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 3 here.
When the LGBT members of the San Francisco Central Church were made unwelcome, they withdrew and ultimately formed a new independent congregation. They were joined in this by some heterosexual allies. Two of these, Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer, a married couple, were filmmakers. Their experience persuaded them that they should make a film to help heterosexual Adventists understand and appreciate their LGBT brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. The result was the film Seventh-Gay Adventists, completed in 2012, which told the stories of three gay and lesbian couples. This has now been viewed by thousands of Adventists in several countries. A second film, Enough Room at the Table, was completed in 2016. More recently they released a series of short films focusing on the stories of individual LGBT Adventists. These films have been important in helping many Adventists to become supportive.
The filmmakers, Stephen Eyer and Daneen Akers, with David and Colin from the film Seventh-Gay Adventists. Photo courtesy of the SGA website.
Ted Wilson, the conservative president of the GC, saw the “danger” of the impact of these films on Adventist opinions. He responded by embracing “Coming Out” Ministries as the officially approved face of LGBT Adventists.
After the Adventist NAD issued a statement in 2015 emphasizing sexual behavior rather than orientation, it became increasingly aware of the practical issues concerning responding to LGBT Adventist children that were posed increasingly by parents, churches, conferences, youth and family ministries, schools and colleges, Pathfinder leaders, and summer camp directors. Rapidly increasing numbers of Adventist teens were coming out as LGBT, parents and church and program leaders were asking urgent questions, but the Adventist Church seemed to have no good answers. Several Adventist-related books focusing on the theology of sexual orientation had been published in recent years, but there was nothing addressing the issues that were being raised. The accounts that the division leaders were receiving of parents rejecting their LGBT children because they believed this is what the church required, of LGBT students being bullied in academies and colleges, of churches which did not know how to respond to their LGBT youth, and of suicides among them, led the NAD officers to decide to prepare material for the families of LGBT loved ones. Realizing that the NAD Director of Family Ministries was not a suitable candidate to do this because he believed that sexual orientation was a personal choice, the officers gave the responsibility to Debra Brill, a now retired NAD vice president, and Kyoshin Ahn, the NAD Undersecretary (now Executive Secretary).
Brill chaired an ad hoc NAD Commission on Human Sexuality, and Ahn served as the secretary of the project. Those chosen to serve with them did not include anyone from SDA Kinship because church leaders continue to view it negatively, but one of the seven members chosen was a transgender woman. The Commission considered several options, and chose to use an existing book, Guiding Families, written by Bill Henson, a conservative Evangelical with considerable experience working with LGBT people. Henson agreed to let them modify his text to fit Adventist culture. There was some worry about crossing the GC leadership: “we don’t want to be demonized by them.” There was some outcry from Adventist fundamentalists such as Fulcrum7, who wanted a more doctrinal approach, and from “Coming Out” Ministries, who had been the face of the church in these matters under the Ted Wilson administration, and who resented losing that position in this project. However, all proceeded smoothly thanks, I was told, to strong support from Dan Jackson, the NAD president.
The largest change in the original Henson manuscript was the decision to employ just-released data from a study of LGBT Adventists by social science professors at Andrews University led by David Sedlacek and Curt VanderWaal, in a Q&A segment. This showed that Adventist LGBT youth are seriously at risk of suicide, especially if they face considerable bullying or are rejected by their families, both of which are common experiences. The data showed that 81% of them were afraid to tell their parents, and that they were much more likely to receive support from friends than from their families or churches. The book advises parents concerning how to respond to their gay children in order to retain close ties to them, how to express acceptance and avoid alienating language, how to welcome their partners and LGBT friends into their homes. It teaches that responding with love and acceptance is a necessary condition of being faithful to the Bible.
Debra Brill and Kyoshin Ahn oversaw an ad hoc NAD Commission on Human Sexuality, which eventually led to the Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones resource.
Guiding Families is thus a very different kind of Adventist publication. Unfortunately, it has not been publicized by the media that are controlled by the GC, such as the Adventist Review, Ministry, and the Sabbath School Quarterly; the NAD controls nothing like them. Nor has any report of the Andrews University data appeared in the Review. Changes in ministerial training are sorely needed, but this too is under the GC. At this point, 18,000 copies of the book have been distributed; 6,000 of these have gone to teachers in Adventist schools, but the NAD does not have the resources to train teachers to use the resource. I was told that the main purpose was to make copies available to those who sorely need them, but how best to inform those about the availability of the book? The suggestion that it is better not to distribute it among members who could be upset by its thrust highlights the Adventist problem.
The approach adopted in Guiding Families, together with the dramatic changes towards LGBT students and faculty members by Adventist universities and colleges in North America (see Part 3), together amount to major changes in Adventist responses to its LGBT youth there.
LGBT Adventists Around the World
Adventism has grown rapidly in recent decades, especially in the developing world. This has resulted in a decline in the proportion of the membership located in the United States and Canada, which now stands at only 6% of the total. The membership in most other parts of the developed world — Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and Japan — is quite small. Nevertheless, the Adventist Church is now a global church, with members in almost every country, and it is especially strong in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, parts of Asia, and the South Pacific Islands.
It was noted above that SDA Kinship has grown rapidly since 2001. In January 2020, 1,278 (38.6%) of its members were located in seventy-nine countries outside North America. Europe and Australia have their own Kampmeetings. Countries with active clusters of members include Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England, the Netherlands, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho.
SDA Kinship Colombia posted this photo of an event on its Facebook page.
The situation of gay and lesbian Adventists in much of the developing world is grim. There are undoubtedly thousands who live in total isolation because they have never heard of Kinship or have no means of making contact with it. Many of those who have contacted Kinship have yet to meet another LGBT Adventist face-to-face. Moreover, they typically confront a church even more rejecting of homosexuals than in North America, and they often live in cultures that are hostile.
While traveling the world doing research on international Adventism, I asked pastors and administrators wherever I went how many homosexual members they had, and tried to find opportunities to meet and interview gay members personally. One in Lima, Peru, explained that he had left the church as a youth because he had realized that it had no room for him. Indeed, he was aware of many homosexuals who had been Adventists — all had exited the church, either because it had disfellowshipped them or because they had realized it was a hostile environment. One gay couple in Buenos Aires, Argentina, had grown up in one of the largest congregations there, but it had disfellowshipped them after discovering their homosexuality. Still being Adventists at heart and wishing to worship God in an Adventist setting, they began to attend the headquarters church as visitors, not members. However, they were soon told explicitly that they were not welcome at its services.
When I conducted interviews in Africa, I was almost always told that there were no homosexuals there. However, an LGBT group in Uganda led by a former Adventist pastor contacted Kinship over a decade ago. It had over a hundred members, twelve of whom actually joined Kinship. About twenty of the group were Adventists and the rest came from other communions, including about ten who were Muslims; all shared the experience of being cast out by their religious groups. Several had been expelled from their schools and homes when their sexuality was discovered. All of them also faced a situation where homosexuality is illegal and can result in long prison sentences. That is, they face harassment and ostracism from both church and state. The group was formed when the former Adventist pastor gathered them together into a nonsectarian worshiping community. The pastor, who was disfellowshipped after discovery of his homosexuality in 2002, spoke to me with excitement about finding Kinship on the Internet. A young woman assisted him, leading the lesbians in separate activities.
The pastor told me that he felt that God had called him to minister to homosexuals, especially Adventist homosexuals, in Uganda. He said that many gay Adventists continued to be hidden in the church, living miserable closeted lives. However, once discovered, or even suspected, they were disfellowshipped — often secretly. He mentioned that some gay Adventists had committed suicide after being discovered. When I asked another gay former pastor, who had fled to the US after he was discovered and fired, about the impact of growing up as gay and lesbian Adventists in Uganda, he replied, “It is the most difficult thing you could ever think of — they tell you that you are already condemned, going to hell. No one tells you that God loves you.” LGBT lives there became even more difficult after legislation was enacted criminalizing same-sex intimacy with lengthy prison terms and calling for the death penalty for repeat offenders.
This law was enacted at the instigation of the association of clergy in Kampala at a time when the president of the Uganda Adventist Union was its leader. On December 17, 2012, the Ugandan daily newspaper, New Vision, published an article reporting that the president of the Adventist East-Central Africa Division, Dr. Blaisious Ruguri, a Ugandan, had delivered a speech at an Adventist church in Uganda in which he had declared that Adventists “fully” supported the government’s “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” The article quotes Ruguri as saying:
“Our stand is ‘zero tolerance’ to this vice and to western influence on this crucial issue because God says no to it. We are together with the President and the Speaker and we fully support the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I call upon all religious ministers, all Ugandans, and all Africans to say no to Homosexuality. Let us stand for our sovereignty as Ugandans and as God fearing people even though the heavens fall.”
Kinship has lost contact with the Ugandan group since that time, and is uncertain and deeply concerned about the fate of its members.
In other parts of Africa, Kinship’s membership in Kenya has grown considerably, and its leaders have worked with groups of pastors during camp meetings there during the past two years. The groups in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and South Africa are also active.
Adventism has become very prominent in the island state of Jamaica in the Caribbean. Approximately 10% of its population is Adventist, and several Adventists have occupied prominent positions in government. In the last decade, they have risen to the highest positions. In 2009, Patrick Allen, an Adventist pastor who was then president of the Adventist Church in Jamaica, was installed as Governor-General, the head-of-state, a position he continues to occupy. In March 2016, Andrew Holness, another Adventist, and his Jamaica Labour Party, won an election and he began his second term as prime minister, a position he still holds.
It is embarrassing that Jamaica is widely described by rights organizations as among the most dangerous places in the world to be a homosexual, with the authorities often turning a blind eye to assaults and murders of gays, lesbians, and their allies. In 2004, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report, “Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic.” In 2012, it reported that “attacks on homosexual people or people perceived as being homosexual or transgender appear to remain commonplace.” Severe anti-LGBT laws help to sustain the antagonistic atmosphere.
The Adventists now holding the top positions, and the Adventist Church itself, support the anti-LGBT laws. In a November 2011 interview with The Gleaner, Andrew Holness, then in his first term as prime minister, rejected calls from Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron that he repeal Jamaica’s “anti-buggery” laws, which criminalize same-sex intimacy with jail times of up to ten years. In November 2012, Sir Patrick Allen complained in an address: “There is mounting pressure on states such as Jamaica to recognize specific rights for lesbians and gays, with even threat of withholding financial assistance from those who do not.” In August 2013, the Jamaica Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists published an article, “Same-Sex Marriage is Not a Human Rights Issue,” on its website. This stated that the Adventist Church in Jamaica has “been very strident in its opposition of any softening or repealing of the buggery law.”
In the first decade of this century, a Jamaican member of the Metro New York Adventist Forum, who had been living in the US on a student visa while completing his education, appealed to be granted permanent residence on the grounds that he, as a gay man, would be in serious personal danger if obliged to return to Jamaica. The American authorities agreed with his assessment of the situation in Jamaica, and granted his request.
The Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first diagnosed in 1981, although it was known initially as Gay-Related Immuno-deficiency Disorder (GRID) because it was first found among gay men in America. At the first Adventist conference that focused on the disease, sponsored in 1990 by the Adventist Review and Sligo Church in suburban Washington DC, Fritz Guy challenged Adventists: “It would seem that responding to AIDS would be a natural for Adventism, because we claim that healing and caring are part of our mission, and because a sexually transmitted disease is immediately relevant to our understanding of the wholeness of man.”
In fact, however, church leaders were slow to recognize that AIDS impinged on Adventism. Since it was seen as a gay disease, many Adventists saw it as God’s judgment on willful sinners and a sign that the end of the world was imminent. That is, they were repelled, and frozen in inaction, because of their own homophobia. While the disease raged and gay Adventists died, the GC broadened the Adventist definition of adultery to include homosexual behavior as a legitimate ground for divorce, and it sued SDA Kinship in an attempt to force it to change its name. When Message, the missionary magazine addressed to African Americans, published a cluster of articles dealing with AIDS, it omitted any reference to homosexuality and drug abuse, fearing that this could be interpreted as approval of such lifestyles.
Neither did the hospitals in Adventism’s large hospital system in the United States go out of their way to treat people with AIDS (PWAs). Indeed, Loma Linda University Medical Center became the object of special criticism following reports of neglect and demeaning behavior toward PWAs. The reasons given to explain this pattern included fear of infection, moral disgust with the patients, and the risk of financial problems attendant on providing care for patients who often lacked medical insurance, yet often required long stays in hospitals.
This pattern was very different from the role played by Adventist hospitals during the polio epidemic of the 1950s, when they had stood at the forefront. Indeed, their work among children who had contracted the disease had so impressed the members of a prominent Ohio family that they had donated a 400-bed hospital, the Charles F. Kettering Memorial Hospital in suburban Dayton, to the church. Adventists had viewed the children as innocents, but they saw those infected with AIDS differently.
Adventism’s major response to the AIDS epidemic was to affirm its stance against “sexual immorality.” The epidemic never became a focus during the hype about Adventism being “the Caring Church.” There was no systematic education of clergy or church members in North America, and little coverage of it in Adventist schools, in spite of studies showing that students there were engaging in at-risk behavior. Neither did the church raise its voice in advocacy on behalf of PWAs. Most Adventist PWAs slipped away from their congregations without putting them to the test, and their families were shamed into silence. I interviewed several mothers of PWAs during the 1980s and 1990s, and not one of them had told her pastor, her Sabbath School class members, or her church friends about the cloud that hung over her family.
A few church members became prominent AIDS activists. One was Eunice Diaz, who became active in 1981, almost as soon as the disease was identified, while working with the Los Angeles County Health Department. Later, while employed by the Adventist White Memorial Medical Center, which is located in the major barrio in Los Angeles, she tried to bring people together around AIDS. However, the hospital administration demanded that she drop the issue because the visibility she brought the hospital created a “negative image.” As a result, she resigned her position in 1988 and became a health care consultant for government and private agencies. Within months after she left the Adventist hospital, President George H. W. Bush appointed her to the National Commission on AIDS, which was commissioned to advise the president and Congress on all matters pertaining to HIV and AIDS. When church periodicals trumpeted this news, Diaz responded sadly: “With the minimal response of our church, I don’t go around waving a flag saying I’m a Seventh-day Adventist.” She explained, “The church has turned its back on the AIDS issue because it cannot come to grips with the issue of homosexuality. The leadership of the church is afraid of becoming identified with something it finds embarrassing.”
Eunice Diaz was appointed by G. W. Bush to the National Commission on AIDS. Courtesy of SDA Kinship Connection/June 1992.
Another prominent Adventist activist was Harvey Elder, a physician and specialist in infectious diseases at the Veterans Hospital in Loma Linda, California. When he saw his first AIDS patient in January 1983, he realized he was strongly prejudiced against homosexuals and drug users. However, as he interacted with his patients and learned their stories, he realized that if Jesus were in his place he would reach out to such patients, and he accepted this as his calling. By the mid-1980s, he could see that a frightful epidemic was spreading, and, after meeting with Eunice Diaz, the two set out to prod the Adventist Church to become involved. Both were appointed to the GC AIDS Committee when it was created in 1987, and served on it for a decade. However, they became frustrated when its meetings did not result in actions. Dr. Elder responded by launching a lonely crusade aimed at persuading Adventists to embrace the disease and PWAs.
The AIDS Committee failed in its attempt to put AIDS on the program of the GC Session in 1995. However, its members were given twenty minutes to address the Annual Council of church leaders in 1996. Since many pastors interested in the disease found that speaking about it led people to suspect that either they or their children were gay, the committee’s speakers urged the GC to acknowledge that AIDS was a major crisis. They also asked that the church advise heterosexual couples in areas with high rates of infection to be tested before marriage and to use condoms if one of them was found to be HIV-positive. They also urged that the Adventist seminaries teach about AIDS, if only because the students needed to be prepared to preach suitable sermons at the funerals of PWAs. In spite of considerable opposition to the use of condoms under any circumstance, all of the items were approved. However, the committee members were deeply disappointed when there was little attempt to implement the voted measures.
It is still true that the church in North America has never really made AIDS its concern. According to the committee, “We don’t have any idea of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the North American church. There is still so much shame and stigma that family members do not speak and those at risk do not attend church.” Although Adventist hospitals now treat PWAs as they do those with any other disease, Dr. Elder told me that he was “not aware of any SDA hospital that has made AIDS a priority.” When the GC Health department sponsored a conference on AIDS at Andrews University just before the GC Session in June 2005, only two of the one hundred attendees were from North America. A survey of the churches here, in an attempt to discover levels of interest in the topic, found that AIDS was not seen as a major problem when compared to other medical problems. Only about 20% of respondents expressed some interest, the majority from Black congregations.
An AIDS epidemic broke out in Africa shortly after the disease was identified in the United States. It was also transmitted by sexual contact, but this time it was primarily heterosexual. When I interviewed Bekele Heye, president of what was then the Eastern African Division of the Adventist Church, where AIDS was rampant, in 1990, he told me that “AIDS is not an Adventist issue!” This was because he associated it with sexual promiscuity, and since the church forbade that, he was not interested in the disease. The lack of interest no doubt contributed to the fact that I had found Adventist hospitals in his division cavalier about the risk of spreading the contagion through the use of untested blood supplies and through reusing needles when I visited in 1988–89. Heye also ignored the facts that thousands of new members were pouring into the church there and he could not speak to their sexual habits before their baptism. Indeed, I also stumbled on considerable evidence of sexual promiscuity among church members and pastors during my three research-related visits to Africa. Heye’s attitude was therefore totally unrealistic.
As late as 1996, in an article titled “AIDS and the Church in Africa,” Saleem Farag, former long-term head of the Health department in the Eastern African Division, and Joel Musvosvi, ministerial secretary of the division, made no mention that Adventists had AIDS or that the disease had affected the church. Neither was there acknowledgment that African Adventists were often highly promiscuous. Instead, the authors referred to US data and urged emphasis on morality and evangelistic opportunities among PWAs.
The GC AIDS Committee had chosen to focus its efforts on education to prevent the spread of the disease in the developing world, and thus on promoting “moral behavior” there. This focus allowed church leaders once again to avoid dealing with homosexuals, for AIDS in these regions was found primarily among heterosexuals. However, with the evidence that an epidemic was galloping through Africa, it started to dawn on church leaders that AIDS was just another disease rather than God’s judgment on homosexuality. Nevertheless, the church took a long time to recognize that the infection rate among Adventists in Africa was high. In fact, GC President Robert Folkenberg did not realize that the church was infected until Dr. Elder warned him that a significant number of pastors there had the disease and Folkenberg himself saw firsthand during a subsequent visit to Africa that pastors and midlevel church administrators were dying. Dr. Allan Handysides, head of the Department of Health at the GC, gained the attention of administrators when he pointed out that the cost of medical care for one church employee with AIDS equaled the salaries of four or five pastors. It was not until the new century that church leaders in Africa acknowledged that multiple sex partners, incest, and rape are major problems within the church there. Independent studies show that the average number of sex partners that African Adventists have is only slightly lower than for people in the general population. Adventists’ discouragement of the use of condoms, primarily because of Saleem Farag’s views while health director in the Eastern African Division and support he received from the GC, made the situation even more dangerous. Africans tend to see things in black-and-white terms, and ultraconservatives among them coined slogans such as “conduct not condoms.” This view started to change only after the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) embraced the issue and introduced a new pro-condom slogan, “Protection for People with an Unregenerate Heart.” Early in the new century, GC President Jan Paulsen endorsed the use of condoms at an AIDS Conference in Africa.
When I visited South Africa and Zimbabwe in 1999, I found churches in Swaziland that had only women and children members because their husbands were away working in the mines. Pastors there told me that the men returned once a year to see their wives and “give them AIDS,” which many had contracted as a result of active sexual lives while away. In Zimbabwe, I saw the results of a confidential survey among unmarried members of the largest Adventist congregation in Bulawayo, where more than 80% of the males and 75% of the females admitted to being sexually active. I was dismayed to learn that the promise of confidentiality for respondents who admitted to having had a homosexual experience had been broken.
Dr. Handysides became head of the GC Health department in 1998. By the following year, he realized that AIDS was an enormous problem for the church because of the large number of members in Africa, where the epidemic was worst. He pushed successfully to have an AIDS office established in Africa and headquartered in Johannesburg. That office worked to persuade Adventist universities in Africa to teach a course on AIDS in their ministerial training programs as both a warning and a call to minister to PWAs, to make every Adventist church an AIDS support center where PWAs can sew and bake goods for sale, and to help reduce the transmission of AIDS from mother to child through testing and treating. However, the shoestring budget of the office severely hampered the director’s efforts.
Dr. Elder’s crusade took him to Africa many times after 1989, where he endeavored to raise the consciousness of the church about the epidemic. When he felt that too little was being said to the church youth there, he designed an AIDS course which was taught in four of the African Adventist universities. “I fervently hope that [the course] changes the attitude about the infected, and helps the students realize what are dangerous behaviors,” he told me. “When it comes to protection, being an Adventist does not work nearly as well as a condom!” Dr. Handysides concurred; he explained that HIV/AIDS challenges some beliefs that Adventists have about their purity, such as the assumption that they will not be infected by such an epidemic.
An Adventist AIDS conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2003, represented a turning point, at least in acknowledging that Adventism had been slow to respond to the epidemic, that many Adventists were infected, and that those who had contracted the disease frequently faced stigmatization in their churches. Pardon Mwansa, then president of the division, bravely acknowledged that a member of his family was infected with AIDS. He insisted that Adventists acknowledge the disease as their problem. Elder had insisted that the conference schedule a separate meeting for union presidents and health educators, and Adventist PWAs. As a result of his urging, presidents who attended the meeting confessed to the PWAs that they had sinned against them by lying to them about God and about them to their members.
The Adventist Church learned to respond to heterosexual Africans who transmitted AIDS through multiple partnering as it came to realize the extent to which Adventists were infected. However, it continued to do next to nothing about the disease in the United States because it started there as a gay disease — and it continues to reject both gay Adventists who put themselves at risk of contracting AIDS and those who live in committed relationships as equally promiscuous because the sex of both groups is not within heterosexual marriage.
To what extent does its one-time slogan, “The Caring Church,” describe Adventism? As measured here, the official Adventist Church fails the test because it has proven itself more concerned with rules and image than with the needs of its people.
Despite the failure of the “change” program it supported, and the sexual exploitation of young, fragile counselees by its director, church leaders helped restore him to a place where he could resume his activities, and they have continued to insist that only homosexuals who struggle to change their orientation or to be celibate will be accepted. The prejudice of these leaders led them to sue SDA Kinship in order to distance themselves from LGBT Adventists, and it prevented them from seeing the relevance of the AIDS epidemic to Adventism, especially in places that initially considered it a “gay disease.” It also continues to withhold support for civil rights for LGBT groups. Indeed, it has endorsed attempts by the religious right to take away recent gains.
However, if we focus on the broader church, beginning with members, congregations, and educators rather than the institutionalized hierarchy, then there are some reasons for hope. The scholars and pastors who participated in Kinship Kampmeetings had their awareness of the situation of LGBT Adventists transformed, and consequently often became allies. Over the past twenty years many of these have served on an advisory council, where they work with Kinship toward making our church more truly caring. In recent years, church members, congregations, and other church-related entities have become more aware of the presence of LGBT people in the church, its families, and colleges. This has been largely the result of the efforts of SDA Kinship and some truly remarkably caring individual church members, and the publications of Spectrum and Adventist Today, which have encouraged a new openness among readers.
There has been a remarkable change in the tone of the stories that newcomers tell about growing up gay in the Adventist Church since the first Kinship Kampmeetings forty years ago. Their early designation as “horror stories” is rarely apt today in North America or much of the rest of the developed world, even though the stories often still reflect pain, confusion, isolation, and rejection. A number of factors have made a remarkable impact: the very existence of SDA Kinship International; the fact that LGBT Adventists currently find Kinship more easily and at a younger age; the ready availability of information on the web; and changing attitudes in society and church, especially among many Adventist parents. This is not yet the case in the developing world, where both church and society still typically reject gays and lesbians and where “horror stories” continue to abound.
SDA Kinship International continues to make an extraordinary contribution in the name of the church, often to the latter’s chagrin. Kinship is reaching out with increasing effectiveness to young Adventists who have questions about their sexuality; no longer does it need to send mailings to Adventist campuses, because most young homosexuals find it easily on the web and most American college campuses now have a Gay-Straight Alliance or an LGBT support group. It nurtures LGBT Adventists spiritually, encourages them to think through the ethics of being a gay Christian, and fosters stable relationships among them.
In July 2019, Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International celebrated its 40th annual Kampmeeting in Portland, Oregon. Similar to, yet different from, traditional Adventist camp meetings, this is a time when LGBTQ+ Adventists, their families, and supportive allies come together to worship, socialize, and tell their stories. Photo courtesy of Floyd Poentiz.
As outlined in this paper, LGBT Adventists have reasons for hope because of recent changes in the attitudes toward them displayed by key Adventist universities in the developed world, such as Loma Linda and Andrews universities; because of a new awareness at the NAD illustrated by its publication of Guiding Families; the emergence of a few “welcoming congregations” in the US and Australia; and the support shown them by increasing numbers of progressive Adventists, as illustrated by the many thoughtful and aware articles published by Spectrum and Adventist Today. Nevertheless, the main message of the Adventist Church and the GC to its LGBT members continues to be far too often that Adventists “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” This attitude, in fact, judges the faith and lives of the people whose sin is “hated,” and may best be translated as “we will truly love you only when and if you meet our standards.” It thus offers conditional rather than unconditional love. This is neither welcoming nor caring.
Consequently, a profound distaste for LGBT persons, and a fear of them, continues to exist among large numbers of Adventists. The question asked in the title of an article about an intersex person that was published to the Spectrum website in January 2020 — “Is There a Place for Bob and Others Like Her in the Adventist Church?” — remains truly pertinent. It suggests that perhaps the best way for Adventists who wish that their church would care for its LGBT members and children is to work toward helping the churches where they worship to become truly welcoming congregations.
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. All in-line image credit as listed under each photo.
Editor’s Note (updated April 2, 2021 at 2:00 p.m. ET): The section entitled “Guiding Families” has been updated to clarify that Debra Brill served as chair of the NAD’s ad hoc committee on Human Sexuality and Kyoshin Ahn served as secretary.
This article originally appeared in the current Spectrum print journal, volume 48, issue 4.
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