction as a young Christian. When Ron suggested that I go on retreat or go to Young Life's Malibu Club Camp, I went. When Ron asked for a song leader in a Young Life meeting, he and I would sing together. When Ron shared his inner most thoughts at a Bible study, I accepted his interpretation as Godly. After all, I reasoned, Ron was closer to Jesus than I was, and he knew Scripture better than I did. He was my mentor and I was his beloved disciple. In my imagination, he was the closest thing to a boyfriend I could have in my shadow world of unrequited gay love.

My secret love affair with Ron came crashing down with a fanciful description of dating as a McDonalds' "Happy Meal." One summer day when Ron was an intern at my home Presbyterian Church he gave a talk on "dating and the Christian life." I sat in the front row, listening to his every word and taking notes. Using a trip to McDonald's as a metaphor for how to date girls, Ron explained the rules of the game: you get to first base, a kiss, when you buy a girl a Coke; second base included French kissing and touching her breast with a purchase of a burger; third base, which included fellatio, was buying a Coke, burger, and fries. Home base? Intercourse, with Coke, burger, fries, and a milkshake!

Ron didn't stop there. Not only did he cast the American dating game as hedonistic, raising an argument for abstinence-only sex education, but he also told us all who were "homosexual" we're going to hell. Love Jesus or be gay and go to hell were the choices. It was the first time that anyone had ever talked about homosexuality in my experience of Young Life or youth group, and he was not the bearer of glad tidings and great joy. He didn't mince words: being a homosexual was a choice, not a gift, and that if a homosexual drew close to God and asked for forgiveness, he would be released from the bonds of sin and death. My secret lover, my erstwhile boyfriend Ron, just called me a sinner, ensnared by the sin of loving him, and that I was going to hell. My "I 'heart' Ron" affection died painfully that day, and I was condemned to being exposed to evil, choosing sin, and damned to hell.

Looking back on it, I recognize that as the day I went into the closet to hide being gay. Ron's words as an authority figure pushed me deep in the very closet that I began to build in earnest after his fateful lecture. That shadowy, gray, confining space would be my home for the next twenty years. I have memories of taking long walks on the Oregon coast, praying, seeking, and beseeching reconciliation with homophobic Ron and straight-loving Jesus. I was scared of Jesus sending me to hell.

I "heart" Ron" no more. And I heart "me" no more.