Portland Mennonite Church—Feburary 5, 2010
I grew up out in the country about 150 miles south of here in the little town of Elkton. I knew absolutely nothing about homosexuality until I went away to college in the early 1970s—and even then it was scarcely a front-burner issue. Back about 15 years ago, Kathleen and I moved to a tiny town in the Midwest to pastor. Someone said, what about the gay issue there. Another friend said, well, it will probably be like the Martian issue….that is, not something people have much experience with. That’s kind of what it was like growing up in Elkton (actually I did see a flying saucer once, so maybe the Martian issue was more present).
The most important aspect of my growing up years was the fundamental orientation toward life I received from my parents—what matters most is love, and this love involves trying to respect everyone. I especially remember my mother as a fourth-grade teacher and her special care for the most vulnerable kids.
When I was 17, I had a conversion experience and met Jesus. I joined the local fundamentalist Baptist congregation in town. One of the core teachings I heard constantly, and embraced, was the Bible is central. Many (most, just about all) of my views on just about every theological theme have changed since then. However, the changes in my theology have always been because of my understanding of the Bible’s message. This one lesson—the Bible is central—did take hold. I changed my views of the end times, my beliefs about Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, my understanding of evangelism, all in order to be closer to the Bible’s message as I grew to understand it.
The biggest change in my beliefs came right around my 22nd birthday, at the end of my senior year of college at the University of Oregon. I intuited that God wanted me to be a pacifist. That Jesus’ way was consistently the way of peace. This conviction confirmed the lessons on life I learned at home and has guided everything ever since. I believed pacifism was the Bible’s view, and have more or less devoted my life since then to testing and deepening this conviction.
A few years later (ca. 1979), we were living in Eugene when it became one of the early scenes of a political skirmish over gay rights. The city council had passed gay rights legislation and citizens rose up with a referendum to overturn it. I still had thought next to nothing about homosexuality; until this point it simply had never come up. So I accepted the default view of evangelical Christianity—homosexuality is sinful. However, in this skirmish I was deeply troubled by the tone of the evangelicals’ campaign against gay rights. I ended up leaving that spot blank on my ballot (I couldn’t abide with the hostility against gays I’d observed but I also believed the Bible clearly taught against homosexuality and concluded from that that I shouldn’t affirm gay rights).
Now, though, my interest was piqued. As with other issues, I wanted to understand if the default view I had inherited would withstand scrutiny. I was helped immediately by a special issue of The Other Side magazine on homosexuality (June 1978). I found editor John Alexander’s fairly lengthy article on the Bible especially helpful. He showed (in a way that I found persuasive—and still do—this is my basic argument) that the Bible teaches love and compassion toward all. He also challenged the standard use of texts such as Genesis 19; Leviticus 18 and 20; and 1 Corinthians 6. He still (reluctantly, it seemed) found Romans 1 persuasively supporting a restrictive stance. However, simply by raising the possibility that the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality was not as obviously anti-gay as I had assumed, Alexander opened the door for me to see things differently. I now felt free to ask if the Bible in relation to this issue might be read in ways that would be more consistent with how I was now reading the Bible in relation to war and peace—centering on the message of love and compassion.
At that point, I was in the middle. I was not sure I could be inclusive, but I was deeply troubled by the anti-gay attitudes and actions I was aware of. My peace concerns certainly were pushing me to try to find a way to be inclusive. But this remained pretty much a back-burner issue for me for a while longer. I simply was not confronting it in my day-to-day life. We attended AMBS in 1980-1 for a marvelous and faith-expanding year, and I don’t remember the homosexuality issue ever coming up that year. [Things had changed—both for me and for the seminary—by the time we returned for a semester in 1992. At that point the gay issue was indeed on the front burner.]
After our first stint at AMBS we returned for a couple of years in Eugene and a year pastoring in Phoenix (I don’t remember the issue coming up in those contexts either). We moved to Berkeley, California, for grad school in 1984. I guess things must have been percolating a little, because one of the reasons we looked forward to Berkeley was knowing that we would encounter the gay issue directly. In the summer before going to Berkeley, I represented our Phoenix congregation at the Conference annual meeting—and the issue of the presence of gay people in the San Francisco congregation came up. I met several of those San Francisco people and was looking forward to learning more from them.
Turning Toward an Inclusive Stance
We knew that the Graduate Theological Union campus was fully accepting of gay people. We planned to focus on learning to know people more than dealing with arguments and issues. Right away, I took a work-study job in the library and met a fellow-worker who, it turned out, lived in our apartment in married-student housing. I asked what his wife did and he laughed and said his “wife” was a guy. I became good friends with Michael, a gentle-spirited, deeply committed Christian whose partner, John, was in the Old Testament doctoral program, in part in hopes of doing serious biblical scholarship on this issue. Sadly, John contracted AIDs and died just a few years later.
About the same time I met Michael, Kathleen and I left our toddler son with some seminary babysitters during evening orientation. It turned out these babysitters were a lesbian couple, Ellen and Wendy. We became close friends with them, and celebrated with Wendy several years later when she became one of the first out-gay people to be hired as a congregational pastor in the United Church of Christ.
We also began attending First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, and learned to know a number of gay Mennonites who were clearly people of strong faith. In that congregation, there was no “gay issue.” That was settled, and so the congregation just moved ahead with gay people as full, active members and congregational leaders.
We discovered that many of our new gay friends were terrific and normal people, some quite pious and evangelical in their theology. It was pretty eye opening. We became close friends especially with Ellen and Wendy (who have now been together for about 25 years—as has a gay couple we learned to know in the San Francisco church). Both couples seemed to have very normal, stable relationships.
The final step in clarifying my views came during my first pastorate in Eugene. We moved there in 1987. After we arrived we learned that the congregation was in the middle of coming to terms with the presence in its midst of a gay couple. We learned that they had had several rather intense “educational” experiences where people from different sides presented their viewpoints on the Bible and other issues. It was rather a challenging context for a new pastor, but I felt ready to work at things.
Shortly after I began the pastorate, these two guys requested membership. The congregation ultimately chose not to affirm the couple as members, but to consider them “active participants.” A strong majority of the congregation supported full membership. However, a significant minority made the case that the full membership option would alienate us from the Pacific Coast Conference. The majority reluctantly agreed (with the gay men present and part of the discussion) that the best compromise at the moment would be to affirm the guys as fully a part of the congregation but without official membership.
Working through the membership issue in the Eugene congregation immersed me in the content of the gay issue. I faced challenges both to develop my own theology in relation to gays in the church and to negotiate very treacherous church political waters. It happened that I was first considered for ordination about the time our congregation finished its membership process.
I was pushed hard by the conference leadership committee to state my own understandings. I explained what I had done pastorally in leading the congregation through the membership process and outcome of not approving membership for these two men. But I also stated that I was not willing to affirm the part of the newly approved Mennonite Church statement on human sexuality that opposed the possibility of covenanted same-sex partnerships.
Because of my unwillingness to say that I was certain that such partnerships are wrong, one member of leadership committee held up my ordination for about three years until finally the ordination was approved.
About this same time, we had further challenges to process and understand the homosexuality issue. A man who was one of my two or three best friends came out as gay. When we became friends a number of years earlier, meeting at church, he was married. He and his wife had their first son about the time our son was born. The boys became best friends and our families were close. Their marriage ended not long after Kathleen and I returned to Eugene, but we were still shocked to learn he was gay.
And, almost at the same time, a woman who was one of Kathleen’s two or three best friends (we met because we were good friends with her boyfriend) came out as lesbian.
In both cases, we were challenged simply to walk with our friends. The issues weren’t theological so much as simply being there. And in both cases, after some rocky years, our friends found intimate partners. Both relationships are still strong, more than 15 years on.
In 1994, we moved to Freeman, South Dakota, and took a shared pastorate. As I mentioned, in that context it wasn’t much of an exaggeration to compare the gay issue with the Martian issue. It scarcely came up in the two years we were there before moving on to Harrisonburg so we could teach at EMU.
Settling in Virginia
After arriving at EMU, we learned that the pattern on campus had been for a number of years that the gay issue would erupt for a time, then recede. That pattern has continued in the 14 years I’ve been on the faculty. It has happened that the times the issue has become more prominent, I have often been part of the controversies.
Probably the biggest catalyst for getting involved was my sense that gay and lesbian students likely have found EMU to be a pretty scary place. Typically there is a small handful of students who have had the clarity of their own self-identity and have had the courage to let it be known that they are gay or lesbian. I am not aware of terrible consequences for such self-revelation; the sense of lack of safety is more subtle and based on more a general atmosphere of antipathy toward sexual minorities.
Our first step was to form a kind of support group. When we first began to publicize this group, we made it clear that it was not in any formal way linked with EMU; we called it a neighborhood group. Our idea was mostly simply to provide a safe space especially for young adults in the community who were struggling with their sexual identity. From the start, though, the presence of our group was controversial.
For several years a small number of us, some faculty and staff, some students, some from outside EMU, met regularly and did succeed in offering support and encouragement. For various reason, the group kind of petered out.
In the meantime, things got more tense on campus. A number of faculty and staff signed an open letter in the Mennonite Weekly Review that advocated for the Mennonite churches taking a more inclusive approach. There was some talk at the time about possible disciplinary action against signees, but that blew over.
However, at about this same time, EMU’s administration decided to terminate the employment of several staff and faculty for reasons related to their being lesbian or gay. An ad hoc group of faculty and staff that had emerged in relation to the open letter evolved into an advocacy group challenging the administrative decisions. There were a few meetings with administrators, some distress expressed, and in time this group also petered out.
A third kind of group also emerged out of this ferment, an official student group called “A Safe Place.” This group was active for a few years, hosting several well-attended panel discussions and the like. Then, as often happens with student groups, a Safe Place became dormant when the student leaders graduated. Just this year, there has been an attempt to revive a Safe Place, but I am not aware how active this group has become.
I was involved in varying ways with each of these efforts, as well as working through a process with Virginia Mennonite Conference concerning my ministerial credentials after I signed the Mennonite Weekly open letter. I also engaged in several quite lengthy debates with people with contrary views on the internet discussion group called MennoLink.
In the context of this ferment, at some point I decided that I needed to take the time and write out a coherent position on my views concerning homosexuality and the Christian faith. I tried to put down on paper theological convictions that had emerged through biblical study, pastoral engagement, and philosophical reflection.
As I said earlier, all my theological moves in the past 34 years have been made because of what I thought the Bible teaches. So I focused on how best to understand the Bible in relation to these sexuality issues. I’ll be summarizing the results in my next lecture.