Ask Richard: Gay Agnostic Conflicted by Friendship with Evangelist Missionary

Note: To better preserve their privacy, I have randomly given the letter writer and her friend different names.

Dear Richard,

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.

Best regards,

Cynthia

Dear Cynthia,

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.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • JulietEcho

    Cynthia, my dad works for IVCF, and I wrestle with a lot of hard questions regarding how I feel about it. I grew up as an IV brat, and it would actually be kind of amazing to talk to someone else who understands the subculture and environment. If you want, please email me at ejsunflowers@gmail.com. I know pretty much all the good, bad & ugly regarding IV.

    I’ve found that my relationship with my dad and with my childhood friends who’ve gone into ministry fields have been strained and mostly shallow since I parted ways with Christianity. I just don’t have much in common with someone who prioritizes evangelism over pretty much everything else in life. Maybe that’s not Mark’s deal, but if it is, you’ll have to be a different kind of person than I am if you guys are going to remain close.

  • muggle

    I think Richard’s advice is good. Send him the letter and see how he reacts to your open sincere feelings. In other words, give him a chance. Don’t prejudge him.

    You’ll find his true colors — whatever they may be. And wouldn’t that be better than letting this worries about his involvement in IV fester? Either you lose a friend you didn’t really have any more or you will find you have a true and good friend. If you lose him, well, it’ll hurt for a time but you will be grieving someone you already lost. If you don’t, your friendship will be all the stronger for knowing that you both accept each other for who you are. Stronger and deeper.

    And, Richard, I’ll be good as long as he is. I’m Atheist, not anti-theist.

  • Parse

    Once again, Richard bats it out of the park.
    I would appreciate it if Mark or somebody else could reconcile these two lines:
    “Mark has just accepted a fairly high-level position with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship…”
    “He has to gather financial support, because IV can’t pay him…”
    I simply can’t wrap my head around this. It’s got to be a full time position, or at least enough time that he can’t be earning any other paycheck – he wouldn’t need to beg for funding if they did. I’ve heard of unpaid internships, but I’ve never seen any described as a ‘high-level position.’ At least when Mormons are sent off on their Mission Trips, they’re paid a small stipend.

    This isn’t similar to Americorp or other ‘year of service programs’, in that at least those pay living expenses (or provide for the needs of the volunteers). How long is he expecting to stay in this job? How long is he expecting his friends and family to support him in this position?

  • Trace

    Cynthia, dont feel bad about not wanting to support (financially or otherwise) your friend’s organization.

    If confronted, simply explain to him your conflict regarding such support in the same terms you have used in this letter.

    Good luck.

    PS…of course we will be polite and thoughtful, aren’t we always?

  • JulietEcho

    @ Parse:

    IV employees, like most missionaries, must raise funding from individual donors and churches. They have fundraising goals based on their position (and possibly by location, I’m not sure), and the money they raise goes straight to IVCF. Then they’re paid a salary by IVCF, although it’s small – usually about what a public school teacher is paid when they’re starting out.

    They raise the money by essentially campaigning. They visit churches in person and present their mission to the congregations, they send out newsletters with requests for donations, etc. The long-term staff usually have donors and churches who contribute regularly, so they don’t have to do much more than keep sending out newsletters about their progress and expressing their gratitude.

  • Parse

    @JulietEcho,
    Thanks for that. Here’s hoping that Mark has some of those sponsorships already lined up.

    I guess it goes completely against my grain; I see it similar to Tupperware or Longenberger parties. My friends are friends, not ATMs; I find it somewhat repulsive to have a business practice that relies upon monetizing your friends.

  • JulietEcho

    Yeah, but you’ve got to remember, the kind of people who donate to IV do it because they love the cause and think it’s super important to convert everyone, everywhere. They’re extra happy if the support is specifically going to a friend – I mean, the friends who aren’t evangelicals aren’t going to be thrilled if asked for donations probably, but hopefully IV staff know their friends well enough to know who to ask and who not to ask.

    Mark may have asked for money or maybe for help putting together a plan or presentation or newsletter for the purpose of raising money from others. Either way, I wouldn’t be helping (because of the cause), but if we were able to stay good friends I’d probably pay for his coffee more often or something, knowing he’s got a fairly small salary.

  • Claudia

    I know its risky to read too much into a short letter, but the wording “Cynthia” employes seems to imply that “Mark” doesn’t hold their friendship under false pretenses. Every story I’ve seen about evangelicals holding onto their non-believer and/or gay friends for the purposes of “saving” them have in common that their friends will just not leave them alone on the subject. It sounds like Mark isn’t doing that, but is maintaining a friendship with someone with a radically different worldview from him out of actual love. Much like Cynthia, in fact.

    That doesn’t change the conflict. Insomuch as its possible of course people should try to remain friends even when opinions differ. A Democrat and a Republican ceasing friendship on that basis seems absurd, but an African American ceasing friendship with a Caucasian friend who just joined the KKK doesn’t. I have no clue where IV falls in that spectrum.

    I think Richard is spot on in his assesement. If Mark is a true friend (which I’m hopeful of) he’ll be able to understand the deep conflict, and probably share one of his own. That does’t mean he’ll end association with IV, but if nothing else it could mean he’ll gain insight into how it feels on the other side of the fence, and how what he sees as loving saving can feel like abusive hurting to the “unsaved”.

  • Jen

    I find myself occasionally overwhelmed by the number of people who want a donation for this run or that cause, that Tupperware-esqe party or this box of Girl Scout cookies. I find having a firm set of decisions is often helpful; I have the three charities I support regularly, I buy GS cookies but not Boy Scout popcorn, I never attend Tupperware-type parties, and I have a bit of “charity play money” that I can allot as I see fit. I am not a Gates, but donating makes me feel good.

    I find that when someone asks, a simple “No, I am sorry” usually suffices- regardless if it is because of the financial aspect or because of the charity itself. If they press the matter, which they hopefully have the good manners not to do, I say that I have allotted already my charitable donations. At that point, the correct answer to further inquiries should be a “No, I am sorry” ad nausem.

    I do wonder, though. I wonder why he thinks you want to support his charity job. I think if he ever presses the money question, the correct answer is to ask the IV policy on the gays. If I were you, I would already have looked into the official policy myself. It is great that he has the cognitive dissonance to ignore the dichotomy between what he preaches and who he friends with, but you are not required to give him a free pass there.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    As an example from the “other side” by son is in the Boy Scouts and I participate in going on camp-outs with them. As you know, the Boy Scouts officially has some bigoted policies against gays (and atheists). I also happen to have some personal gay friends. They know I participate in the Boy Scouts and I’ve told them that I don’t like the Boy Scout’s “anti-gay” policy. My gay friends have accepted that. I wouldn’t dream, though, of asking my gay friends for a Boy Scout contribution.

    Give your friend the benefit of the doubt to see if he has similar reservations about how IV deals with homosexuality. If he really believes in “Christian therapy” for gays, then perhaps you may need to re-evaluate your friendship with him. If he sees other benefits for the IV but has reservations about their policy towards gays, then perhaps you could cut him some slack.

  • http://jimmycrackedcorn.wordpress.com Jimmy Cracked Corn

    Sometimes you just have to pay the bills. I work all day for a marketing company but I listen to NPR to avoid radio commercials and don’t watch any TV. I have pledged to never have a sponsor for my blog…I’m just completely anti-consumerism.

    But I work all day for a marketing company. It pays me.