Two weeks ago, I boarded a train headed south out of Chicago, closing the book on a deeply influential chapter in my life. It would be difficult for me to exaggerate how transformative the summer was, and I imagine it will take months for me to recognize the ways it changed me. I don’t know that I can identify what it was about my experience that so affected me—whether the hours spent in phone interviews with parents of LGBT children pouring out their hearts, the rich friendships I discovered with people in vastly different walks of life, the challenges of painful conversations and disagreements, often with strangers, or simply the reality of getting to spend ten weeks dedicating my energy and attention to something so incredibly important and personal to me—but I found it much more difficult to say goodbye than I often feel after short-term excursions.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity in hours of solitary travel, pages of journal writing, and lines of dialog in reunions with friends to reflect over the summer, and I’ve picked up on a few major themes in my experience. As a means of putting an end to the summer and wrapping up the series of posts I’ve been writing about my internship, I want to summarize two of the major lessons I’ve been able to identify that I learned in Chicago this summer.
1. Building bridges is really, really difficult.
I believe God calls certain people to bring about positive change or to resist negative change by planting themselves firmly in a particular position, developing and nuancing that position, and finding creative ways to articulate and argue the position gently and compassionately. I also believe God calls certain people to build bridges, to foster relationships and reconciliation between groups whose ideologies clash and to encourage understanding and empathy. That sounds lovely and poetic on paper, but the actual work of trying to connect people on one side to people on another side can be frustrating and disheartening. It often feels futile, and it’s tough to measure whether you’re making any sort of meaningful impact.
When it comes to building bridges between the church and the LGBT community, the work is enormously challenging. In a discussion about our work this summer, one of my coworkers mentioned it would be tough to imagine worldviews more diametrically opposed than that of a conservative ex-gay Christian who perceives same-sex attractions as sinful pathology and that of a nonreligious LGBT rights activist who’s committed to helping others perceive nontraditional sexuality as a uniquely beautiful and nonconforming expression of universal human affection. When worldviews clash, things get messy; but worldviews only clash when people who possess those worldviews interact, like when a transgender kid comes out to her Baptist parents, or when a local church decides to set up shop with condemnatory signs at the community gay pride parade, or when same-sex couples collectively plan demonstrations of physical affection at fast food restaurants known for their support of a traditional family paradigm. It’s not uncommon for words like “hatred” and “oppression” to gain traction on both sides of the divide, and the friction often erupts into toxic language and physical violence.
In the midst of a very public debate about faith and sexuality in our culture, there are countless individuals and families who are hurting and lost in the cacophony of voices, and it’s not uncommon for people on both sides to allow the debate to dehumanize the very people they’re trying to protect and support; and this, I believe, is why the work of The Marin Foundation and every other person who feels a calling to sit in the middle is so vital. Through their emphasis on face-to-face conversations, patience with the subtleties of language and ideologies, dissatisfaction with sweeping generalizations and stereotypes, and—and this is the one that often turns people away from The Marin Foundation, so bear with me—intentional decision to shelve certain volatile questions in favor of more productive discussions, bridge builders restore compassion and humanity to conflicts that have often deteriorated into bickering and name-calling. Conflict is inevitable when major cultural shifts challenge traditional Christian doctrines, but that conflict need not lack the love to which Jesus calls his followers. Nevertheless, demonstrating that love for the sake of building bridges in our present cultural climate is much harder than I would have expected.
2. I’m not alone, not at all.
Abilene, Texas is a strange but wonderful city, and as I’ve opened up to people about my sexuality, I’ve discovered incredible kindness, sensitivity, and love. I’ve never felt threatened or endangered, and I’ve never had to apologize for the journey I’m traveling. But I’ve also always felt keenly aware of my status as a minority—not just my status as a sexual minority, but my membership in the minority of people who are willing and able to discuss issues of sexuality and sexual orientation openly and thoroughly, the people who raise questions about traditions and norms and whether we necessarily have to do these things in this particular way. This isn’t because people in Abilene are malicious or hateful; it’s because most of us haven’t had any reason to think about nontraditional sexuality, just like I haven’t had any reason to think about a wide spread of issues, and just like I was unable to talk and think about my own sexuality for the many years I lived in fear and shame.
I say all of this to explain why it was so refreshing for me to live a spell with people who dedicate themselves to actively engaging these issues. For a wide variety of reasons, people work for The Marin Foundation or come to its events because questions about faith and sexuality have become urgent and consuming for them, and the result is an environment in which people feel comfortable and free to talk and listen to each other as they sort through tough, heavy matters. This summer provided me with my first opportunity to spend time in an area in which I was part of the sexual majority; for the first time, people usually assumed I was gay rather than straight. As you can imagine, the new environment brought all its own dangers and stressors—new identity labels to filter, new incorrect assumptions about who I am and where I stand, new relationships that pulled me out of my realm of familiarity—but it also provided a powerful reminder that I’m not alone and that none of us are alone, regardless of how we might convince ourselves that a particular characteristic we possess or some baggage we carry makes us weird or bizarre. The result for me was a renewed confidence and willingness to live with authenticity and forthrightness, not just with my sexual orientation but with every part of my life I might have reason to want to hide.
Today, I’m grateful for the countless people who made my summer internship possible by supporting me with prayer, finances, and words of encouragement. I genuinely don’t know how to express my gratitude and joy for my experiences in Chicago or for the precious people I came to know this summer, and I’d love the chance to tell you more about what I saw and heard and felt and learned with The Marin Foundation.