Today I am in Nashville, Tennessee, attending the Southern Baptist Conventions “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commissions” annual conference called “Christ-Centered Parenting In A Complex World”. On the surface, they may seem like a strange place to find someone like me ― I am an openly queer, progressive activist, and the pastor of a liberal Christian church in San Diego.
Every Sunday, at some point in our church service, I make reference to how many folks in our congregation come from a religious background that excluded them, and reaffirm that absolutely everyone is welcome to the communion table, where all humans stand equal in dignity, value, and love before the God who has saved us all.
The exclusive religious tradition I am talking about nine times out of ten is the Southern Baptist Convention. It is the largest Protestant denomination in the country and it’s thousands of church fill up the map, ranging from small rural churches to bustling 10,000+ member megachurches in America’s largest cities. Because of the Southern Baptists influence on American religious, education, and politics, it’s hard for any American not to have been, in some way, influenced by this brand of Christianity.
As a young Christian teenager, I dreamed of being a Southern Baptist pastor- speaking to thousands of people about Jesus every Sunday, proclaiming a message of repentance to our nation that was falling by the moral wayside. But when I was in college and discovered I was queer, I quickly saw that there was no place for me in the Southern Baptist Convention. I began to hear message from Southern Baptist preachers that said that unless I suppressed and sought to heal my sexual orientation, I would prove myself to be “unsaved” and damned to hell. I watch YouTube videos where preachers railed against the gay agenda that was fundamentally opposed to the message of Jesus.
“I love my God and my church more than ever, and yet I couldn’t deny who I was.”
These messages caused me tremendous emotional distress ― I love my God and my church more than ever, and yet I couldn’t deny who I was. But if I embraced my true self, I would be condemned to hell. If I denied my true self, I knew that I would build my life on a lie that would eventually come to the surface, resulting in scandal like we’ve seen dozens of times before from conservative pastors. I knew I had to be honest, and I spent years digging into Christian theology only to find out what I felt to be true in my heart: God doesn’t condemn LGBT+ people, but in fact, celebrates queer sexuality and gender identity. That the moral trajectory of the Bible is towards a more inclusive posture, not an exclusive one.
Soon after I publicly “came out” as an LGBT+ Christian, I began to realize that I wasn’t the only one who suffered such tremendous distress at the hands of conservative Christians ― I received hundreds of emails from Christian teenagers who “struggled” with their sexuality and were thrown into deep despair, because of the damaging teachings they were hearing in their church and homes. As my own wounds healed and my own faith solidified in a new, inclusive and progressive way, I felt an inner-nudging to return to conservative spaces and to let pastor know the true fruits of their teachings on sexuality and gender. I wanted to share the dozen of peer-reviewed studies with them that show that LGBT+ youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide if they grow up in a conservative religious home than they are in a non-religious home. I wanted to share with them the way they’ve been taught to abuse and misuse the Bible to promote a poisonous message that flies in the face of who Jesus is and what he proclaimed. I wanted to watch hearts and minds change, and in turn, watch leaders take a bold stand for inclusion in the church. This became a burning passion and calling for me.
Over the past five years, I’ve continued to enter into non-affirming religious spaces and engage in conversations about sexuality and gender identity with some of the most prominent religious leaders in the world today. Whether meeting with Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) leaders in official church offices high about Salt Lake City or having late night discussions with the over a dozen of the pastors of America’s largest ministries in hotel suites in Georgia, I have watched and witnessed how sharing my story and the stories of other LGBT+ Christians has slowly but surely shifted people attitudes and change their churches position on LGBT+ equality and inclusion. For so many of these leaders, they’ve never personally engaged one on one with an LGBT+ Christian, and they’ve never been exposed to the hard data about the damage their teaching causes. It is out of this ignorance, more often than not, that their homophobia and bigotry emerges, not out of a hateful heart.
At the same time, I have also experienced the most hateful and immature behavior from Christian leaders whom I have sought to engage, like when Bible Scholar Michael Brown tried to humiliate me on stage during a dialogue, telling me that I should “come back to talk when I am older” or when Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission had his security guards rush him away when he saw a group of us coming towards him to talk, later resulting in us being forcibly removed from a conference we had rightfully registered for. Other times, we’ve simply been stonewalled by leaders or disregarded as “radical activists” for simply wanting to have a candid conversation and exchange of ideas.
Every time I’ve been rejected, I have also found myself strangely fortified to continue to press in to these spaces and demand a place at the table that I rightfully belong to be at. I press on because my inbox still receives messages every week from young queer Christians who are at the end of their rope because of what these church leaders are teaching. I press on because the call of Scripture is to stand boldly and speak the truth to those in power, with the promise that God will tear down the walls of division and vindicate those who are in the right.
So today, I find myself yet again here in Nashville, entering in to the “belly of the beast” with a team from my friend Mitchell Gold’s Faith In America organization, seeking to have a conversation and raise to the consciousness of every attendee the harm that is being done by the message they are proclaiming in their churches. We have traveled from across the country, booked hotel rooms, paid conference registration, and reached out to every major speaker and leader gathered, requesting a civil conversation about the effects of non-affirming theology, and have received not a single response. We have done the work, we have set the table, and now the onus is on the Southern Baptist leaders who claim to have the “truth” to join us at the table and listen, converse, and engage in a robust dialogue. We’ve come to their territory and are ready to speak. Will they step up to the plate? Only time will tell.
But even if the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention never respond, and even if they try to have us thrown out of a conference again, our witness will not go unnoticed. Literally every time I have ever shown up in a space like this, I have at least a half-dozen conversations with pastors who are deeply distressed about what they’ve been teaching and desire our help to step out for the dignity and equality of LGBT+ people. And every year, dozens of these leaders of congregations big and small take a stand, face condemnation from their peers, but experience the liberating freedom of including and celebrating everyone in their communities.
Every time that I come to these events, I have a knot in my stomach, and I wonder if what I am doing is really worth it after all. But then I remember the nights I spent laying in a broom closet in my Bible college dormitory, crying out for God to heal me of my same-sex attractions, tormented by the very way that I was created, and I remember that there are thousands of young LGBT+ people in those same situations and worse right now. There are thousands of LGBT+ youth who have a deep faith and also desire to love who they’ve been created to love, express themselves as they’ve been created to express. And they need the church to change. They need to see their pastors repent of the harm they’ve done. They need faithful churches in their communities that affirm them and embrace them just as they are throughout their entire lives.
Because religion isn’t going anywhere, and neither are queer people. And I believe and have seen the power of witness, of sharing our stories, and allowing peoples hearts to be transformed as they realize what they’ve done and are compelled to make it right. They need the information, they need the stories, and they need messengers to come to them if they’re every going to experience these things. That’s why I am here in Nashville today. That’s why I do the work that I do. And I am grateful to have survived and be thriving as an openly LGBT+ Christian pastor today. I am convinced that a new day is dawning and is already here, and I am hopeful that one day, every church, mosque, and synagogue will throw open their doors to welcome and embrace all of God’s queer children, just as we are. And that dream begins here, today, in Nashville, Tennessee, one conversation at a time.