Text & Photography by D. Giles Clasen
For most of Nick Brown’s life the thing standing between him and true love was a deep belief in God.
“It occurred to me that the word ‘gay’ might apply to me when I was fifteen,” Brown said. “I was terrified. Just terrified. I’ve never prayed so much in my life. ‘God, take it away, take it away, take it away,’” he said. “I’d known that I was attracted to guys. I’d just never really realized that that attraction was also sexual.”
For Brown, who is deeply religious, being gay and Christian became a defining struggle in his life, a source of confusion and empowerment, but the process has not been perfect. Nor is it complete.
Brown’s life is like a narrative exploration of one question: is it possible to be gay and Christian? According to a 2009 Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans identify as Christian, putting this question at the heart of many people’s lives.
And churches fall on all sides of the issue. A Canadian organization called the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (OCRT), which publishes the website religioustolerance.org, have been following the debate closely. Their website lists the positions of 47 Christian denominations in North America. “Of the thousands of Christian denominations in the United States, it is the mainline faith groups who are most actively discussing homosexuality,” OCRT said.
A section of their site dedicated to research on the issue says, “Liberal and progressive Christian groups have accepted homosexuality as a normal and natural sexual orientation experienced by a minority of adults, and have eliminated bars to membership and ordination based on sexual orientation. Fundamentalist and other evangelical churches and denominations have generally… retained unchanged the historical Christian beliefs which condemn all same-sex behavior. The Episcopal Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church are in transition. They are probably experiencing the greatest amount of conflict over equal rights for their gay and lesbian members.”
For Brown, the struggle between his sexuality and his faith began early. He embraced his sexuality, told his parents and his friends he was gay, then waited for the fallout. He expected explosions, rejection and loneliness. But to his surprise, friends and family accepted him, and by sharing his secret he was able to overcome his shame.
The reaction at his church was a little bit different. Brown experienced rejection in his youth group. He sought advice from his youth pastor. Instead of helping Brown, the pastor sexually abused him. Brown felt isolated and scared. He didn’t tell his parents about the abuse because he felt debased. In anticipation of being told he was an abomination, and to get away from the youth pastor, Brown left his church.
Leaving the church before college was a turning point for Brown, but it didn’t mean leaving his ideas of faith. He continued to believe homosexuality was a sin. He ruminated on his ideas of God, even turning to God in prayer. He thought his very existence was in opposition to a God he wanted to obey and love.
Brown’s desire to live a Christian faith in spite of his sexuality isn’t as unusual as one would think. Nearly 60 percent of GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer) individuals claim “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ” is important in their lives and 70 percent of the gay community self identify as Christians according to a 2009 study by the Barna Group, a Christian research firm. The study noted only 43 percent of the GLBTQ community hold a Christian orthodox view.
Considering the faith community in Denver, Jeremy Shaver, director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, said these issues touch every church. In today’s political sphere, with an ongoing debate about what legal rights should be shared with the gay community, rhetoric is often anchored to religion and can take the conversation to extremes.
“The extremes are usually where we have the conversation and we don’t get much beyond that,” said Shaver. “It is important to find people who disagree but respect and communicate with one another.” Shaver has a lot invested in this debate. He is gay and has lived with his partner for 10 years, earned a Masters in Divinity from Iliff School of Theology, is pursuing ordination and directs Christian Education at Park Hill Congregational Church.
“Respectful conversation has the potential to unite communities from different religious, political, social and ethnic backgrounds,” Shaver said, “It is unfair for one group to force a view or idea on another, no matter how rooted in modern thinking it is, or how embedded an idea is in the traditions.”
Mike Sares, the pastor who founded Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, agrees that the most important way to address this issue is to try to find unity despite disagreement. Scum of the Earth is a church designed to attract a young, progressive population while teaching a version of Christianity rooted in Evangelical tradition.
“I don’t want to make doctrine like this an issue if it comes to hurting relationships,” Sares said.
Sares and staff members at Scum have discussed this issue at length. They want to be true to their interpretation of scripture, an interpretation that leaves open the possibility that homosexuality is a sin. They also want to be true to the belief that to live in faith is to love all people, including the GLBTQ community.
“We don’t have any official stance on homosexuality,” Sares said. “We are currently trying to figure out if we are going to write anything down. There are some people at Scum who do not want to write anything down, because as soon as you write something down you stop the conversation.”
Sares struggles finding a balance between accepting gay individuals and following his interpretations of the Bible. This tension is where Brown has tried to live since he shared he was gay. Brown said he began attending Scum because he felt it was a place made up of individuals who have experienced rejection and are trying to understand God in lieu of their pain.
“By the time I got into college I’d decided that I was going to be actively and openly gay and I didn’t know how to reconcile my sexuality with my faith so I really didn’t try,” Brown said. “At the same time the biggest problem with me deciding to be gay, actively, was it included, in one lump package, me walking away from the church and from God.”
Brown’s belief in the Christian God eventually won out. He joined a church in Indiana then moved to Denver to pursue a Masters in Counseling License from Denver Seminary, a conservative Evangelical graduate school.
Brown said in Indiana many of his gay friends saw his decision as an abandonment of the gay community. Some of his friends believed gay individuals should leave the church. At the same time his church friends believed he needed to leave behind his sexuality. Brown chose his church and a life of celibacy. He described his renunciation of his gay lifestyle as a thrill ride. He rose in position and popularity in his church because he was the man who had given up being gay to follow God.
Shaver refused to give up his sexual identity as a gay man, or his longtime partner. The consequences for his decision were dire. The first denomination at which he sought a pastorate refused him ordination. He succinctly described the rejection as, “Painful, more painful than I realize.” Being denied ordination because of his sexuality caused him to question not only his faith, but also the faith community.
“For me God is the community gathered,” Shaver said. “The Holy is in the whole creation. I don’t have a concept of a white bearded man in the sky. God really is the community gathered.”
Shaver has been able to heal through participation with the United Church of Christ, a denomination that will ordain him no matter his sexual identity.
Both Sares and Shaver agree there is a significant difference between careful and continued deliberation on homosexuality and Christian faith, and overt hatred. The two emphasized that there should be patience and understanding for those with differing views who are seeking to understand God. Both said groups who practice overt hatred should be exposed as outliers of the faith. There are groups who target the gay community through violence and violent speech and justify their hatred by their faith. According to Shaver and Sares, these groups should be recognized as fringe groups who do not speak for the majority of Christians.
Sares said he is frustrated with churches that actively protest with signs saying things like, “God hates fags.” It is difficult to gauge how many churches in the U.S. actively participate in such rhetoric.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life tracks participation in different faith belief systems. In a 2007 Pew survey 26 percent of Americans said they were members of an Evangelical Protestant Church. The Evangelical movement is often most heavily associated with an anti-gay sentiment.
Evangelical protestant churches vary widely in belief and teachings, but the movement is most heavily defined by holding to five fundamentals of faith. They include belief that Jesus Christ is deity, belief Jesus was born a virgin birth, belief that Jesus’ death on the cross brought forgiveness of sins, belief Jesus rose from the grave and belief that Bible is without error. But even these tenants are heavily debated among the Evangelical movement.
Within Evangelical Protestantism there is not any major denomination that condones overt hate speech, but individual churches can act apart from their major denomination and it is difficult to determine how many do so.
John Hicks, the pastor of Saint James Urban in Denver, fears that he may have exhibited some level of hate when trying to follow his faith as a young pastor. In 1978, not long after graduating from seminary, Hicks and 20 others moved to Capitol Hill to serve the poor. One member of the group was a gay man. Hicks sought to accept the individual into the group, and believed through participation the man’s “painful decision” would be blessed. Their friendship splintered when Hicks decreed a gay man cannot be in leadership in the church. The man left the group and broke all communication with Hicks.
“To be a leader in our little mission, you had to be chaste,” Hicks wrote in an email. “That means you have to be true to your call. So, if you were single, stay alone in bed. If you’re married, stay with your mate in bed. If you’re gay, stay in denial.”
Hicks feels shame for holding views that hurt a friend. Hick’s is currently leading his church to join other faith organizations endorsing a Colorado Civil Union Amendment.
When his small church met to discuss the decision, Hicks said the church is often ten years behind on social justice movements and this was an opportunity to not fall behind on another justice fight. Bobby Parks, a long time member of Saint James Urban, responded by saying condoning gay relationships struck to the heart of Christian beliefs.
“I am against gay relationships because of the Bible,” Parks said in a voice so quiet she was barely audible across the room. “The Bible says it is a sin. When I sin, we as a church are to correct me. I am hurting someone if I let two people follow through in being gay and sinning.”
Parks quoted from the Bible to defend her views. Randy Welch, a church elder, responded by emphasizing there is no such thing as a literal reading of the Bible because the context has been lost over millennia. Welch said the church should strive to live out the essence of the teachings in the Bible. He said getting to the essence was much more difficult and more important.
As the tension in the room rose, Sid Rundle, a school principal said, “This is an issue that has been thrust upon the faith community. People want to engage the church because they believe the church speaks for God.”
After about an hour Hicks turned to a man with gray hair pulled back to a ponytail, “Come on George, why don’t you tell us what you think about all of this.”
The man unfolded his legs, clasped his hands together and looked at the floor for nearly a minute. Everyone in the room knew George Stevenson’s history with Saint James Urban. He left the church over a dispute with Hicks about his sexual identity. Stevenson reconnected after 25 years and after Hicks expressed deep remorse.
“Imagine your first love,” Stevenson said. “Imagine you got so close to them and wrote them love notes and became magically involved. Then you were told at some point in the development of that relationship it was absolutely wrong. That’s what I dealt with. I was told I couldn’t love God and be gay. I thought, ‘Oh, God hates me.’”
Stevenson told the members of Saint James Urban he quit the church because it hated him and he hated himself because of the Bible. Stevenson said he learned any interpretation of the Bible is influenced by personal views and sometimes those views are interwoven with cultural bigotry.
“I don’t know why I’m gay. But I know I was rejected and hurt. When I left the church it became this circle of self-hatred, refusing to acknowledge God’s love, not caring any more about myself, and walking away from God, the church and faith. Being accepted again has helped me to love myself.”
Brown is beginning to question his views afresh. He is trying to love himself and thinks he will only love himself when he accepts his sexual identity. Brown began dating men recently, but hasn’t begun a serious relationship. He doesn’t know how individuals at Scum of the Earth will respond, but he believes in his friends and pastors. He believes he will be accepted, but is unsure what acceptance may look like. Ultimately Brown doesn’t know if being gay is a sin. He said he knows he is lying to himself and to God by ignoring his feelings.
“Anyone that were to read a pro-gay theology book and just says, ‘Oh, thank God! It’s okay.’ And then moves on with their life, that’s a huge error,” Brown said. “ The same is true about reading anything that justifies condemning being gay. Either is a huge error, because it’s clearly not clear. If you want to say, ‘Oh, the Bible doesn’t condemn it,’ it sure as fuck doesn’t condone it either. At all. Ever. Anywhere. So, it has to be a wrestling match. I wrestle.” •