By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
[Editor’s note: This is part two of a series examining the faith of LGBTQ+ people. Part one can be found at bit.ly/2Gh1AK3]
In February 2015, Time Magazine reported on a young evangelical leader who had been dropped from his Christian publisher after refusing to sign a statement that he did not “condone, encourage or accept the homosexual lifestyle.” The young evangelical Time publicly outed as queer was Brandan Robertson — who is now the lead pastor of Missiongathering Church in North Park.
This was not the first time Robertson’s sexuality was discussed in ways he could not control. He was mentored by a prominent ex-gay author while attending Moody Bible Institute in Chicago who eventually outed him to fellow faculty. His mentor’s hypocrisy spurred Robertson to reevaluate the faith he had held tightly since he converted as a 12-year-old.
“Moody deconstructed my entire faith. By the time I graduated, I had gone through reparative therapy because I was forced to. I was outed to the faculty. They tried to expel me four times, not because I was doing drugs or anything fun. It was simply because I was questioning what they believe,” the 27-year-old said. “That made me so uninterested in Christianity’s fear of difference.”
The Time article was the last time Robertson did not have a say in the narrative about his own life. Since then, he has published four books and become a sought-after commentator regarding LGBTQ+ issues in the church.
“That was probably one of the most transformative moments because here I was pushed to the national [and] international spotlight. My sexuality was being talked about. It was also being critiqued by the most influential religious leaders in the country. [They] came out and wrote op-eds against me and did radio shows. The people that I looked up to growing up were now condemning me,” Robertson said in an interview in his office, which sported rainbow flags and copies of his latest book, “The Gospel of Inclusion.” “At that point, that was when my resiliency really emerged as a calling because I was like, everything in me says I should leave this whole world behind because I can’t have my book deals anymore. They’re calling me a heretic. They don’t want me.”
Instead of leaving, Robertson decided to use the platform he was given to “blow up the patriarchy dominating this evangelical world,” he explained with a cheeky smile. He credits his stubbornness as the deciding factor in staying with the religion that once saved his life as an adolescent.
Robertson is not the only queer person in Uptown to leave conservative evangelicalism and instead work in a church that accepts and affirms their identity. While each of these queer Christians have found places in churches that go beyond just letting them take up a pew and tithe, the journey there was costly. These church leaders lost community, family, jobs, book deals, homes.
Sarah Holly was in high school when she came out to her mom as a lesbian and was kicked out. Luckily, she was able to move in with her dad, but for a year she did not have a relationship with her mother. In that time, her mother reexamined her theology to the point of becoming fully affirming of queer identities. Watching her mother transform into an advocate for LGBTQ+ people in Christian spaces is one of the reasons Holly still has hope that the church can change.
“The really terrible history of the relationship between LGBT [people and] the church is devastating — and it doesn’t need to be the future,” Holly said in an interview at Kettle & Stone in May.
A full 40% of teens who are homeless are part of the LGBTQ+ community. A quarter of those teens were kicked out on the same day they came out to their parents.
San Diego Pride Executive Director Fernando Lopez was homeless for part of their youth, and they believe religion was a key factor in why they were left without shelter, which had lasting impacts on their faith.
“That experience severed me a lot from my ability to navigate my own faith and spirituality because family [is] usually where your connection to faith comes from,” Lopez said in a phone interview.
For Holly, to see her mother accept, embrace and even advocate for her daughter is the dream scenario for any queer person who faces excommunication from their family over their identity. Not everyone changes though.
AIDS activist Susan Jester’s mother started a conference promoting conversion therapy at a local Pentecostal church in the wake of Jester coming out. Conversion therapy, also called reparative therapy, attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It has been proven to be ineffective and mainstream medical practices dismiss it, partially because of its links to suicide and self-harm among LGBTQ+ people who undergo it.
Her mother’s public anti-LGBTQ+ advocacy is one of the reasons Jester left San Diego for New Jersey with plans to never come back. Decades later though, she returned to care for her mother in the last years of her life. Jester says the decision to sacrifice in this way was so she could feel at peace with herself and God, not an attempt to finally receive her mother’s approval.
“I really felt the call of God, as we say in my world of Christianity, to go home. As much as I never thought I would ever return to San Diego,” 75-year-old Jester explained over tea at Peet’s Coffee.
Jester wonders what her parents would have thought knowing that the child they put out was the one who stayed with them until they died. She left her career as a political advisor to return. By that time, her mother was so riddled with Alzheimer’s there was never any reconciliation between them.
“I went from running around with presidents and governors to changing my mom’s diapers for a few years. It was an interesting dilemma for them because my mom was completely out of it, so she didn’t know. But the very person in their family that they rejected, ended up taking care of both of them until their last breath,” Jester said.
The lack of strong ties to her biological family is one of the reasons she sought out a church when she came to San Diego.
“We all fall onto hard times. Whether it’s emotional or relationship or a job or whatever, you need that family support — especially if you don’t have it from your human family. It’s really important,” she said. “My heart’s desire was to find a church so that I could find fellowship and acceptance in a Christian family.”
She was initially drawn to St. Paul’s Cathedral in Bankers Hill when she noticed prominent gay activists in attendance at a Christmas Eve service. Of those who attend St. Paul’s, 46% are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and over two-thirds of the priests at the cathedral are part of the community.
“There’s a lot of Roman Catholics out there and evangelicals like myself that are really hungering and looking for spiritual fellowship but have been rejected from [the] denomination of our childhood,” Jester said. She is now attending an Episcopal seminary so she can continue her work at the cathedral.
Being rejected from a family or church always carries emotional pain, but for those who are employed through a church, their situation can be particularly challenging.
RC Haus, who is now the music director at University Christian Church (UCC), was the founder of a fast-growing church in National City and a televangelist headed toward semi-retirement when his wife confronted him about his sexuality.
“After 13 years of marriage and pastoring churches, my wife called me one day and was like, ‘I think you’re gay,’” Haus said in a room reserved for music rehearsals at UCC. “I was a conservative Christian by faith and I had never wanted to be gay. I never dreamt about coming out and being separated from my kids.”
He had always viewed same-sex attraction as an external temptation testing his faith. Identifying as gay was incompatible with his fundamentalist faith.
“I couldn’t even say the word when I was a preacher. I didn’t preach ever on homosexuality because I couldn’t even say that word — I was so scared of it,” Haus recalled.
In the year following that phone call, he and his wife attempted to make it work. He voluntarily took part in conversion therapy and sought out support groups in a sincere attempt to change his sexual orientation.
After months of trying to change himself, the couple decided he was not going to change so the best they could hope for was that Haus never “acted on” his inclinations. A lifetime of self-repression is long. The pair decided to divorce.
In the aftermath, Haus said he went from having a house in Palm Springs and Texas to being homeless. He worked three jobs to try to cobble together child support for his five kids.
“I’d lost my church, my reputation, my home, my friends,” Haus said. “It was so surprising to me that people and parishioners that I had loved and pastor and vacationed with just overnight were just gone… I lost everything, I mean literally everything, to where I was crawling into an unused church Sunday school classroom with my kids when I had custody of them — hiding under Sunday school tables to sleep because we had no place to go. It was a really, really difficult time.”
Haus faced another setback while trying to rebuild his life. He was attending a United Methodist Church (UMC) seminary when he learned the denomination still officially condemned homosexuality. He dropped out after meeting with leaders in the denomination who confirmed to him that the policy was not changing. Since then, he has rebuilt his life as a music teacher and as the artistic director for the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus. He came on last year as the music director for UCC. Eventually, Haus would like to return to full-time ministry but has no plans for that yet.
Haus was not surprised when the UMC church, which has 7 million members in the U.S., voted to strengthen anti-LGBTQ+ policies during their February general conference.
The vote on the “traditional plan” was brought about because of opposition to Bishop Karen Oliveto — the first openly lesbian bishop to be elected in the UMC in 2016. At a previous job, Brandan Robertson screened her emails. There, he saw the vitriol directed toward the prominent queer Christian. While Brandan Robertson was not surprised by the outcome, he still grieved over the vote.
“[The UMC denomination] pushed women in ministry. They pushed all these lines that don’t seem very radical from the outside, but from within traditional Christianity are pretty radical. To watch a conservative faction of the church say, ‘We don’t want gay bishops and pastors that already are serving in ministry and doing a great job, we don’t want them just because they’re LGBTQ’ — to see one of the largest denominations in the world decide this was heartbreaking,” Robertson said.
Normal Heights United Methodist Church (NHUMC), where Sarah Holly is the children’s director, publicly spoke out against the decision. It was still shocking to find herself in a denomination that does not welcome her and people like her, even if the individual church she is a member of is affirming, because that is why she left the Nazarene church a few years ago while attending Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU). Many professors and pastors were individually affirming, but without the denomination backing them, Holly made the decision to attend NHUMC instead.
Of the discrimination Holly has faced, these experiences do not top the list.
Throughout her childhood and into high school, Holly spent each summer at a small Christian camp in Northern California with her friends. It became a sacred place for her. When she was old enough, she was hired as a counselor. Her girlfriend, the first girl she dated, also attended the camp and was set to work there that summer. When people found out about their relationship, they were asked to leave.
“That was pretty hurtful. He [the camp director] just didn’t know. He was uneducated and it deeply wounded us and that was really hard,” Holly said. The nondenominational camp did not have a specific policy about LGBTQ+ people according to Holly, so the decision was made partially because no one knew what to do. “It was my childhood camp, so being fired from that was absolutely devastating.”
The experience made her so anxious she dropped out of PLNU after her first year. Eventually, her friends convinced her to come back and Holly became involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy on the campus.
“That is discrimination and oppression at work and how can I, how can we move forward so that someone else doesn’t have to experience that?” Holly said.
The homophobia she faced makes painting a new picture of what the church in America can be — a place of healing, inclusion, safety — essential to the work she does now. She is also thankful for the conversations and leadership opportunities living at the intersection of Christian and gay has given her.
“Growing up, I didn’t even know there were other gay Christians in the world. That was really confusing for me — as it is for so many people coming out who are raised in faith traditions — you actually can be gay and Christian and that’s not antithetical to the Bible. I just had no idea growing up. I wasn’t exposed to it,” Holly said.
Robertson had a similar experience.
“I never believed gay Christians actually existed. I’d always believed if you are homosexual, you could not be a part of the church or wouldn’t want to be,” he said.
Holly has worked hard to develop herself as a whole person rather than someone with two identities that do not intersect. “It’s been a real gift because [there are] a lot of needs [for] a person who is able to bridge these two communities that so often are opposing each other.”
While switching to an affirming church has meant these LGBTQ+ Christians can continue forward in their ministry free from discrimination and other barriers, they also had to overcome internalized homophobia and shame.
Robertson did not know it was possible to hold the identity of gay and Christian at the same time.
“I remember the first time I thought that I had same-sex attraction. I walked into the back of my Baptist church and I remember seeing a guy that I found attractive. I realized I had attraction for the first time. And I remembered hearing what the pastor had preached about homosexuality being an abomination. And I literally ran out of the church sanctuary and went into the bathroom and cried in a stall and asked God to take away this thing from me that I thought would literally cause me to go to hell and also make my calling that I felt to be a pastor invalid,” Robertson said.
Queer Christians who are a part of non-affirming congregations must grapple with their theology and place in ministry and calling — but they also must come to terms with accepting themselves.
“Maybe I am gay but, oh my gosh, if I am what does that mean? Because my faith at that time was a fundamentalist faith and I couldn’t accept that,” Haus said. The love and grace of God drew him to faith, but he struggled with reconciling that with what he had been taught about his homosexuality. “Are you in sin or is faith a different color? I had to go through a whole reshaping and re-understanding of my faith.”
Wendy Holland, the associate pastor at Missiongathering, explained why some of evangelicalism’s teachings can make that more difficult. Holland, who grew up attending a Lutheran church with her grandparents and is bisexual, said she understood Jesus to be loving, affirming and totally accepting. When she found out some in her religion are racist, kept women out of leadership and discriminated against the gay community, she was appalled. Her exposure to Jesus was positive and even as those around her placed limits on God’s love, internally she was sure of his acceptance. That conviction was difficult to maintain because of evangelical and fundamentalist teaching’s reliance on the verse Jeremiah 17:9, which reads, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” in the King James Version.
“I never felt condemned and never felt like other people. Even when I knew what I knew in my heart, as you’re going through evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity and you’re constantly hearing, that the heart is deceptive above all else. So even when it’s the Holy Spirit [God] speaking to your heart, you’re going, ‘Well wait, this is probably deception,’” Holland said over lunch at a Thai restaurant blocks away from Missiongathering.
If she believed God did not condemn people while everyone else around her did, it made her wonder if she was wrong, which created conflict within herself.
There was another teaching, that faith will be demonstrated in its results or “fruit,” which eventually convinced Holland her childhood belief was true.
“[The] message is [if] you’re aligned with God, your life’s going to bear fruit. And if not, then God is going to smack it down and you’re just going to be living in depravity or lack or whatever. So being around some of the most committed Christians — the most passionate and most giving, loving people who are in successful, same-sex marriages or not necessarily the most sexually chaste people — and seeing God bless and honor and move through their lives and affect other people’s lives, I think has been the most impactful thing for my faith,” Holland said.
Not everyone escaped internalizing those messages as she did, and some were harmed in the process.
Some of those wounds are so deep that Robertson and Holly, contrary to pushing people to attend church, wanted to assure them that there are valid and legitimate reasons to stay home or find another spiritual practice. Not everyone can heal in the place they were harmed.
“With anyone who has left the church, I never am like, ‘Why would you do that?’ That’s very obvious to me. It’s more logical a lot of the time to do that for your safety,” Holly said. “What churches have done to LGBT people and continue to do is devastating, and to use the theological word for it, is sinful. I would say to them, there’s no shame in leaving the church.”
Still, these church leaders believe a primary focus of their churches is to provide a safe place for people to heal who were marginalized in other places of worship.
“It is amazing when you’ve been rejected by the church to enter into a church where you can step in fully as you are and be welcomed. That is a life-transforming experience,” Robertson said. “I hope LGBT people will give inclusive churches a chance and bless us with their presence.”
These five Uptown church leaders were told their identities were incompatible, but now they have used their intersecting statuses to advocate within the church and society for further acceptance of people like them.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.