This post has nothing whatsoever to do with linguistics or graduate school, but it’s late and it’s been a long week so I’m oversharing on the Internet again.
When I entered college eight years ago, I was skinny, nerdy, shy, deeply religious, and deeply in the closet. Four years later, when I walked across the stage at commencement to receive my diploma, I was still mostly the same. All that had changed along those planes was that I was an out and proud gay Christian man, no longer ashamed of my sexual orientation or of the unique intersection of identities I now claimed.
Would it surprise you to know that the people who helped me come out safely when I was a sophomore were my fellow members of InterVarsity? Yes, IV, the same international Evangelical para-church organization that recently made headlines when it announced that it was going to ask all of its staff members, who work on hundreds of college campuses across the US, to reflect on their personal beliefs about Christianity and human sexuality and then voluntarily quit if they do not agree with its official position on the matter. The position, by the way, is a blanket ban on any sexual relationship outside of a heterosexual one-man one-woman marriage. LGBTQI individuals, they claim, are wonderfully and beautifully created by God, but for them to act on their non-normative desires would be unquestionably sinful. Also: pre-marital sex is a sin, masturbation is a sin, and divorce is a sin. Are we clear?
One has to wonder if the InterVarsity chapter that I served for four years belonged to the same organization. How could I have been chapter president my Senior year when I was, by that time, very openly gay?
There’s a lot to be unpacked here. First, I went to a small LAC in Pennsylvania. I chose this school partly because it was literally thousands of miles from home: a great way to start anew, away from a conservative upbringing and church community that I loved but feared at the same time. By harboring no more than 1600 students total, my college almost forced me into communities that did not at all resemble my neighborhoods growing up. Our student body was diverse racially, ethnically, economically, politically, and geographically, and though interpersonal relationships between students of historically conflicting backgrounds were never perfect, for me at least, my experiences there taught me so much about the value that is inherent in our differences.
This applied to the campus’ religious groups. There were not many options for us Christians, already a minority in a liberal environment: one group for the Catholics, one group that called themselves “Progressive Christians”, and InterVarsity. IV was unabashedly evangelical, with a little “E” (i.e., really concerned with reaching out to the unsaved with the Gospel), and also with a big “E” (affiliated with the strain of conservative Protestantism that is arguably the fastest-growing in the world). It was well-organized, had a clear purpose, and was full of smart, charismatic, loving people whom I trusted immediately. Also, because IV had the most support (in the form of financial backing, conferences and retreats, and staff members not employed by the school), it was considered the de facto “Christian club” and was the largest of the three, with perhaps sixty regular attendees at various weekly events, Bible studies, and dinners.
I threw myself into this community, expecting no great difference from my home church and its functions. But I soon found that this was not the case. Our little Christian club necessarily had to include people who believed radically different things from one another. The idea of “being a born-again Christian” is simple and straightforward enough, but beyond that, there are many different types of Christianities, even many different types of Evangelicals.
The church I grew up in was mostly Asian American and typical of middle class northern California suburbs. I know for sure that if I had stayed in my state to attend a large university, the college church I would have joined would have looked exactly the same. In high school, I had very few Catholic friends (and secretly thought their mariology to be heretical), had never met any Black Evangelicals, had never even heard of the term “Mennonite”. What it took for me to finally meet many amazing Christians who, crucially, did not look, act, or think exactly like me, was for all of us to be gathered together in a small classroom with the common goal of bringing spiritual light to a dark campus. Our IV chapter was not large enough for there to be separate satellite fellowships for Asians, Blacks, and athletes, as is the case in some universities. We were all in this together.
One recurring problem that arose as a consequence was difficulty in making everyone feel welcome at all events, because we tended to only encourage one type of worship (singing modern songs accompanied by a guy on the guitar), one type of prayer (sitting in a circle to share problems and then parroting them back to each other), and a limited set of ways to express our spiritual gifts. Members who came from more charismatic churches felt silenced; folks who grew up in more orthodox traditions felt out of their element. It was always a challenge to accommodate, incorporate, and change for the benefit of everyone who wanted to be a part of the community, but when we did things right, it was good.
In addition, our branch of InterVarsity was sometimes seen as the odd one out in the Mid-Atlantic region. Students at my school generally skew leftist and liberal, and our IV staffer had no problem with that. She was a petite Black woman who had some sort of fire in her spirit. She was radical, she loved every human being, and she knew that everyone had a seat at the table. And her motley group of IV student leaders ranged from those whose faith informed their strictly conservative perspective to those who firmly believed that Jesus would willingly perform an abortion if he were an itinerant healer in America today. I remember that she reached out to one of my classmates, an openly gay student who came from a more progressive Christian background, to find out what he was seeking and to see how he could be included in the community. This struck me because my naivete at that time was such that I couldn’t imagine that kind of intentional outreach without a caveat: you can sit with us, but you need to stop wearing pink on Wednesdays, that sort of thing. I also initially took offense at having to study the Bible with people who would joke that the early Christians were socialists… and years later, when I noticed that my own political views had shifted mightily leftward, I couldn’t help laughing at how I was now the lefty liberal leading manuscript study for fresh-off-the-train red-state freshmen who were shocked by some of my takes on the Bible. (“You mean you really think it’s okay not to believe that the Earth is six thousand years old?”)
The point is, our IV chapter had its fair share of radicals in it, but they (we?) happily served alongside die-hard Republicans and the like, and the net result was, I believe, that we sharpened each others’ beliefs and did a better job of reaching out to a diverse campus, because nearly everyone could be met where they were, rather than be coerced into becoming more like us before joining our ranks. The other consequence was that we appeared to be quite unruly when compared to the more mainstream chapters at other schools in our region. It was often remarked that although we were officially a branch of InterVarsity, we operated mostly independently, downplayed branding, and often flaunted the norms established at other schools. These norms included, I imagine, an official position on sexuality.
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During my freshman year, I hid my gayness well, even as I invested lots of my time into my Christian family. I knew that even among my fellow IV members there were many who would not have a problem with me being gay, but I still didn’t really want to admit the reality to myself. Some friends and family back home were in the know; we were generally in agreement that I had been given a very unique burden to carry as a Christian, but I often felt like I was carrying it alone. For years already I had been praying regularly for God to take away the “thorn in my side”, for me to miraculously turn straight. I also really wanted to serve as a student leader with IV and give back to the community that had welcomed me, but I didn’t think I would be able to if I admitted my sinful nature. At this time, I considered the orientation itself to be innate, albeit a manifestation of humankind’s fallen state — “born this way yet born again”. But the constant lustful desire and its subsequent actions — for me, this meant watching a lot of pornography — were the grave iniquity for which I had to do penance.
Unsurprisingly, I was asked to be a co-leader for the freshman Bible study for the following school year. I remember the internal turmoil very well. I really loved God and wanted to serve, but I knew I couldn’t honestly do it without being open about my struggle with my sexuality. At our year-end retreat, the stress had built up so much that I needed to tell someone. I asked my friend Wes to take a walk with me, and we sat by the lake as I worked up the courage to finally spit it out: “I want to be a Bible study leader but I’m afraid that I won’t do a good job because I struggle with same-sex attraction and I don’t know how to tell anyone. Except now I’ve told you…”
I’ll never forget how Wes responded. He told me that although he didn’t have the answers or know what God ultimately had planned for human sexuality, at the end of it all, he trusted me. “I know for a fact that you will be an excellent leader,” he said, “and I’ll walk with you as we figure this thing out.”
Coming Out Day in October of sophomore year was when I decided to open up to my Bible study co-leader Cecelia, who was like a sister to me. I cried when I told her, guilty that I had already been serving with her for months but hadn’t had the guts to share something so personal and important. Cecelia cried when I told her, too, guilty that even though we had gotten so close in the past year, it hadn’t been enough for me to feel safe telling her or the other upperclassmen about my struggle.
Both Wes and Cecelia were my only confidantes for that entire semester. In December of 2009, I attended Urbana, InterVarsity’s huge missions conference held every three years in St. Louis. It was at Urbana that I learned that there was a larger conversation regarding faith and sexuality happening all around me. I was reading books and blog posts by Christians who identified as gay and straight, writers who supported “radical” ideas at the time like legalized same-sex marriage, pastors who were figuring out how to open their church doors to gays and lesbians while staying true to their core beliefs. The general theme was one of attempting to reconcile the LGBTQ community to a church that had clearly spurned it. I was trying to understand everything on my own, and it was difficult, but little by little, I was coming to accept myself. The seminars I attended at Urbana gave me some perspective; looking back, it’s actually amazing to me that some of the views expressed there were even allowed. But InterVarsity Press, a publishing company that has produced titles such as Love is an Orientation and Redeeming Sex (but also A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality), has made room for views that dissent from the traditional one.
There were well over fifteen thousand attendees at Urbana that year, and I was moved by the message reiterated so many times that week: we are so different, but we are here together because of God and God alone. Whatever it is that people may say divides us, we can actually celebrate, because we are all beloved children of God and we are otherwise united in Him. As the clock neared midnight on the last day of the year, I made two important decisions: 1) I would commit my life to the goal of repairing the broken relationship between the Church and the LGBTQ community, and to do so, 2) I would have to come out of the closet for good.
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Fast-forward to the next spring: I announced at an IV meeting that I was gay — but still committed to the cause of Christ. Folks were largely surprised by my coming out, but nobody rejected me. Some friends came forward to apologize for past homophobic behavior or for simply not being very aware or sympathetic. Otherwise, life proceeded as normal, or at least according to what I expected. I took cautious steps into my school’s LGBTQ community, somewhat awkward because I still proudly identified as a Christian, and that understandably ruffled feathers. But there were other students who came from faith backgrounds that clashed with the gender and sexual identities they were exploring. I started a small Bible study group for LGBTQ or questioning students, and I really enjoyed that semester. It began lots of wonderful conversations on campus about the possibility of reconciling a Christian faith with a queer identity. We took the idea of “living in the tension” seriously, frankly acknowledging that we did not necessarily know what was right or wrong by God’s standards, but more importantly, striving to be in community with one another nevertheless.
At the same time, there were a few rounds of staff rotation. I felt a little bit of friction with our new staffers, especially as my personal and political views continued to change and become more liberal. Once upon a time, I had supported Prop 8 in California. But now, I didn’t see any problem with same-sex marriage on the national level (it’s a personal choice, and Christians certainly cannot dictate the legal policies of a secular nation), although I didn’t yet think I would ever pursue a relationship of my own. I was aware that the official position of InterVarsity was less tolerant, but I chose not to dwell on it. After all, my passion was for reaching out to my gay and lesbian friends with the Good News, and no verse that I knew of in the Gospels said that you had to be straight to believe in Jesus’ love and sacrifice. A few great courses in our school’s Religion department gave me fuller frameworks for understanding how the Bible is and has been interpreted, and how official church doctrines are established (and go out of fashion). By the time I was asked to be chapter president, just before Senior year, I still believed fully in the fundamental message of Christianity — believe in Christ for salvation — but I had to have a talk with our newest staffer so that he could make sure that I wasn’t “practicing homosexuality”. I accepted the position.
I graduated in 2012 with happy memories from my time with IV. But when my fellow alumni and I think about it today, we will joke that getting out when I did was “just in time”. The next year brought a veritable shitstorm to the steps of Parrish Hall; the student leaders who took up the mantle after us had to deal with, in addition to general social unrest brewing on campus, the souring of the relationship between our chapter and non-Christian students. Things went south especially when InterVarsity as an organization began to show its fundamentalist stripes and made a clear stance against same-sex marriage as well as against “actively” gay students who desired leadership roles. It is still not clear to me whether the change only came from within our chapter, as some students with conservative views took control while more liberal students left, or whether outside pressure from staffers and our intercollegiate network also influenced this. But students complained of discrimination by sexual orientation, and there was a large exodus: many of my friends, underclassmen when I had graduated, did not end up serving the organization as Seniors. They defected to the Progressive Christians group (which, for the record, I have no problem with), or left the church altogether.
I was living abroad while all this was happening and was mostly absent from the controversy. But when the news trickled in, I was deeply saddened. I had thought that the work I had put in while a member of IV would help bring the Christian and LGBTQ communities closer together, but it hadn’t been enough to prevent this enormous rift. Our campus fellowship’s reputation is no longer that of the quirky radical Christians who love and accept everyone, but instead the typical closed-minded Evangelicals who shun outsiders.
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At the very least, this brought our IV chapter in line with the larger organization, which as of last week has officially drawn its line in the sand. The position paper they released is not actually a change in theology, but what they have made into official policy is the fact that any IV staffers who disagree with the position paper are encouraged to think very critically about what they personally believe and whether or not they want to continue partnering with the organization. Their PR stresses that nobody is technically being fired. If I were employed by IV, it would look like this: I’d read the position paper, decide that I did not agree with it, and notify my superior, who would immediately begin something called “involuntary termination”, giving me two weeks to wrap things up and then one month of aid in finding a new job.
I mean, how different is that from being fired, really? For legal purposes there are relevant distinctions — which to be sure will save them trouble when people try to take them to court — but the impact is the same. InterVarsity is saying, “We believe in X, Y, and Z, and if you don’t as well, then you don’t belong here.” The intention, I want to believe, is good. Last week, I had dinner with a Christian friend of mine, one who stands proudly on the conservative end of the spectrum and who actually first broke the news to me about what IV had done. He explained that from his perspective, InterVarsity was doing the right thing by making its positions on marriage and homosexuality public, whereas in the past it had been ambiguous at best about what it believed and how to enforce it. “They’re doing it so that there’s more internal cohesion, so that everyone is on the same page,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to work for an organization if you didn’t really know where they stood on the issue, right?”
And to an extent, I agree. InterVarsity is a religious organization with certain practices and a moral code derived from a canonical set of beliefs. I would not want to join a church or a para-church organization if I wasn’t sure that they shared the same core beliefs, such as the existence of one God. But to me, whether or not gay marriage is against God’s “original design” for marriage is not one of those core values. It’s a social issue that each church may question for itself and its own community. It should not become a theological litmus test for legitimate Christianity.
The pastor of the church I grew up in once preached a sermon that was not about the Bible at all, but about Biblical hermeneutics. He said that while he believed the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, there were indeed some parts of the text that could be open to interpretation. (Which, in retrospect, is painfully obvious.) He stressed that some issues were trivial, or ideas that we could freely Debate. Should women have to cover their hair in church? Maybe, maybe not: if we disagree, it’s no big deal. Other issues were more important, ones that a church might Divide over. Is water baptism necessary as a part of one’s conversion? Maybe, maybe not: if we disagree, maybe we can join different churches or branch off and form a new one. That’s how denominations are created. But there are some ideas from the Bible that are so truly fundamental that they are worth Dying for. Is there one God? Does he love all people unconditionally and desire for us to know Him personally? Maybe, maybe not: if we disagree, and you have a gun pointed at my head, I will not back down. The “die-for” theological issues are worth every ounce of conviction we possess, should we identify as Christian. The “divide” and “debate” issues are not.
To me, the issue of homosexuality in the church is one to debate over. I currently attend a church in Berkeley where I am sure over 75% of my fellow congregants would disagree sharply with my views. That has not stopped me from going to services regularly for two years and forming close relationships with some of them. Were I to get married, I highly doubt my current pastor would ever agree to perform my wedding. So why do I go to this church? Because I still believe in the Gospel and I see that this church is trying earnestly to reach out to our local community with a message of hope and revival. I share those values, even if I disagree with so much else. The disagreements, in my eyes, are not worth dividing over.
The tragedy with InterVarsity’s new policy is not that they have chosen the conservative view. It’s that they have made it clear that there is no room for disagreement. I am not advocating that they never adopt any stance whatsoever. Actually, I respect the fact that they took a stand for what they believe in (“they” being, I guess, the powers that be within the organization who decided all of this), especially because I know that the organization spent years thinking, studying, and praying about it while (presumably) listening to people from all sides of the issue give their input. There’s integrity in that. But what IV is saying is that it is impossible for you and me to reach our common goal (bring knowledge of Jesus to college campuses) if we do not have the same views on sex. Therefore, you must leave. It’s textbook fundamentalism.
Particularly painful is that the onus is on individual staffers to make their disagreements heard. A staffer I know of who works with IV at a school in the Bay Area owned up to the conflict and has already been terminated. She fought the decision but lost: her livelihood and her mission now gone because she did not keep her silence. I personally support two IV staffers financially, one of whom is openly gay (though celibate). He has no intention of leaving the fruitful ministry he has been nurturing for years, but if he criticizes, say, on social media or even in private conversation, the organization’s policy without officially volunteering his own resignation, what will happen to him? What will happen to the hundreds of students he leads? Students who are perhaps, like me eight years ago, eager to demonstrate love for God, yet anxious about a love for others that doesn’t fit the traditional mold. Some of them will hide and deny their sexualities because they want to stay in the community; others will leave the church because they will not feel welcome — no matter what IV says about LGBTQI inclusion within their theological framework, pro-queer folks are still being excluded and there is no way to deny this.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I struggled with my sexual identity every day for years, but I survived and eventually came to terms with myself and accepted God’s unconditional love. I then went to a school where my Christian community also showed me the same kind of unconditional love. We used that as the starting point and laid our other disagreements aside for the sake of the Gospel. That’s the beauty of the Church, in my opinion. I don’t need you to conform to my views on sex if I want to work with you: Jesus is enough.
Speaking of whom, I can’t help but think about a wonderful story told in John chapter 8, which I will reproduce below in whole (ESV translation):
Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
I’m not bringing this up because I want to draw parallels between homosexuality and adultery. Rather, what intrigues me is Jesus’ behavior in response to a group of legalistic religious experts who wanted him to take a stance. These men were so eager to draw their line in the sand: our shared moral code says we should execute this woman; now I wonder what this pacifist Jesus guy will say to that? Will he be on our side or not?
Jesus did not take their bait. Instead, he started doodling in the dust. Or writing some secret message, we’ll probably never know. But I love that while the religious leaders wanted their lines to be drawn and their theology neatly proven, Jesus flipped the situation on its head by reminding the entire crowd that there was a human life at stake here, and that human life was the most important thing. Not theology. Not the Law. Not the downward trajectory of morality in a rapidly crumbling society.
So when I think of Jesus and then I compare his actions to InterVarsity’s decision to purge its ranks of those who do not fit a certain mold, I wonder: whence came the discrepancy? To those who hold fast to their us-versus them mentality and a black-and-white framework for gray area issues: does your commitment to dichotomy stem from an outpouring of your love for Christ and an imitation of the grace he showed the world, or from somewhere else? And if he were here today, in the flesh, and given the task of deciding whom to keep in InterVarsity and whom to spit out, well, pardon the cliche, but… what would Jesus do?
Word of the Day: A pericope [pəˈɹɪ.kə.pi] (Greek: περικοπή) is a short excerpt from a (usually sacred) text that is used for teaching purposes. The passage in John 8:1-11 is also called the Pericope Adulterae.