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. 🙂
January 9 – 12, 2014 of this year, we were fortunate enough to go to our third GCN [Gay Christian Network] Conference. Every year it changes location to a different major city in the US – this year was Chicaaaaaaago! While no one could have planned the Polar Vortex-thingie…. the amount of love and warmth created by this absolutely beautiful community was more than enough to keep everyone warm. Plus… I brought a really thick scarf.
I am always blown away by the experience of a GCN Conference, and this year was no different, if not even moreso!
Even today, a few weeks after returning, I am still unpacking all the amazing moments we had there. I honestly can’t even remember all the awesomeness that happened throughout those few days, but man, I came home with a soul overflowing with encouragement, hope, and thankfulness. Below is a pic of the group at one of the sessions during worship.
This year was GCN’s biggest conference ever, with over 700 people in attendance. There were barely any free seats! What AMAZES me…. is that these people go out of their way to be there – take holidays, pay for flights from all over the world, work all year to save up – because they just want to worship God in a safe place with their friends and the one they love. When we walked into the sanctuary, God’s presence and peace that filled the room was palpable. It was truly a humbling experience. There is not even a smidgen of fakeness [?] that comes so often with other “Christian conferences”. This is the one place everyone can truly be real, and it is such an amazingly beautiful thing. I wish there was another word for beautiful, I would use it!!
Here are a few things that stood out for me [and Tams]…. I will post pics to coincide, so it isn’t just a block of boring text. Yawn. (Although, if you have made it this far, CONGRATS!)
The night before we flew out of Seattle, the amazing Linda & Rob Robertson invited us to stay overnight so we could all go to the airport in the morning. What a fun night of chatting, eating pizza, and just so much encouragement. We love them so much!!
First thing once we made it to the hotel in downtown Chicago, was the Women’s Retreat. I just loved running into everyone that first day – this being our third year, it feels more and more like we just meet up with our huge family that keeps getting bigger! It’s the absolute BEST family reunion in the world. Depending on who you know in the GCN circles, you may recognize the likes of Wendy Gritter, Kathy Baldock and Lisa Salazar in the below group shot. Three amazing women we are proud to call our friends!
Here’s a shot of the group who made it to the Women’s Retreat – awesome amount of ladies for it only being the second year! What a great time of encouragement, getting to meet some new ladies, and a great way to start the conference!
We had some time before the first main session, so a bunch of us went back to our hotel room and did what only makes sense – ordered Chicago deep-dish pizza of course!
Oh my wife is so incredibly adorable. 😉
While a bunch of us were piled on our two beds and sitting on the floor, sharing pieces of this crazy thick pizza, and catching up on things that happened since the last GCN Conference… I was just so… happy. Through this ministry of GCN, we have made so many authentic and lasting friendships, it truly amazes me. I love these people so much! 🙂
The first main session that night was Rev. Christine Wiley – who, along with her husband, ministers at a huge church in Washington, DC. I am sorry, but SHE WAS AWESOME! I loved what she had to say, and I LOVE how she said it! She is a powerhouse, and what her and her husband have done in support of the LGBT community is unbelievable. She was challenging everyone – are we being our most authentic selves today? For Jesus and for the world? One thing she said that really stayed with me was this:
“There is in every person, something that waits for the sound of the genuine.”
– Rev. Christine Wiley
The next day was the first full day of the conference – and MAN was it full! Linda and Rob Robertson had their keynote that morning, which started off with the animated short I was able to help them out with. For the full story on that, please read my previous post: “Just Because He Breathed: The Animation”. Here is a shot someone took of it playing on the big screen.
Here is a pic I like to call “The Robertson Posse” – taken right before they took the stage for their keynote.
Us with their daughter – and now our new bff – Lindsey! Darnit, the whole family is just amazing! 🙂
OH MY WORD. There was not a dry eye in the entire 700+ people that surrounded us as we all listened intently to their beautiful and tragic story of their son Ryan. They are just so full of love and vulnerability, and are so completely committed to loving the gay Christian community, it blows me away. So many people identified with their story, since coming out can not only be hard on the gay person, it of course is hard on the family.
But reconciliation is possible, if we all put love first, and that is the hope in this story.
THAT was another amazing thing from this year different from other years – the amount of parents that came to GCN, in support of their gay children, or wanting to know more and how to love better. SO amazing!
What really grabbed my heart out of my chest, was all the parents wore “Free Mom Hugs” or “Free Dad Hugs” throughout the entire conference. My own struggles with my parents and my family definitely made this more emotional for me.
Literally, people would run up to parents they didn’t know for hugs because they can’t get one from their own. That blew me away. That is God. So much hurt has been felt for so many people, and how healing one hug can be. I only met a few, but THANK YOU to all the parents who came out to show their support. You will never know how truly powerful that is to people like me.
Later that day, something else huge happened for us. (Truly, this weekend was amazing!!) Tams and I had decided – it was Tams’ idea in fact! – to put on a workshop of our own. Throughout the conference, different speakers are asked to put on workshops that people can attend, on a variety of topics. Some on how to deal with your church and sexuality, some on just different faith journeys, some for parents, some were Q&A’s with the keynote speakers.
We decided it was time to share our story and put ourselves out there and be vulnerable. We called it “50 Shades of Grace: A Lesbian Love Story”.
We have been together almost 10 years, married for 3 this May – and things have of course not always been perfect or easy. But we try to love each other as best we can, and put Christ at the center – so we thought, why not talk about it! Here’s a pic right before we “went on”!
90 minutes is a long time to listen to us talk! But, amazingly, everyone DID listen! To be honest, we were blown away by the response. We had one of the biggest rooms for our workshop, and as we started our session, the room kept filling up until there was no room and people were even standing at the back! I was shocked. Even more shocking to me – more than half of the room was made up of men! I was so happy to see our gay brothers sitting there listening to us, but I was surprised! We shared our ups and downs, what has helped us from day to day, had a little break-out session, and then did a Q&A.
We had literally about 15 people that came up to us after individually, just so thankful that we shared and said they were so encouraged by it. WOW. That was worth the price of admission right there for me!
That night was a concert by Bobby Jo Valentine – love that guy’s sound! He is a gay Christian himself, and was not only talented but adorable. And of course Derek Webb – see below. A great evening of music, and a time to sit and marinate with all the great things that happened so far.
The next day started with yet another amazing speaker – Rachel Held Evans. I had never seen her speak in person, I have (like any other “good Christian”) been following her extremely popular and relevant blog for a long time. But I was very interested that she was coming to the GAY Christian Network to speak – gotta love that girl!! Not afraid of the backlash! I especially loved her distinction between not just being a straight ally to the gay community – but us all being brothers and sisters together. What a beautiful image that is! She said:
“Allies have a shared enemy. Brothers and sisters have a shared identity.”
– Rachel Held Evans
One other amazing thing she shared with us was about the gospel. If you look back in the Bible, it is so interesting to see who God calls, and who He chooses to use. I loved what she said:
“What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in.
…And who it calls to lead. “
– Rachel Held Evans
Her own thoughts on her experience at GCN entitled “Unstoppable Grace” is WELL worth reading! Thank you Rachel, thank you so so much. I had a chance to meet her very quickly, and she is exactly as you would hope.
That night was sharing time. Every conference, they have an evening with an open mike, and people can come up and share what they have experienced throughout the conference. OH MY WORD is it powerful! SO many amazing stories, parents who have accepted their kids, people who are struggling and have found love in this community, people who just felt God’s presence again after years of feeling nothing. Unbelievable. Truly.
The last morning is a traditional liturgical service, which is so absolutely beautiful. That is ANOTHER amazing thing about this community – it is made up of countless denominations and faiths, even though it’s called the Gay “Christian” Network.
But the wonderful thing is – no one cares! You love God, you are here, let’s worship together!
Wow, wow, wow. Isn’t that what true church is meant to be? There was also a choir made up of people from the conference who just wanted to sing – they were amazing!
After that is the traditional ending to the GCN Conference – we all get in a massive circle for a last goodbye and chat with everyone, and they also do their thank yous and announce next year’s location. Time for some last minute pics with all these beautiful souls!
Oh and of course we did manage a couple hours of seeing Chicago before we left! Myopic Books, Potbelly’s for amazing sandwiches (and cookies!), and of course a visit to Cloudgate (aka the Millennium Bean).
I have a huge passion for this ministry GCN, I can not say enough good things about it. Thanks to everyone we met, talked to, ate with or listened to – you all made me proud to be a part of this precious gay Christian community. Next year – PORTLAND, here we come!!!