We live in a troubled world. As a Christian Pastor and Trial Lawyer committed to seeking justice, I’m concerned about how we think about others. From my perspective, being a Christian isn’t about judging but about loving. I also believe justice isn’t about retribution but about achieving wholeness.
I didn’t always believe those things. For much of my life, I judged many who are different than me. My journey from that place was a complicated one.
I grew up in a Christian home on a farm in northeast Nebraska. We were dirt poor. We didn’t even have an indoor bathroom. The youngest of seven children, I’m the only one who went to college.
My Dad was a kind man. Nobody in his world went without if he had something he could share. He didn’t like it when we kids acted like bullies. He expected us to be respectful to everyone, even those not like us.
But I remember Dad questioning homosexuality. Not in a malicious way; he just didn’t understand it. Many folks in our community didn’t. I’m confident there were gay people among us, but they certainly weren’t out in the open. Still, some people whispered and speculated. I suspect the shaming would have been so severe that anyone who wanted to live his life as an out gay man decided to leave town.
Like many adolescents seeking peer approval, when I entered puberty I would join my friends in harassing anyone we thought might be gay.
None of us even understood what it meant. But we called anyone who had the slightest effeminate characteristics sissies, fags, and nicknamed them “Bruce.” I never quite understood that one. We played macho games in the shower after PE class, slapping each other on the butts with towels or attempting to “rack” each other by slamming our fists into crotches of unsuspecting victims. Truthfully, we all peeked at one another to size up our manhoods. We had to be careful to not get caught, though, so no one called us a fag. We humiliated anyone who “grew” a little in the shower.
I went on to attend a small liberal arts college near my home. And yet, even with exposure to more liberal thinking and ideas, I maintained my prejudice—fear really—of gay people, mostly gay men.
There were guys at the college who my friends and I assumed were gay. We didn’t openly harass them as we once had. But if we saw a guy sway his hips or lean into another guy a little too freely, we laughed and speculated.
Someone in the group was sure to point out that he didn’t have a problem with gay people. We’d all nod. Then someone would crack a gay joke, and we’d all laugh.
My Christian faith had been important to me since I was a child. What the church taught mattered, and my church taught me that it was a sin to be a homosexual. Like so many do, I accepted that as gospel without self study or reflection. I let someone else think for me.
In one adult Sunday school class, a local university professor once told us that a farmer had said to him, “If I had a bull that rode another bull, I’d shoot him.” I was from a farm. I knew that young bulls do that all the time. What he taught made me a little queasy. Still, I didn’t question it. I went along. He was the authority, not I.
By that point, though, I’d figured out my sexuality wasn’t a choice. I started to reason that perhaps being gay isn’t a choice. I thought about the harassment I participated in as a teen. I asked myself, “Who would choose that?”
I started to think about all the teens who commit suicide rather than come out as gay. Still, Pastors and Sunday school teachers would tell me gay people were going to Hell. It’s simple. It’s Biblical, they assured me. So, I looked the other way and continued to say nothing.
I didn’t get to know an openly gay man with any depth until I was 40. Evan Forster, a freelance journalist from New York City, walked into my life during one of the most difficult periods I’d ever experienced.
I was legal counsel for a young couple who wanted to adopt a three-year-old boy they had fostered since he was three months old. The State of Nebraska resisted because the adoptive mom had HIV. We were in for the fight of our lives.
Evan had learned about the case and reached out to us, wanting to write a story about it. We needed help and national publicity never hurts. I agreed.
We were in the heat of the battle when Evan came to Nebraska. I was exhausted and weary. We met for dinner. That night, Evan blew through the door of the restaurant like he owned the place. He was breathless from being late. When I saw him I thought to myself, he’s gay. Evan was flashy and other worldly to me. His black, skin-tight t-shirt and pink vest stood out in the conservative venue.
Sure enough, one of the first things he told me is that he’s queer—his word. I sat there with my stereotypes bubbling to the surface.
Had I made a mistake to agree to this? What were people in the restaurant thinking of us? Did they assume we were on a date? God forbid!
Still, there was something comforting about Evan—“Auntie Evan” to his friends, he told me. Evan was open and empathetic to my clients’ situation. I was exhausted. I wanted help. And Evan was ready to help in any way he could. I let go of my fears and poured out my heart to this willing listener. It felt so good, his empathy so welcoming. Could we possibly become friends?
Evan spent a lot of time in Lincoln. He came to our home for dinner and met my wife, Donna. He went to church with us. He wrote an excellent article about the case. He then worked to raise more awareness about the issue. His work helped us tremendously. The case damn near killed me, but we won!
Evan and I stayed in touch after the case ended. I later met his boyfriend, David. I could see how much they loved each other. I was uncomfortable with that at first. But I didn’t let that get in the way of getting to know them. My wife Donna and I would eventually visit Evan and David in New York. We had a marvelous time. Evan later returned to Nebraska to interview me for another story—about being a different kind of lawyer.
After same-sex marriage became legal in Canada, Evan and David married. I admit I wasn’t yet completely comfortable with that either, even though I’d come to love Evan and David as people. But I smiled and congratulated them, despite my discomfort. I had to be respectful, right Dad?
I’d repeat to myself the old Christian line, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I didn’t yet understand the hate in that phrase itself.
By chance, I took a position with the national organization of my church. That forced me to study scripture more closely and opened my mind to an entirely different concept of justice than I had ever had. I saw not a judgmental, hateful God, but a God of love who created a world with enough for all, each according to need.
I came to understand that the true sin regarding homosexuality is the effort to find Biblical support to condemn gay people, instead of being open to acknowledge that God created all people.
As far as the passages others used to teach me being gay is a sin, I discovered that they don’t actually condemn gay people or even gay sex. Rather, it is the outdated, tired, and simplistic interpretations of them that do.
I studied with an open mind Biblical stories like that of the beautiful love between Jonathan and David in 1st and 2nd Samuel. While the text never explicitly says they were lovers, it leaves little doubt they were. After Jonathan died, David proclaimed that he loved Jonathan more than any woman. Some theologian friends argue that means he loved him as men love their friends. If so, why wouldn’t David have said that he loved Jonathan more than any other man? Why did he say, woman? If they weren’t lovers, why would Saul chastise Jonathan for embarrassing his mother because of his relationship with David? Why would the story include the moment when Jonathan undressed in front of David and kissed him?
In 2009, my church reversed it’s teaching on homosexuality … sort of.
LGTBQ people who are in committed relationships (or now married) may serve as clergy in our church. And yet, the church didn’t go so far as to declare that homosexuality is not sinful.
Still, it was a bold and progressive move that cost some of our leaders who supported it dearly. Many churches left the national church and struck out on their own. Most of my parishioners have been pretty quiet about it. Others have not. One man transferred to another church. He still sends me letters in which he condemns me for supporting gay people.
I’ve recently wondered how I could share my transformation to help others find their loving selves. I started writing an “I Love A” series to highlight how important it is to be available to those who are not like us rather than being quick to dismiss them because of labels. Every person is unique. We owe it to ourselves to get to know one another. In doing so, we find much love, and labels fall away as irrelevant.
And so it is that the guy who once bullied those we assumed were gay, who didn’t speak up when a Sunday school teacher taught Biblical fiction, now advocates for gay people.
I still take heat for that from some of my colleagues and others. But I am completely at peace. I love my friend and his husband for who they are. I no longer see them as hopeless sinners but as two people who love each other completely and tenderly—as husband and husband. I’m thankful to God for bringing these two men into my life.
Knowing them … blesses me.
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