The Adventist Church and Its LGBT Members — Part 3

The Adventist Church and Its LGBT Members — Part 3

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Published:
March 26, 2021

Editor’s Note: In this four-part series for Spectrum, Adventist sociologist Ronald Lawson explores the historical and current relationship between the Adventist Church and its LGBT members. This article originally appeared in the Spectrum print journal (volume 48, issue 4), and will be reprinted online in full over the coming days. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 4 here.


Adventist Schools and Colleges

Teenage LGBT students are often bullied at school. As I have prepared to write about Adventist education, I have found myself wondering about the extent to which the amount and kind of bullying in Adventist schools differs from that in secular schools. Even though I was 6-foot-plus tall by the time I was 13, I was bullied at my secular school and called names like faggot even before I was anywhere near dealing with that issue personally; the bullies sensed that I was different and not inclined to fight back physically, and acted accordingly. I have wondered whether there is more or less of such bullying at Adventist schools, and whether the possibility of seeing LGBT or potentially-LGBT students as sinners as well as different would change the dynamics.

I posed questions concerning this topic on gay-friendly Adventist-related sites on Facebook, seeking data, and received a bunch of replies. A number of these suggested that many of the LGBT persons responding had experienced less bullying at Adventist schools — perhaps because the students all knew one another as a result of the small size of those schools. Some reported more trouble from administrators/teachers: for example, some who refused to write positive references for students who appeared as if they might be LGBT. When respondents could report on the situation of current students, their comments suggested that it had changed more recently; many public schools now recognize and support their LGBT students, and there are gay-straight alliances and other support for them there. However, this is not true in Adventist academies; evidence was put forward suggesting that the sin issue has become more important there in recent years: “When I was (a teacher and counselor) at small Adventist schools, the kids who came out as LGBT were picked on mercilessly.”

By the mid-1990s, Adventist colleges had moved away from witch hunts focused on suspected gay students to policies of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In part, this was because they had become more accustomed to the presence of known gay students within their student bodies. Another ingredient was their increasing need to maximize tuition income. Students found in compromising situations, however, are still likely to face discipline, although expulsion is now rare.

PUC was the first college to have a gay support group among students, in the late 1980s. This garnered help from the pastor of the campus church and several faculty. Walla Walla, what was then CUC, and La Sierra followed during the 1990s. All depended on the presence of students with the courage to act. The visibility and indeed the very existence of each group rose and fell as active students graduated and newcomers became involved.

During the 1980s and 1990s, students who were openly LGBT on campuses faced a lot of negative responses from other students. However, as homosexual issues became politically prominent in the new century, and as courts made decisions recognizing same-sex marriage, other students became more supportive, and many saw these issues as the major human rights issues of this time. The result was the emergence of a new kind of organization, gay-straight alliances, on some Adventist NAD campuses.

There are currently LGBT-related organizations on seven NAD campuses, where they seem to be of great importance to the members. Three of these have official recognition, and the others function without harassment. Members from each campus meet annually, usually at Kinship’s Kampmeeting. In very recent years, the climate for LGBT students has improved greatly on most campuses, with support from faculty and often tacit support from administrators. However, a few administrators have tried to block the formation of groups on the remaining campuses, ostensibly to be in support of the denomination. The dynamics at La Sierra University (LSU) have been representative of those at several campuses.

LGBT students at LSU created support groups starting in the early 1990s. Since their early iterations were not officially recognized, they were not permitted to meet on campus; instead, they met in the homes of supportive faculty members off-campus. They were also hampered by not having access to the usual means used by other student clubs to publicize their activities. Since they depended on the presence of student leaders who had the courage to be open about their orientation, their existence was intermittent. While La Sierra was part of Loma Linda University in the 1970s and 1980s, it ignored the possibility that it had LGBT students. There was a lot of bullying, hate, and harassment of the LGBT students, especially in the men’s dormitories, but the college would not be accountable for mistreatment. The administration made a fuss in the later 1980s when the student paper published an ad from Kinship, making its phone number available to LGBT students needing help.

Once LSU separated from LLU, it became more open under the Guy and Geraty administrations, although this was always cautious and only really visible at an unofficial level. Nevertheless, many students continued to make homophobic remarks in classes, and the LSU chaplain was hostile to homosexuals. A new VP for Student Life, appointed in 1995, rewrote the Student Handbook in a much more LGBT-friendly fashion, but this was undone after 2000 on the initiative of the new Provost, Ella Simmons. Meanwhile, however, the faculty had become more supportive: in 1995, over a hundred of them agreed to place their names on a list of faculty who were safe for LGBT students to talk with. At this time, a member of the Counseling department was important in publicizing a new unofficial LGBT support group among potential members. The Psychology department later took over and expanded this role. However, the Board of Trustees was seen as conservative, and some administrators also. The Student Life administration was unwilling to ask the Board to approve an LGBT support group, which was necessary to make it a legal student club.

In the early years of the new century, the attitude of the LSU student body began to change noticeably, because of both a new chaplain and societal changes. The LGBT students began to feel that they had many allies on campus, although some continued to be adamantly opposed to them. In 2011, LGBT students organized again, as Prism, and when they began the process of applying for formal recognition the student government voted in favor of this unanimously. However, the Student Life administration again refused to forward their application to the Board, thus again forcing the LGBT support group to function unofficially. However, the group later gained the equivalent of official standing under the umbrella of the Psychology department. This made it organizationally more stable. Meanwhile, the presence of several LGBT faculty members and administrators has become more widely known, though not officially acknowledged, on campus.

The Adventist LGBT college students in the NAD came to regard the denial of their right to organize on their campuses as a discrimination problem that needed to be addressed. They also wanted to work together on problems faced by a significant number of Adventist LGBT students, such as rejection by their families when they came out to them or were discovered by them. In an attempt to address these issues more effectively, Rebby Kern from LSU and Eliel Cruz from Andrews University founded the Inter-Collegiate GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) Coalition of LGBT groups (IAGC) at Adventist Colleges in 2011–12. Kinship worked with them, and it really took off. It began to train potential LGBT leaders on all the Adventist campuses, and several college administrations began to hold conversations with their campus LGBT group. The IAGC regarded the NAD statement issued in 2015, which stated that celibate homosexuals could be church members and hold any church office, as affirming their identity and giving the colleges permission to work with them. They used that interpretation to extend their contact with college/university administrations.

Meanwhile, at the two largest universities, Loma Linda (LLU) and Andrews (AU), both of which happen to be GC institutions, recent changes have been especially dramatic. These universities have been addressing such issues at a level far beyond the rest of the church, and, as such, have become social labs, working through things in advance of the denomination, and setting precedents en route.

Andrews University

In October 2009, Nicholas Miller, a Seminary professor, responding to the publication of Christianity and Homosexuality and its chapters by Adventist biblical scholars addressing the scriptural passages usually used to “bash” LGBT people, organized a “scholarly conference” on Marriage, Homosexuality, and the Church. Its focus was tightly theological. Those working with students at Andrews University found its contents irrelevant to their LGBT students. In fact, the practical issues of how to respond to Adventist LGBT children were never addressed in those years.

In 2013–14, Jonathan Doram, an AU freshman, described his feelings about being a gay student at AU:

I think one of the hardest times is when you’re just sitting in vespers or church and everything is fine… until the speaker says something negative about homosexuality and how wrong and sinful it is. Suddenly the people around you and the congregation echo their amens and you’ve never felt so small before. And then in the dorm and on campus people proudly proclaim their homophobic slurs/comments and your friends laugh along. You feel like no matter how good, how friendly, how Christ-like you try to be, no one will like you if they knew the real you. And then you truly feel alone.

The Capetown “summit” in 2014 had brought with it a call for continued conversation on the topic of LGBT Adventists. Spurred by this, AUll4One, the unofficial Gay-Straight Alliance at Andrews University formed in 2013, proposed that its members tell their personal stories to other interested members of the student body, and the university administration agreed to sponsor “a conversation with LGBT students” on Sabbath afternoon, April 19, 2014. President Niels-Erik Andreasen explained that it was “important that we seek to offer compassion and support for all members of our community.” The session was opened by then-Provost Andrea Luxton and moderated by two faculty members. The university advertised the event as “a supportive environment where Andrews University LGBT students can honestly and safely share their stories.” The event was attended by over six hundred people. It garnered a lot of enthusiasm both on campus, where the student newspaper devoted an entire issue to it, and from LGBT alumni who had not had voices when they were students there. However, the university received pushback from conference presidents such as Jay Gallimore of Michigan.

A year later, the unofficial group wanted to raise money for a homeless shelter in Chicago for LGBT teens. (There are high numbers of such teens because many are thrown out of their homes when they come out to their parents. Some of the LGBT students at AU have themselves had such an experience.) However, the AU administration became nervous and refused the request because the group was working with an LGBT organization in Chicago that used drag shows to raise money. It explained that the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not support intimate LGBT relationships. Consequently, “Andrews University’s policies do not permit the raising of funds to support the work of agencies that advocate behaviors contrary to Adventist beliefs.” However, Eliel Cruz, the campus LGBT leader, who had excellent connections to the press, fought back by gaining press publicity for AU’s refusal to help the homeless. For example, the American edition of the respected British newspaper, The Guardian, published an article headlined, “Christian charities preach helping the less fortunate, unless you’re gay.” AUll4One turned to crowdfunding to finance its project, collecting $17,000, while the university was shamed in the press.

AU responded by establishing an LGBT Student Life Practice and Policies Taskforce, to address the difficult problem of how to operationalize the official position of the church on homosexuality, marriage, and same-sex unions in a way that provided compassionate care for LGBT students and prevented harassment of them. The concern for homeless LGBT youth resulted in a study by AU faculty that is examining the phenomenon of Adventist families who throw their LGBT children out after they have come out or been discovered by their parents.

In September 2016, Campus Pride, a national non-profit organization endeavoring to create safer college campuses for LGBT students, added AU to its Shame List, which calls out the “shameful acts of religion-based prejudice.” A key reason for this was the university’s refusal to allow an official LGBT group on campus. (The unofficial group, like that earlier at La Sierra University, was not permitted to meet on campus or advertise to find others who may need help.) Ironically, this announcement came just in advance of the release of its Framework for Relating to Sexual Orientation Differences on the Campus of Andrews University by the Taskforce.

While insisting that students refrain “from romantic behaviors between individuals of the same sex,” it recommended creating a safe, caring, and informed environment for LGBT students, and an official campus organization designed to minister to their needs. In arriving at this recommendation, it took notice of the findings of a large study by faculty members that “a significant number of Adventist young adults who identify as LGBT have experienced a great deal of suffering and rejection from family members and faith communities.” Consequently, the university’s goal was to “engage these students spiritually and support them emotionally as they navigate their sexuality and/or gender identity.” The recommendation was approved by the Board of Trustees in October 2017. The plan offered students confidentiality, so that they were not outing themselves in joining the organization. Meetings are run by two faculty members, and look rather like a counseling office. The formation of this organization did not remove the need for the unofficial gay-straight alliance; the two organizations cooperate so that their meetings do not clash. Meanwhile, the university is still working on how to respond to questions raised by transgender students.

Andrews University follows the GC in distinguishing between sexual orientation and sexual activity. However, since it is aware that this has not been recognized in key legal decisions, this may be a reason why its official statements do not indicate that it does not discriminate on the basis of orientation. Staff members who administer in the area of student life expressed frustration with the extent to which discussions in this area emphasize religious rights while neglecting biblical themes like hospitality, neighborliness, Christian forbearance, and access. One summed up the current situation: “In practice, LGBT students on Adventist campuses are still often excluded and made to feel unwelcome. There is a long way to go before the institutional culture is successfully changed. Meanwhile, many LGBT students think of themselves as no longer Adventists before they graduate — because they do not see a place for themselves within their church.”

Loma Linda University

Loma Linda University, the site of the Adventist Medical School and other related programs, long had a reputation of being inhospitable to gay and lesbian students. This was especially so during the long administration of President Lyn Behrens. In September 2000, she told a local newspaper during an interview that faculty were fired and students expelled if caught or suspected of breaking the university rules banning homosexual conduct. Student records were marked that the dismissal was because of immorality, and they were not given supporting letters or help in finding other schools. In an August 2002 article in the Adventist Review, the LLU vice president for diversity, Leslie Pollard, reported being asked about the university’s position on sexual orientation after making a presentation on health care and diversity at a national conference. His answer had been “Loma Linda has one standard applicable to both hetero- and homosexual persons: celibacy before marriage; monogamy within marriage.” Since same-sex marriage was still illegal, he was in effect saying that only celibate homosexuals were acceptable. In response to another question, he added that Loma Linda did not knowingly hire practicing homosexuals or extend benefits to their partners.

During this time, university policies, reflected in the rules listed in the student and faculty handbooks, omitted mention of sexual orientation or gender identity from the lists of categories of people who were protected from discrimination, abuse, or other mistreatment. Similarly, in the section that covered principles of conduct concerning the relationships students develop with their patients, the clause that proscribed “refusal to treat any patient for reason of…” also omitted those categories.

However, under the administration of the current president, Richard Hart, and especially over the last six years, Loma Linda University has become a much more welcoming environment for LGBT Adventists. This has been a complex process, in which several clusters of factors each played important parts.

The dramatic changes in American attitudes toward LGBT people over the last twenty years influenced court and legislative decisions and the questions raised at re-accreditation visits. Recognizing that its community included LGBT people, for it did not grill potential faculty members or students concerning their sexual orientations, LLU chose not to be out of step with the law or the communities it serves, and came to realize that following the example of Jesus meant caring for such marginalized groups also.

The personal commitment of several key administrators evolved over time, becoming very different from that of earlier administrations. Knowledge of the angst of LGBT friends, family members, and students, and a certainty that they too were children of God, led such administrators to become strongly committed to making LLU a truly welcoming campus. For example, a close friend of President Hart, dating back to academy and college, transitioned from man to woman in the 1990s. Without Hart’s commitment and zeal, the changes would probably not have been made at this time.

LLU was proud because both its faculty and students were drawn from many countries and were racially and culturally diverse. Its commitment to diversity broadened over time to include sexual orientation and gender identity also.

A growing commitment to follow where scientific research they trusted took them had prepared LLU administrators to think of gender identity and sexual orientation as scientific rather than doctrinal issues; scientific research, especially Kerby Oberg’s studies of fetal development, helped both administrators and students understand the complexity of sexual differentiation, and that sexual orientation is not a choice.

In recent years, the rules listed in the LLU Student Handbook have gradually become more protective and friendly toward LGBT people. Treatment stigmatizing or degrading a student because of sexual orientation was forbidden in the Student Mistreatment section by 2011. In 2013, the medical school moved ahead of the rest of the university in the policies distributed in the orientation package to incoming students by its Office of Student Affairs: “Any form of discrimination or harassment based on personal characteristics of race, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity will not be tolerated.” This was the first mention in any LLU policy of gender identity. In 2014, the Student Handbook broadened the scope of Title IX: “Loma Linda University maintains a strict policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on personal characteristics of… sexual orientation, gender identity…” However, the policies prohibiting same-sex sexual contact remained in force. The 2015 Handbook, which was published shortly after the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the nation was announced, removed the reference to homosexual sexual relations as being contrary to the ideals of the university and subject to disciplinary action. Sexual relations between same-sex couples had finally been accepted on campus within a marriage. The 2019 Handbook removed the statement that sexual relations within a committed heterosexual marriage were God’s ideal.

During the years 2016–17, the process of changing LLU’s attitudes toward LGBT people sped up. In May 2016, President Hart asked Dr. Jana Boyd, the newly hired director of the Employee and Student Assistance Program, to be involved in working toward making the university a safe and affirming environment for LGBT students and faculty/staff. She created a resource site for LGBT information and materials, which involved meeting with LGBT persons on campus in order to ask them what resources were needed. She also began working with them toward creating an officially recognized LGBT support group.

Next, Hart invited a current transgender student, a former gay student, and a faculty member who is the mother of two gay children to tell their stories at meetings of the University Leadership Council, whose membership included most of the primary administrators and leaders. In September 2016, he made understanding LGBT people the theme of a Leadership Retreat.

In December 2016, the university had agreed to sponsor a Humanities Sabbath afternoon panel discussion on “Religion and the LGBT Community.” After the meeting ended, some LGBT students and others gathered near the front, meeting and conversing with one another. This led to the formation of an unofficial LGBT club on campus. In mid-2017, Jana Boyd created an official LGBT support group, where students could discuss personal and campus issues. This was the first officially recognized LGBT group on any Adventist campus. In 2020, the LGBT club also gained official status.

Since LLU is a medical and health-related university, some of the research and teaching done there was immediately relevant to LGBT issues. For example, the research of Kerby Oberg on fetal development allowed him to speak with authority in a course about human development that discussed the developmental basis of intersex persons, who have both male and female sexual organs, and also about the way sexual organs and brains develop and can get out of sync — a situation that can result in biological sex being discordant with a person’s gender. Oberg showed that these variations could be biological, rather than theological, and therefore not a choice. LGBT students spoke enthusiastically about Oberg’s classes, for the data presented had helped them understand and accept their sexual orientations.

In December 2016, Oberg addressed the NAD Symposium on Transgender People at Santa Barbara. After that, President Hart arranged for him to make presentations at LLU to the President’s Leadership Council and to a committee of the university’s Board of Trustees in January 2017. In these presentations, Oberg provided evidence that gender identity could have a biological basis and as such would not be a choice, making it a medical rather than a theological issue. Hart also arranged for a transgender student to tell her story to the LLU Diversity Council, and for Oberg to speak after her, explaining the biological basis of reproduction. This had the effect of placing her story in scientific context.

President Hart devoted the issue of his letter to the campus, Notes from the President, distributed on February 2, 2017, to relating to LGBT people. This passage was highlighted:

“It is critical that we understand, treat and support everyone we encounter, regardless of their hereditary, cultivated, assigned or self-assumed sexual identity. That is what we do as health professionals. It is what our code of conduct expects of us.”

He continued:

“My own interactions suggest that most LGBT individuals are not trying to stand out, or fly a flag — they are longing to be accepted as part of the human race and community they find themselves in… Christ Himself spent his time on earth reaching out to individuals who were marginalized during his day…. While the Bible doesn’t give us a specific story about Jesus relating to an LGBT person, individuals under this umbrella would certainly fit into His lexicon of those deserving His compassion and care. The question of causation asked of Him about the blind man — ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents?’ — seems very pertinent here. Christ’s answer — ‘Neither, but to glorify God’ — acknowledges his acceptance regardless of causation…. It seems to me that this is not a time for judgment, but rather a time for acceptance, a time for offering emotional support during a difficult journey.”

There has subsequently been a remarkable shift in Loma Linda University’s treatment of LGBT persons: the meetings of the student LGBT groups are advertised on monitors throughout the campus; transsexual students have received gender-changing surgery and transitioned while training at the university; the university now has openly LGBT faculty members and is open to hiring same-sex couples. While this shift may have been initiated by the need to face accrediting agencies and to be in accordance with new California laws, key decision makers became personally invested in totally ending discrimination. As a result of this focus, they have withstood opposition and criticism from GC President Ted Wilson.

The staff who provide help to students at the other Adventist colleges and universities in the NAD are aware of the dramatic developments toward LGBT acceptance on the Loma Linda campus. Some have told me that they see Loma Linda as better positioned to move in directions that the GC might object to, and hope that it can create a wake that will also propel other campuses in a similar direction. Since they realize that the new state-sponsored regulations helped push Loma Linda toward dramatic changes, they realize that the time may come when similar regulations will pressure their colleges to be more caring toward their gay students. They see an irony in that pattern, where actions by government or courts prod Adventist institutions to be more Christian in their actions.

Congregations and Pastors

Given the negativity of the Adventist Church’s official statements, the diversity of voices within it, and the bitter debates within society about civil rights for homosexuals, to what extent have Adventist congregations and pastors in the United States and Canada become caring and welcoming toward homosexuals? To what extent do Adventist churches support their LGBT children and members and offer them unconditional love? On the other hand, to what extent do they judge and reject them? How frequently do churches assume that they have no LGBT people and practice “don’t ask/don’t tell,” offering no support or affirmation until perhaps one of their youth “comes out” by bringing a same-sex sweetheart to church?

We saw earlier that what matters most to the GC and the NAD is not whether a person’s sexual orientation is homosexual, but whether or not he/she is believed to be sexually active. Celibate homosexuals are supposedly eligible to be members and hold any office in their local church. This means that a same-sex couple in a committed relationship, who may now be legally married, is by definition not eligible. A 2017 incident illustrates some possible dynamics. A married lesbian couple had been attending a Californian church: one was a long-term Adventist, the other new to Adventism. When the latter’s experience in that church and with her spouse led her to request baptism, the pastor and officers were supportive, but the senior pastor was nervous about performing the baptism himself. A retired ordained pastor agreed to do so.

However, word of the happening was leaked to a right-wing publication in Oregon, which made a fuss about it. This led various church authorities, including GC President Ted Wilson, to apply considerable pressure to the conference, demanding that it discipline both the senior pastor for permitting the baptism to take place and the retired pastor for having performed an “illegal baptism,” and that the baptism be annulled. The conference initially asked the retired pastor if she would be willing to relinquish her ministerial credential in order to allow it to demonstrate that it had taken strong action and upheld a strong position. However, ultimately it took the position that membership is a local matter, and no move was made at the church to annul the baptism. The senior pastor was reprimanded for going against church policy, but no efforts were made either to remove him or rescind his ordination. The retired pastor feels that considering the amount of pressure that came from the GC president, both the NAD president and union and conference officials handled the matter with “the softest touch possible.” Both the lesbian who was baptized and her partner endured very distressing events, but both remain Adventists.

In fact, there are considerable differences from one congregation to another. This was well illustrated by two interviews I completed back-to-back in Los Angeles. One of the questions on the interview schedule for pastors asked, “How many gay members do you have?” When I asked this of the pastor of a large Hispanic church, his first response was “none,” which he quickly changed to “maybe one.” He then told me of a member who had been disfellowshipped because of his homosexuality, but had later been re-baptized because he claimed to have been “cured.” However, the members shunned him when he attended church because they did not believe his claim. The pastor explained that he did not speak to him either, because this would have offended the congregation’s lay leaders. My next interview was with the pastor of a predominantly white church only a few miles away. He told me that his youth leader, who was highly admired, was widely known to be gay and that he and his partner often sang duets in services.

Most North American Adventist churches follow an unwritten, unstable version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” This means that it is acceptable if an LGBT member is single and discreet. It may be acceptable for a couple, especially a lesbian couple, to attend together as “friends”; some lesbian couples have been able to live together, and even follow one another from one city to another as they change church-related jobs, without raising overt suspicion. However, if a member is open about a same-sex relationship, severe problems frequently emerge. Consequently, the most stable same-sex relationships — married couples — are likely to attract trouble. Some pastors and members want their congregations to be safe places for LGBT Adventists to worship, free of harassment from the pulpit or from members. However, because the church hierarchy has embraced an antagonistic position and some members may voice negative opinions, many are loath to risk conflict. Consequently, only a handful of congregations are known to be accepting of acknowledged same-sex couples. Sadly, such accepting situations can also be fragile and uncertain, for a loving pastor can be replaced by a crusader, new antagonistic members may set out to “cleanse” the church, or the conference can suddenly intervene, and in each case a previously loving community may then become a poisonous environment.

One example of such a dramatic change occurred at San Francisco Central Church, where several LGBT members had found a spiritual home and also support in a ministry to reach out to members of the broader gay community. That ministry folded in 2004 when one leader died and his partner then moved away. This allowed two ultraconservative newcomers to the church to change the accepting dynamic, kill the outreach program, and intimidate the remaining LGBT members. Another example occurred at the North Oshawa Church in Ontario, Canada, which had supported and integrated a gay couple. Later, however, the conference intervened and, in a vicious process, a new pastor was appointed and new, compliant lay leaders elected. Both the gay couple and the former leaders were made to feel so unwelcome that they formed a new, independent congregation.

An LGBT Adventist can also be left without a spiritual home if he or she needs to move to another area. In the late 1980s, a Kinship member was nominated to be head elder of his church in suburban Philadelphia. Surprised by this development, he felt it necessary to inform his pastor that he was gay, and was assured that his sexual orientation would not disqualify him; when he added that his roommate was his partner, the pastor remained steadfast. Some years later, the gay elder moved to the opposite side of the metropolitan area, and began to attend a nearby church. However, when he gave the pastor there the same information, he was abruptly disfellowshipped. He was so hurt by the experience that he switched to an accepting church of another denomination.

When I moved to Asheville, NC, in 2015, I was told by the pastor of the church I attended that I was welcome to attend services but that I should not attempt to move my membership to the church for I would then be rejected. While I had been asked to play the organ and to lead song services for about three months after I started attending the church, once my sexuality became known via the grapevine, I was never again asked to do anything. It was apparently assumed that I was sexually active; I was never asked about that. While attending there I endured a virulently anti-gay sermon preached by a lay member and a presentation by “Coming Out” Ministries, Ted Wilson’s favorite ex-gay group, whose depiction of “the gay lifestyle” was false and offensive to me.

Many Adventist pastors do not know how to minister to gay members. I have heard numerous complaints about derisive statements about homosexuals from the pulpit, and even insensitive jokes at their expense, from pastors who are apparently oblivious to the fact that there may be closeted LGBT persons sitting in the pews. Some pastors have also betrayed those who have confided in them.

The typical Adventist congregation creates opportunities for its heterosexual youth to bond, and there is excitement when one shows romantic interest in another. However, LGBT youth have no such opportunities, and if one brings a boyfriend or girlfriend that he/she has met elsewhere, they are immediately suspect. So, they are obliged to go to gay bars or to search online for a partner. This makes it much more difficult to create an “Adventist home.”

The evidence suggests that Adventist congregations and pastors usually offer their LGBT members conditional, rather than unconditional, love. Because of this, the best way for a gay or lesbian member to survive there is to remain closeted — but this prevents strong bonds from developing because such members must try to hide who they really are. This forces them to turn instead to the gay community for genuine, caring friendships. The closet is an uncomfortable space in which to be confined. LGBT Adventists of older generations often put down deep roots in their churches when they were young because they found love there while they struggled secretly with their sexual orientation. Once they came out to themselves, they realized that the love they had felt might be conditional, but they often remained active in their churches because of both the strength of their faith in the Lord and the fact that Adventism had become such an important part of their identities. Given the negative situations that they often endured, it is amazing how many remained committed to their congregations. However, this is much less common among the current generation of youth; because of the availability of information on the internet and of support groups in public schools, they tend to “come out” at a much earlier age, and to realize that their churches are so unwelcoming that they frequently look for a loving environment elsewhere. Is this the result that Adventist churches and denominational leaders desire?

The possibility of a church voting to become an “affirming congregation,” which has become important in several mainline denominations, has only recently emerged within Adventism. A website dedicated to encouraging Adventist congregations to craft welcoming statements, with examples of what various churches have voted, was created in 2018, largely through the efforts of Chris Blake, professor emeritus at Union College. The goal of the site, AdventistChurchWelcomingStatements.org, is to give site visitors “biblical inspiration for creating a welcoming statement, a list of actual welcoming statements, and tips for creating a welcoming statement for your church.” It notes that,

“The Seventh-day Adventist Church has officially published many encouraging statements welcoming all people… In practice, however, Adventist churches at times have been exclusive and repellent. We have closed doors to people who didn’t behave like us or think like us or look like us. We have cared more about being right than about being kind. We have confused acceptance with agreement. We have been too motivated by fear. We have turned away thirsty seekers of the free water of life… Now is the time to be more intentional concerning the openness and warmth of our local church climates. As important as a mission or vision, a welcoming statement gives the church a face.”

The website AdventistChurchWelcomingStatements.org provides instructions on how to craft a welcoming statement, along with listing churches with similar welcomes.


The site lists twenty-seven Adventist churches and their welcoming statements: twenty-four from the US, three from Australia. Here are two examples:

“The Charlottesville Seventh-day Adventist Church welcomes you and people of every race, appearance, belief system, sexual orientation, nation, gender, economic level, age, and ability.”

Florida Hospital Church: “We are… single, married, divorced, female, male, straight, LGBTQ, poor, rich, old, young. At FHC, we welcome any member of the community to join us in worship. We don’t care if you’re a practicing Christian or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We want to offer you grace and peace as you begin or continue your faith journey.”

I found this statement the most striking:

“La Sierra University Church is a church ‘between,’ bridging generations and communities… We are also seeking reconciliation with those we have left out. Though we have said, ‘You are welcome here,’ we realize that many in the LGBT community, in particular, do not feel included. We confess that we have fallen short. Aspiring to follow Christ’s command to love one another, we resolve to work for change in our church community to be fully welcoming and affirming for all LGBT people. As we work to make concrete changes and open new conversations, please hear us when we say, ‘ALL are welcome here.’”

I decided to explore how LSUC came to embrace this statement. Pastor Chris Oberg, the first, and so far only, woman lead pastor at an Adventist university church, had come to understand and care about the struggle of LGBT Adventists. Consequently, when the film Seventh-Gay Adventists (see Part 4) was released in 2012, she insisted that it be shown in the church sanctuary, not another space, and she was there to introduce it. The church was jammed, with over 1,500 present for the showing. Pastor Oberg then spent the next six years fostering dialogue, preaching on compassion, inclusion, and welcome, and many in-depth church-board conversations, until ultimately the collective consciousness of the congregation was raised, and it was ready to be really accepting and welcoming. As is true in many churches, the community included several LGBT people, including students, and many allies. These included a gay couple, Gabriel and Chase Uribe, both graduates of LSU, who became committed to participating in the process. In 2018, when the LSUC Board formed a Welcoming Statement Taskforce to suggest the next steps in making the church truly welcoming, Gabriel was one of those appointed to it. While crafting the statement, it became clear that equally important to marginalized people is a safe space to gather and be at home, for a statement can only do so much. Along the way, many were surprised to hear a simple request for a Sabbath School class for LGBT people where they could grow their devotion to God and study Scripture, not foster some other agenda. Consequently, the Task Force chose to begin not with a welcoming statement but with something more tangible, an explicitly welcoming Sabbath School class catering to the needs of LGBT people. It felt that this would help demonstrate that the sentiment expressed in the statement was real and not mere words. The class was voted by the board in September 2018 and launched the following month, with Gabriel and Chase as the teachers; it was named the Kinship Class. The committee then completed the welcoming statement, choosing to include the reconciling, confessing language quoted above. Although Gabriel had not thought an apology was necessary, the committee decided that it was important because of the long history of damage by faith communities, including Adventists, to their LGBT siblings. At the beginning of 2019, the Task Force brought the statement to the board and then to a business session of the congregation. Both the class and the statement had been endorsed without a single dissenting vote.

When Gabriel and Chase married in 2017, they wanted their pastor to tie the knot. However, this was impossible because Adventist authorities have absolutely forbidden Adventist pastors to have any roles in performing same-sex weddings. However, to the surprise of the couple, every member of the LSUC pastoral staff attended their wedding in order to celebrate with them and show their love for them.

The contrast between the university churches at La Sierra and Loma Linda seems strange and unexpected. While LLU has become welcoming to LGBT people, the LLU Church, which is situated on its campus, makes no such statement; unlike La Sierra University Church, it has lagged behind the university. This is so even though its senior pastor, Randy Roberts, is also a vice-president of the university and in that capacity has approved the changes made by the university. When asked about this, an associate pastor told me that there has not been a negative comment about homosexuals in a sermon for several decades, and explained that it is difficult for LLUC to address this issue because of the diversity of views within the congregation; it is a “big-tent” congregation. This means that LGBT members can participate in services but should not expect overt statements of support; that is, the church is still in a “don’t ask/don’t tell” mode. It is therefore not a surprise that most of the LGBT students who attend church services do so at one of two overtly accepting congregations, one of which is independent from the denomination and conference. It surprised me that most of the LLU administrators interviewed were not aware of this disparity between the official positions of the university and the church that bears its name until I asked them the reasons for it.

 

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 4 here.

 

Ronald Lawson is a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, and a sociologist studying urban conflicts and sectarian religions. He is retired from Queens College, CUNY, and now lives in Loma Linda, CA.

Main image credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash / Spectrum. In-line image courtesy of AdventistChurchWelcomingStatements.org.

 

This article originally appeared in the current Spectrum print journal, volume 48, issue 4.

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