hanging out with about 400 gay Christian friends

Last weekend I attended the Gay Christian conference in Denver. I’ve been pondering how to write about this experience and giving myself a little space to process before doing so. This is the third time I have gathered with this community. The first time, in 2007, I went incognito (with full disclosure to their leadership) while still serving as the regional rep. for Exodus. I wanted to listen, observe and be open to whatever God might impress on me. My second conference was last year. I was “out of the closet” so-to-speak as an ex-Exodus leader and straight advocate leading a side B ministry. (For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, side B would view celibacy as the God-honouring option for gay people). I did a workshop on bridge-building that year with great trepidation, but with a great reception from the participants. Over my years of conversations with both ex-gay and gay folks, I have often heard people recount their first experience going to a gay bar. As they told the story, people would often express a familiar sentiment, “I felt like I was at home immediately.” They told of finally feeling like they fit somewhere, like they belonged, like they were understood, like they were safe to be fully themselves. When I would hear these stories, often I would feel a sense of longing in my heart that rather than a gay bar, these friends would be telling this kind of story about the church community they were part of. What they described was what I prayed and hoped the church would be. Being at the conference this year was a bit like that experience for me. Because I felt like I knew more people and more people knew me, I felt more comfortable this year than my past two experiences. People are often surprised to hear this, but I can be shy and hesitant with new crowds of people. Give me an audience of 500 people and I’m fine – but ask me to get to know a new group of nearly 500 people and I’d rather have a cup of tea in my room. In the other two years, I was also extremely sensitive about not wanting my presence to be uncomfortable, or worse yet, unsafe for other participants. But this year, I felt more free to simply be. And I felt accepted. I could laugh. I could worship. I could be myself. I could hug….. a lot. I could extend love and I could receive love. And it was a beautiful thing. I found that there was a maturity at this conference in navigating the differences that were present in this community. One of the unique things about GCN is the hospitality that is extended to gay Christians regardless of whether they are ‘side B’ (celibacy) or ‘side A’ (committed relationships). Because of the commitment to nurturing a space where people can be authentic, there was grace and care extended to honour one another’s convictions – even where they differed. There was a space where we could worship together – and see one another first and foremost as a brother or sister in Christ. This has always been the goal of GCN – but at this particular conference, I found that the conversations were truly generous and spacious. There was room for one another. And this was a beautiful thing for me. The primary priorities were expression of faith in Christ and the opportunity to be real about the experience of being same-sex attracted. With these priorities, this group of 400 or so people were modelling what New Direction is about. The dismantling of polarity and enmity, the room to explore and grow in faith in Christ, the ability to see and honour one another’s humanity despite differences, the openness to being enlarged in grace, patience, humility and generosity, and the demonstration of a unified witness to the love of Christ. And in this space, I was personally touched and blessed. There was a warmth and love that was tangible. I could really resonate with the focus areas that Justin Lee, Executive Director of GCN, shared in his closing keynote. The ones that struck me most were: a commitment to continue to be an authentic and generous community with the identified need to be sensitive and honouring of the side B people who are part of the community, a need to build bridges with the ex-gay community and to take care to not be perceived as bad-mouthing while at the same time giving room and voice to those who felt their ex-gay experiences were hurtful and detrimental to their spiritual and personal journeys, an emphasis on service and justice as a natural extension of being part of the Body of Christ, being a bridge to the secular gay community, being sensitive and relationally open to Muslim people rather than seeing them as the enemy, serving churches as a resource with their stories. I’m probably forgetting some really important points – but these were the ones that stuck with me and encouraged me. In many ways, I experienced similar things at Exodus conferences I have attended in the past. It seems to me that part of the beautiful authenticity at Exodus conferences came from people being able to “let their hair down” about their reality of their same-sex attractions. In that sense, they were being themselves – not worried about who knew. A sense of solidarity and community and a safe place to be real. At the same time, was the effort to move to a place that was beyond the experience of same-sex attraction. And for some, this was a deeper and more meaningful place of authenticity. For others, what seemed more authentic at the time, eventually felt like a shroud and a mask that hid the authenticity of their true selves. My intent is not to compare or critique the two experiences. What strikes me, however, is that the most meaningful part of the experiences for me were the opportunities to worship with people hungry for God (definitely tangible in both experiences) and the chance to witness and experience authenticity of people who felt free and safe to own their reality and be themselves. At the conference this year, I had the opportunity to interview and film 16 different gay Christians for a new pastor’s project I am working on. The premise behind this project is my sense of the assumptions that can easily become unhelpful barriers in the extension of hospitality to gay Christians. I have found that pastors have some assumptions about what a gay Christian might need, want or expect from a church or from them as a pastor. And I have found that some gay Christians have assumptions about how a pastor might respond to them. (These assumptions are understandably often tied to unhelpful or painful experiences with churches and pastors in the past.) So, as I interviewed people, they had the opportunity to express what they would hope to encounter in a church and in a pastor. The common thread, without question, was a willingness to listen and dialogue. I’m excited to see this project take shape as a bridge-building effort to enlarge understanding and openness. If you would be willing to participate in this project and you are either a pastor or a gay Christian, please do email me directly. In addition to the interviews, I had the opportunity to hear some very interesting stories. Stories that have stuck with me. I got to hear about a gentleman who was married to his wife for 55 years. He was open with his wife about his same-sex orientation throughout their marriage. He was faithful to her and he loved her. After she died, he had the opportunity to meet and connect with a same-sex companion. They are now sharing these twilight years of life together. I met a women who came out in her 70’s. She shared with me that every New Year’s day she would take the day to fast and pray and hear from the Lord what special assignments or ministry opportunities He had for her for the coming year. A couple of years ago, she found herself praying and in the Word throughout the day but strangely didn’t seem to be getting any direction from the Lord. As the day was coming to a close, she sensed the Lord telling her that her assignment for that year had to do with her. And she knew immediately what that meant. She had paradoxically been aware of her same-sex orientation and stuffed this awareness deep within her throughout her life. She sensed that God was inviting her to a deeper level of authenticity. She said the first thing she needed to do was to come out to herself. Subsequently, she came out to her immediate family. Several of her church-going children no longer speak to her and she has essentially no contact with her grandchildren. For her, this step towards authenticity has been a profoundly costly one – yet also one that has enriched her relationship with God and with herself. One of the women I interviewed had the most amazing singing voice. I sat in front of her during the final Sunday morning communion service and her incredible harmonies blessed and thrilled me. When I bumped into her in the hallway later, she told me how much my workshop on “Engaging the Global Evangelical Church” had meant to her. I told her how beautiful her singing voice was and how it had blessed me. She then went on to tell me the most amazing story of having lost her voice some 15 years earlier due to some growth on her vocal chords. She said that she would lose her voice on and off lasting for sometimes weeks at a time. After some time of this, she asked again for prayer from members of her church. While driving home, she felt like God said to her, “You have not because you ask not.” At that point, she began to pray for God to restore her voice, she called on the name of Jesus to break any power or stronghold of the enemy, and asked for her inheritance as a daughter of the King. She was describing a prayer of faith. And indeed, the next day her voice returned and she has not lost it since. She was joyful and confident in bearing witness to God’s gift of healing in her life. I heard stories of pain. I heard stories of joy. I heard stories of struggle. I heard stories of love. One young man who had connected with New Direction shared in the closing time. He told of being suicidal and how much coming to this conference had meant to him. I didn’t recognize him – but went up to him to apologize for any way that New Direction might have been hurtful to him. He told me that he had connected in the mid-nineties (way before my time – but he looked about 18 so I’d assumed it must have been during my tenure). He wept as I held him in an embrace. I think it was healing for both of us. I was able to pray for him and with him. And as we parted ways, I felt that this had been a tangible expression of nurturing the kind of space in which faith and authenticity are priorities. One of the gifts given to me this past weekend was the opportunity to be the kind of person I long to be. I long to be one who loves well. In my regular, day-to-day life, there are plenty of things that rise up to challenge and frustrate these intentions of my heart. Maybe some of you can relate to that. But at the conference, I felt very free to simply love people where they’re at. To extend a warm embrace. To listen and be fully present. To empathize and share sorrow for hurts and disappointments. To laugh and find joy. And in the process of loving well, I too, was loved. And for this, I am so very grateful.

-WG

#generousspaciousness

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