I want to share a personal, and vulnerable, story to illustrate some of this with you.
Having spent my teenage years in the conservative evangelical wing of the church, I didn’t know anyone, Christian or otherwise, who had come out as being gay. However, while I was in seminary, I made friends with a Christian Quaker who lived near me and identified as being gay. I first met him through blogging: when you're a Quaker blogger and it's 2003 it's a small world. We both had blogs where we wrote about being Quaker and and how that impacted other aspects of our lives. Interestingly, a blog, at least back then, was a pretty "safe space" or low-threshold for meeting new people. I enjoyed reading and commenting on his work and saw lots of synergy and shared interest.
Over time, I felt like I knew him and trusted him and eventually, I asked him to coffee. At that point, I still wasn’t sure where I stood on same-sex attraction and lifestyle, but I was in a place where I wanted to hear his story and learn from his perspective. I was curious about what clearly seemed to be a genuine faith. One dominant narrative I had been taught in my conservative, anti-gay church was that you couldn’t have a genuine faith and be “living in sin” at the same time. I did my best to suspend my opinions, my judgements, and the experiences I carried into that coffee shop that afternoon. I know that he did the same with me. This Friend was brave enough to sit down with someone who he knew came from a different, far more “conservative” perspective. Maybe he saw – or wanted to see – beyond my “single-story” just as I was trying to do the same with him. Around the communion of freshly roasted coffee we started the conversation off with the typical niceties, but quickly moved into deeper waters. I asked him about how he became a person of faith and a Quaker. I listened carefully and actively.
What followed changed my life.
I heard someone who was supposed to be “other” (to me, an evangelical Christian) share from his heart. Since at least the time of the Moral Majority, Evangelicals have made it one of their main focuses to make miserable the lives of LGBTQ+ people and communities. But over a cup of coffee in Pasadena, California, I learned his story was far more beautiful, complex, challenging, and faithful than I could have ever imagined.
There, in that little coffee house, a small sacred space was created where at least one single-story was broken that day (my own).
I heard about the story of a person who wanted to be a part of a faith community where he could just be himself. The Quaker meetings near where he lived were very welcoming of him being gay, but far less so of his Christian faith (in some places, Liberal Quaker meetings have become fairly anti-Christian). Similarly, the evangelical churches near him were very welcoming of his christian faith, but rejected his queerness. He taught me that day of the wrong-headedness of meetings and churches that identify with one particular label, inclusive, evangelical, pacifist, etc. because when someone shows up who defies a label, or pushes its boundaries, they are often rejected for that label, rather than received as a gift.
An Aside: A little follow-up
Since this time, My life truly (and theology) truly has changed. I have worked hard to be in solidarity with people in LGBTQ+ communities. Among a number of things that are evidence of that shift: As a pastor, I performed the first same-sex wedding in my Evangelical Quaker yearly meeting in 2014, which subsequently led to our meeting being dismissed from the yearly meeting.
Translating theological language can mean life or death for people. Building the kinds of community where one is able to walk into a meeting or space and trust that they will be welcomed for who they are, for the words they use, and the stories they share, can be the difference between survival and complete despair.
Do we believe that enough to put ourselves out there and try this in real and concrete ways? What does it look like in your context to be associated with people whose stories are different from our own?
This should go without saying but it needs to be said anyway: Do not put yourself in physical, emotional, or spiritual danger with someone who holds militant views that call into question your human worth and personal safety. The story above illustrates a prior relationship that was built through interactions that were safe for the Friend. He was able to see that I posed no direct threat to him and that I wanted to hear and learn, not debate and tear down. He was also able and willing to take this on and that will not be true for everyone. Given my own background and experiences, I had literally never had an opportunity to meet, let alone have a conversation with someone who was in his shoes. There was an underlying trust that we did not mean to do harm to one another even though we came from very divergent backgrounds. Good discernment and situational awareness should be consulted in this kind of work.