Finding Love—and Dogma—in Unexpected Places: Jeff Chu’s Gay Christian Odyssey

Jeff Chu finds himself a little less strident when talking with people on both sides of the topic of homosexuality and faith. What changed his approach was a year-long journey around the country talking to Christians about the issue. His interviews and reflections are part of his new book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.

Chu, a gay Christian and editor and writer at Fast Company magazine, gathers an impressive array of names for interviews, including one-time evangelical leader Ted Haggard (whose downfall included drugs and a gay prostitute) and blue-eyed hatemonger Fred Phelps, leader of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Chu’s odyssey taught him, he explains, to give everyone—even those he may deeply disagree with—the benefit of the doubt. But that very willingness to suspend judgement has invited strong criticisms of his book from both sides of the theological and ideological spectrum.

Conservative magazine Christianity Today called the conclusion of his book a “diatribe that undercuts the sincerity of the pilgrimage.” On the other hand, syndicated columnist Dan Savage took Chu to task for handling anti-gay organizations with kid gloves while criticizing the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly LGBT church founded in 1968.

Savage writes in the New York Times:

Chu goes easy on Exodus International, the largest “ex-gay” ministry in the country, despite the harm the group does to vulnerable gays and lesbians, particularly gay children. He gives an approving nod to the sneakily homophobic Marin Foundation, an evangelical group that shows up at gay pride parades holding signs that say, “We’re sorry!” and offering hugs to paradegoers who have been harmed by religion.

Religion Dispatches’ Candace Chellew-Hodge recently had a chance to talk with Chu about his book and the reactions it has stirred.

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What prompted you to write this book?

When I came out about eight years ago, I was frustrated because so many people from different places on the  theological spectrum, from atheists to very conservative Christians in my life, were all telling me what I should believe and how I should live my life.

One of my big frustrations was that I couldn’t find a book that first of all had stories from across the theological spectrum, but that also allowed me the room to sort through some very complex issues and make decisions for myself. It took me a long time before I was ready to wrestle in a deep way with some of these issues, but the book is my best attempt to begin to do that.

Where did you find the people you interviewed?  

Sometimes they found me through friends, or sometimes it was a matter of creative googling. Ted Haggard and Westboro Baptist are in the news. And so is Mary Glasspool, the Episcopal bishop in L.A. Some of the more prominent people were easy to find, but I really wanted to get more voices from the pews. What was remarkable to me was how relatively easy it was to find people once I just started asking people for their stories.

There are some spots that are missing from the book. I wish I had gotten more Roman Catholic voices. I wish I had spoken to more people from the Black Church. In some cases, the absence is because I couldn’t find people who wanted to speak candidly about their experiences. It’s not a fully representative survey of American Christianity—I think that would be impossible to do—but it is what I encountered on my journeys.

Did anyone refuse?

There were people who refused. Mostly they were pastors. I was struck by the difference in responses I got from laypeople and pastors. Pastors and priests initially seemed willing to talk with me when I said I wanted to talk about difficult subjects related to the church. Once they found out I wanted to talk about homosexuality some of them suddenly had no time on their calendars for me. I found that kind of disappointing, given that we look to our pastors and priests as leaders. 

Do you think that’s because they’re concerned about their jobs?

I think in some cases they’re concerned about their finances; they don’t want to polarize their congregations. I think in some cases they’re not comfortable talking to a member of the media, given that I am “the liberal media elite”—even though I’m not that liberal and I’m not that elite.

In some cases, it’s just fear; you don’t want to be put in a place of vulnerability. The problem is that the church is where we should be able to be vulnerable, if nowhere else.

What surprised you most in these interviews?

The biggest surprise was how extraordinary the stories were from the most ordinary seeming people. It was a reminder to me, as a reporter, that there is no such thing as an ordinary family. There is such drama and such tension and struggle in the lives of allegedly average Americans.

I think you could go into almost any family in almost any church and find some stories of real spiritual struggle and drama. For some of them they may be stories about struggling with the church and with their faith because of sexuality, for others it may be another issue, but clearly there’s a lot of struggle and a lot of thought that is not happening up front in churches. There are issues that are not being dealt with that are really tugging at people’s hearts.

If the pastors and priests don’t bring it forward, how will it get talked about?

How are we doing it, creating a space where people are comfortable being their whole selves—their whole, insecure, vulnerable, messy selves? The church is where you dress up and wear your Sunday best. That sometimes precludes being real.

Did you find any of your expectations easily confirmed?

What surprised me the least is how dogmatic people can be on all points of the theological spectrum. It was disappointing, but it wasn’t surprising, to hear Fred Phelps be dogmatic. It was disappointing but not surprising to hear people in the Metropolitan Community Church be dogmatic.

On both ends, I think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding, and a lot of pain, and a lot of wounds. And the scar tissue that results sometimes keeps people on both poles from having difficult conversations where they may make themselves vulnerable.

Could there be a middle way for people to come together on the issue of homosexuality? How can you come forward in vulnerability when you feel either victimized or hurt? 

 I think we all need thicker skins and I think we all need more grace.

Maybe I’m an idealist when I imagine a church where we can—not necessarily agree because I don’t know that we’ll ever entirely agree on these issues—but at least we can sit together at a table and say, “You’re not evil just because I disagree with you on this issue.” I don’t think that should be as hard as it is.

Christianity Today criticized your book, saying:

Crafting highly personalized views of God may soothe our church-inflicted wounds, but responding to fracture within the church with personalized gods hardly seems the path toward unity. I wish he had found more hope in the examples of Christians learning, engaging in difficult conversation, and building relationships across perceived chasms of theological, sexual, and other differences.

They’ve basically accused you of being dogmatic.

First of all, I do, in my heart, feel that I approached this journey in a very open way. There is a moment I record, when I’m at Westboro, of all places, where I genuinely did ask myself, “What if they are right? What if they’re right about America and the world and about me and we’re all going to hell because this little band of believers in Kansas is right about all this?” That wasn’t made up for dramatic purposes. This is something that I really thought about, and as I met people I tried my best to put myself in their shoes, behind their glasses, and read scripture as they read it and understand it. Even though I haven’t made those choices to this point, I tried to understand how they made these choices in their lives.

As far as how I conclude, I wouldn’t call it a diatribe, but I know it’s a really tricky thing to disagree with how people characterize my own writing. Obviously, I’m very biased. I didn’t feel it would have done the reader much of a service if I just gave you a dozen stories and then said, “That’s it, we’re done.” That’s not intellectually honest.

My journey hasn’t ended, but in terms of ending the book, my honest feelings are that the church has a lot of big things it hasn’t dealt with and it needs to deal with. So, I do come down pretty hard on pastors and do come down pretty hard on the church.

I honestly say that I still believe in God, but I couldn’t let this book end without pointing out that even though we talk about one church and one Jesus, the gods and the Jesuses that we worship look very different to different people. If that’s a diatribe, I’m fine with that, but that’s what I feel and that’s what I found on my journey.

I think one thing that we’re not honest enough about, especially in the church, is that we bring biases to the table no matter what we’re reading—whether it’s a book like mine or the Bible. Obviously, as I went into the reporting of this book, I had my own baggage and I try to be open with my reader about that. But, also, anyone who is reviewing this book, anybody reading this book—we all have our baggage.

It’s been very interesting to see how some readers see stories of triumph where others see profound sadness, and vice versa. There are chapters, for instance, the story of the celibate man Kevin Olson in St. Paul, Minn., who comes across as a tragic figure to some people and a triumphant one to others. I’m okay with that. I want everybody to feel validated at some point in this book, but also totally uncomfortable at some point—and those points will be different for different readers.

Tell me about your experience in Topeka with Westboro Baptist Church.

I was frightened before I left for Topeka. I didn’t really know what to expect and I confess I was probably a little naïve in that fear. One of my goals was to meet the members of Westboro as humans. Their welcome could not have been warmer. We had pizza with them. By “we,” I mean me and my photographer and videographer. (I called them my “human security blanket” because I didn’t want to go by myself.)

It’s a little unnerving, the ease with which they used words that, to me, would be considered offensive—and just slipping in the word “fag” into every other sentence, that’s normal for them. It’s normal for them to watch Glee, and yet one person said to me she had to stop watching when “two fags started kissing.” It’s just a different way of communicating and viewing the world. As a journalist I found it fascinating.

And as a Christian?

It was unnerving in the sense that I had to adjust to see the world from their point of view. Their worldview makes sense according to their internal logic (which is shared by almost nobody).

But, the other thing that I really tried to do as I wrote that chapter was to point out that their views are not significantly different than those of many Americans. There is a danger in regarding them as so extreme they don’t relate to anything else in American Christianity. The fact is, their views are the logical extension of what many conservative Christians believe. If they actually followed through with their convictions, many more people would be in churches like Westboro.

What kind of things did you find on the other side of the spectrum, say in the Metropolitan Community Church?

I really confess that I struggled with my time at the MCCs that I visited because I want to be part of a church that is built around Jesus, not a church that is built around gay people.

I’ve never had a strong desire to be at a mono-cultural church. I’ve never had a strong desire to be at a mono-ethnic church. The Bible tells us that the church should be of all people, from different lands, male and female, gentile and Jew. I really struggled with that.

I understand why the people who started that church and who lead it see that they have an important ministry. There are so many people wounded by the broader church that maybe this is what they need to get closer to God. I think that’s great for some people, but it’s not the place I felt at home.

But you found them dogmatic in their own way?

I found some people as dogmatic in MCC as I did on the other end of the spectrum. At the same time, I found well-meaning, loving and generous and wonderful people.

One of the things I learned about the church during this journey is that I can’t stereotype like I once did. It was too easy for me to write people off based on what kind of church they went to, or what label you could attach to them before meeting them. Coming out of this journey I’ve realized how insufficient our labels are.

In our society today, the words “Christian” and “evangelical” and “church” have such baggage that sometimes I almost hesitate to use them, but then, I have to use something. It’s really hard to communicate candidly about this stuff because we have so many preconceived notions when we’re talking about our faith.

How do you think SCOTUS will rule on marriage equality and how will it affect the debate on homosexuality?

I read a story about how Justice Roberts’ lesbian cousin was at the court in the friends and family section. There are very few families for whom this is not so much “an issue,” but more a matter of heart and faith and personal relationship. Who knows what the justices will find?

Also, the Constitution is kind of like the Bible in the sense that we read these documents with such baggage. There are originalists who claim to want to read the Constitution and the Bible as God intended it when it was originally written. There are others who  view it as a living, breathing document that evolves. Who’s right? I don’t know.

I think it’s important to remember that whatever is decided by the court later this year, the issue is not settled for millions of people across the country. This isn’t primarily a legal issue, but a matter of faith and morality, and those are not things that can be decided by the courts. We’re still going to have to struggle in our families to build those bridges. No federal law can do that for us.

One of the things I hope my book will also do is remind those of us who live in geographic and political bubbles that there are different Americas out there. There are people in parts of the country who don’t live in Brooklyn and deal with entirely different social and cultural mores than I do in my neighborhood. I think it’s easy to forget about those other Americas.

Did you find a common thread in these stories?

I would say that 99% of the people I met truly want to do the right thing. They want to be loving, but they can’t agree on what love means.

You have a situation where folks at Westboro—most, but not all of them—want to do the right thing, and they want to be loving, even though their form of love looks like hate to the rest of the world. Their definition of love is so different from the MCC’s definition, and it’s so different from the non-denominational megachurch pastor’s definition. You can see that even within denominations. The Presbyterian Church USA has different definitions of love just within that one denomination.

How do we love? I think that was a real lesson for me. Everyone from my mother, who has a really hard time with my sexuality, to Fred Phelps—well maybe not Fred Phelps. He was the one person I struggled with seeing his form of love. But, many of his followers, sitting with them and breaking bread with them—I saw that their hearts were trying their best to be loving, even if it just doesn’t look like love to most of us. There’s a lesson in evangelism there. If your message doesn’t sound like good news to people, maybe you might want to change it up a little.

Did anything change for you while you researched and wrote the book?

This journey helped me to differentiate, more than ever, between the church as a human institution and God. I think I went through a phase in my own faith where the two were conflated. I struggled a lot because I was mistaking the people of the church for God. I was seeing their rejection as rejection from God. Having so many people talk to me about their journeys and seeing how people have persevered in their faith really helped me to remember to differentiate between the two.

The journey also helped me be a little more gracious than I usually am in talking about these issues, and talking to different people from across the church. I think there have been times in my life when if you had asked me these same questions I would have been much more strident—and I think strident is the last thing that any of us need right now in this conversation.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)