By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
[Editor’s note: This is part one of a series examining the faith of LGBTQ+ people.]
As heavy May clouds swirled over a bright sky, the lead pastor of Missiongathering Church in North Park, Brandan Robertson, clicked open his email for another piece of hate mail. This one read “Sorry, Fa****, ‘Pastor’ and ‘Fa****’ don’t go together. Your false narrative and satanic influence will lead you straight to a cell in hell.”
The email was a reminder that although LGBTQ+ rights have advanced in some parts of society, among the conservative white Evangelical supporters that remain President Donald Trump’s most faithful base, many see “queer” and “Christian” as incompatible identities that cannot coexist.
According to Robertson, who identifies as queer, a decade ago the fully inclusive church he leads would have been an anomaly in San Diego, but with a handful of affirming churches in Uptown, it’s a burgeoning religious movement.
“Missiongathering five years ago would be a rare church. Today, you can walk down the street in San Diego and within a one-mile radius, there’s probably five or six Christian churches that are fully affirming and welcoming of LGBT people. Now, there are dozens more that aren’t, but things are changing and they’re changing quick,” 27-year-old Robertson said from his office during an April interview.
As more San Diego churches affirm LGBTQ+ identities, what have long been sepulchers of LGBTQ+ exclusion are now being led by the very people neighboring churches condemn.
By San Diego Pride’s count, there are 100 open and affirming faith congregations in the region. To qualify for the lists, congregations must agree to and embody a statement calling for the equal treatment and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people at every level in their faith community as well as under the law.
Fernando Lopez, the executive director of San Diego LGBT Pride, has worked to formalize the inclusion of spiritual and religious members of the LGBTQ+ community in Pride festivities. They plan to launch a formal interfaith coalition called DevOUT in July. Robertson is a key leader in that coalition.
Lopez, who is Jewish, said in a phone interview, “I think our job here at Pride is to do our best to make a space that is as welcoming for as many people as possible who are in the LGBTQ community. That doesn’t just look like one thing or one viewpoint or one value or one perspective.”
Lopez’s activism began in the early 2000s with pushing for same-sex marriage in California. They participated in interfaith organizing to bring clergy in favor of the practice to the attention of lawmakers. Since Lopez grew up in a household with a Jewish mother and Catholic father, they studied different religions and noticed similar core values between them: respect, love, understanding, and forgiveness. However, they noticed religion was often used as a weapon against LGBTQ+ people but knew it could be used by both sides to create moral arguments.
“One of the ways that we were fighting back against those messages really centered around ensuring that we had open and affirming faith leaders, right there counteracting those sort of religious arguments against LGBT equality,” Lopez said.
Lopez is not alone in seeing religion as a way to inform and catalyze activism.
Susan Jester, who is currently in seminary to become a layman minister (meaning not officially ordained) in the Episcopal Church, sees the religious left as a way to counteract messages from right-wing evangelicals.
“This is going to be a Christian right’s last stand. They lost on abortion. They lost on all their other issues, but they still have the gay community to maximize [their] fundraising efforts and rally their troops through so-called religious freedom,” Jester said in an interview at Peet’s Coffee in Hillcrest. “In my mind, the only way to mitigate that — because you’ll never shut them down — but the way to mitigate it for our community, to make us safer and freer, is to find alliances and Christian communities and other faiths that have as loud a voice for equality and freedom as the evangelicals do.”
She believes lawmakers need to hear the voices of both progressive and conservative religious leaders, instead of just one group. Jester became involved in St. Paul’s Cathedral when she moved back to San Diego in 2011. When the church in Bankers Hill was poised to become the first cathedral in the nation to completely light up in honor of Pride in 2015, Jester made sure to invite San Diego’s elected officials, including then-Councilman Todd Gloria. The event was historic because it was also the first time a church in a mainstream denomination officially recognized Pride.
“The public needs to know that gay people are people of faith and that there are faith practices that accept gay people and honor them,” 75-year-old Jester said.
Jester separates the message of God loving and accepting LGBTQ+ people from earthly churches and demonenations.
At 16, Jester was married and by 17, she was widowed with a young son. Her church, Scott Memorial Baptist Church, became her support system and helped her raise money to care for her son. However, when she came out as a lesbian at age 40 in 1983 after struggling with her sexuality for years, that all changed.
“When I came out, they put me out. I didn’t step foot in a church for 25 years, but I never lost my personal faith in Jesus,” she explained.
Scott Memorial Baptist Church has been renamed Shadow Mountain Community Church, but it is still under the same pastor — televangelist Dr. David Jeremiah. The El Cajon megachurch brings in 10,000 people each week to its Sunday services. Jeremiah currently serves on Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board.
Since she was a little girl, Jester wanted to become a Christian missionary. When the church forced her out, she channeled that religious fervor into helping the LGBTQ+ community and eventually became an AIDS activist who founded the AIDS Walk in San Diego and was central in getting local politicians to respond to the crisis.
“One thing I learned during the AIDS epidemic — I was with so many folks in their dying moments — most of our community have some kind of faith practice. They either grew up in it or they have continued,” Jester said. When she returned to San Diego and found St. Paul’s, Jester remembered her commitment to become a missionary. She got involved with the church because of her desire to let LGBTQ+ people know God loves them. “He has plans for you. You’re made in his image and however he made you is however you are. So be the best you can. And then the place where you can worship God and feel welcome and productive and have a whole community of supporters is right down the street.”
For her and Robertson, secular political activism may be central to what they believe is the role of the church, but they are also working to make the evangelical church less exclusive.
“The church and Christianity has done so much harm. It’s hard for people to separate God from that. And I just want to help people see that. I believe the God that created us is a God that celebrates and loves and rejoices when we live into the diversity of our identity,” Robertson said. He believes coming to accept his sexuality has bettered his faith.
“I think that God is so infinite and diverse that it makes sense that humans are infinitely diverse and that it’s in our diversity and in our complexity that we most reflect God,” he said. “Now, my sexuality and my faith go hand in hand because through the diversity of sexuality and gender identity, I think we have a unique lens into the creativity of God and a God that is that creative is so much more interesting than a God who wants everybody to be the same and to conform.”
It was seeing other queer Christians in a church service that first made him rethink his theology. While in college, he and fellow students went to a church just a few blocks from Moody Bible Institute. There, he saw a woman take the pulpit and preach for the first time in his life. At that point, the other students left, loudly. Despite believing a woman speaking in church was unbiblical, Robertson stayed. At the end of the service, he noticed two women holding hands while singing praise music. He said this was the first church he saw embody radical welcome for everybody and calling people deeper into who they truly are.
After he was outed publicly in 2015, Robertson spent years meeting with prominent evangelical leaders and debating them, or as he put it being a “fly in their ointment.” Now, he has a different approach to changing the minds of conservative pastors.
“I think sharing stories and cultivating empathy is what will change conservatives’ minds on LGBT issues. I’ve got the chance to sit with some of the largest churches in the country and just share who I am,” he explained. “I’ve seen churches of 10,000 people where the pastor goes from anti-gay to completely affirming and trying to figure out now what do they do with their church of 10,000 people. How do you convince 10,000 people to change their mind?”
Robertson is also convinced queer people are the future of the church.
While Pew Research Center tracked a decrease in Americans identifying as Christians between 2013 and 2015, the number of lesbian, gay or bisexual Americans identifying as Christian actually went up from 42% to 48% in the two-year period.
One of the pastors Robertson has formed a relationship with is Miles McPherson, the pastor of the Rock Church in San Diego. The former NFL player brings in 19,000 people across five campuses in the region. Robertson pointed out a picture of McPherson he keeps in his office to remind him of why he needs to keep going.
When the mega-church pastor and Robertson meet, Robertson takes all issues of homosexuality in the Bible or politics off the table. He just wants to shatter McPherson’s paradigm by being a gay Christian with an authentic faith. Robertson does not think the Rock will be an inclusive church anytime soon, but he does credit McPherson with continuing to meet with him.
Jester has less hope one of the major proponents of Proposition 8 will make any meaningful efforts at reconciliation with the LGBTQ+ community. For her, McPherson privately apologizing to queer leaders about past harms will not remedy the damage perpetuated in his church today.
Jester said, “If he really wants to apologize, then he should start talking to his congregation about equality and equal rights for gay people. [They say] ‘you’re accepted.’ Their line is ‘we welcome you,’ but they want you to ultimately change.”
Still, she appreciates Robertson’s youthful idealism, which is one of the reasons she has turned over the reins for the interfaith coalition she spent years building around Light Up the Cathedral and Pride week.
She remains influential in DevOUT. In the wake of the Pittsburgh Synagogue mass shooting, Jester convinced Lopez to bring attention to Jewish gay people. That decision was further confirmed after the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue.
“In the last few years, there’s been a huge uptick in violence and hate crimes and toward the LGBT community, towards people of color, towards immigrants and particularly towards the larger Jewish community [from a] place of hate and white supremacy. Their roots are traced back to the same place and we really wanted to ensure that we were acknowledging that,” Lopez said. “How can we find a healthy path forward to combating anti-Semitism, combating racism, and combating homophobia and transphobia and do that collectively? How are faith institutions doing that? How are they doing it together and how can we build strength through that diversity in our community to fight those battles together?”
At this year’s Light Up the Cathedral on July 10, Lopez will give the Light of Pride award to Jewish Family Service of San Diego for their service to the Jewish, LGBTQ+ and refugee communities in the area. In addition, the keynote speech will be given by Jewish activist and Rabbinical student Steven Goldstein. Jester wanted to bring him to San Diego so he could teach interfaith leaders about how to organize and use their platforms to counteract hate at a workshop on July 11.
“We all have a common denominator and that is white supremacy or white nationalism. Anti-Jew, anti-Muslim, anti-gay — it’s all the same. We’re all in the same boat together and we need to find those things that we have in common and to fight back,” Jester said.
The work of DevOUT will continue past Pride week with the interfaith coalition getting involved in legislation Jester characterizes as anti-LGBTQ+ disguised as religious freedom.
During Pride, the two-thirds of LGBT people who self-identify as spiritual or religious will have several ways to take pride in their sexual or gender identity and faith at the same time.
“Far too many young people hear from their faith leaders that their mere existence is a sin, a moral failure, and that eternal damnation awaits them. I was one of those young people,” Lopez said in an email following the United Methodist Church’s decision in February to strengthen bans on same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ+ clergy. “While many of us still carry the trauma of the bigotry and harm we experienced in the name of faith, 65% of all LGBTQ people embrace their personal connection to faith.”
The interfaith celebration of Pride kicks off with the annual rainbow lighting of St. Paul’s Cathedral, known as Light Up the Cathedral, which will happen on Wednesday, July 10, at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The next day, faith leaders are invited to attend a workshop on how to change the world through interfaith organizing at Ohr Shalom Synagogue on Thursday, July 11, at 1:30 p.m. DevOUT is hosting Pride’s first Interfaith Village where festivalgoers can access a chaplain for spiritual direction or counseling and find resources on affirming faith organizations. There will also be presentations, workshops, and spiritual practices held in the event space from July 13-14.
Queer faith leaders will offer a prayer and blessing ahead of the Pride Parade under the Hillcrest Pride Flag on Saturday morning. The blessing, now an annual tradition, historically began with allies offering prayers but is now led by LGBTQ+ clergy.
“The 50th anniversary of Stonewall is this year and we see how much has changed in 50 years regarding sexuality and gender in American culture. It’s faster than any other social movements in American history,” Robertson said. “So we have a lot of reason to hope. Years from now, I don’t even think we can fathom how different our society can become if we keep pressing forward believing that change is possible and working for that change.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.