Note: The names of the pastor and the church have been modified to protect their anonymity.
Trigger warnings: Non-LGBTQ+ affirming rhetoric
In my first meeting with Pastor Richard, he gave me a book entitled, People to Be Loved, Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue by Preston Sprinkle. The title refers to the fact that “if the church is ever going to solve this issue, it needs to stop seeing it as an “issue.” Homosexuality is not an issue to be solved; it’s about people who need to love and be loved. To be completely fair, I haven’t read the whole book. But from what I’ve read, it accurately represents Pastor Richard’s perspective on homosexuality. It calls Christians to love people completely and fully, to listen and understand people in same-sex relationships, and to care for gay men and women just as you would care for any other person because that is what God and Jesus intended.
However, Pastor Richard and Preston Sprinkle also call for a distinction between loving and condoning. According to Pastor Richard, to love does not necessarily mean that you approve of every action that a person commits. Pastor Richard is the head pastor of New Hope Quincy, a church that identifies as non-affirming. This means the church will accept and love members who are in same-sex relationships but ultimately believes that homosexuality is a sin.
Now, Pastor Richard’s non-affirming attitudes were a bit disappointing for me to discover considering that I identify as bisexual.
I attended high school in Massachusetts as a boarding student for four years. At the end of senior year every student is allowed to participate in a “senior project” where they embark on a month long project of their choosing: some wanted to learn to play chess, others shadowed doctors, and some created a fashion magazine. The sky was the limit. My project idea was to shadow Pastor Richard for a month at New Hope Quincy, a Covenant Evangelical Church that I had regularly attended for about a year prior to the project period. Because I attended a boarding school, I discovered and attended this church without parental influence. I entitled my senior project, “A Life of a Pastor,” as the goal of the project was to discover more about a career that I felt inclined towards but understood very little about. Around two weeks into the project period, my counselor and my project sponsor both agreed that being in a non-affirming space was psychologically detrimental for my health and removed me from the situation.
According to my counselor and to my project sponsor, Pastor Richard was “brainwashing” me. I went in feeling fairly confident in the idea that my sexuality and spirituality could coexist without conflict, and that I could live life in a same-sex relationship without being considered sinful. I had a very affirming attitude towards my sexuality and Christianity. Yet, I came out of meetings with Pastor Richard doubting whether I could be gay and Christian. I started to wonder if God hated me, or if I was a bad person.
The truth is I’ve been questioning the validity of the intersectionalities between my two identifies for years. Pastor Richard wasn’t the one who introduced the doubt in my mind that being gay and Christian wasn’t okay – rather, he enhanced and preyed on an insecurity that had already been ingrained in me since childhood.
I was raised in an Evangelical Chinese Christian Church and my parents fundamentally believed that being gay was bad. When I was in elementary school, my parents wouldn’t let me watch Glee or Modern Family because of the gay characters. I remember one specific moment where we were watching a 60-minutes show where a woman had been married and divorced over fifteen times. I made a comment that I didn’t understand why all these men divorced her – that I would marry her if I could. My mother and brother were immediately aghast and told me that was inappropriate because women couldn’t marry women. My parents treated gay people like a disease that needed to be contained and not spread.
Eventually, in middle school, my family transitioned to a more liberal evangelical church. With the church’s influence, my parents grew in their understanding of homosexuality. They decided that they would support gay marriage and gay rights—because everyone deserves human rights—but not support the “gay lifestyle” itself. Their beliefs at this point mirrored Pastor Richard’s exactly: they would love the sinner, hate the sin.
So, when I started questioning my sexuality during my sophomore year of high school, it led to a lot of shame and self-hatred. A constant question that ran through my head was whether or not God hated me. After a lot of prayer and rumination and study of the Bible, I came to the conclusion that rationally, if God meant love, it wouldn’t make sense for God to condemn same-sex love.
I gave a speech in front of my high school during a Christian Fellowship assembly that detailed this exact experience. One of my lines stated that, “I wasn’t liberal despite my faith but rather liberal because of my faith.” However, my philosophy was merely to ignore all the texts in the Bible that condemned homosexuality, which felt heretical to me. According to my evangelical teaching, the Bible should be regarded reverently. We should always turn to the Bible as the ultimate source of guidance in our lives.
I felt instinctively and morally that I needed to accept and affirm LGBTQ+ members, but I felt a contradiction between what was written in the Bible and what I felt was right. I didn’t know how to reconcile these two: how could I hold affirming values when the Bible itself was not affirming?
At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I elected to write my history research paper on John McNeill, a Jesuit priest who wrote one of the first affirming commentaries on the Bible. He did an in depth analysis of each of the six mentions of homosexuality in the Bible and concluded that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah actually describes the sin of pride and of men raping other men. Paul’s texts in the New Testament used Greek words for homosexuality that otherwise were never mentioned in other literary texts. The phrase homosexuality in Hebrew couldn’t be separated from the connotations of pagan worship and sexual abuse of men who were conquered in war. Therefore passages that we believed to condemn homosexuality were actually condemning rape. There is no example of the Bible addressing a loving, committed same-sex relationship, as we understand it today.
Writing this research paper introduced to me to the possibility that the Bible, read in its plain text, could in fact be affirming. I didn’t have to disregard the Bible in order to hold affirming values.
I had finally reached a place of peace about my two identities. I came out to my mother, and ended up choosing a college based on their LGBTQ Christian group. I became much more open about my two identities. Along with the help of several other students, I hosted a joint Christian Fellowship and GASP (our school’s Gay Straight Alliance Club) meeting in which I addressed my identies as both bisexual and Christian. Although I was still attending an un-affirming church near my boarding school, this church had never explicitly mentioned their attitudes towards homosexuality. At this point in my life, I was confident and comfortable in my two identities up until the start of senior projects.
In my first meeting with Pastor Richard, I asked about the church’s views on homosexuality. Pastor Richard admitted that they did not identify as an affirming church, and in all his studies of the Bible, the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality. He told me that there couldn’t be multiple truths, meaning there weren’t multiple Christianities that could be true. There was one objective truth—Jesus’s truth.
He asked me questions like whether I was the type of gay that was super proud of their gayness and would wear the label on their sleeve, or if I was the type of gay that merely felt that their sexuality was an aspect of their life.
One would expect me to hightail it out of there. However, Pastor Richard’s opinions were very familiar to me. They were what I’ve grown up with, and his opinions aligned fairly well with my parents’ opinions.
I felt that Pastor Richard’s opinions had some validity to them. He told me that one could interpret the Bible however one wanted. Because I was bisexual, I wanted to hear that the Bible was affirming, and so that’s the conclusion that I came to. Pastor Richard told me although the truth may be hard to hear, we still need to attempt to seek the truth without biases.
Additionally, I didn’t feel any hate or disgust from Pastor Richard. In fact, I felt the complete opposite. When he constantly reminded me of God’s overwhelming love for me, I felt an outpouring of love from Pastor Richard. He even prayed for and fully supported the idea of a joint meeting between Christian Fellowship and GASP. Pastor Richard didn’t speak like a homophobic person— he used politically correct language. I never felt uncomfortable speaking with him.
All my interactions with Pastor Richard and the church were full of love, making it more difficult for me to recognize the psychological damage Pastor Richard’s language and attitudes were having on me.
In my meetings with my counselor and sponsor, I was beginning to question whether it was okay to be gay and Christian. I felt that I had to give up my Christianity to be gay, or vise versa. After a mere two weeks with Pastor Richard, my confidence completely fell apart, and I no longer felt that the two identities could coexist.
My counselor and sponsor, thankfully, recognized the detrimental effects Pastor Richard was having on me. They modified my senior project so that I no longer had to see him. I, on the other hand, felt as if they were taking drastic measures. I knew that I felt worse about myself and was crying more than usual, but I didn’t feel as if Pastor Richard was necessarily to blame because all he had shown me was love. I felt as if I couldn’t blame him for merely wanting to bring me out of what he believed was a lifestyle of sin.
I didn’t feel completely comfortable with the decision to leave New Hope Quincy until I spoke to my mother a few weeks after about the issue. Although my mother’s beliefs align with Pastor Richard’s, she asked me if Pastor Richard made me feel bad about myself. I told her that he did. He made me feel as if I was somehow dirty or wrong. My mother told me that “If God made you this way, then I have no right to approve or disapprove. We are all limited. If Pastor Richard makes you feel bad about yourself, then it is time to stop seeing him.”
After some distance from Pastor Richard, I’m finally able to recognize the toxicity of my interactions with him. In the weeks following my experience with Pastor Richard, I made changes in my life that helped me further on the path of embracing these two identities and ultimately loving myself for who I am. I decided not to attend a gap year program that would have been potentially un-affirming as well. I sought out Facebook groups for queer Asian American Christians (shout out to PAAC Fam!) and found a whole community of like-minded people on the internet. I also signed up for LGBTQ Christian conferences in the following year. I even had a conversation with a friend who knew Greek who verified all of my previous research on the Greek translations of the word homosexuality.
We’re all on a journey of discovering our spirituality or of discovering our sexuality or maybe of some other aspect of our identities. This was the story of my journey, and I wish you the best of luck on all of yours.
Jessica Wang grew up in Madison, WI and moved to Boston, MA at age 14 to attend Milton Academy, a preparatory boarding school. She is currently embarking on a gap year before college and plans to attend Yale University as a part of the class of 2023. Her writing has been previously recognized by Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the Ruth Berrien Fox Award, The Apprentice Writer, the 11th Annual Smith College Poetry Prize, and Hyphen Magazine.
Photo by Shelby Miller on Unsplash