The ELCA church wide assembly is a week away, and today we offer installment six of ten from Kari Aanestad’s booklet. The seminarian from Luther Seminary has compiled ten stories reflecting the twin cities Lutheran, LGBT experience. The Joint Synod Inclusivity Committee of the two metro synods of the ELCA offers the booklet as a download on their website.
Today, we meet Keith and John who found a Lutheran church that accepted them after the churches of their youth did not.
Keith Johnson is a phenomenal artist in his early 30s whose illustrations of favorite book and movie characters arguably surpass the work of their original creators. He grew up in a conservative household and attended a moderate Baptist church. Equipped with movie-theater-style seating, stage lighting, and music and drama teams, the church satisfied Keith’s need for the arts and creative expressions of his faith.
“I was on the stage every Sunday in some fashion. I’m a very faithful person. I’m also a theatrical person and I’m gay; imagine that!” Keith said and laughed.
In high school Keith began to explore his sexual identity and soon came out to his parents and his sister. His mother requested that Keith talk to one of the pastors and to a psychologist. Keith agreed.
“I went to talk to this pastor, who was really nice. He was a little bit more open than I had expected him to be. He told me he thought being gay was a sin, but he was willing to see that I was on a journey and acknowledge that maybe for a while I needed to be gay.”
After talking to this pastor, Keith began to see a psychologist, whom Keith refers to as “Dr. Will.” In the first session with Dr. Will, Keith revealed he was gay. Dr. Will told him that he did not see a problem with that and then asked Keith what he wanted to achieve in their sessions together.
Keith replied, “I want to find the Keith that God made me to be — whether that Keith is gay or not, so be it. I just want to find the person I’m supposed to be.”
Keith continued seeing Dr. Will for a while.
“I really think Dr. Will helped me become a lot more confident. One of the things he taught me was to not take responsibility for other people’s feelings. I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘I can’t be gay because it hurts my family so much.’ I learned to respond to that idea by saying, ‘So, fine! Don’t be gay, and your family is happy — but what are you?’”
Keith’s parents funded these therapy sessions for a while. His mother hoped the sessions were going to help her son realize he was not gay. At one point his mother even said to both Keith and Dr. Will,
“I just feel God is telling me that Will is going to be the one to help you.”
She continued to believe Dr. Will was helping her son until she came to one of his sessions at the request of Dr. Will. At this meeting Dr. Will told her that he didn’t think homosexuality was a sin.
Keith’s parents eventually “pulled the funding. Even when God is talking to them,” Keith said, “if
it’s not what they want to hear, then it’s not from God anymore.”
In response to the parents’ decision, Dr. Will allowed Keith to continue seeing him for a while at no cost. Eventually, instead of charging the regular $70 for a session, he charged only what Keith himself earned in an hour, $14.50.
“I don’t want to villainize my parents. It sounds like it could be one of those stereotypical stories where I’m gay and my family cast me out and had nothing to do with me. It’s not like that at all … They’re just trying to put God first. I believe God celebrates them for putting Him first. I believe God’s up in heaven saying, ‘Wow, they love me so much that they’d put me before their own
child.’ I think that’s terrific and I will always celebrate them for that because I don’t want
their love for me to get in the way of their love for God.”
“With that being said, however, even though I believe their hearts are in the right place, I think that if Jesus were here today he’d be doing some radical things they wouldn’t want to know about. They wouldn’t want to know him or have anything to do with him. He would just freak them out, and I think that’s sad. I don’t think my parents are even open to the notion that they could be wrong, and because of that, they’ve got shields up that just won’t let anything in. It’s a difficult struggle because I try to be humble myself and say I don’t have all of the answers. I find myself
often telling them that I’m doing the best I can. When I know better, I’ll do better.”
Keith eventually had to leave his beloved home church. Knowing where his church stood on the issue of homosexuality made his coming out even more difficult.
“I wasn’t forced out of the church by any means. I left of my own accord, but only because I knew down the line I wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the same way any more. They’d claim they weren’t going to reject me, but if you’re living a life of sin, according to them, you can’t participate in church. I didn’t think my voice was strong enough to change them. So I stepped away, and it was incredibly difficult. When I first came out, I joined a gay chat room online so I could have a community to talk about some of these issues. I remember one time I mentioned to a few people that I was a Christian. Almost unanimously they responded ‘I believe in God but I don’t believe in organized religions.’ That’s a very common thing among gay people because it’s not God that has rejected them — it’s the people.”
Around the time Keith left his church, he met his partner, John Nickolaus. “One of the things that endeared John to me was that he had a heart for God and that he was a Christian. John grew up in a Methodist church having never heard anything about homosexuality either way. It wasn’t until he was in his late 20s that someone asked him how he could worship a God that hates him.
“Growing up, I had no clue that I was supposed to be disliked and ‘an abomination’ in God’s eyes. It didn’t dawn on me that people actually do believe this, would justify it using their own interpretations of Scripture, and base entire religions on it,” John said. “They make this ‘sin’ the most horrible thing in the entire world. You could murder your entire family and still have a better chance of going to heaven than the homosexual living down the street.”
John’s encounter with this theology did not dissuade him from attending church. When Keith and John officially became a couple, one of the first things they decided to do together was find a church.
John said, “We were going to go find a church, we were going to do it together, and we were going to make it a priority in our relationship. We looked at a bunch of churches, many that were inclusive and open, but that was almost a problem. They were almost too much about the gay
thing. They were only playing church — but they were really about being gay. It was like ‘Gay! Gay! Gay! Oh yeah, and Jesus.’”
“We tried Episcopal,” John continued. “We didn’t try Catholic because we knew where that would get us. We tried Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Lutheran was the most common and open. We had to filter through a few Lutheran churches. We eventually found one we liked and began attending the
new members’ classes together. We were the only gay couple in those classes.”
John and Keith decided they wanted to commit to each other before God, their friends, and family. A few years previous to John and Keith’s commitment ceremony, their church had decided to perform blessings in response to three gay couples who had requested them in the same week.
“They all looked at it as a sign from God,” John said. “They had never even had to consider blessings before as an issue. It’s not like they were against it — it just had never been addressed.
So they researched it, formed committees, and it went on for over a year because they were taking it very seriously. By that time the couples had already moved on.
“But it was an emotional moment for many in the room when the congregation voted unanimously to allow same-gender blessings. And it was a year after that that we were the first couple for whom they performed a blessing. They treated us exactly as they would a heterosexual couple. They made us take the same tests, which was hilarious. Those tests are specific to heterosexual couples so one of us had to be the woman and the other had to be the man. We’d get questions like ‘Should the man be the head of the household?’ ‘Should the woman be the child-bearer? ’ and
so on. We were sitting there in the conference room laughing and saying, ‘What’d you put for number five?’”
“They did what they could to honor us. As much as we would like to have it legalized so that we can get the benefits, the most important thing for us was that we did it in front of God, for God, and with our friends and my family there. To us, we’re married; to them, we’re married. That’s what’s important. They acknowledge us as a couple and not as the two homos in the third pew.”
“We don’t want any special treatment,” John said. “We just want to be included and accepted like everybody else in the church, rather than being made to feel special. We want to love and worship God in ways we were created to do and by being who we were made to be.”