Kadee Wirick Smedley
Non-affirming doctrines and policies harm queer folks—Nazarene or otherwise. Affirmation is the path to the love of God and neighbor to which we by the Spirit have been called.
As a teenager in my Nazarene youth group, I thought LGBTQ people were somewhere out there. I had good reason for thinking so. It was 1992 and my family had just moved to Oregon, where a group of conservative Christians were trying to legislate against what they called “special rights” for queer folks. I understood from the way most Christian people around me talked that LGBTQ folks were a particularly sinful group of people trying to get special advantages for their particularly sinful lifestyle.
What I know now is that queer folks weren’t all “out there” outside of the church. Some were sitting next to me at church absorbing the good news of God’s love with the message that their sexuality made them an abomination. Even though we were friends, they didn’t confide their struggles in me for the same reason I assumed they couldn’t be queer—because queerness was taught to be a choice, a sinful lifestyle one could opt out of with God’s help. My queer siblings in the faith endured shame wrapped in Jesus and demanded by the community that was supposed to love them most. It kept them quiet and kids like me ignorant that we were perpetuating harm.
It’s been 30 years of life and study and ministry since that year in youth group, and a lot of listening to queer folks and the Holy Spirit. LGBTQ people have been in every religious community I’ve been part of—at Northwest Nazarene University, at Regent College, and in the Nazarene church I was privileged to serve as a pastor for ten years. It often wasn’t until these folks were disconnected from church and discovered I was affirming that they felt comfortable sharing with me who they were.
When Nazarenes speak today of queer folks and the doctrines we insist on about them, it often sounds like we are still speaking of some external group. This is an indictment of our denomination. Queer folks are in our midst, if not openly because it is unsafe for them to be honest about who they are. We can lay the blame for our exclusionary teachings at the feet of scripture but the responsibility for the harm is on we who insist upon perpetuating it.
Today I don’t believe Jesus’ blood holds saving power only for heterosexuals and I don’t believe the Spirit, who blows where She will, becomes cowardly in the face of God’s children who were born queer. I believe God intends life and welcome for our queer siblings and that he expects the rest of His church to do right by them. As Wesleyans who reflect theologically through the lenses of scripture, tradition, reason and experience, the Church of the Nazarene should repent of our current doctrinal teaching and polity because of the harm it has led us to perpetuate.
And what is that harm? For millennia the Church has inflicted violence upon LGBTQ folks, whether collaborating with authorities to criminalize their relationships, or through ministries like Exodus International premised on the destructive belief that queerness is something from which one can be forcibly converted. Many countries have moved towards decriminalizing queer relationships in the last few decades. Some faith communities have moved towards full inclusion of their queer members. Exodus International eventually acknowledged their work as destructive, shuttered their doors, and repented with a public apology for the harm they caused to the queer folks who came to them to reconcile their faith with their sexuality.
In my work as a spiritual care practitioner with homeless youth, I bear witness to queer teens and young adults who are homeless because they are not affirmed by their families or communities. While queer youth make up 4% of the overall population, they are anywhere from 25-40% of the youth homeless population in Canada. I’d like to say that none of these rejected kids are Christian, but of course they are; and it’s not in spite of our beliefs but because of them.
The exclusionary beliefs and practices we link to holiness and righteousness as Nazarenes are found in other religious communities too, as well as the deadly fruits of such exclusion. Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Hindu queer kids end up in shelters or leave the faith the same as Protestant Christian kids do. While spirituality or religious belief serve as protective barriers against suicidality for many people, it does not do so when a person is queer and their spiritual community rejects them because of it. Their communities and beliefs become, instead, a means of increasing their chance of early death.
There are arguments within the Church of the Nazarene that the possibility of becoming LGBTQ-affirming is a moral compromise or act of surrender to secular culture. It is neither. If the Church of the Nazarene were to become LGBTQ-affirming, it would be an act of repentance—a turning from a path of death to one of life.
I believe this is possible because I still worship with Nazarenes, and because I trust in the work of the Spirit. When I am discouraged, I remember a Pentecost Sunday a decade ago, when I preached a sermon about the power of the Holy Spirit and opened the mic afterward for testimonies. To my surprise, a father took that opportunity to share about his queer son and how the church needed to figure out how to respond to people like him. His pleading, punctuated by tears, was followed by another father whose son was queer but for whom that was not a point of pain but acceptance. Third to the mic: a queer person, a beloved member of our community who testified to the love of God at work in their life and His faithfulness to them.
Not one word in my sermon had touched on sexuality or gender identity; I was much younger then and lacked the courage to name publicly what I had just witnessed. But it was clear to me then as it is now: those testimonies of pain and power came in obedience to the Holy Spirit working to birth life in the place of sorrow and death.
This, I believe, is the path the Church of the Nazarene must choose. A path forged by the Spirit that gives a place for all God’s children to serve and build families according to how He has made them. A path of life and healing, a turning from harm and hopelessness. I am no longer a Nazarene elder, because I filed my credentials to be licensed with a group that fully affirms queer folks. That decision came out of a desire to no longer do harm, but I remain a member of the Church of the Nazarene with the hope that the denomination in which I came to faith and was first ordained might turn to the path of life the Spirit offers.
May it be so, amen and amen.
Kadee Wirick Smedley is the lead spiritual care practitioner at Covenant House Vancouver, an organization supporting youth experiencing homelessness. She earned her BA in Religious Studies from Northwest Nazarene University and her MDiv from Regent College. Kadee and her family are members of Vancouver First Church of the Nazarene in Vancouver, BC, Canada.