Then I Went to Wheaton

Eighteen days ago I packed up my car and drove away from the only city I’ve ever called home. I was offered a job working in the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College, so I live here now. In the Midwest. I live in the Midwest. I remember sensing I was moving into a new season about a year ago and I prayed something like this: “God, I just want to follow you and alleviate some of the suffering in the world. I’ll go anywhere! San Diego, the Bay Area, Denver, Seattle—even Vancouver—I’m wide open.”

The next thing I knew I woke up in suburbia surrounded by brilliance. I’ve already discovered Wheaton College students are some of the sharpest, wittiest, most earnest students in the country (the kind of students I sought out for group projects in my day). They will leave the world better than they found it, and I’ve been given the privilege of offering a safe space for them to keep it super real in a community that hasn’t always done “real” well.

I know this because I attended Wheaton my freshman year. I was recruited to play basketball and I had to sit out the second half of the season because I failed fitness class. I failed fitness class because gay Christian angst (along with doubt and despair) made getting up for an 11am class feel impossible. My perception was that I was the only student on campus that wasn’t memorizing entire books of the Bible while taking 18 hours of upper level coursework and leading early morning discipleship groups. It wasn’t until years later that I learned I hadn’t been alone. Now, after a decade of being shaped by God’s grace, I’ve been given the opportunity to tell students in similar places they’re not alone either.

I get to walk with them in a vulnerable season of their lives and tell them God sees them, and he loves them right where they are. I get to tell them He doesn’t love the future version of them, or the version they wish they were, or the version their parents wish they were—He loves them. And if my interactions here are anything like the relationships I built in West Dallas, then the community will have a much bigger impact on me than I’ll have on them. Hopefully Christ will capture our imagination in fresh ways, giving us insight into the story of redemption He wants to write through our lives both individually and communally.

It’s been a bit since I last posted and it will be a minute before I post again. Sometimes I write posts in my imagination when I’m trying to forget I’m jogging on a September day that feels like Dallas in the dead of winter, but those imaginary posts won’t make it to the blog until I establish some new rhythms. Stay tuned for sporadic stories here and there though. I’ve landed among some people who actually practice the kind of hospitality most of us simply talk about, which quickly calmed my fear of loneliness that surged the moment I left Dallas. It’s been deeply moving and reminded me, once again, that God is always faithful to show up and surprise me in new ways in new seasons. It seems worth ending with a note about our participation in that: if you’re opening up your life and home to others in a way that creates a place for people to belong, know your messy house looks like a cathedral to those you welcome.

Where the White and Wealthy Flourish

Last summer near my city, a wealthy 16-year-old white boy named Ethan Couch stole two cases of beer from a Walmart. He drank until his blood alcohol content was .24 (three times the legal limit for adults), took some Valium, and drove 70 mph in a 40 mph zone with seven passengers in his pickup truck. He lost control and crashed into a 24-year-old woman named Shelby whose car had broken down on the side of the road. He killed her, along with a mother, her daughter, and a local youth pastor who had stopped to help Shelby. One of the boys who was in the back of his truck, a soccer player named Sergio, is now paralyzed: he can only blink and smile. 
 
Ethan walked away unscathed. He suffered no injuries and no jail time. The argument used by the defense was that Ethan was a victim of “affluenza”: he was so privileged and entitled that he lacked the ability to link behavior with consequences. His parents hadn’t punished him properly in the past, even when he was ticketed at the age of 15 after he was found in a parked pickup with a passed out, naked, 14-year-old girl. So Ethan Couch was sentenced to 10 years probation and a year of rehab at a posh place on the coast. 
 
Last week in Ferguson, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. Michael was stopped for walking in the street. He was unarmed and witnesses say he had his hands up when he was shot six or seven times. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know how the police have responded to the city’s peaceful protest: A SWAT team with assault weapons, armored trucks, gas masks, tear gas, and rubber bullets. We know the police have strongly emphasized Michael Brown’s potential involvement in some stolen Swisher Sweets at a local convenient store earlier that day (which was unknown to the cop who killed him and simply not worthy of attention at this point). 
 
You guys, the racism and injustice runs so deep, and so far back, and so seamlessly through every part of our society that we don’t even notice it because it permeates every aspect of our existence in this country. It’s in the justice system. It’s in the education system. It’s in the media. It’s in our churches. It’s in our responses to the situation in Ferguson and, evidently, it’s inside most of us. As the story has unfolded, so many continue mentioning the looting and rioting—failing to note that people from within the community stood up to the few who were looting. I’ve heard many mention the tear gas that was thrown toward the police without considering that the tear gas had just been thrown at them by the cops. Sure, some folks from Ferguson have said the “F word” in a microphone and refused to go home before midnight. They’re sick of it! They’re sick and tired of decades upon decades of being silenced and dismissed and dehumanized. 
 
We need to repent. We need to pray, and grieve, and repent for how we’ve been complicit in the situation we find ourselves in as a country. We need to grieve for the tragedy that’s been Ethan Couch’s life, and we need to grieve for the tragedy that was Michael Brown’s death. 
 
Then we need to actively change the way we live. Here is a good list to reflect upon, but we need to follow that up with real life relationships. The best place to start is to become involved in the lives of those who are marginalized in your community, whether it’s by switching churches (because homogenous churches), or moving into a new neighborhood, or volunteering with an organization that is relationally involved in the lives of marginalized men, women, and children all around you. Begin to develop friendships, simply listening and learning over a long period of time. Spend time in their schools and in their homes. As you spend time with your friends’ families, you’ll begin to see what they’re passionate about and what they celebrate, what burns them up and why it matters. You will be changed by it. You’ll begin to see the mess in yourself, in the system, and in our society. And eventually you’ll begin to work together, in the context of these mutually transforming relationships, toward building communities where everyone has the opportunity to flourish—not just the wealthy and white. 
 

A Counter-Cultural Kind of Love

I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to share a little about my faith and sexuality in generous pieces at Religion News Service and Slate. What I appreciated about both journalists was their desire to truly understand our experience as celibate gay Christians: both our choices and the heart behind those choices. It was also encouraging to see one explaining this path to the Christian community and one explaining it to a broader readership, with both demonstrating such charitable spirits.

Given the short space that I’m able to unpack the complexities of all this in brief quotes—you know, gay, ex-gay, celibacy, friendship, Jesus, and the fact that there’s way more to me and all people everywhere than our sexuality—this seems like a good time to share a little more about my season in ex-gay ministry, and to highlight why it was so nourishing when I landed in the Spiritual Friendship community.

I’ve shared previously that my overall experience with the local ex-gay ministry was very positive. As a young person growing up gay in conservative churches, I felt like I had to make a choice: walk away from experiencing a vibrant and intimate relationship with Jesus, or suppress my sexuality in a way that led to depression and isolation. When I met the gracious (and hilarious, and generous, and Christ-like) people I encountered here in the local ex-gay ministry, I felt like I finally found a place to belong. I could be honest about my attraction to women and find others who were pursuing Christ right alongside me in a similar journey.

Eventually (8 years later), I was at a place spiritually and emotionally where I could finally acknowledge that some of the messages perpetuated by the ex-gay movement were problematic: There was an overemphasis on marrying the opposite sex, on fitting into stereotypical gender norms, on explanations of causation, and same-sex love and intimacy were often framed as emotional dependency or enmeshment. I could only scrutinize those messages, however, because the people who walked with me in ex-gay ministries had loved me through seasons where I was an emotional train wreck. I will be forever grateful for the lifelong friendships I established through those ministries, and I will vouch for the hearts of the people involved in them until Christ comes back. They’ve loved me well.

It was when I was speaking for Exodus International that I had to come to terms with some of the problematic messages—particularly those that contributed to pain and alienation among countless friends I met through Exodus ministries. I also felt a tremendous amount of internal incongruence because I was trying to act like I “left homosexuality” and was “just another lady-in-waiting” when I knew I felt different than other women, and a big part of that different was related to being really gay. “You have no idea what it feels like to be a gay person speaking on the stage at an ex-gay event,” I said to an Exodus leader as I was working through how to move forward.

I had read all the books on revisionist theology and found them unpersuasive—I didn’t see Scripture affirming gay sex or gay marriage. Because this conversation was usually framed in all-or-nothing ways, I felt like I had looped back around to the fork in the road that I faced when I was 17 years old: Am I going to be honest about my sexuality so I can feel authentic and known? Or am I going to minimize and kind-of-sort-of lie about my sexuality so I can remain in the church? I would’ve chosen to remain in the church regardless, but I was grateful to land in the Spiritual Friendship community where I could relate to the church in a way that felt life-giving and authentic.

What’s so beautiful about the vision folks like Eve Tushnet, Ron Belgau, and Wesley Hill have been casting since long before I came along is this: They’re exploring the positive call to love. They see that God created each of us with unique ways of being in the world that are to be used for His glory and the good of those around us. Whatever it is that makes us relate to the world in a way that’s different from the way straight people relate to the world is something that, like every part of a person, can be redeemed and transformed in a way that glorifies God. Because homosexuality is often reduced to the desire for gay sex (which is a very small part of being gay), Christians often don’t understand what we’re talking about. But there are gifts that come with each disposition and vocation, and we’re exploring how those gifts can be embraced and celebrated through friendship and community. We’re discussing ways that the entire church can promote intimate relationships that occur outside of the context of the nuclear family or a small group that meets every other Thursday night for an hour and a half where people smile and say “Goooood!” when asked how they’re doing.

The lens through which I now see my sexuality has nudged me deeper into the life of the church. It’s helped me to understand that love and intimacy are not forbidden because of my orientation, but they’re to be expressed through rich friendships that just might lead to lifelong communities (which will hopefully have a space for hurting teens to show up for popsicles when they need a space to decompress). It’s given me hope that I won’t have to suppress legitimate parts of myself and enter into a heterosexual marriage that feels somewhat suffocating in order to experience the kind of community Christ invites us into. It’s given me the language to be open, honest, known, loved, embraced, and even celebrated as a person who loves Jesus and loves people in slightly different ways than my straight peers.

As Eve Tushnet said so well: “You can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” There is a “Yes” for gay Christians, and that “Yes” involves a vibrant relationship with Jesus that overflows into love and service to those we encounter every day, many of which are hurting people who are longing to feel like they matter. The “Yes” to gay Christians can be expressed through art, worship, and leadership in a church that would benefit from having diverse voices and perspectives. The message of Christianity is one big “Yes” to human flourishing: it invites each of us into the radical vision Jesus cast for His followers—one that fights against injustice and cultivates communities marked by hospitality and generosity. So when you ask me about this celibate gay path, I start talking about this counter-cultural kind of love and end up gushing about Jesus. 

Lives That Go Unwitnessed

Cross Posted from Spiritual Friendship

It hurts the most after spurts of laughter. For instance: I was recently working out in my apartment and heard the Free Willy theme song. Naturally, I started singing because somehow I knew the entire Free Willy Theme song, and by the end of it I was raising my hands and singing (Throwback 90s Praise Band Style) in between reps of bicep curls. By the time I was doing tricep kickbacks, I could barely sing the words because of the lump in my throat created by the memory of how the kid saved the whale and the whale saved the kid. When I suddenly realized how ridiculous and hilarious the whole thing looked—the singing, the raised hands, the lump in my throat and the Free Willy Theme Song—I started laughing hysterically. By the time I got to shoulder presses, the sharp pain of loneliness set in: another moment gone unwitnessed.

Sometimes I feel it when I arrive at my destination after a long road trip. I pick up my phone with an urge to text Someone that I got where I was going, and it occurs to me that no one knew I left. Sure, some friends knew I’d be out of pocket at some point, but they didn’t know when I was leaving or when I’d be back. They weren’t aware of my existence in real time and space. Sometimes I turn to social media to let The World know I made it somewhere they didn’t know I was going—to let them know I still exist—and the “likes” calm the subconscious fear for a moment. Of course I call and text friends to talk of my excursions and hear about theirs, but that’s what’s disconcerting: I increasingly find myself telling them about my life rather than sharing it with them.

This post comes to you from someone who’s actually really happy. I’ve been blessed with amazing friends, a church I love, a job I’m passionate about, and endless opportunities to go on adventures that bring me to life. I’m blessed with good health and the perspective to see something hilarious every 12 minutes. I feel it in the best times though: the tug that it’s not good to be alone.

While I see people throughout my days, I find myself bouncing from circle to circle with very little overlap between the different groups. I find myself showing up at pre-set times and telling folks about the life I lived since we last spoke, about the moments that went unwitnessed. It meets the need, makes me happy, and keeps me from feeling totally lonely, but something still feels off. Something feels off because telling people about the moments that make up my life is very different than sharing the moments with them, and there’s no one to share in the moments.

It’s not just my life that I want witnessed though: I want to know the quirky little details of someone else’s life as well. Sometimes I catch myself imagining my friends’ morning routines because I’m just curious as to how their days are actually spent. I’ll wonder whether they make coffee first thing in the morning (a french press?), or turn music on and dance (which playlist?), or sing in their cars or cuss in traffic. It’s those everyday moments of nothingness that make up our lives, the time in between the times when we catch up with each other to talk about all that transpired.

What I’ve longed for more than anything is a shared history with someone, where (together) we recount the way this place or those people or that near-death experience shaped us into the people we are today. There is no shared history, though, because the places and people and near-death experiences were things I arrived at alone and left alone. Then I moved into another space where I would tell other people about those experiences, grasping for the adjectives to capture it as accurately as possible so they might come a little closer to understanding who I am and where I’ve been. But they don’t really know.

We spend a lot of time talking about “community”, but if we’re going to avoid leading lives that go unwitnessed then we need to think practically and realistically. What most of us are longing for is a lifelong commitment to sharing a home with someone else—we’re longing for family. When I say “us”, I’m referring to most humans everywhere, not simply gay people. We see it in the gay community too, because gay people are a subset of human people, but we’re all longing for it. Since this is a holy human longing, and it’s not good for man to be alone, and Christians are concerned about the ways gay people are going about fulfilling this legitimate human longing, then we need to expand our understanding of the ways this can be lived out.

Whether it’s an intentional community, best friends who make a covenant, families that open their homes to friends for a lifetime, or even a close-knit neighborhood where folks commit to one another and have open door policies: we need an avenue for intimacy in shared households. We need to be family. Christians continue to be surprised when gay people partner off with one another or pursue marriage, but we’ve yet to offer any sort of practical path for them to find family. Folks still think the answer is to schedule a dinner sometime a few weeks from now. There are rumblings of a fresh perspective here and there, and I’m hopeful many will move from the imagination to action, but it’s yet to materialize. If a positive alternative doesn’t pan out practically, we will have a generation of young people who feel they’re choosing between a shift in their understanding of marriage or leading lives that go unwitnessed.

When Global Problems Become Local Opportunities

Eventually we’ll get back to conversations about sexuality, and by the end of this post we’ll have looped back around to politics and the #bordercrisis, but it might be helpful to frame this in a more local context first.

I’ve spent the past four years working with inner city youth at an urban ministry in West Dallas. Before going on staff, I was working at a pub after college while perpetually existential crisising in my personal life. Coming to terms with my sexuality while firmly planted in the ex-gay movement, questioning all of Christendom because too many mysteries seemed too easily explained, feeling somewhat positive Nietzsche was the only one with answers but rather clueless as to what he was actually saying—it was a lot, you guys.

So I worked at a pub, paid the bills, read some books, smoked some cigarettes and did long distance running to cope with all the anxiety. Eventually, as I settled into just how grateful I was for Jesus even if I didn’t understand everything else about the faith, the thought occurred to me: “I don’t have all the answers and I’m not the prototypical role model, but I know I’ve been rescued and I’ve been given a whole lot in life. There are children—here in my city—who don’t have anyone to invest in them, to notice them, to communicate in all the small, simple ways that they matter. I might not have it all together, but I could at least offer my time: I could offer myself.”

So I became a mentor to a young girl in a low-income community. Then I started volunteering more and I met the kids’ little homies. Then their friends nestled their way into my heart somewhere between the first time a girl told me her story and the time they insisted I put Ranch on my cake. Then I ended up on staff and the kids totally changed my life.

My time working in a low-income community has only further frustrated my understanding of how political solutions play out practically, though. I’ve seen single moms hold down two jobs only to barely feed their families, and I’ve seen others sell food stamps to buy drugs. It’s not true that just anyone can blaze a trail to the American Dream (or even make a living) if they work hard enough, but the solution for that mom might be a hindrance for someone else.

While it all seems pretty complicated and confusing to me on a large scale, here’s what I know: human beings are transformed through relationships with other human beings. People need to be seen. They need to be touched. They need someone to listen to their questions or give them a ride to work on a rainy day. We cannot sit around waiting for the government to come up with a solution, or for those who are “more equipped” to step in, or for that imaginary season in life when we’ll have our mess together and huge windows of time where it seems like absorbing someone else’s pain would actually be the ideal activity for that day, or week, or month, or year. That time will never come, and those people can’t carry the whole load, and that government program won’t meet the relational needs of a child wired for intimacy.

It can become super sexy to have strong opinions about whatever big situation is going on in the news. Everyone has an opinion on why so many children are showing up at the Texas border and what we should do moving forward. Government officials need to be hashing this out and I’m praying for wisdom for our leaders. But our personal opinions, however right or wrong they may be, cost us next to nothing and make very little difference in the real world of real human beings. They’re here now! The kids are here. You and I can make a difference by actually doing something tangible for the children who have lived some tragedies and likely feel invisible. That will look different for each of us, as we all have different gifts and strengths. If you’re an attorney, it might be offering your time to do some pro bono work. If you love teaching, it might be tutoring or teaching English because they’ll be far behind in school. If you’re most of us, you can provide foster care to a refugee, or mentor a teenager who’s making the challenging transition.

If time is your concern, consider binging on the Netflix shows you’ll already be watching with a refugee by your side. If safety is your concern, consider whether or not insulating yourself from the suffering of the world might be more problematic than inviting someone into your life and experiencing the presence of God in the process. In my five years in the hood, I have never felt like I was truly in danger. There were times when guys twice my size were about to throw down, and after simply saying their names I’d watch them duck their heads and say: “I’m sorry, Miss Julie.” Relationships change people. I can assure you: there’s more to be concerned about in a bubble that insulates us from the suffering in the world than among those who are in need of an advocate.

If you’re anything like me, you hear about sex trafficking in Bangkok and you feel powerless to do anything about it. You read about gangs in the hood and you “x” out the screen because you don’t know if it’s the result of racism or fatherlessness or systemic injustice. You see pictures of children flocking to our border and you don’t know if it’s because the President passed a bill or because they were fleeing violence and victimization. So you turn your head and drown out the noise because you don’t think you can do anything about these massive global problems.

But victims of violence and human trafficking end up in our cities, and suddenly we have an opportunity where we previously thought only those brave missionaries overseas could make a difference. You can do something about these overwhelming problems by entering into the lives of a few people who are in your community in tangible, relational ways. You can change one or two kids’ lives and those kids will have a future they otherwise wouldn’t have had. We can be the kinds of individuals that create the kinds of communities that make small scale moves to alleviate the suffering of those in our midst with the hours, and hands, and homes we’ve been given.

 

Welcoming the Children in Our Midst

This will be a short (likely welcomed) break from the usual conversation about sexuality to discuss the thousands of children from Central America arriving on our doorstep here in Texas. Most of you are probably aware of the border crisis and political firestorm it’s created. You’re probably aware of the ideological battle over immigration and you probably have an opinion about what the government should or shouldn’t do to create a long term solution (my guess is that you’re more aware than me and you have a better solution than me).

The whole situation is really complicated and overwhelming on a macro level. On a small, individual, interpersonal level though, it’s not really complicated at all. Over 52,000 unaccompanied children have shown up since October, fleeing cities overrun by gangs that kidnap children and force them to become lookouts or spies (or just murder them instead). It’s tragic and it’s unjust and the kids are now here in our cities, crammed in facilities that weren’t created to house thousands of children. At least 2,000 of them will be here in Dallas by the end of July, and there are plenty of children near you wherever you live.

We can continue arguing over what to call them (Fox says “Illegal Alien” and the UN says “Refugee”), but they’re children of infinite value to God with no one to care for them. They’re human beings with histories and a future—packed with potential to write a story of restoration through their little lives. This seems relatively simple to me on an interpersonal level: We serve them. We go to them. We consider attending a meeting to learn more about becoming a foster parent to one or more of these teenagers for the next several years.

If you’re anything like me, you have an exhaustive list of reasons for why you can’t help in practical ways: you’re single and you think the kids need two parents, or you don’t have the time to invest in someone in this season, or you lack the resources to offer the American Dream to them. Life will slowly pass us by, though, and we’ll have dinner parties and vacations and published articles to show for our lives, having missed out on the opportunities to alleviate the suffering of those around us in tangible ways. You have a home, and you have meals, and you have yourself to offer in relationship. You can invite a child into what you’re already doing, and that child will likely expand your capacity to love where you think he or she would drain it.

Let us not simply love the world in our imagination—let’s love individuals with our lives.

 

A Civil Conversation about Discrimination

I’ve been following the discussion about the request 14 religious leaders made for a religious exemption in the executive order President Obama plans to sign: an executive order that will ban discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. On the surface, with that language, the request by the religious leaders sounds alarming (Christians are asking for the right to discriminate against us?). 
 
That’s why a group of 100 faith leaders pushed back against the request with a letter to the President asking him not to make a religious exemption. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, told Time she was devastated to learn of the request: “[My brothers and sisters in Christ] asked that people of faith be given special permission to discriminate. It’s simply theologically indefensible.” 
 
That’s not what’s happening. I know many of the men who signed the letter asking for a religious exemption personally, and I know they would hire a Christian who lives in accord with their code of conduct. They’re not trying to discriminate against those who happen to find themselves with a gay orientation. They’re simply asking the President not to strong arm religious organizations by saying: “Change your beliefs about marriage and sexual behavior or lose funding.” Even Jim Wallis, a progressive religious leader who’s fully affirming, had similar concerns
 
Regardless of whether or not you think Christian organizations should change their views on marriage and hire sexually active gay people, we need to realize this is more complex than many care to acknowledge. Kirsten Powers wrote a nuanced piece highlighting some of the complexities: “Without an exemption in Obama’s executive order, we could see many religious organizations that provide social services to the most needy losing government contracts because they act on the dictates of their faith. Century-old Catholic Charities, which serves more than 10 million Americans a year, could lose critical government funding to help people in desperate need.”
 
There’s a lot to consider here. I’ll just mention a few things from my perspective as a gay Christian who identifies with both groups: 
 
  • Most Christian organizations would hire someone like me if I lived within their code of conduct. Most aren’t discriminating based on sexual orientation; rather, they want the freedom to maintain their beliefs about marriage and sexual behavior. 
  • If I were not celibate, and an organization could not hire me in good conscience, I would not want them to go against their convictions in hiring me only because they were forced to do so by the government. I would rather go work for an organization whose beliefs aligned with my own. Every organization should have the freedom to follow their conscience, even if that negatively affects me (and it does sometimes negatively affect me because many organizations would currently not hire me because of my convictions about sex and marriage). 
  • Many Christian organizations would not change their hiring policies based on this sort of order, and they would lose government funding to do things that contribute to the common good. We need to keep the common good in mind, which means respecting one another’s differences. 
It’s sad to see the quality of conversation surrounding these kinds of situations. The word games and battle cries turn it into a contest where whoever applies the most pressure wins, but no one wins in the end. If religious organizations are coerced to step outside of their convictions because of an executive order, we’ve moved no closer to anyone seeing the value and dignity of actual gay people. Is that what we want? We’re going to have to learn how to respect our differences if we’re going to move forward with any sort of civility, and from that place of respect we can work toward valuing one another in the midst of our differences.