James E. Copple
Judgment and condemnation emerges from isolation and ignorance and understanding and empathy come from proximity.
My stepson Steven enrolled at Eastern Nazarene College as a freshman. Steven grew up as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—the Mormons. He was a young man struggling with his sexual orientation. We thought ENC would be a safe place to secure his degree in an environment that had a history of tolerating diversity. I attended ENC in the 60s, where I was a conscientious objector, a civil rights activist, and a strong proponent for social justice. I later taught at ENC and found it to be an institution that truly promoted a liberal arts education. I believed ENC would be a safe place for Steven to sort out his values and his faith.
In his sophomore year, after coming out, he was attending one of the required chapels at ENC. ENC scheduled an evangelist as a speaker. A woman evangelist—Steven was intrigued. At the end of her sermon she held an altar call. In her prayer for people to come forward, she used, and I paraphrase, language that suggested there were people who might need healing because they were confused about their sexual orientation. Her prayer was essentially a homophobic diatribe equating homosexuality to a disease. Steven was hurt and angered. He got up and walked out of the chapel. Steven later met with the chaplain and told him how hurt he was by her message. The chaplain asked, “What was wrong?” Steven responded, in the spirit of John 9, “I was once blind and now I see—and she just condemned my testimony and my identity.”
At the end of his sophomore year, Steven left ENC. His roommate his sophomore year would pray nightly for Steven. His prayers focused on his sexual orientation and the fact that Steven was a Mormon. Knowing of Steven’s sexual orientation, an enlightened RA gave Steven a private room. Still, it was simply too much. The intolerance, the bigotry, and the ignorance of both students and faculty forced him to leave and attend a public university in the DC area. To be clear, Steven would find no spiritual home with the Mormons or the Nazarenes. Today, he is a follower of Jesus Christ and a ship in search of a welcoming port.
While we continue our debates about scripture, theology, and practice, there is a movement to create proximity and facilitate a conversation that generates understanding. The 1908 Project seeks conversation and dialogue around these critical issues. Yet, leadership in the denomination rests on dogmatic platitudes and pronouncements and consequently is driving people out of the Church.
Historically, in this country and others, proximity—the act of actually seeing, hearing, and listening to others—might be a path for changing policy and practice. It is when we isolate ourselves in the echo chambers of our ideologies that we fail to see the person or the family. Passing resolutions affirming our love for one another is aspirational but it does not get us to inclusion. When families see one of their children or a parent “come out” and express their desire to be affirmed for their identity, prejudices and biases cave and “otherness” disappears.
We must move beyond our fears, our need to proof-text our biases, or cling to social and political biases that force an “otherness” in our relationships. This should be the goal of every loving, believing person of faith. The values we hold on to in order to justify exclusion will crumble in the face of love, understanding, and empathy.
Proximity creates an environment where people can dialogue, explore each other’s differences, and create a space for transparency and change. The refusal to discuss these issues suggests leaders live in fear, take authoritarian approaches to protect their positions, and finally hide behind their titles versus serving the gospel.
There are things we can do to encourage proximity and tolerance through listening and seeking understanding.
- Seek out organizations and individuals who represent the LGBTQIA+ community. Meet them on their terms and on their turf.
- Familiarize yourself with the terms or language of gay culture.
- Invite members of the gay community to your congregation and maybe have them speak in your Sunday School classes. Have an honest and open dialogue about their life. Assure them that the church is a safe place for these conversations.
- Research the literature on the biological/genetic predisposition of queerness.
- Reflect on and challenge the stereotypes developed by the evangelical church regarding homosexuality.
- Find ways to stand with the gay community when they are forced to respond to homophobic attacks.
- ]Quite simply, get to know and come alongside people working through their sexual identification.
- Challenge authority that may simply dismiss gay and lesbian individuals as an aberration or as sinners.
- Whenever possible, bring light to the discussion and avoid the bitter and harsh attacks that keep us in the dark.
- Invite conversations around the issues of sexuality, the struggle of transitioning and begin those conversations by listening.
Several years ago, while working overseas, a group of us were standing in a parking lot of a Nazarene Mission Compound. A missionary went off on one of those all too familiar diatribes about gay people. She was speaking specifically about President Obama and his advocacy for inclusion. Her language was harsh, vile, and degrading. I stood there for a few moments wondering if I should say something or just leave it alone. Finally, she referred to the LGBTQIA+ community as a community of “f*gs.” I stopped her, and finally and simply said, “You are speaking about my son. And, frankly, I can’t imagine Jesus ever calling my son a f*g.” Later I would ask if she had ever known or been in conversation with people of a different sexual orientation. Her answer, with bowed head and a degree of shame, “No, I haven’t and maybe I should.”
That day she began a journey that would change her life. She sought to create proximity and to gain an understanding of the people she was condemning.
That is all we can ask for—is to seek understanding, build relationships and begin seeing as Jesus sees, hearing as Jesus hears, and doing as Jesus would do. Seek Justice, Love Mercy and walk humbly before your God. Leaders who fear proximity or a conversation on this issue—are not leaders but Pharisees wrapped in a cloak of cowardice. We must and can do better.
James E. Copple is the founder of The 1908 Project, an effort to promote dialogue and conversation around difficult issues in the Church of the Nazarene. Copple is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College, Nazarene Theological Seminary, and did doctoral work in history at Boston College and The Johns Hopkins University. He is the founding principal of Strategic Applications International (SAI) and the current Executive Director of ACT NOW, a national movement to create dialogue between Police and Local Communities.