Last Monday I attended a meeting of a small, conservative campus ministry group featuring a speaker, Jana Harmon from the C.S. Lewis Institute in Atlanta, who was invited to share “what the bible says about homosexuality.” What I want to tell you about is just how downright misleading, deceptive, poorly cited and falsely polarizing the speaker was – and she was so I will, but not in this blog post. Frankly it’s gonna take more than one post to unpack all that was wrong with what she had to say.
What I most need to share with you was how it felt to be in that room for an hour and a half as a silent witness.
I met my friend, a chaplain, with whom I was to attend the meeting in the parking lot a little after dark. We walked toward the chapel that was glowing just across the perfectly manicured quad and though we were both exhausted from our respective busy days, my heart was speeding up as we opened the massive oak doors of the chapel. We took the small flight of stairs to the lower chapel room that sits nestled among an azalea and rock garden that we could see through three glass walls.
Abby* greeted us at the entrance with a warm smile and an outstretched hand. My friend she knew but I was an unfamiliar face that she welcomed with with genuine kindness. In the room chairs were set up in a circle, creating a small conversation setting rather than the impersonal presentation atmosphere I had anticipated. Young women were chatting with comfortable familiarity and a few older women sat at the far end of the circle, one maybe in her 40’s like me that I knew to be the speaker Jana, and a couple of women likely in their 60s.
I felt every bit the stranger and my internal posture began to shift to adjust to this unexpectadly intimate space.
A young woman who introduced herself as Brianna called those gathered to attention and invited us to introduce ourselves with our name and what we were most looking forward to in the next month. As introductions moved around the circle, the older women speaking of upcoming events with their husbands and families and the younger of being done with papers, finals and remaining tennis matches. I quickly made the decision to NOT share how much I was looking forward to the final four being over and my partner being released from a week of 12 hours shifts protecting the masses that had descended on Atlanta. I chose instead to mention a looming deadline at work.
Why did I not share what was truly on my heart, what every fiber of my being was looking forward to in the next few days? My commitment for this discussion about “what does the bible say about homosexuality” was to be an active listener and a silent witness to another way to live this Christian life. To jump right into this new group waiving my rainbow flag and chucking glitter in their faces would alter the trajectory of the conversation and do something I did not want to do. And yeah, just sharing something as simple as my heart’s desire for my family life to be restored to its mundane routine felt as radical as striding around with nothing but HRC pasties on. I also had the clear sense that my honest disclosure might make these women feel unsafe to express themselves in the very space they had claimed to safely explore questions of faith and sexuality. I have a whole post to share about the difference between unsafe and uncomfortable but that post too is for another day. I was as troubled by how my presence might made these young women feel as I was by the theology I knew I was about to encounter and the need to stuff myself in my portable pocket closet to be present to the conversation.
After introductions were complete (and a few more women had joined the group) Brianna invited us into prayer and a moment of worship through song. I was able to immerse in the prayer but the praise song, lovingly offered by a talented guitar player and singer, was foreign to me and my mind began to wander in anticipation of the presentation.
Two very different things occurred over the remaining ninety minutes.
Jana, the invited guest, and I the uninvited guest, sat across the room from one another though she rarely made eye contact with me. She offered a soft-spoken presentation fraught with shallow theology, negligent sociology and un-cited “facts” conveying blatant falsehoods. I was committed to being an active listener, though at times I am sure wisps of astonished steam were escaping my angry ears gratefully hidden beneath my tired hair. The only time my hand shot in the air was when Jana was rattling off a series of crazy “statistics” and I really needed her to cite her source – which she could not.
But it was the conversation among the young women that followed the sinful presentation that was a blessing of honest and loving questions and concerns as genuinely faithful people explored their ongoing struggle to reconcile their faith with friendships and a complex world opening around them. Some of the women spoke of their own frustration and anger that they were the outsiders on a predominantly “liberal” campus. Some expressed exasperation at circular conversations with queer peers where no one felt heard and everyone left hurt. A couple of African American women discussed the merits of voting based on faith but the irony of civil rights even being up for a vote in the first place seemed not to occur to them. One woman shared her conviction that though she believes homosexuality is a sin she is clear that we do not live in a theocracy so the laws of the land for all should not be based on one religious perspective. Y’all it was as hard for me to NOT run across the room and hug her as it was for me to not to throw my Chuck Taylor’s at Jana.
“So how does this make you feeeeeel?” asks my inner therapist. As infuriating as it was to listen to the cherry-picked reading of the clobber texts, a barrage of misleading “stats”, and the false dichotomy of “Christian vs. gay” – I really have heard all that crap a million times so that’s not what has stuck with me all week. What has lingered is the experience of witnessing young Christians ardently working to synthesize a rapidly changing world while holding onto their faith with integrity AND grace.
I am grateful these women have a place to gather to talk about their faith. I am grateful these women are able to struggle in community with what it means to be a Christian in the presence of a still speaking God. I am grateful that hearts and minds are wading through the complicated ecosystem of faith and civics. And I am grateful I could keep my mouth shut long enough to witness it all in a microcosm of our larger society.
Sad. Hopeful. Scared. Determined. Frustrated. Faithful. Wary. Inspired.
That is what it felt like and that is what I feel every day that I walk this journey with you. Let’s keep at it ok?
Except for the speaker, names have been changed.