Last weekend, under a sweltering sun and amidst an atmosphere decorated with rainbow flags and dogs in drag and Finding Dory bubbles and homemade ice cream and at least one Hello Kitty superhero sighting, I listened as curious gay men and women inquired about how queer it was for a Baptist church to have a spiritually open and affirming presence at Denver PrideFest, which is nationally known to be a celebration of community, heritage, family and culture and produced by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado (The Center). One memorable older gay man came up to my church’s booth and said to me (the pastor wearing the rainbow stole), “You know, I gave up on church a long time ago. I decided if people in church were going to be so ‘clicky’ and hateful, I had better things to do and better people to be with. But it makes me happy to see you here representing the faith and that being gay and being Baptist are not so mutually exclusive.”
I am a proud parent and pastor to be part of a church whose spiritual mantra is “open to all, closed to none.” These are not flighty words or a big, fat slice of wishful thinking pie-in-the-sky. More than ever, I believe it is worth the practical pain and effort to live the truth of these words in a world that is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.
My church happens not to be the brand of Baptists many people have come to know (you know, the non-judgmental, non-hateful, open-minded, open-hearted, loving, welcoming and affirming kind). Quite tragically, many in the watching equate being Baptist with the vulgar and vitriolic witness associated with the likes of Roger Jimenez of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento, CA, who in response to the 49 innocents massacred in Orlando said, “They got what they deserved…The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die.”
His verbal violence reminds me of Anne Lamott’s sad but salient words about what happens when being made in God’s image is so twisted and distorted: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Jiminez’s ignorant and incendiary remarks were not lost on a young, Hispanic man who also visited my church’s booth and said to me with fear and suspicion in his voice, “That preacher from Sacramento said that the people at Pulse in Orlando should all be put up against a firing wall and a firing squad should kill them. He is part of YOUR denomination, did you know that?”
With my heart in my throat, I assured the young man that the preacher from Sacramento may be Baptist by name, but he doesn’t speak for me or my church nor does that kind of homophobia and hate and bigotry have a damn thing to do with God’s radical love and acceptance we know in the story of Jesus. If Jesus is exclusionary about anything, it is compassion, not condemnation.
Hearing these stories and many more from my LGBTQI brothers and sisters, it is poignant to me that my children ages seven and five were with me. I wanted them to experience PrideFest as deeply and fully as they could, to blow bubbles, eat ice cream, and have fun. I wanted them to feel the fullness of this family-friendly event and that maybe in some small way, for those three hours that they would know that the whole human family God loves is bigger and more colorful and more diverse and more accepted than we can ever imagine.
Truth is, when I think about my own son or daughter feeling fear and exclusion like the men I talked to last weekend and like many more who have been made to feel worthless and valueless by churches who have used and abused the name of Christ, it breaks my heart. And if it breaks my heart as a parent, it must break God’s heart even more, for what breaks God’s heart is much of what breaks the heart of any good parent.
As a straight white man, a pastor, and a parent, holding the hands of my children and walking among the Mile High masses of beautiful LGBTQI people, I felt the freedom of being part of God’s chosen people, no one lesser or greater. That is the way it should be anyway, and it is my pastoral and parental dream that it is one day the way it shall be.
I’ve learned as a father how cruel and unkind even young children can be to one another, as violence can start early when children inherit a vocabulary of hate from adults’ drama and trauma. But adorned with our rainbow regalia, I saw PrideFest as a symbol of healing and hope for our current epidemic of social hate. I felt like a foretaste of a future for my children where ALL of God’s children can know the vastness of God’s parental love that will never let any of us go.
My parental and pastoral pride about Denver PrideFest 2016 is that for those three hours with my family and my church family, love prevailed. God IS love, after all. And so, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (I John 4:7)