Listen and love: How do you treat gay people?

A challenging way of relating to homosexual people in your church

Carrol Grady, a freelance writer, lives in Snohomish, Washington.

Until 15 years ago, I had never walked in the shoes of a homo sexual. I never even gave the topic much attention because it never concerned me. Then I learned that our youngest son is gay. That knowledge gave me a new perspective. I was asked to place my feet in my son's shoes and walk with him.

How our family coped with the experience turned into a book.1 Since writing that book, I have become involved in ministering to other families going through similar things. I have come to know and love many gay sons and daughters and to appreciate their sensitive and caring nature, their artistic talents, their struggles, and the penetrating depths of their spiritual longings.

I have also learned in talking to pastors that homosexuality is an issue in many congregations—an issue they are all too often unprepared to deal with.

How would you respond?

Pastor Wilcox glanced at his watch. It was almost time for his appointment with Paul, the talented college-age son of the head elder. He had revitalized the Sabbath School's junior department during the recent summer months.

"Good to see you, Paul," the pastor said, smiling, as the slim, dark-haired young man sat down. "It's great when you students come home for the summer and add your gifts and talents. The junior kids follow you around as if you were the Pied Piper! And it's so good to have you playing the organ for church again. We've missed you and your musical talents around here."

Paul was silent as he stared down at his hands, and Pastor Wilcox began to wonder just what Paul had on his mind. At last Paul drew a resolute breath and looked up. "Pastor Wilcox," he blurted out, "I'm gay, and I don't know what to do about it."

Few pastors really know how, or feel confident enough to handle a situation such as this constructively and redemptively. How would you respond?

Some pastors might reach for their Bibles and turn to Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, or Romans 1. Would you tell Paul that he just needed to find a nice girl, get married, and his "problem" would go away? Or would you express sympathy for his "handicap" and tell him you would pray for God to give him the strength to remain celibate the rest of his life? Would you refer him to a change ministry and assure him that if he just had enough faith, God would help him overcome? What should a pastor do?

Damaging approaches

When one young man came in confidence to ask his pastor for help, the pastor announced his "problem" to the whole congregation at the next week's worship service and asked the assembled church to pray for him.

In another case an outgoing pastor told his replacement what he alone knew—that the church's popular and enthusiastic young music director was gay (but celibate). The new pastor decided it was his responsibility to exorcise the "demon of homosexuality" from the young man and told the church board about his plans. As a result, the church was split, and the music director left the church.

If a pastor is unprepared to deal with such situations, his or her tentative ineptness can drive a wedge between young homosexuals and the church. This, along with church members' prejudices and ignorance about the reality of homosexuality, has driven many gay young people from the church and from Christ.

Sometimes parents, distressed by the alienating way the church has treated their children, follow them out of the church. Other parents, taking their cue from the harsh, condemning remarks they have heard ministers make, feel they must reject and condemn their children too.

Some pastors are so repulsed by the thought of homosexuality that they react with visceral antipathy. Others have heard so many different theories about homosexuality that they aren't sure what to believe, say, or do. Many simply feel extremely uncomfortable with this sensitive issue. Their first instinct is to offer some platitude or a quick solution and move on to another topic as soon as possible.

The problem is that when a gay per son brings their concern to the pastor, they are like any other parishioner who needs the same listening ear, the same pastoral concern.

Fears of homosexual people

The fear of "what others would think if they knew" keeps many young people in the "closet." But the burden of living a lie and pretending to be some thing they are not finally builds to unbearable pressure.

"I'm terrified of what coming out will mean to my life, my future, my friends," laments Jeff* from Canada. "I've always known that I could never really be myself lest others hate me. Most of my friendships are based on a fundamental lie about myself, so I can't accept the affirmations and encouragement of my friends. Someone tells me they think I'm wise or a good Christian or a valued friend, and a door slams shut inside of me telling me that they would never say that if they really knew me. I'm starving for affection and acceptance, but can't seem to accept what I receive because I know it's based on a lie."

Rogelio writes from the Philippines, "The sufferings of a homosexual person [are] immense and at times almost beyond consolation. As [a] hidden or closet homosexual, I have so many times experienced the despairs of life. It's so painful to have no one to talk to."

"Every church member I knew was heterosexual and wouldn't understand how I felt," remembers Dwight from England. "There was absolutely no one to befriend me or to talk to confidentially. Who could I turn to for genuine helpful support and understanding? I didn't know of anyone at all. I was going through a kind of personal hell!"

The first thing a pastor needs to recognize is how enormously difficult it is for a young man or woman to find the courage to talk to him or her in the first place—what an emotion-laden moment this is and what far-reaching results the pastor's reaction will have. The pastor needs to respond with utmost tact, warmth, and understanding.

Hearing the loneliness and confusion

Loneliness, isolation, and confusion are felt by young people as they come to recognize that their feelings of emotional and sexual attraction are different and unacceptable. "Loneliness? It's my daily bread. Sometimes it feels like hell," writes Jonathan, an Indonesian student.

"I honestly feel that the sexual temptations are easy to bear compared to the consuming loneliness that so often threatens to devour me. Some days I ache inside for relationship," shares Peter from California.

Rogelio further expresses the confusion of many homosexuals as they try to reconcile the reality of their feelings with the expectations of church and society. "I do not know where to put myself. I am disturbed by my feelings [about a] life that is a lie. I pretend to be a man, but deep inside me is another being crying for help."

Just be willing to listen

Immediately finding a way to "fix it" is an almost automatic reaction when we are confronted with a problem. This is especially true of the male in contemporary Western culture. Because of the nature and values that are a part of the image of today's pastor, this tendency may be even more prominent in pastors. Thus it is not strange that this is just what the average pastor wants to do when a young person shares his or her devastation because of homosexuality— fix it!

But this is the very thing he cannot do. There is no good, easy answer that is simply going to fix things for this young person. Besides, this is not really what the homosexual person is actually looking for, anyway. Instead, his desperate need is for someone to listen, lovingly and non-judgmentally, as he finally pours out all the pent-up feelings.

Homosexuals need someone to come alongside to understand the fear and the pain. They need to feel permission to express their desires and longings, even though they may not be approved of. Perhaps this is why most female pastors intuitively know better how to handle this kind of situation.

"I feel like all I've ever found in the church is self-hatred, loneliness, pain and a sense of failure," says Jeff, questioning religion's ability to meet him where he is. "I keep hearing evangelists talking about the emptiness inside that Christ can fill, but I follow Him and I'm still painfully empty inside. So if I'm going to have the pain and loneliness and emptiness, doesn't it make sense that I might as well go for the 'fun' part of the equation too? I mean, if you're going to get the stomachache, you might as well have the pie that supposedly causes it."

Dwight frankly admits his longings. "I know for sure that total absence of any gay affection is slowly but surely destroying me as a human being, who has much to give another. I so very much need the understanding dialogue and gentle touch of a sympathetic, compatible friendship that only another homosexual Adventist in my life can satisfy."

Could not at least some of this kind of innate longing be met by a pastor who simply meets it with deep, genuine love and understanding? Surely this is how Jesus would meet such a yearning.

Don't add to their feelings of isolation

Many homosexuals have deep spiritual longings. This is amazing when we consider how difficult so many Christians have made it for them to feel part of the church.

"At one stage," says Dwight, "I investigated the possibility of other Christian groups where homosexuals receive love and understanding fellowship. But deep down I knew that such a compromise would ultimately not satisfy."

To meet a homosexual's tentative reaching out for help with a reminder of biblical proscriptions and church standards is the approach most likely to snuff out the flickering flame of a struggling faith. Instead, we need to draw him or her into the church's warm, sup porting embrace.

We need to change our focus from pointing out and condemning sin to sharing the unconditional love God has lavished on us. We need to provide an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit can convict in the way and at the time He knows is most appropriate.

Most homosexuals eventually leave the church in despair because they find no hope there. But we can change that if we are willing to walk in their shoes; if we can just listen—and love.

* Names have been changed.

1 Kate McLaughlin, My Son, Beloved Stranger (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn,. 1995).



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Carrol Grady, a freelance writer, lives in Snohomish, Washington.

August 2003

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