Darren's Story: We All Belong Here: My Journey of Faith

I’m Darren, and I’ve often described myself as black, Christian, and gay. I’m also a lot of other things, like a photographer, a worship leader, and an advocate. Each of these descriptors could be used to identify groups that I fit into, but none of them tell the whole story of who Darren is. And while I may fit into different groups, I’m still trying to answer the question of “where do I belong?” At the end of the day, I want all the ways that I describe myself to paint a vibrant picture of who I am and what I believe, and also to hold space for others along a similar journey who share a common interest.

Belonging is something that many of us desire, but it has often been elusive to find and maintain. Some of my earliest memories are of trying to figure out where I fit in. I grew up in Chicago, where the side of town you live on pretty much determines which baseball team you root for: Cubs fan (north side) or a Sox fan (south side). I grew up on the south side, so when people asked “Cubs or Sox?” the correct answer was Sox. But in college, I spent time on the north side and could just as easily answer “Cubs,” to the celebration of those around me. The secret is that I actually am not invested in baseball—at all. However, I was learning early on that to “belong” meant that you needed to align yourself with the “right” answers to certain questions, and for me, what I really thought came secondary to being accepted or welcomed. We see these kinds of choices presented all the time: pizza with or without pineapple, anyone? We also see it in more sobering questions about political parties and church affiliations. While these choices range from trivial to critical for the functioning of our society, they frequently represent binaries—either/or thinking that determines who’s in and who’s out.

After I came out as gay at 17, I remember being eager to meet other gay people because the only ones I knew were from an internet chatroom. I hoped that by being out, I would find the other gay people around me and we would share something in common. Maybe they could even teach me things about how to be gay since all of this felt “new” to me. I didn’t meet many gay friends at the time, but I did meet Christians who insisted that being gay wasn’t God’s plan for my life. These new Christian friendships led to eight years of me trying to renounce homosexuality and become heterosexual. And while there were some profound moments of learning and even spiritual growth during that time, I was also subjected to years of spiritual abuse in a toxic church culture. One of the themes of that time was the constant threat of losing my salvation. Like a carrot being dangled in front of a rabbit, the promise of heaven was always just out of my reach. This dynamic kept me following the instructions of my church leaders—often to the detriment of my sense of self and well-being. I gave up attending university, and I gave up my photography business, friends, and even family for the promise of belonging in God’s Kingdom. Eventually, with the support of a faithful few who wouldn’t give up on me, I realized that church wasn’t healthy for me, and so I left. But I was saddled with years of harmful theology and no church to call home. For some, the idea that one has to become heterosexual (or at least try) is the key to belonging in a church community. And while some have made peace with that, I found that it wasn’t right for me.

When I left my previous church, some suggested that I go to a gay-affirming church, but that didn’t feel like a match for me either because the theology and culture were so different. I eventually found a church where I felt I could be honest about what I described as a struggle with same-sex attraction, but where my salvation and relationship with God weren’t on the line with endless hoops to show my commitment. I spent nine years in this community loving God and loving others, while being known and loved exactly as I was. This built up in me the courage to begin publicly sharing my experiences as a gay Christian—including sharing that I was on a journey, figuring out how best to honor God in response to my orientation. The leaders in that community invited me to consider celibacy as a lifelong calling or response to being gay. I spent many years exploring that idea with leaders that I’d built a trusting relationship with. In this exploration, I came to realize that none of us in my church had this figured out. So I began spending more time in groups outside of my church, where I discovered faithful Christians who were also LGBTQ+ and living their faith in a range of ways. Some were trying or hoping to become heterosexual like I’d previously attempted. But I also met people who were committed to celibacy and people who chose intentional community living or celibate partnerships. I also met people who were heterosexually married but very clear that they were in a mixed orientation marriage. Lastly, I met people who were gay, same-sex married, and had been raising children for 30+ years. Now I was encountering the reality that lots of people are responding as faithfully as they can, but that it doesn’t all look the same. I wanted to honor all of these stories, so I began to advocate for the broad range of people I’d built relationships with, and that has led to conflict. I saw how the church wasn’t the safest or most gracious space for all of these people—no matter what their beliefs were or how faithfully they adhered to church policy. I want to be part of changing that. I feel called to help make the church better at loving all same-sex attracted, same-gender loving, and LGBTQ+ people.

I didn’t know where in this range of Christians I would find myself practicing my faith for the rest of my life, but I was willing to be vocal and out front to make space for people like me—folks who love Jesus, love the church, and just want to be part of a community that can love them back. Being on the front lines comes with the questions about what you believe: “Is it a sin?” “Can you change your orientation?” “Should same-sex marriage be legal?” These are all questions that I wrestled with internally, but also was being asked publicly. I eventually found myself aligned with an organization that chose not to make a public stance about same-sex marriage, and instead sought to hold the church accountable to loving LGBTQ+ people. In many ways, this became the way I navigated being in many spaces. I knew that if I answered certain questions with the “right” answers, I could be heard and possibly accepted. But I didn’t know exactly where I belonged. Because I knew a lot of perspectives but didn’t have a lot of answers for myself, this ambiguity felt like the best way forward for me.

In 2015, a conservative Christian magazine began investigating me because I was scheduled to speak about racial justice at a conference that affirmed same-sex marriage. Even though my church was on public record as not affirming of same-sex marriage, the article made the accusation that we were “abandoning the Bible” and secretly falling away from its stance on marriage, all because I was present at the event. This criticism came from people who weren’t concerned about my life or the life of my church; they just aimed to prove their assumption that all things associated with being gay are bad. At this point, I was faced with the hard reality that some people will demand you “pick a side” for the sole purpose of disqualifying you or who you’re with.  This magazine suggested that the only way to be faithful would be for me to distance myself from all things LGBTQ - even from describing myself that way. Calls poured into the church and some groups distanced themselves from our community—simply because I existed and they weren’t sure about my beliefs. This kind of treatment comes at such a cost to LGBTQ+ people. We are often made to feel responsible for church splits, family arguments, and even the eternal damnation of others. This cost is an undue burden to us, and some have already paid with their lives. It was at this point that I decided to stop publicly answering certain questions about my sexuality, and instead, chose to continue my own journey privately with trusted friends.

Fast-forwarding to today, I’ve moved on to work in a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, and I continue to serve church leaders and communities that have a range of beliefs about sexual ethics. I’m fully committed to Jesus and living in a way that honors him, but I’ve moved away from the tedious effort of choosing who’s in and who’s out. The reconciliation of my faith is a set of values about how I engage myself and others in love-centered community. Part of those values is maintaining space for others—including those who I may not agree with. The heaven that I envision in scripture has every nation, tribe, and tongue, and won’t be sectioned off by the affiliations we navigate here on earth. In many ways, this is how I’ve always felt, but I’m choosing to be clearer than ever about it. I advocate for people who pursue celibacy, and I will perform a same-sex wedding. I hold space for people who assert that they themselves are no longer gay, and I honor the stories of people who are seeking ethical ways to pursue relational intimacy outside of monogamy. There is a range of beliefs and ways that people exist in the world, but what I hold true is that the image of God should be honored in every person, no matter what their beliefs are.

We’ll all find belonging in different places and to differing degrees. I don’t think the differences that make our faith, denomination, or scriptural understandings of gender and sexuality will go away anytime soon. But for me, I’ll continue to follow Jesus in the best ways that I can as I love God and love my neighbors as myself. I’m investing myself in a value of belonging that doesn’t require we all think the same exact things. I’ve found this to be the most life-giving way that I can love everyone—not out of fear of punishment, but instead out of grace and care. My journey reflects significant time spent in various places of theological belief—and all of that continues to be important to my story and how I move forward. Sometimes this means people think I believe exactly as they do, and that’s OK. Other times it means I don't belong in some spaces, and that’ll have to be OK, too. I’ll continue to figure out what the future looks like for me relationally, sexually, and spiritually, but I hope you’ll stick around for the journey. May the holy spirit teach us all how to live lives led by love and truth.

Melinda's Story: Taking the Long Way Around

I started figuring out that I was gay at the age of 34. I was at the movies with a church friend, and two movies about angels were playing: Michael, starring John Travolta, and The Preacher’s Wife, starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. After we dithered a while about which movie to see, she finally asked, “Well, who would you rather look at for the next two hours, John or Denzel?”

I answered, “Whitney!”

She looked at me for a moment, then said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Why should it mean anything? Wouldn’t everybody want to look at Whitney Houston for hours on end? Well, apparently not everybody—and especially not 30-something married Christian moms.

I started wondering if it did mean something. I realized that nobody had ever asked me who I wanted to look at before. Growing up Catholic in the 1960s and ‘70s, I was told a lot about what not to look at and what not to do, but that was all about boys. I’d dated boys in high school, but being a good Catholic girl, I never let things go too far. (I now realize why that was easy for me.)

I went home from the movies, started looking around, and discovered that, yes, everybody I really liked looking at was female. I’d been married for 10 years to the only guy I’d dated seriously in college, and we had a three-year-old son. After a few months of looking around, though, I told my husband, “Looks like I’m probably gay.” He asked if this news was going to change anything between us. Being Catholic, I didn’t consider divorce an option, and I liked my life the way it was, so I told him so. We stayed married for another 15 years, until he decided that the marriage would be over once our son left for college. Once it was, I began coming out publicly.

It was a very gentle path to coming out. I didn’t grow up consciously dealing with being gay. I didn’t have to tell my mom until I was long out of the house. Growing up in a liberal Catholic family in California, I never heard a homophobic sermon, either in church or at the dinner table, and was never exposed to any ex-gay nonsense.  I didn’t fall in love and have to make hard choices about it. I didn’t even have any notable crushes—besides Whitney.

It took a long time for me to think of myself as gay. In the 15 years after coming out to myself (and my husband), I had only come out to a few close friends. In the process of divorce, I realized that one of its benefits would be that I could explore this side of my identity. Then a friend posted a prayer on Facebook for National Coming Out Day, from an organization called the Gay Christian Network.That’s a thing? There’s a whole network? I wondered. I was friends with some LGBTQ+ Episcopalians and I knew a few LGBTQ+ ex-priests and nuns and a lesbian couple who had attended my former church briefly, so it wasn’t a totally foreign concept. It was just starting to occur to me that “gay Christian” might describe me, too.

I joined the GCN online community and learned the jargon. I read about the Great Debate, Side A versus Side B, and realized that my reading of Scripture aligned with Side B (though others could read it differently in good faith). Having left the Catholic Church about 10 years before, I was attending a Church of Christ congregation, and had been the children’s ministry leader there for several years. I came out at church when I was invited to speak at a children’s ministry conference, and decided to speak on making churches safer for LGBTQ+ kids and families. I felt that I had to tell my church leadership that I’d be speaking as a gay person, while my nametag and my bio were saying that I was the children’s minister of their (our) church.

They were generally accepting, if a little puzzled. One of the elders, whom I’d known for more than 10 years, asked, “Well, are you going to DO anything about it?” (He meant get into a relationship, of course, but I had to laugh.) When I assured them that I wasn’t, they supported me being out and continuing in children’s ministry. I came out gradually to the rest of the church, and was the only out LGBTQ+ person in our church. While a few of the (mostly older male) members had questions, and there were often clueless remarks, that small congregation where everybody knew me was relatively open to learning how to respect this part of my identity. Coming out also allowed a couple of other closeted LGBTQ+ people in the church to talk to me about their own lives, though they weren’t ready to come out completely.

Meanwhile, I had started attending a local GCN Bible study. From the first night I walked in, I was part of the family. Though I was often the only Side B person present, there were so many other theological differences among us that we learned not to let them divide us. It wasn’t always easy—we had some heated discussions about the Sabbath, and salvation, and how to read Revelation, and politics—but we tried to love each other through the differences.

Still, I lived alone. For a hard-core extrovert, being with loved ones for a few hours a few days a week just wasn’t enough. When my son graduated from college, I moved across the country to join an intentional Christian community, Church of the Sojourners. I’m not the only out LGBTQ+ person in my church anymore—there are a few of us, on both “sides.” Our community has historically been Side B, holding celibacy as the expectation for gay and single straight members. Now we are having a slow conversation about becoming more affirming. Whatever we eventually decide, I know that I won’t be alone, and I will be loved here.

Scott's Story: A Journey of Grace--All over the Map

Twists and turns abounded early in my sexuality & faith journey. Around the age of 5, I started having experiences of gender dysphoria, mimicking mannerisms that seemed feminine and gravitating toward games most of the girls played. Let’s just say becoming the jump rope champion on the playground wasn’t earning many boyhood points at home or school. Neither did sometimes wishing I was a girl. When it came to developing crushes in 5th and 6th grade, even in the midst of all the gender confusion, I did have a few little girlfriends that I genuinely cared about and felt attracted to them. We’d sneak over to Mitzi Hall’s house and play spin the bottle or have “make out” parties after school. But, on the heels of those awkward puberty years, I noticed a rising attraction to several of the boys in my class.

During this bisexual season, I tried figuring out why I had these confusing feelings. My thinking was mostly done in isolation and silence, having no one safe with which to share. Not long into this exploration, my best guy friend at the time initiated a sexual experience with me. Though I was for longing for a close connection with someone, I wasn’t emotionally ready to handle the sexual aspect. I was only 14 at the time. We met secretly over the next couple of years; internally, I more and more embraced a gay identity.

To add another complicated turn on the journey, in High School I became a Christian, and my heart was opened up to the living presence of Jesus Christ. He knew me, loved me and died for my sins on the cross. It was an interesting time, being the tail end of the Jesus Movement which had been thriving for the last decade. Kids in my class were talking about being “saved” and were sharing the gospel throughout the hallways. With my new found faith and thrown into all sorts of gatherings and activities, I now belonged to something bigger than myself.

The peaceful well-being of finding my place lasted for what sadly felt like 30 seconds. Love for Jesus, community and busy Christian activities were all being overshadowed by strong and condemning messages about the gay community. For the first time I genuinely felt conflicted on a greater scale about my attractions. I doubted and feared God couldn’t love me. There didn’t seem to be a place in His kingdom, I surmised. So, upon graduation, with a diploma in my hand and a new sense of freedom, I left God, church and friends and went off in search of my “new life”.

I pursued it passionately and would not just “come out”…I exploded out. My parents were not thrilled by this news and for a season we avoided one another while living in the same city. I entered a gay club in 1985 and felt like I was finally home. Ten long years of silence and isolation were over—I literally kissed the ground. Soon, I developed a small group of good friends and adopted the social and political views to which most in the LGBT community subscribed, and I became an advocate. This peaceful well-being of finding my place lasted for what felt like 30 seconds…sadly again.

AIDS was prevalent in the gay community and men were dying quickly from the disease. This reality kept me from a lot of unsafe behavior. But sex wasn’t all I was looking for—a long-term, life time relationship with a man was what I wanted. Like many gay men with this sincere desire, it was easy to get caught up in the not so helpful trappings of navigating this community. Partying, addiction and club life were daily events. I started to wonder why everyone around me seemed to be happy and taking care of their lives—how had mine become so unmanageable? Although talking with my close gay friends frequently, I sensed the need for something deeper in the way of counsel.

Through an odd series of events, I struck up a friendship with a Christian man. Because of my painful background, I was wary of him and Christians in general. It was a relief to experience his kindness as we chatted. I did take the opportunity to share my story with him and waited tentatively for his reaction. He honestly admitted that we probably had differing views on the subject biblically, but also said that he wanted to know me. This surprised me and things got complicated. Could I be in a relationship with someone who believed differently?

We met weekly for lunch over several months. Thankfully the focus of our conversations was not about my sexuality but about the person of Jesus Christ. With every meeting, I’d leave realizing an uncomfortable major decision was looming on the horizon. Would I face Jesus again? One night I did pray and received Him back into my life. His intimate presence was back. In reading the bible, I saw passages with fresh eyes. This was wonderful, but what about my sexual orientation? I had repressed it for many years and then wholeheartedly embraced it—what do I do now? And what about my friends and boyfriend?--they’re probably not going to be thrilled with my conversion to Christianity. It was back to that old conflict between faith and sexuality.

God did speak into this place pretty quickly, not with angels or trumpets but in the simplest of ways. I was standing in my small apartment kitchen—cooking dinner and probably ruminating on all the ways my life was blowing up. In that moment a sudden revelation and peace hit me.

Much of my life had been about hiding, shame, anger and unmet longing—all the things that kept me running. It was exhausting. From God there came a sense that, there would never be any reason to leave or run from Him again. Accepted as I was, His grace flooded that tiny kitchen. Relief from the pressure also flooded in. There was space, time and freedom to figure out these huge complex parts of myself—no need for quick easy answers. This time God was part of the process.

Many things coincided during this season of freedom. I loved Jesus, but was not so ready to step foot in a church anytime soon—too scary. But I did start to explore several organizations with different perspectives on LGBTQ issues. One of these became a safe space for me as they had no agenda but offered a place for those in conflict with same sex attraction and faith. It gave me a place to figure things out and just “be”. A lot of things in my life were in need of repair. I struggled with addictions, damaging relating styles and one of the most important of these was reconciling with my family.

Having worked on these issues and examined scripture from different perspectives, I came to some personal conclusions. I just simply became convinced that the act of sex belongs between a man and woman within marriage. I couldn’t make affirming theology work for me. This has since brought up many questions. I’ve had a lot of fluidity in my attractions—could I explore a relationship with a woman? What would it look like to walk out life single and celibate? Singleness is an equal biblical vocation and calling alongside marriage. How can my relational status be a blessing and grace? How do I steward, manage and honor my legitimate emotional needs, longings and desires? So far, I’ve been walking out celibacy for many years and have learned numerous things. No one has it easy. Being married or single results in lots of benefits and blessings. They both come with a lot of hardship and struggle too—the grass is equally green on both sides.

Another important lesson: I can’t walk this out alone. I need a lot of support and community from others, and we all need God and His grace. His grace gave me space—even space to leave Him and His church and to live in the LGBTQ community. There was grace to explore His word on complex parts of ourselves from different perspectives. And grace to live relatively peacefully--congruent with my own personal convictions.

Over the years, my friends in conflict have landed all over this spectrum. Sadly, some have left the church. Others are getting married to same or opposite sex partners and others are living celibately. Others remain unable to move toward resolution in either direction. We have hard tearful conversations sometimes, but always put our love for God and each other first. I respect each of their journeys knowing that my own has taken me all over the map, including seasons of being stuck. I pray God will continue to guide all of us on His path of truth and grace.