A Gay Jew Goes to Church

Church, I am told, is a dangerous place to be. “Two out of three Americans believe gay people commit suicide at least partly because of messages coming out of churches…” CNN reported in 2010. Dan Savage, a gay activist, is quoted as saying he remembers “…being told to go home and commit suicide and that he was going to hell," confirming the study’s findings stating it "totally jibes with my experience and that of millions of  other gay and lesbian people." The New York Times reporting on the suicide of Tyler Clementi in 2012 described how Tyler’s mother left their church which “made them resistant to their [gay] son’s declaration” and that because her evangelical church taught her that homosexuality was a sin, she was negligent in preventing her son’s apparent suffering. 

The Huffington Post intellectualized how Christians today would comfortably engage in violent terrorism simply based on Christian views. Salon.com, lamenting about the many horrors Christianity today brings to the world, states: “…for Christians who are truly concerned about hostility toward their faith, I have a bit of advice: Don’t be evil.  And don’t let your co-religionists get away with being evil either.” A 2007 book titled Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism is discussed in an interview with the author in which she demands that Christianity "claims supernatural sanction for its campaign of national renewal and speaks rapturously about vanquishing the millions of Americans who would stand in its way."

This is an ongoing narrative so deeply ingrained in our cultural mindset that within Christianity there has formed a liberal movement devoted to separating themselves from the ideas of ‘hate’ portrayed in mainstream Christianity. We see this in articles such as The People Christians Are allowed to Hate discussing why Christianity expressly forbids negative views of any living person the author writes: “There is no "except" or "unless" on the type of people Jesus commands us to love. Not just Christians, not just people of your same ethnicity or socio-economic background, or sexual orientation. Everyone.” and Why I Can’t Say ‘Love the Sinner/Hate the Sin’ Anymore where the author argues that “…despite all my theological disclaimers about how I'm just as much a sinner too, it's not the same. We don't use that phrase for everybody else. Only them. Only "the gays." That's the only place where we make "sinner" the all-encompassing identity.”

It would appear that entering a Christian house of worship would be similar to walking into a riot or a battlefield. The assumption being made demands that the unfamiliar visitor be wary and anticipate hostility. This past Sunday I had the opportunity to experience why everyone quoted above is simply wrong. Upon invitation by a friend to see him preach at his church, I agreed and traveled to the service and I can honestly say his sermon and his congregation provided a genuinely unique look into the everyday practices of Christian congregational expression. The small country church is the picture perfect setting to the above mentioned authors. My friend the pastor greeted me as “Brother Chad” immediately with a smile and a strong handshake. The pastor is aware I am gay and that I am Jewish. He did not hesitate in introducing me to his family who gregariously invited me to sit with them. 

At this point it is relevant to point out that my personal friendship with this young man does not cloud the experience but provides useful insight into it. If the above writers are correct and if he truly despised or feared me for being gay or Jewish, why would he sit me next to his wife? Since I was wearing a yarmulke, the rest of the congregation soon too became aware of my Jewish identity and yet despite this awareness insisted on shaking my hand and welcoming me to their spiritual home.

The service began with singing songs I was unfamiliar with but thematically revolved around a sense of personal exuberance in having found favor in the eyes of their savior. A lovely woman sang a song about personal triumph over life’s difficulties that touched everyone in the room, including myself, and brought most to tears. The sermon focused on the pastor’s very personal struggles, salvation, and the lessons he had learned when he chose to ignore the word of G-d in favor of his own ambitions. He credited his wife and the loving church community with bringing him to a place where he could recognize his own arrogance and agree to allow his faith to control his destiny. 

The music, the community shouting out support and praise and the sermon connected this theme of recognizing the value of personal responsibility with the guidance of faith over humanity’s desire to define and control every moment exclusively. Most importantly, from my objective perspective, the concept of failing G-d or sinning was shared rather than focused on anyone in particular. 

The end of the service involved an emotional and fervent plea for anyone ‘lost’ or ‘not saved’ to come to the front to be prayed for. This plea lasted a long time and as the only stranger in the room it would not have been difficult to imagine it was for me alone, if I were looking for something to be offended by that is. I twice thought I saw eyes looking at me or perhaps I felt them. As everyone left I was invited back with happy smiles and handshakes from nearly everyone who attended. I could have chosen to have felt singled out and that is a large reason for this article. 

The focus to abolish ‘hate’ by insisting Jesus exclusively demanded to love others or obsessively parsing every word of a sermon to find ignorance or intolerance assumes ‘hate’ is the motivation. The pastor, as well as likely every person in the room, felt a deep sense of personal connection and responsibility to G-d that they collectively agreed to keep each other honest with. The plea for salvation was for everyone.

This church and this service are unlikely to be an outlier of what normally goes on, but it is an indicator of what is experienced more widely. The attitude, the genuine community and the focus on personal responsibility to G-d are common in Christian churches. A strongly worded and passionate sermon, like the one I heard, is meant to inspire both a sense of communal appreciation and a caution against what lies outside of faith. Only if a person chooses to will they walk away believing it was all about them, although I understand each individual is meant to feel that in their own way.

How do I know they wouldn’t have been hostile knowing I am gay since I didn’t tell them? Well, that is kind of the point. It was simply not relevant. When a gay person describes hostility they are often describing their own provocation of those around them and their interpretation of the response. Even when Christians call out to those they consider lost in faith they do so with a tangible sense of love and compassion. The only way to be offended is if you choose to be. 

Chad Felix Greene (@Chadfelixg), author of Jewish Children’s Books, Non–Fiction and Social Commentary


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