When They Want Us
Are We Being Ministered to, or Marketed to?
by Lori Heine

In the twelve and a half years since I came out as a lesbian, I have been to practically every welcoming church in town. My “town” happens to be the fifth largest city in the country. Even the number of LGBT-inclusive congregations in my city is greater than the total number of all churches in many other localities.

Should be a paradise for us, right? Then how come it took me twelve and a half years to find the one in which I could really feel at home?

The pattern is fairly predictable. An aging congregation, almost invariably inner-city, casts about for a way to revive itself – or at least to survive. It decides that, since it’s either in a “gay” area or not far from one, gays may be its salvation.

Notice I didn’t say that their church could be the gays’ salvation. Though of course they are so spiritually conscientious, they must indulge in a drama of turmoil as they nobly “struggle” to determine whether we’re worthy.
Gays are generally believed to have a lot of disposable income. Thus do they decide that we’re worthy.

Then comes the declaration: they want us! We’re worthy! They like us! They really, really like us!

We come, whether in a flock or just a trickle, because of course a great many of us are searching for a spiritual home. We come from every sort of religious tradition, and we seek a place to nurture the faith we’ve been laboring so hard to preserve.

Then comes the realization, for any of us not from an extremely liberal tradition, that these folks don’t believe a lot of the same things we do. This is the point at which some depart, sure old Pastor Foghat was telling them the truth when he warned we wouldn’t find a church that would both be accepting of us and “teach the truth.” We need look no further to realize where those “ex-gay” ministries are getting all that fresh blood.

The rest of us, having peacefully reconciled our spirituality and our sexuality, stay on. We’re grateful simply to have found a place we can still worship in good spiritual health. But there’s a gnawing dissatisfaction deep within many of us that simply won’t go away. We may not be certain what has caused it. We merely know it’s there.

We’re dissatisfied because we’re getting nothing but spiritual baby-food. These people are so terrified of offending us that they tippy-toe around any issue more substantive than warm-fuzzy good feelings or instructions on how we ought to vote. Not that they’ll actually come out and state the latter in so many words (they’ve got their tax-exempt status to think of, don’t you know), but it generally comes through quite clearly.

This may well be what the straight folks in these churches are comfortable with, anyway. They are straight – the world is their oyster – and they could worship wherever they please. But it attempts to force us into a mold every bit as restrictive, in its own way, as any those homophobes who drove us out of the churches we wanted to go to would have put us in. If we don’t like it, of course, we can leave. We’re as free to leave as we were at the churches who taught we were crazy, sick or demon-possessed—and freedom is, indeed, a wonderful thing.

Are we being ministered to, at the churches that welcome us in, or merely marketed to? Are we seen as souls, each infinitely dear to God and entrusted to their care, or simply as butts in the pew and bucks in the plate? As nice as most of these people may be, and as sincerely unaware of any mixed messages they may be sending us, these are questions that inevitably occur to many of us.

Most of us know there is a sound basis, even given a conservative reading of Scripture, for our reconciliation of spirituality and sexuality. If we want, we can probably locate, in most urban areas, a “gay” evangelical church. But we want a broader fellowship with other Christians, and as straight evangelicals are perhaps decades away from losing their fear of us – or at least the temptation to raise money from the fear of us – we are still barred from their door.

We’re all about money to a lot of straights: those who accept us and those who don’t.

I really do believe I’ve found a church home where the people are sincere. They truly live their faith, and they challenge us to grow. That’s why I stay there. But the question remains: what do we do if we need a diet more nourishing than pablum, and aren’t getting it where we’re welcome now?

The answer may be surprisingly simple. We speak up about it. Yes, we’re free to leave, but we’re also free to stay. They told us so, and they probably need us at least as much as we need them. We have no reason to feel inferior; we are equal to them, in God’s sight, in every way.

If they tell us we must play their game of ball or leave, we may point out to them how much they sound like the very bigots who exiled us. And if there’s one thing they don’t want to sound like, it’s bigots. That’s why they welcomed us in the first place – or, at least, it’s why they say they did.

If they truly care about us, then they’ll want to know how we feel. Church should be a place where we are challenged – a place where we can grow. Our sincerity about that may be a first step toward growth for the whole congregation. In return for the welcome they’ve given us, we may end up giving them a gift more precious than all the hard cash they could possibly get.


© 2010 Lori Heine

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