Seven years ago we learned that our youngest son is a homosexual. At that point our ignorance and prejudice met head-on with our love for our son. I'm glad to say that love won out. Since that time we have learned a great deal about homosexuality. We have also come to realize how many people's lives are touched by this hidden pain. As I have become more able to open up about our son's homosexuality, and especially since I wrote a book about our family's experience (My Son, Beloved Stranger), I have been amazed to discover that nearly everyone I talk with about it has a friend or relative who is homosexual.
And my son? What happened to him? As a child, he was always sensitive to spiritual things. He gave his heart to God when he was 9 years old and was baptized a year later. His ambition was to be a missionary teacher. He told us he prayed all through his childhood and teens that God would change him. When that didn't happen, he turned his back on God near the end of his college years. He met another boy who was gay, and before long they were living together. Although he had decided he didn't believe in God, he and his friend loved music and sang in the choir of a church in his community. After a few years he found his way back to God, decided to follow a celibate lifestyle and joined the church in which he had been singing.
Throughout all this, in spite of our pain and disappointment, we have maintained a close and loving relationship with our son, recognizing that God continues to love us even when we make mistakes. We see his coming back to God, even though it is not through our church, and his decision to be celibate as an answer to prayer, because we have witnessed such a vibrant and joyful change in his life that we cannot doubt God's leading. The story isn't over yet.
What does the homosexual need from a pastor?
Understanding. I suspect that many church members, including pastors, still view homosexuality as we did before learning about our son simply as a sexual perversion that people choose, probably for "kicks." The truth is that people don't consciously choose sexual orientation. The homosexual's choice is whether or not to follow a homosexual lifestyle.
When you understand that, you begin to realize some of the difficulties homosexuals face, especially those who have been brought up in a religious home. Conditioned by the attitude of both society and the church toward homosexuals, yet recognizing this dread thing in themselves, they learn early to deny a part of their personality and to wear a protective mask around others. A crisis of faith often develops when their prayers for deliverance go unanswered. And when they finally come to terms with being homosexual, they often want to stop hiding and be open about it, but are prevented by their fear of rejection by church and society.
Education. The debate still rages, both in scientific and religious circles, over the cause of homosexuality. My personal conclusion, based on extensive reading and talking to a fair number of homosexuals and their families, is that probably most are born with a homosexual orientation that, outside of a divine miracle, cannot be changed.
Others, I think, have a confused sexual identity because of childhood sexual abuse, and these may possibly be helped by therapy. Then there are those in the middle of the spectrum between homosexuality and heterosexuality, called bisexuals, who are attracted to both sexes. If strongly motivated by the desire to obey God, they can choose to limit their romantic attachments to the opposite sex. They, I believe, are the ones who can be helped by the "change" ministries of various denominations.
One common misconception that many people have is that it is a common practice for homosexuals to try to lure young boys into homosexuality. Much of the confusion in this arena results from confusing homosexuals with pedophiles, those who are sexually attracted to children.
Of course, I don't claim to be an expert. There are many different opinions, and I don't think anyone fully understands this complex problem. But if you really want to help homosexuals and their families, you owe it to them to become more knowledgeable about these complexities.*
Openness. The stigma attached to being homosexual breeds secrecy and shame. The church should provide a safe place where those with this orientation can be honest about their problem. They need a place where they can talk about their confusing emotions and their resulting spiritual problems, a place where others engaged in the battle against sin will pray with and for them.
As a pastor, once you have put aside your own ignorance and prejudice, you can help educate your church, too, and encourage them to face the fact that a significant minority of our members struggle with a homosexual orientation.
Support. To my knowledge, the only attempt the Seventh-day Adventist Church has made to provide help for homosexuals has been to unofficially back Homosexuals Anonymous, an organization that attempts to help homosexuals change into heterosexuals.
There have been moral problems in this organization in the past. And because of this and other considerations, I believe they hold out an unrealistic expectation for the person with a true homosexual orientation.
Another Adventist organization for homosexuals is Kinship. Because most of its members subscribe to an alter native interpretation of Scripture and believe that a monogamous homosexual relationship is acceptable for them, the Adventist Church does not officially recognize Kinship. Despite the draw backs of Kinship, the organization does provide something our church does not offer a loving, supportive atmosphere for those homosexuals who love their church, but find no escape from their orientation.
I believe there is a compelling need for our church to provide a publicly acknowledged support group for those homosexuals who desire to live a celibate lifestyle. They need to experience warm acceptance and support from other church members, who understand that, like anyone engaged in serious warfare against sin, they may not win every battle. We need to show them the same forgiveness and patience as we do someone who occasionally gives in to the temptation of pride, jealousy, or heterosexual deviation.
Love. The deepest and most basic emotional need of the human being is for love and companionship. Single heterosexuals can fill this need, to some extent, by sharing their lives with a roommate of the same sex, but even this is problematic and probably not possible for the homosexual. Thus theirs is often the loneliest of lives.
Recognizing this, the church ought to reach out to them in love, including them as cherished members of the church family in compensation for the normal desires for home and family which they must renounce.
The church itself will be well compensated for its efforts to encourage and retain its nonpracticing homosexual members. As a group, they are known to be highly blessed with gifts of an artistic nature, which they can offer in God's service.
What do parents of a homosexual need from their pastor?
Understanding. As a pastor, you need to understand that when parents first learn their son or daughter is a homosexual, they usually fall into a state of shock. Even though they may have been aware that something about their child was different, they have probably never admitted to them selves the unthinkable possibility that it could have anything to do with homosexuality.
They may experience any of a whole range of emotions: anger, denial, grief, guilt, fear, or shame. Dreams of their child's future lie shattered about them. If, as frequently happens, they learn about their child's homosexuality and diagnosis of AIDS at the same time, their shock and grief are profoundly compounded. Husbands and wives often react in markedly different ways, and this is likely to put stress on their marriage.
Awareness. When their child "comes out of the closet," parents literally take his or her place in it. Feeling that they must somehow be responsible, they tend to take on the stigma the church and society has attached to homo sexuality. Very few parents feel able to talk to anyone about it, yet talking is what they most need.
A pastor needs to be aware of any small indication parents may give of the emotional turmoil they are going through. This might be revealed in asking veiled questions about homosexuality or in an unexplained depression or other sudden mood change.
Utmost tact is needed in reaching out to these parents. Often they are longing for someone just to notice their distress and ask them what is the matter. Their hearts may be bursting with questions and emotions they need to express, but they are unable to bring the subject up themselves. You may be able to create an opening by simply asking "How have things been going lately?" or "I've noticed that something seems to be troubling you. Is there anything you'd like to talk about?" It is also important to continue creating opportunities for them to talk; it may take some time before they feel safe enough to discuss what is really on their hearts.
Reassurance. Probably one of the first questions that occurs to Christian parents after discovering that their child is homosexual is Will my child be lost? Usually this is because they do not understand the difference between a homosexual orientation and homo sexual behavior.
You can reassure them that God loves and wants to save everyone. He does not hold people responsible for a condition over which they have no choice—only for the way they choose to relate to it. And if they make the wrong choice, they can be led by the Holy Spirit to repent of that choice.
Education. You can help parents understand that the two most important things they can do for their son or daughter are to show the same unconditional love that God showed us while we were yet sinners, and to pray that the Holy Spirit will work in the life of their child. Often things may get worse before they get better, but a parent's love, understanding, support, and acceptance can hasten their child's reconciliation with God. Many parents feel that unless they are continually reminding their child that what he or she is doing is wrong, they will be seen as condoning sinful behavior, but this only alienates them from their family as well as God. The Holy Spirit can accomplish what we cannot.
I believe it will be a sign of our church's spiritual maturity when we recognize that this complex problem affects our church, when we are willing to bring it out into the open and discuss it with honesty and frankness, and when we offer sympathetic support to those who struggle with one of the most confusing and painful of sin's curses on the human race.
How wonderful it would be if our church could lead the way in showing caring, Christian compassion to homosexuals, neither ostracizing them for an orientation over which they have no ultimate control, nor encouraging them to accept something less than God's best for their lives, but instead supporting them with love and understanding as they seek to follow God's will. My prayer is that you, as a pastor, will help to make this happen.
* I would recommend starting with Barbara Johnson's Stick a Geranium in Your Hat and Be Happy. If you can keep an open mind and overlook obvious theological differences, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? by Scanzoni and Mollenkott, presents a balanced overview of homosexuality.