Note: To better preserve their privacy, I have randomly given the letter writer and her friend different names.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, and was raised in the “nurture and admonition of the lord.” My parents sent me to a small, private Christian high school. While I was in college, I realized I was gay, left the evangelical church, and came out of the closet. I myself identify as agnostic and I am in a happy, healthy relationship with a non-practicing Jewish woman. (I am 23 years old now.)
Here’s the trouble: since I was raised in such an insular community, my coming out of the closet has left me with few of the friends I grew up with– as you can imagine, since evangelicals disapprove so vehemently of homosexuality. However, I still have a few good friends I grew up with who sort of figured I was gay, and have been very kind and accepting of me and my girlfriend. In particular, my friend Mark was very kind when I came out and accepted me whole-heartedly– or at least, I thought he did.
Mark has just accepted a fairly high-level position with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which you might be familiar with. They are a conservative Christian organization that evangelizes on college campuses throughout the United States. I had some incredibly negative experiences with IV workers on my own college campus while I was trying to sort out my sexual identity. They advised me to go get “Christian therapy” to deal with my feelings, and generally contributed to the terrible fear and isolation I experienced as a young evangelical in the process of coming out of the closet.
I can hardly begin to express the great disdain I have for IV and everything it tries to do, and I feel like it is starting to get in the way of my friendship with Mark. He has to gather financial support, because IV can’t pay him, and when he asked me for help I told him point blank I couldn’t support the organization or the work he was trying to do. (His particular specialty is in “urban ministry”, which I find especially noxious because they essentially go into ghettos and tell the poor that Jesus will solve all their problems. They don’t do anything to encourage independence, but rather dependence on the evangelical church.)
So my question for you is— should I still try to maintain a friendship with him? He has never been anything other than kind to me, and I feel tremendously guilty for being so repulsed by his new occupation. I like to fancy myself a liberal person, in favor of free speech and freedom of thought, but I am tremendously uncomfortable with Intervarsity and the way they try and take advantage of lonely, scared college students. Mark and I have been friends for nearly ten years, which adds to the guilt I feel for being so upset by his new job. I also can’t help but feel that I might do some good by continuing to talk to him about things that are important to me—- like the way the evangelical church treats GLBT people, so I would appreciate your thoughts about this new, awkward situation in my life.
You should show Mark this letter, exactly as it is here, in full. It expresses very well everything you would want him, as a friend, to understand. It conveys the anguish that the Fellowship workers’ ignorance about human sexuality caused you during your vulnerable period, and the anguish that you feel now, having learned that your longtime friend will be working for the Fellowship, causing yet more pain to other vulnerable people. It expresses how strongly you care about your friendship with him, how grateful you are for his kindness, and the painfulness of your quandary.
Instead of asking me if you should try to maintain your friendship, ask your friend. Give Mark his chance to understand the depth of your conflicting feelings, and to respond to you with his best effort.
Will he reply as a proselytizer to a prospect, or as a person to a person? Will he remain safe behind a wall of self assurance and righteousness, or will he candidly express his own quandary of having a good friend who has been hurt badly by the organization he wants to join? Will he offer pat clichés and a simplistic viewpoint, or will he acknowledge that life is complicated, and often puts us into dilemmas for which there are no neat and clean solutions? Will he offer empty reassurance that God will somehow fix it all, or will he take responsibility for his own response, use his own personal judgment, and struggle along with you to find a resolution that is probably less than perfect, but at least is fully human?
I fairness to Mark, he may have completely different ways to respond instead of these either/or pairs that I’ve listed. His kindness and acceptance of you are certainly encouraging. I guess it depends on the roots of those responses. Are they the straightforward and agenda-free kindness and acceptance of a friend for a friend, or more of a patronizing and conditional tolerance of a patient Christian for a misguided sinner, or something else?
Forward your letter to Mark just as it is, unabridged, perhaps with an explanation about how you had sent it to me, or simply ask him to read it here. It won’t be a complete shock to him; he already knows that you’re gay, and that you oppose what Intervarsity does, and I’m assuming that he already knows you’re an agnostic. But he may not know how hard this is for you, and how much you care. Also, you might find out if this is hard for him, and how much he cares.
He can respond to you privately, or he is welcome to comment here. If he does, other readers may have strong opinions to express, but I’m sure that everyone here will mind their manners and treat him respectfully. Right, guys?
Cynthia, the advice I’ll offer you directly is, question the fairness of the guilt you feel in your conflict between your admirable desire to preserve the friendship and your understandable loathing of Intervarsity. You’re not guilty of any moral or ethical failing in this. You’re not suppressing anyone’s freedom of speech or thought. Loving your friend is not the only legitimate thing. Strongly opposing his work is valid too.
Having conflicting feelings is the occupational hazard of a deeply thoughtful person, and a passionately feeling person. Be conflicted, but don’t turn that upon yourself, thinking that you’re doing something wrong to feel conflicted. No you’re not. It sounds like you are free of it, but it reminds me of the self-recrimination that many gay people from evangelical backgrounds often go through early in their struggle to resolve their personal turmoil.
Against great odds, you have freed yourself from a prison made of four walls: guilt, fear, superstition, and ignorance. You had to leave some friends behind, but you built a happy and healthy life for yourself, true to your nature and true to your principles. I admire your courage and your sensitivity. Those two things are not often found in such abundance in the same person, and they sometimes clash. Accept inner conflicts as part of a genuine life. Regardless of where your path and Mark’s path lead, stay true, so true, to yourself.
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