A Group of Very Brave People
As I wrote last week, it was my privilege to attend the 2017 Gay Christian Network Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I shared my testimony at the Women’s preconference, gave a keynote address at the main conference, conducted a workshop, and handled a few other responsibilities over four and a half days.* It might have been a cold week in January, but I left town warm to my core.
Fifteen years ago Justin Lee started an online presence in which gay Christians could interact with one another and find bread for the journey. With the passing of time GCN became a vibrant ministry that touches the lives of thousands.
I first met Justin in October of 2015 at the PFLAG national convention. For several years I had watched him from afar, impressed with his intelligence, his irenic spirit, and his sensitivity to varied theological perspectives. We talked for hours at the PFLAG event and barely three months later I found myself speaking at the Houston GCN Conference. Shortly thereafter I joined the board of GCN.
The ministry of GCN is varied. Not only do we conduct the largest LGBTQ Christian conference in the world, we also have a robust online presence, educational resources for LGBTQ individuals and their families, and later in 2017, conferences for LGBTQ parents and LGBTQ teens. Our hard-working board is committed to developing a growing organization with strong financial health, thoughtful and progressive commentary, and a commitment to meeting needs far and wide.
Earlier this week I was talking with the worship pastor of an OPEN Network church as he reminisced about the isolation that existed within his former evangelical world. He said, “Everyone you meet has siblings, parents and grandparents in ministry. It seems incestuous.” The evangelical world certainly is insular. If you are on the inside of one of the many evangelical tribes, you are well cared for and assured of a place at the table, but only as long as you keep its spoken and unspoken rules.
In the 1980s I first tested the boundaries of my particular evangelical tribe when I decided to attend a Roman Catholic study group. My boss said, “Be careful. They might cause you to lose your way.” That particular study group did cause me to lose my way, which then allowed me to find my way past the parameters of my evangelical background. That Catholic group was a gift on my way toward authentic living.
Many of those who attend the GCN Conference did not have the benefit of a way station on their journey out of restrictive evangelicalism. Having outed themselves, or having been outed, or being the parent of a child who was gay, these people were stripped of their credentials and left on the spiritual streets with no place to call home. They did not have the theological and educational opportunities available to me. They did not have a small group that eased them out of fundamentalism. One day they were in. The next they were out.
These recipients of evangelical judgment arrive in scores at the GCN Conference, desperate to hear a good word, any good word, that will assure them they have not been forgotten by God. For four days every January the conference is a spiritual safe haven. Some in attendance believe it is wrong for a gay person to have an intimate relationship with another gay person, and have decided to live celibate lives. Others do not hold that conviction. Inclusivity is at the core of GCN, and room is held for both groups.
Over the past few years GCN has also developed a focus on the needs of the transgender population, as evidenced by transgender keynote speakers in each of the last two conferences, and my presence on the GCN board. As we become aware of the needs of marginalized groups, it is our desire to serve them.
On two occasions I had the opportunity to present a keynote address at the national convention of the evangelical tribe of which I was once a part. I was honored to be able to do so. However, last week’s opportunity was markedly different. At one I spoke as a white man with power and status. At the other I spoke as a transgender woman without power or status. I spoke to thousands of others who have been cast out of their spiritual homes, yet remain committed to Christ. The price they paid for their faithfulness to their identity is great, yet they abound in grace toward those who will no longer worship with them. I was humbled to be in their presence, and have much to learn from their experience of rejection and their gracious forgiveness.
It is not often you have the opportunity to go from a position among the powerful, to a place of lost privilege, to a new position of even greater influence. I thank God for the blessings that have been bestowed upon my life, and I pray I will have the wisdom to discharge my new responsibilities with both confidence and humility. GCN and the broader Christian community are deserving of nothing less.
And so it goes.
*If you are interested, you can watch my keynote presentation at youtube.com/gaychristiannetwork. Click on videos and go to Session #2 from the GCN 2017 Conference. The message begins 53 minutes into the video. Within a few weeks the video will have been edited to include just the message, but for now it is a video of the entire streamed service.