As a youth growing up in a small, Southern town, my adolescence revolved around a passion for football. I loved the game and have few regrets. But I do regret my complicity in locker-room talk. The walls of men’s high school athletic locker rooms shake with loud declarations of bravado, tales of wildly exaggerated sexual exploits, and demeaning jokes about homosexual people. Whether we like it or not, those experiences influence our attitudes. I confess before my church and my God my youthful participation in verbal gay-bashing.
But God put a stop to all that. At 16, God led me to volunteer work as a crisis telephone counselor, so from my junior year in high school through college, I spent countless hours listening to people who had no one else to turn to, people afraid to speak openly of their mental illnesses, marital strife, financial woes, chronic health problems, or yes, homosexual orientations. So I, a young jock straight out of the locker room, found myself sometimes moments later on the phone in a secret room listening to a homosexual person desperate for compassion after hearing the kinds of comments I may have just made among my teammates.
At first I assumed I was listening to some kind of twisted pervert and certainly a sinner. But I kept listening to respected businessmen, doctors and religious leaders, along with unemployed people, children and domestic workers sharing their deep hurt. As I listened more closely, I realized that these people displayed no more perversion, sin or mental illness than the rest of us. Rather, they suffered from the discrimination and humiliation they experienced in subtle ways at work, less subtle ways at church, and brazen ways in places like the locker room. Furthermore, they neither chose their homosexual orientation nor imposed sex on others without consent as often as heterosexuals do; yet they found themselves grouped among society’s moral reprobates. They asked tearfully why anyone thinks that a person would choose a sexual identity that prohibits disclosure of who they are and bars the public celebration of their loves as we heterosexual folks do from the sophomore dance to the altar and on to the 50th wedding anniversary.
That, I learned, was the most painful part of all. As I tried to work up the nerve to ask a girl on a date, I didn’t know how good I had it. At least everybody expected me to do what my body told me to do sooner or later. Whatever teasing I might bear, it was all part of a good-natured celebration of my sexuality, and how I needed that. The ultimate validation, marriage, does much for us socially and psychologically, and we heterosexuals take for granted how it validates our sexuality and our love for another to whom we feel called to commit our lives in loving union. Homosexual people, I learned, cannot take that for granted, and worse, society disparages their tender affections and devotion to one another. With all the sexuality emerging in me and my eye on a particular young woman, I was horrified at the thought of living in a world in which people would reject me as a reprobate for my romantic feelings, all the more horrified to realize that some in our midst suffered just that.
It came as no surprise to me when the American Psychiatric Association made the news during my senior year in high school by withdrawing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. I knew they were right. Homosexual people did not need my ministry as a telephone counselor for mental illness. They needed it for strength in the face of bigotry and harassment that left them lonely, with a depth of pain that neither I nor any other heterosexual person can fully understand. But like the rest of us when we find ourselves in emotional pain, they welcomed a listening ear.
Yet, justice for homosexual people does not end with deletion from a list of diseases. Inherent to the biblical worldview is the indicative that we are made for love and the imperative that we do so. Scripture revolves around God’s covenant relationship with Israel and the church and the honoring of covenant relationships with each other, the most fundamental of which is marriage. Worse than excluding a homosexual person from ordination is excluding them from the covenant relationship of marriage, for that implies that their love cannot be a parable of God’s covenant love as ours can.
Furthermore, it is the church’s responsibility to hold couples accountable for love and fidelity to each other. In the wedding ceremony, the pastor asks, “Will all of you witnessing these vows do everything in your power to uphold Frank and Sue in their marriage?” We say, “We will,” but will we? From that day forward, it’s Frank and Sue’s business to us, not ours, at least so we practice. Who are we to judge? But if it’s Frank and Fred or Sue and Melody, we judge. Meanwhile, Frank and Fred or Sue and Melody turn to us to support their marriage, and we turn them away, we who are supposed to form a community that loves and honors love.
Perhaps if we really took it upon ourselves to support each other’s marriages and hold each other accountable for fidelity in heterosexual unions, our marriages would fare better. For one thing, there would be less promiscuity among us. But at least we have an option to live in a community that honors our covenants before God. By refusing to honor gay marriage, we deny homosexual people the possibility of such accountability and support, making faithfulness harder. Regardless of sexual orientation, I seriously doubt that many couples can make marriage work without community support. I cannot imagine that the one, loving God wills such social neglect by the church. Ironically, the very biblical proof texts to which those who condemn homosexuals appeal really condemn sexual activity that lacks covenant fidelity. When we refuse to accept homosexual marriage, we fail to support covenant fidelity among homosexual people.
As it stands, many homosexual people struggle with anger at God for having made them with a sexual orientation that precludes full participation in marriage, society and church. I struggle with my own anger at the church for giving them little choice but to see it that way. But if church is where two or more gather in Christ’s name (Mt 18:20), perhaps homosexual couples who pray together outside our walls build a strong church in God’s view. If Christ is present in the caring encounter between the outcast and those who reach out to them in compassion (Mt 25:31-44), perhaps the many straight youths who lost patience with our church and their gay friends build a strong church apart from us. But if they must walk away from us to find church, that is our loss, and the separation wounds the body of Christ.
Granting presbyteries the right to ordain homosexual people but not recognizing their covenant relationships with their partners continues the same prejudice that totally violates the spirit, teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who called social outcasts his friends and disciples and got himself in trouble with people like us for doing so. If we fear doing the same, can we really count ourselves among his disciples? Can we really call ourselves a church?
That telephone counseling I did as a youth started me on my life’s ministry of counseling, and now well into midlife, I continue to experience Christ’s presence in sharing the suffering of homosexual people, even those who reject our faith because of the common prejudice among us. While I cannot always say so explicitly to the gay and lesbian people who share their pain with me, I pray that God will reach them with the Good News that Jesus Christ invites them too, as they are, to a place prepared for them in Our Father’s House, a place with the rest of us, a place at the table next to us. Sometimes they can tell I’m a Christian, and that makes some suspicious of me. But others sense that the listening ear is not mine alone but the loving ear of Jesus listening through me, ever present when two broken human beings gather in his strong name. That is church. Won’t you join us?
J. Marshall Jenkins is a writer, spiritual director and psychologist living in Rome, Ga.