This is the second in a series on “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality.”
Just a little over 15 years ago, I sat in a conference room with a half dozen persons as they asked me questions to determine if I would be their choice to be the first full-time chaplain at The 1917 Clinic at UAB (HIV Outpatient Clinic). They represented the community I would be relating to in my ministry including a couple of patients at the clinic, a staff member, the medical director and founder of the clinic, a local businessman, a local pastor, and a couple of other persons.
I don’t remember all of their questions, though some were expected. I tried to answer them directly and truthfully. But there was one question that stood out. The local pastor in the group leaned forward and asked the last question of the day, “Malcolm, I have been listening to your answers carefully today, and I still have one question for you.” “Sure, what is it?” I asked.
He caught my eye and said, “What I want to know is do you believe homosexuality is a sin?”
It was a clear, unambiguous, critical question for the grandson and son of Southern Baptist ministers. It was a fair question for this ordained Southern Baptist minister, and a minister who also had dual standing in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Baptist denominations to answer. After all, if I was going to be the clergyman to persons who were gay or homosexual as the majority members of my parish at the time, I needed to know the answer to this question.
I leaned forward and said, “Well Joe, that depends. Let me ask you a question. Is heterosexuality a sin?” I asked rhetorically.
I continued with my answer. “I believe that our sexuality is a gift from God. I have to apply the same standards to persons who are homosexual to persons like myself who are heterosexual. If we are talking about a mutual, caring, respectful, loving, committed relationship, I would answer your question, ‘No,’ I do not believe homosexuality is a sin any more than heterosexuality is. If you are referring to a promiscuous, non-committed relationship, I would answer the same for both a same sex or opposite sex relationship, ‘Yes,’ it can be sinful. I also believe in God’s grace and forgiveness because we all fall short in this area.”
This was not a question I answered hastily. The answer for me had been years in development after studying the Bible as part of my former church’s journey to become a welcoming congregation in CT to all persons regardless of sexual orientation (see more about the UCC process of Open and Affirming here); walking with and listening to the struggles and stories of persons who were trying to do the right thing as they understood God in their lives. (I will deal with “the scriptures” in another post on this blog.)
And since that interview in 1994, I have walked with hundreds of individuals, parents, partners, and families down this road and have confirmed this belief in my heart. Gay and straight, we all struggle in this area. We all sin, or fall short. There are no exceptions.
Since that interview, I have also been humbled by my own divorce of a 16 year marriage, and had eight years of being single again and dating before I remarried in 2004. Believe me, I made lots of mistakes as a single heterosexual man during that time as I tried to find love in my life.
One thing I know is that many of the clergy who have been the most critical of persons who are gay have not had the gift of the hundreds of friendships I have had with persons in this setting. I understand, and I don’t blame them because I was just like them 20 years ago.
I was the minister in a large suburban church where I was not comfortable talking about sex openly, whether it was lesbian or gay or straight or bi-sexual, or anything else so intimate except in generalities, platitudes, or one way conversations.
My parishioners at the clinic have taught me how to have open discussion around this subject for which I am grateful. I have held the hands, heard the stories, married and performed the unions and funerals, dried their tears and visited them when they were sick and dying. And I have been changed because of my relationship with them. Still am.
And for this I am forever grateful and thankful.
The answer to this question from my 30 years of ministry is, it depends on how we use this gift we have been given.