The failure of the Christian church to place radical love above doctrine, radical acceptance above condemnation, and radical hospitality above exclusion is causing spiritual harm and agony in the lives of LGBTQIA+ believers.
He was dying. The cancer had taken over his body and ravaged it. No chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery was going to help. The fight was over and it was time to concentrate on the quality of the little time he had left. Family and friends gathered around the hospital bedside, telling stories, laughing and crying in turn. He had his favorite blanket, his own pajamas. His requests for prime rib and home-brewed beer were fulfilled. It was going to be a good death, peaceful and reconciled, surrounded by love. Then he asked for a priest to come and give the sacrament of The Anointing of the Sick. The priest refused. Why? Because the patient was gay, and had been married to his husband for 35 years, and would not, could not, confess this as sin.
I’m a hospital chaplain, and these are lightly fictionalized accounts of real patient encounters. None of them are unusual, though the specific details change. The institutional church is causing hopelessness and despair in its refusal to accept LGBTQIA+ people, and I hear their stories.
This gay man dying of cancer came in to the emergency room because of uncontrolled pain and was admitted. I had been able to visit, establish a relationship of trust, and provide support to him and his husband as they navigated the maze of decisions that happen at the end of life. At the bedside I was privileged to get to know this devoted and delightful couple. They told me stories of meeting and falling in love, of good and bad times, of their unique struggles as a gay couple.
When we were alone, the patient talked to me about realizing he was gay, and the process of coming to terms with that and then coming out to his conservative Catholic family. The patient was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic church, and his faith in God and hope for eternal life through Jesus had not changed, even as he spent his life living with the burden of knowing the church thought he was sinning and going to hell by being true to himself. He had a deep faith, and an inner hope of God’s unconditional love. He wasn’t afraid of dying, and like many non-practicing Catholics, still held the rituals of the church in high regard.
When I called the local parish to request that a priest come to the hospital to give the sacrament, I mentioned the specific situation. In the past, priests and pastors of other denominations had come to the bedside, and when face to face with a same-sex couple, had devastated and traumatized the patient by condemning them for their “sin” of loving another human who happened to be of the same sex, and by refusing them the comfort of sacrament or blessing when the patient had hours or days to live. My experience had taught me to be wary, as causing more suffering and anguish at the end of life is not my practice.
This man died without knowing the peace and comfort that his faith was meant to bring. He died feeling condemned. He died questioning whether God loved him. And he was not alone. The failure of the Christian church to place radical love above doctrine, radical acceptance above condemnation, and radical hospitality above exclusion is causing spiritual harm and agony in the lives of LGBTQIA+ believers.
I deal with suicide in my work with The Trevor Project, and at the hospital. A transgender patient and their story has stuck with me, still bringing me heartache as I am writing this. He was a teenager, and from a charismatic and conservative Christian home. His parents rejected his identity, refusing to use his chosen name and pronouns. The church’s pastor and elders had been involved, laying on hands, anointing with oil, praying for this “demon” to leave this young person. It drove him to hang himself in an unsuccessful effort to kill himself, and he ended up in the hospital waiting for a bed at an inpatient psychiatric facility, all for being true to who he was, and trying to grow into who he was created to be.
During my conversations with him and his family, I heard the breaking heart of a child simply needing to be loved, and the steadfast and dogmatic following of doctrine of parents convinced their child was possessed. The church was at the forefront of this. When faith is foundational to the building of a life, it is extremely difficult to question when that questioning is met with fury and rejection. If the parents accepted this child as he was, the church would abandon them as well. They had been plainly told this, I learned this through conversation. The parents were also hurting because of the inability of the church to love and accept differences. To that end they kept using their child’s dead name (the name the child had moved past) instead of using the chosen name, and using she/her pronouns instead of the chosen he/him. In the room with this teen and his parents, every time they used his deadname, he visibly flinched and became smaller, collapsing further into misery. This was not the unconditional love of God, and the false authority of the church was behind it.
A middle aged woman asked to visit with a chaplain during her hospital stay. After establishing rapport with her, it quickly became clear she was carrying a heavy burden and had a need to tell her story. She was cautious in the beginning, asking about my own faith background and beliefs. As the tale unfolded, I understood why. As a young person, she realized that she was sexually attracted to other girls, and enjoyed making love with other girls. She had approached her youth pastor to talk about it. She had grown up in this church, and felt safe and supported in her relationship with Jesus and her faith community. Her childhood and teen years had been full of Vacation Bible Schools, Sunday school, summer church camp, even a mission trip overseas.
Spilling out her confusion to the youth pastor, she told me, felt like a safe and trusted space. The youth pastor listened to her, and advised that these feelings were best tucked away, they were not pleasing to God, they were of Satan. The sexual encounters were abhorrent and disgusting. She was told to marry young, have plenty of sex, and trust in the Lord to bring sexual desire for her husband. This is what she did, or tried to do.
Now a couple of decades later, she absolutely knew she was living a lie. While she loved her husband and children, she was miserable. She had met a woman and had been in a relationship with her for some time. The illness that led to her hospital stay had made her realize that life is short and not guaranteed. She was ready to live into her own wholeness and be who she was created to be, but because of the youth pastor’s counsel, she had years of denying her true self to overcome. Because of the youth pastor’s counsel she was going to emotionally hurt and damage her husband and children. This upheaval, angst, and suffering would not have been there had the church shown acceptance and love of her true self.
These stories, and many others, in tandem with my own reading of scripture and study, have brought me to the conclusion that the organization that claims to follow the teachings of Christ, otherwise known as the church, simply is not showing Jesus’ love to those in the LGBTQIA+ community. The refusal to be open and affirming is not bringing people into a relationship with Jesus and setting them on the journey to being whole and fully human. Instead the refusal is placing doctrine, condemnation, and exclusion above love, acceptance, and hospitality. This needs to change.
Jessica Hiatt (she, her, hers) is a Humanist Chaplain for a large healthcare system, providing emotional and spiritual support to patients, their families, and staff. She received her MDiv from Northwest Nazarene University, and completed her Clinical Pastoral Education in Idaho. Jessica is a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in foster care, and works with The Trevor Project. She is married with three grown children and lives in Oregon.