The following post is from Brent Bailey, who is currently with us in Chicago as an intern at The Marin Foundation. He is working on his Masters of Divinity at Abilene Christian University and regularly blogs at oddmanout.net. Brent will be writing a few posts for this blog over the summer, so to kick things off he has written a piece to share a small part of his story along with touching on why he has chosen to invest in building bridges between the LGBT and Christian communities.
I remember the first time I honestly began to wonder whether Christian community was a place that would ever feel like home to me. It would be inaccurate to label it a faith crisis; I was confident God loved me, I was confident God’s love mattered, and I was confident I loved God in return—none of those convictions were at stake. What was at stake was whether I would be able to maintain any kind of meaningful relationship with God among a subculture of people whose experiences and needs were so different from mine.
It happened during a season of intense searching and questioning in my life. The campus ministry in which I was participating—a group towards which I felt and still feel fondness and affection—organized an event at the church building featuring a frank, open discussion of dating and relationships, satisfying the requests of countless students with those topics on their minds. As the conversation proceeded, I became increasingly aware of how little the entire event applied to my situation. This wasn’t necessarily due to oversight on the part of the event’s planning team (considering I helped plan it); it was simply an unavoidable reality of my status as a minority gay student (and closeted, at that) among a largely straight student body. In that time in the development of my sexual identity, I didn’t know where I would land: I had some theological difficulties imagining myself in a relationship with a man, but I was also aware a relationship with a woman would be complicated and noticeably unlike most heterosexual relationships. In either case, I struggled to discern the relevancy of a seminar on the ins and outs of the heterosexual dating scene for my own relationship with God.
I didn’t hurry home that night to distance myself immediately from everything religious and overtly Christian, but the event did somehow give me eyes to begin noticing how the Christian world in which I had always felt comfortable seemed carefully designed for a kind of person who was not me. Most of my friends seemed to assume without question they’d marry a life partner in the next few years. (I didn’t know whom I wanted to marry or whom God would permit me to marry or if I even would marry.) Gender-specific ministries often depended on cultural stereotypes of women and men for their role models and their programming. (I was still struggling mightily to determine who I was and which aspects of my personality, both traditionally masculine and feminine, best revealed Christ.) Very few people around me seemed to have given much thought to how a person who was exclusively attracted to people of the same gender fit into the Kingdom of God. (My ability to belong hinged on that very question.) From a young age, I had fit rather easily into that Christian world, but I suddenly felt like a square peg in a round hole, unable to feel and think like it seemed I was supposed to. I’ve never been one to disrupt the status quo, but the diversity of experience I was bringing seemed to make disruption inevitable.
Before I came to terms with my sexuality and started coming out to friends and family, I read I Corinthians 12 with a bit of a smirk. That’s the chapter where Paul paints the picture of a body at war within itself: Some of the parts try to remove others, and some of the parts try to remove themselves, and none of them seems to understand that each of them has an essential function. The whole concept of infighting within a church community based on different spiritual gifts read as nonsense to me because I knew I had a place and imagined everyone else functioning with as much comfort as me. It was one of the luxuries of being in a place of privilege, I suppose, to assume everyone felt as secure as I. But on the night I attended the campus ministry event about relationships—the night on which homosexuality seemed so very, very different from heterosexuality, and I so different from them—I suddenly identified with I Corinthians 12:15-7. I was a lonely ear looking at a body comprised entirely of eyeballs, and the sense of hearing I offered sounded irritating and noisy. This was no longer my world.
If you know anything about I Corinthians—or, really, if you know anything about basic human anatomy—you know the body is not comprised entirely of eyeballs. So Paul agrees: “In fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (12:18-20). When I fit comfortably in the majority, the diversity of the body was inefficient and dangerous; but when I owned my status as part of the minority, I began to recognize the vast wisdom and beauty of God’s design to form community from heterogeneity, the way the whole is much greater than the sum of its dissimilar types. All of the metaphors began making sense to me: how the magnificence of a symphony is a result of the interactions of all its different instruments, how a tasty meal requires a variety of ingredients, how the most extravagant paintings utilize all the colors of the spectrum. The diversity of experience I brought to the church was not a liability or an affliction; it was an absolutely essential contribution to the body through which “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). It is not the church’s job to make room for LGBT members; it is the church’s job to recognize the room God has already made for LGBT members (just like God carved out space for everyone else) and then to delight in the diversity of people through whom God is revealed to us.
At the same time as I was discovering how valuable I (like every individual) was to the church, I was discovering how valuable the church was to me, how I could not possibly hope to know or experience or worship God fully without engaging a body of believers. My desire “to offer [my body] as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” and to conform no longer “to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [my] mind” required the support and enculturation of others who acknowledged God’s reign (Romans 12:1-2). My experience is different from that of many of the people I encounter at church, which means we have all the more to teach each other and discover within each other. The perspective of the solitary ear who tries to discover God will be as limited and incomplete as the perspective of an eyeballs-only church who tries to discover God.
(I don’t want to ignore here that many churches are toxic environments for LGBT individuals; although I believe every believer needs to thrive in a community of faith, I’m aware certain people legitimately need to abandon certain churches for the sake of their mental and spiritual health in favor of other churches.)
This journey has brought me to a place of deep investment in forming Christian communities into bodies that cherish and value their LGBT members. I am fully convinced I have a place, and I am fully convinced others like me have places, and I don’t imagine we’ll grow any closer towards an understanding of God until we all (yes, even me) learn to live in community with people who are different from us. Obviously, this is hard work, but the best symphonies and meals and paintings rarely develop without careful, tedious, arduous labor. The end result of the work could be church communities who, in the rich interactions of their diverse parts, demonstrate a fuller expression of the nature of God than anything we’ve seen, which is surely a goal worth pursuing.