This weekend I attended the "Gays in the Family" conference put on by the North Pacific Union Conference's Family Ministries department. Since my husband and I have been screening our documentary film about the challenges and spiritual journeys of three gay and lesbian Adventists, we felt like we needed to be there to witness and participate.
The event was both surprisingly hopeful in parts and even more disappointing than I had imagined. Many older and wiser Adventists that I deeply respect keep telling me that it's a huge step just for the church to admit that we have gay members of our church family, and any move towards a conversation is a positive one. I'm trying very hard to hold onto their perspective, but I worry about the net effect, particularly for the parents of LGBT Adventists because there was an overwhelming message that gay people aren't born but made gay due to environmental trauma, abuse and emotional neglect. I'm honestly torn over the effect of the conference. There were glimmers of real hope, and I'll share my overall impressions first.
Setting & Tone
The setting for "Gays in the Family" was the Seventh-day Adventist Holden Conference Center in Gladstone, OR. There were about 100-120 people in attendance on Friday night (that went up to around 180 on Sabbath), and the audience was noticeably senior. Several people commented to me about being one of the younger people in the room, and I'm not exactly a spring chicken anymore! I do think it's important to point out that the conference organizers clearly thought that just organizing this conference was a big, bold, even compassionate step that they might very well take flak for. They'd already gotten letters of concern, and I want to affirm them for taking a proactive approach to what has been a topic that is usually not discussed at all in official church spaces.
The overall tone of the event was clear from the materials each attendee received. We were handed a program with the Adventist Church's official statement about homosexuality on the back, the Biblical Research Institute's booklet "Homosexuality, Scripture, and the Church, and four handouts with position statements: "An Affirmation of Marriage," "An Affirmation of Family," the official position statement on homosexuality (again), and "Seventh-day Adventist Response to Same-Sex Unions—A Reaffirmation of Christian Marriage." The only verse of scripture highlighted in the program was Romans 8:6, "For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace."
Cheri Corder, the family ministries director for the Oregon Conference and one of the main event planners, started off by making it clear that the event wasn't about theology, "We have our theology; Our purpose is to minister." And then she said what I thought was one of the most honest comments of the weekend, "It's not like every voice will be heard this weekend."
Historical, Sociological & Biological Context
Scott LeMert, the senior pastor of the Sunnyside Church, opened the weekend. His talk was a highlight of the whole weekend for me because it's one of the most educated, scholarly presentations I've heard an Adventist pastor give on the history and context of homosexuality in Western culture. He began by describing the general attitude that he grew up with around this topic, one of disgust shared by almost everyone. "We were under the assumption that God loathed these people, and so should we." He traced attitudes on sexuality from Greco-Roman times, where pederesty/pedophilia was common, women were absolutely inferior to men, and the idea was that, "A woman is for business, but a boy is for pleasure", through Augustine, who felt that all sex was lustful and defiled, to Kellogg and the Victorian era. Adventists might have a different attitude towards corn flakes if they knew the bland taste and fiber was meant to curb the male sexual appetite! He also discussed what is currently known around biology and sexual orientation, which is still very much a new area of research. He ended by saying that he has learned that we all must step into love and not elevate one person's sin above any else. "[GLBT people] are not freaks of nature. They are my brothers and sisters. We all need an orientation of love."
I also appreciated his attempt to use currently acceptable terminology. I have told church leaders before that if they truly want to engage with a community of people, they must use the terms preferred by that community just to have credibility (we wouldn't use "colored" or "Negro" anymore, after all). This conference was drenched in the philosophy of the ex-gay movement, so the terminology was almost always "same-sex attracted" or "those struggling with same-sex attraction" (this term is used to acknowledge the temptation but not the underlying orientation, which is thought to be changeable). This made Elder LeMert's use of GLBT (or LGBT) and "gay community" all the more meaningful. His contributions throughout the weekend continued to be high points. While his theology is clearly in line with the church's current understanding, he clearly thinks the church focuses unfairly on this particular "sexual sin" instead of others. He also doesn't look down on LGBT Adventists, welcomes all to his church without an expectation of change, and is open to engaging with people's stories as equals in a listening space.
Wayne Blakely was the first of five "people redeemed from the homosexual lifestyle" who were featured. While these were sprinkled throughout the weekend, their narratives and messages were entirely similar, so I'll reflect on them together. Finding the right terminology to use when describing these five individuals is a challenge because "ex-gay" would technically refer only to someone claiming orientation change, and most don't yet claim that, although they do reject their identity as either gay or lesbian. Because I want to honor that they don't self-identify as a member of the LGBT community, I don't want to use that terminology. The moderator sometimes referred to them as a "redeemed one", but that connotes that other LGBT individuals are inherently not redeemed, and out of respect for that community (whose voices were entirely absent at the event), I won't use that terminology. I'll try "Life Journeys" as that's how they were identified in the program segments.
I want to say first that I deeply appreciated hearing these testimonies. Whenever we are privileged to hear someone's honest story, we are blessed, expanded, and they enter our hearts and our own life stories. Their hearts came through, and I felt their courage, compassion, and joy in their new path which is now in alignment with where they feel God has clearly called them. It's actually quite difficult for me to hear how they face rejection, suspicion and fear in many Adventist churches still, because these are five people who live exactly as the church would currently prescribe—as celibates or in a heterosexual marriage. If they are still "othered" and treated with suspicion in so many religious spaces, what hope is there for the vast majority of LGBT Adventists who have tried what the church prescribes but couldn't live alone or in a mixed orientation marriage?
Three of the five "life journeys" were from "Coming Out Ministries," which features Wayne Blakely, Ron Woolsey, and Mike Carducci, two men who lived very destructive and addictive lives as gay men and who are now celibate, and one who is now married to a woman. All are in their 50s and 60s. All were abused or severely neglected emotionally (or both) as children.
Wayne has been promoted quite widely by church publications in the last few years, and readers of this site will remember how often church spokespeople mention that they wish he was featured in our film. I personally appreciated how much Wayne's approach has softened in the last three years—it has, a lot. However, he still feels that if a gay person isn't showing signs of wanting to change and is still "rebelling," then they need the church to discipline them.
Ron's message is of orientation change (he's been married to a woman for 20 years now and calls himself a former homosexual), and his idea of sin and grace run quite clearly to the perfectionism side, which is why I think church publications have found Wayne easier to promote recently—most people realize by now that attempts to change orientation are usually only deeply damaging and harmful (even Exodus International, the leading evangelical "change" group is no longer promoting attempts to change orientation).
Mike is a very gregarious man who had a lot of laugh moments. He describes himself as a "Poster Child of the Gay Lifestyle," which for him included being a hair dresser, fighting an addiction to porn for decades, and having up to three sexual encounters a day for 20 years. It's no doubt he is much healthier now as a celibate man, and I'd like to get to know him better, yet it's hard for me to equate his experience with the vast majority of LGBT Adventists that I know who just want to live a simple life with their families. Our biggest problem editing our film was that so many scenes looked alike—eating dinner, watching a movie on the couch, getting the kids ready for bed, having Sabbath worship, doing the dishes, helping out at church—as one of our main subjects says in or film (while sewing patches on Adventurer uniforms for their kids), "Truthfully, I think I'm quite boring." The church confuses sexual addiction and homosexuality too much already, and I worry that featuring so many narratives that repeatedly played into the "gay lifestyle=total promiscuity" stereotype will further this confusion.
Virna and Lisa Santos, sisters, were also part of the "Life Journeys" presented. I found their spirits to be incredibly gentle and kind. In particular, Virna Santos came across as very open to dialogue. She who was the one person who did not have an addictive or promiscuous narrative of her years living as a gay individual—and she's a mom. She has a daughter with her former partner, and she poignantly points out that she can't be sure right now how an average Adventist church would react if her daughter came to church with her moms (and now a new step-mom since Virna's former partner has another partner). A key moment in the whole conference was Virna's statement that, regardless of her theological convictions that same-sex relationships aren't Biblical, "I don't even think we should have an expectation of change. It's the work of the Holy Spirit." That was repeated by several people throughout the weekend, and that message was really the most positive one of the event. Much harm that is done to people in the name of God over sexual orientation would cease if Christians adopted that attitude.
A Presentation, not a Conversation
Overall, I learned from the personal stories shared, although I am still very disappointed that more voices weren't allowed. I don't expect someone from "Coming Out Ministries" to include other perspectives in their personal memoirs, but when an Adventist organization puts on a conference, they need to include the perspectives of those in their constituency who have a stake in this conversation. (We also didn't hear from any parents of LGBT folks, a transgender or bisexual person, or any person under 40—and most were significantly older than that). It was very much like a conference on women's ordination with only men and the few women who promote male headship and current policies being allowed to speak. Even if we aren't all on the same page, we would recognize that we need to hear from women who feel called by God to the ministry, even if that call is currently outside the church's scriptural understanding and policies. When important voices aren't allowed at the table, the overall effect is to discredit the entire effort. It feels disingenuous and like a carefully orchestrated presentation, not a conversation.
Misleading Emphasis on Sexual Abuse
The biggest challenge with these "Life Journeys" is that all five point to sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and/or trauma as the reason for their same-sex attractions. While my heart absolutely aches for the pain these five experienced as children, I have read the research, and I know too many gay people who had wonderful childhoods to think this is a primary cause. I know what it does to parents of other LGBT individuals when this is the main message that is reinforced. And, it surprises me that the Family Ministries department wouldn't have thought about the fallout this recurring narrative of abuse would have on parents. Parents with LGBT children have often told me that they have no resources from their church, and their response is typically to hide and withdraw, fearful of the judgement, gossip, and misunderstanding. "When kids come out of the closet, the parents go in," is how one mom puts it, and it's because of the ignorance and misinformation about the causes of a homosexual orientation that parents feel so judged and condemned. This conference contributed to the proliferation of much more of that mistaken view, even if that wasn't intended.
Unfortunately, the one person speaking who had a scientific background, Dr. Lucille Ball, a therapist, only furthered the misinformation. Her talk was titled, "The Myths Regarding Homosexuality," but she mainly fed the current myths and misinformation. Her basic premise is that nobody is born gay, and her work relies on that idea because, as she said, "God does not create and then condemn the created for something that He did." She is right that there is not a "gay gene" that has been identified—and I don't know anyone who promotes that idea—but she highly oversimplified what is known (the in utero environment and epigenetics, among other things, are likely part of what is undoubtedly a complex cause). Her talk was filled with words and phrases that I'm unused to a qualified professional using about LGBT people. Throughout the day she used "gay lifestyle" as if there is only one, the "gay agenda" as a vague and menacing threat, and "gay activists" who further this vague and menacing agenda.
At one point she said that "Sixty-seven percent of gay men were sexually abused as children" and went on to give examples of patients of hers who had had traumatic sexual experiences at a young age that, according to her, created the negative environment in which a person grows up thinking they are gay. (On a positive note, she did say that nobody changes in an environment of judgement and guilt, so the church should not have a timeline or expectation of change when engaging with gay individuals.) Later, in the Q & A, when she was asked about why her views differed from every major medical and psychological association, she said, emphatically, "Because I take the Bible above any human organization!"
Ethics & "Go and Sin No More"
Miroslav Kis, who teaches ethics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, had a good message for parents to cultivate a space where your children can be honest about their deepest feelings and fears. He is very clearly firmly in alignment with the church positions, but his stance is at least less strident than many who speak up on this topic.
George Gainer, the senior pastor of the Happy Valley Church in Pleasant Valley, talked about "Loving Like Jesus Loved." I appreciated his emphasis on church culture needing to change. The majority of Adventist churches are not safe places for a person to be honest (about a lot of things), and that needs to change. He told the story of The Woman Caught in the Act of Adultery, one that I frequently hear people use when talking about this topic. It's usually interpreted as a sign that we should love, of course we should love, but let's not forget to hold people accountable to "the truth." Honestly, this talk disappointed me the most because I had such high hopes for it. It really could have been a call to a perspective of radical love without conditions and caveats, a call to embrace through difference and to live in the tension (this is the perspective of Andrew Marin's book, Love is an Orientation, which was listed as a resource on the conference website). Instead, Pastor Gainer talked about being both a lamb and lion, which is how he views Jesus' love. He was clear that we should start with a lamb approach, but he also was clear that the lion's roar should be heard. He wants churches to be "welcoming and redeeming" (instead of "welcoming and affirming," which is what mainstream Christian churches are becoming). This is not a call to unconditional love and living in the tension (which is advocated in Marin's book). I have a very hard time imagining a gay family wanting to raise their kids in this kind of church (and the LGBT people I know who were in the room cringed a lot during this talk).
I desperately wanted to have him listen to the hours and hours of footage we have recorded from our story booth interviews so he could realize what it feels like to be an LGBT person on the receiving end of this philosophy. It is really just an updated version of "Love the sinner, but hate the sin" which is part of the very broken status quo that contributes to the shockingly high suicide rates of LGBT Christian kids (Christian LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than other LGBT youth, and the rate jumps to a shocking eight times more likely if they come from a rejecting family).
The Problem with Trying to be God
My own personal breakthrough about this story actually came from my mom not that long ago. My mom, who would never be called liberal (not politically or theologically), had a very hard time with us making this film (as did other family members). She was very worried that it would attack the church and lead people astray. But she has gone on a journey with us as well, and, once she saw the film, she became one of my biggest personal supporters.
One night she was praying with me on the phone before a screening that I was particularly nervous about, and as we were chatting afterwards, she shared with me an insight about this story that so many Adventists use as justification for not fully loving gay people. Her revelation was that it was Jesus—that is—God, who told this woman to "go and sin no more." There were no humans around to even witness this exchange because they had been told only to stay if they were without sin. It was a private devotional moment between this woman and God. Even if one believes that same-sex relationships and adultery are in the same category, it's still God who does any nudging onto a different path.
As my mom now likes to say, "My job is to love. God's job is everything else." We enjoy taking on God's role. It feels powerful and right. But it's not what we are called to do over and over again in scripture.
The Most Honest Part of the Event
The Q & A session was by far the best two hours of the whole weekend. They did not accept questions from the floor, only through texts or slips of paper, which underscored again the tightly controlled nature of the whole weekend. However, the moderator was Steve Vistaunet, the editor of The Gleaner, and he picked several good questions that got to the heart of the issue. We were able to see hints at the wide diversity that exists between the presenters. I again appreciated the spirit of several of the comments which called on everyone to work to change the current church culture of silence and shame. Pastor Lemert summed up his hope at the end saying, "I hear all the time that LGBT Adventists just want to come back to church. What I want to say is 'Come. Just come.' I consider you all my equal at the foot of the cross."
The question that I texted in still lingers in my mind because it highlights the huge double standard in how the church treats its gay members vs its heterosexual members. Here's it is, just as it was read to the panel:
I appreciate that we are talking about this at all. My question is that we are only hearing from gays and lesbians who fit the church's mold and actually promote it. That isn't my experience with the vast majority of gays I know who just leave because they have tried mightily but can't live up to the church's requirements. How do we treat those? How do we love someone who doesn't think they need to, at least at this time, be celibate? They have their own relationship with God that seems very strong. Many have children. Where will they take their children to church? And we wouldn't expect a divorced/remarried heterosexual family (most of whom did not get divorced for spousal infidelity) to leave their kids in a broken home to be part of our church. Why do we seem to advocate this for gays when we don't for heterosexuals? We seem to be putting out a message, even this weekend, that you are only welcome and loved if you agree and act the way we currently expect.
Living in the Tension
Later that evening, we had a screening of our film just a few miles away in a great space. It was a redemptive moment of the whole weekend for me because it felt like we could do one small thing to counteract the lack of diversity at the conference. It was a full house with a great crowd, and the spirit of the discussion was incredibly beautiful. Two people who are featured in the film were there, and that always makes it an extra special discussion, a real "with" conversion instead of just "at" and "about" a demographic that isn't allowed to speak for themselves. People stuck around until after midnight just talking, not just with us, but with each other. The space the film creates is one of openness, authenticity, and listening, even with differences, and it was neat to see people just wanting to linger.
What I wish church administrators who fear this film would do is just come and experience it. It's about listening to those most on the margins today, whose voices aren't allowed in our publications or pulpits (or conferences). Listening and validating someone's story as their own does not mean completely agreeing with it. But it is a sacred act, a time when we respect our shared humanity and our shared likeness as beings made in the image of God. If the church isn't careful, they will stop being relevant at all in this conversation because a huge portion of the younger generation knows actual gay people who live happy, fulfilled lives. And they are starting to speak up about why they are seeing the church as increasingly irrelevant because of how their friends are being treated and talked about by their churches (this open letter racing around social media should be read by every church administrator).
I don't claim this is going to be easy territory to navigate, but we have to start allowing the diverse range of voices that have a stake in this conversation to have a place at the table, or people will find other tables. Living and loving in the tension isn't easy, but it's the only option if we are actually to be known as disciplines of Christ because of our love (John 13:35).
—Daneen Akers is the co-producer and director of Seventh-Gay Adventists: a film about faith on the margins. It's currently screening at film festivals and churches all over the U .S. and internationally.
Note: Due to juggling childcare for one session, I'm also including input from Eliel Cruz, Andrews student and the president of the Intercollegiate Adventist Gay Straight Alliance; Carrol Grady, the author of My Son, Beloved Stranger and the founder of Someone-to-Talk-To; Terry Rice, Walla Walla Valley SDA Kinship chapter leader and healthcare chaplain; Stephen Eyer, my husband and producing partner; and a few others who shared their notes with me. Within a week, all of the presentations are supposed to be available online at http://www.gaysinthefamily.com.