I have said it before and I will say it again:
Attending the Gay Christian Network Conference continues to be the most “Christian” experience I have had in my entire 34-year church-going existence.
This was my wife and I’s fourth consecutive conference – and not only does it feel like an ever-growing family reunion – but it is the place where God’s presence is undeniably felt.
About a week before the conference, I had someone very close to me tell me that GCN is not a real ministry. That GCN is the place “we” go to make ourselves feel better about sinning. There is no way God could bless a group of people who openly give into their sin.
But walking into that first general session at the Oregon Convention Center, my heart could not accept those words. It was like walking into a wall of love & authenticity. The place was packed with people from all over the world – over 1300 people from 14 countries – almost doubling last year’s 700 attendee total.
Why is GCN growing so quickly? Are we all just so happy to find a place where we can sin and not feel guilty? No. It’s because God’s presence is here, and He wholly accepts us – gay, straight, ally, questioning, pastor, transgender… it does not matter. We are ALL beautifully and wonderfully made – and GCN is one of the only places where I think we all get that. We don’t all agree [or need to], but we are all tied to the One who made us, and that is enough to set differences [and denominations] aside and celebrate. My heart is sad for those people who won’t ever experience this, for fear of that 3 letter word.
As usual, the three keynotes speakers – Jeff Chu, Danny Cortez & Vicky Beeching – delivered amazing and challenging messages, with Justin‘s keynote on Sunday ending the conference perfectly. For the first year, they were live streamed – and I believe the videos are still available here: http://new.livestream.com/GCNconf
Jeff Chu asked what do we, as gay Christians, bring to the table – the place where we all meet and break bread together? He reminded us that all our stories, our voices, are what we can bring to the table. Stories matter, and to learn from each other, we must have real conversations. Conversations made up of listening as well as talking. I experienced this in a real and deep way in between all the sessions and workshops, as I found myself meeting new beautiful souls one after another. Not just other gay Christians, but parents of gay children, and straight allies wanting to know how to love better. So beautiful and so genuine. My heart was humbled with each new story I heard.
Danny Cortez, [straight] pastor from New Heart Community Church, challenged us to love better. After realizing that his own views, as a straight pastor, had changed in regards to homosexuality – his own son came out as gay. This started a huge and challenging journey for his church as he then came out to them as affirming. If you haven’t seen his sermon explaining how his views changed, please take time to watch it here.
He reminded us that wherever we land on this issue, the goal of our faith is not marriage equality – but LOVE. Jesus asks us to “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who persecute you.” Have a posture of love. We have the choice to end the cycle and learn to love like Christ did, and does. What a huge privilege, to participate in that! That is exactly why I got “Be the change” tattooed around my wrist. I want to give grace and love to those I perhaps have not gotten it from. I want to respond differently; to love radically. I will fail, but I will continue to try over and over again.
During his keynote, Danny gave the gay Christian community an invaluable gift. He apologized. On behalf of the church that tried to “change” us, or convince us that we could not be loved by God until we are fixed – he said he was sorry. He said that was not true. There were tears in his eyes, and his voice wavered as he looked out into the packed audience and said, “I am so sorry.” So much healing in those little words. Thank you, Danny.
The third keynote speaker – and perhaps the most controversial – was Vicky Beeching. So controversial was this newly “outed” gay Christian singer, speaker & religious commentator from the UK – that the folks from Westboro Baptist flew themselves all the way from their headquarters in Kansas, to Portland, to protest her and the rest of us at GCN.
But I want to thank the Westboro Baptist protesters. They gave me a gift.
It was an opportunity for me to love better – and to be loved better by total strangers. As a group of us GCN regulars gathered early to walk with new conference attendees so they wouldn’t feel scared walking by Westboro – we saw that a group from churches around Portland were already there waiting for us. Colourful signs in tow, they lined up smiling and cheering us on, and shouting that they love us.
At 7:30 in the morning. On a Saturday. In the rain.
What a tangibly raw and real experience, as I took the hand of the one I love, and walked by the church members into the crowd of Westboro protesters, yelling their hate and holding their loud signs up proudly. I have had many Christians gently tell me how sinful I am, or quietly remind me how my sin is the worst…. but I have never experienced such in your face, loud hate.
And yet, in that moment I felt such a rush of complete love and support that it overcame me and many of my friends standing with me. It felt like a holy moment. We looked at each other with tears in our eyes, and I know we were all thinking the same thing – this is what it looks like to be loved by Jesus; to be loved by the church.
Overcoming hate with love.
And as we joined the wall of love [it was more like a path] in front of the Westboro people, ensuring a safe path for conference attendees to get to the venue, I watched every person’s face as they walked by. Many people smiled so widely, not sure how to take in this experience. Some people looked down, blinking back tears, overcome by such a visible representation of love and support. Some walked fast, too embarrassed for the attention; some slowed down to high five people or say a few Thank-yous. I wondered, how many people walking by, were feeling that love and affirmation for the first time? How very refreshing for the soul, to be reminded that you are inherently a child of God, and nothing else can change that. So thank you, Westboro. Thank you for giving me that holy moment, so that I could be a part of that moment for so many others.
Once again, God uses what is meant for harm – for His good.
As if Hollywood had written this from the beginning, we all realized as we had been standing there, singing hymns to drown out the Westboro hate – a rainbow had formed above us for all to see. What more confirmation did we need, then for God to remind us of His promise, as vibrant and as clear as could be? My heart was full to overflowing.
I wondered that morning, looking around at these precious people around me – could this be the community that God will use to show us all how to love better? Could I be a small part of that? My wife and I, we will definitely try.
When you tack on “Gay” to “Christian” – that invokes a lot of fear, and anger for some people. I think many people even feel it is an oxymoron. But we do exist. I do exist. God made me this way, and I am so thankful for the lens through which I see Him, and the world. Without that 3-letter word as a part of my Christian journey, I believe I would not be nearly as compassionate, nearly as vulnerable, nearly as grateful for this faith I have had to hold onto – kicking and screaming.
John Pavlovitz [a straight pastor] wrote about his experience at the GCN conference in Portland – and many of his words brought tears to my eyes. But something in particular he said hit home for me –
For their entire lives, [LGBT Christians have] had to overcome Christians just to try to get to Jesus.
I realized that, since the age of 17, when I felt my attractions growing for girls rather than boys, and my only community was the Christian one – I became this salmon that turned 180 degrees and began to swim upstream. This was the start of a 13-year journey of swimming and swimming and swimming against the flow of the Christians around me.
“You have to choose.”
“Your sin is the worst.”
“God can’t love you if you are gay.”
I was just trying to get to Jesus, because somehow, in some way – I knew He felt differently about me than his followers did. And that kept me going.
In 2009 when Tams and I went to our first GCN conference, this salmon knew it had reached its’ destination and we were all facing the same way. My soul could finally find rest.
Thank you, GCN. We will keep trying to love better, and continue to swim until next year. 🙂