Achingly personal stories – parents losing their gay son, Christians losing their jobs in faith-based organizations after coming out – are prompting some groups to reexamine their discriminatory positions on sexuality and gender.
As board president of World Concern, Jun Young was a believer.
He felt called to the Christian development agency’s mission, spoke about it to donors, traveled to Sri Lanka to see the work up close and donated tens of thousands of dollars through his public relations company, Zum Communications.
“You are beloved.” That’s the message he said Shoreline-based World Concern imparts to marginalized people around the world. “I so believe in that. And I still do. It pains me that I can’t be part of that.”
This summer, parent organization CRISTA Ministries — a more than $100-million operation that runs schools, retirement communities and radio stations in addition to its international relief work — told Young he would not be invited to serve a second, 3-year term on its board or World Concern’s.
At 45, he had just unearthed a secret he had kept even from himself: He was gay.
The revelation forced CRISTA’s hand on an issue that is becoming harder and harder to ignore at a time when LGBTQ rights are widely accepted by the general public, and same-sex couples are getting married across the country.
Legally, religious groups fall into a separate category: Discrimination is allowed. It quietly flourishes, fed by convictions many see as dictated by faith and revered for thousands of years.
Yet a growing number of gays belonging to various faiths are challenging traditional theology and opening up discussions with even the most conservative believers.
“I am a Christian,” Young said. “I just happen to be a gay Christian.”
Change is happening in some of the places you least expect, including an evangelical megachurch in Redmond.
But in Christian circles at least, the risks are enormous, with jobs, funding and congregation membership in the balance. Often, said Matthias Roberts, the Belltown host of a podcast called “Queerology” aimed at gay Christians, religious leaders who announce they support LGBTQ rights “all of a sudden lose everything.”
World Vision, a Christian development agency based in Federal Way, faced a backlash from donors in 2014 when it said it would allow people in same-sex marriages on staff. Two days later, it reversed that decision.
Last year, Union Gospel Mission got hit with a different kind of backlash. A bisexual man sued the nonprofit for failing to consider him for a staff position.
“Some organizations are wondering: Do we just ride this out for a while?” said Tim Dearborn, who is the retired director of the Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Seminary, in California, and a former World Vision executive who left before the 2014 controversy. “But I think that’s increasingly difficult to do.”
Achingly personal stories permeate the conversation.
“We didn’t have any words around the theology,” Linda Robertson said as she recounted how she and her husband stopped trying to change their gay son as the teenager descended into despair and drug addiction. The Redmond couple just knew what they had been doing was “so egregiously wrong.”
Offered Young, “There’s a different way.”
He was talking in his Belltown condo, where he moved a year ago after he and his wife divorced. The split led him to ask: “Who am I?”
Born in the Philippines to a conservative Catholic family, he believed growing up that homosexuality was wrong. He suppressed that thing he kind of knew about himself.
Facing it head-on now, he has studied biblical passages and varying interpretations. One argument persuaded him: The scant, censorious references to homosexuality in the Bible never address loving, committed relationships.
Traditionalists dismiss that reasoning. Jay Smith, senior pastor at Cedar Park Church in Bothell, calls the argument “gymnastics” that obscure the plain-sense meaning of, say, the prohibition on a man lying with another “as with a woman.”
But Young was buoyed. On Father’s Day, he came out to his daughters, 12 and 15. Then he started telling others, including CRISTA board leaders, suspecting it was something they would want to know.
They asked to get back to him.
CRISTA does not have a stated policy on having gay employees or board members, according to board chairman Dennis Guhlke. There is no mention of the subject in the organization’s nondenominational statement of faith.
But meeting later at a Northgate restaurant, Young said, Guhlke and another board leader read him a statement saying board members must be either in a heterosexual marriage or single and celibate.
“They were very, very saddened,” Young recalled. “These are really good people, people who have good hearts.”
What concerns him the most, he said, is “they’re trying to make this a secret.”
Young said he has asked Guhlke repeatedly for a copy of the statement read to him, but has been refused, and the board chair will not give him anything in writing about the decision.
In an interview, Guhlke’s discomfort, and unwillingness to discuss the matter, were apparent.
“We care deeply for Jun,” he said.
People are not asked to serve a second term for all kinds of reasons, he continued, and those in this particular case were confidential.
“I really don’t want to get into that,” he said when asked about the statement. Though he said CRISTA will give aid to anyone regardless of sexual orientation, he would not answer directly when asked whether gays could serve as board members or employees. “Anyone is welcome to come forward and apply,” he said.
“Authority of Scripture”
World Concern’s reticence is not unusual.
Kent Thomas said when he came out several years ago and was fired from his job in the foster-care program at the Tacoma chapter of Youth for Christ — an organization that supports young people in schools, correctional facilities and elsewhere — officials there “very much wanted it to remain quiet.”
“I just disappeared,” said the 28-year-old social worker. “It made it seem like I did something really bad.”
The chapter’s executive director, Bobby Arkills, did not return phone calls and an email seeking comment.
In 2014, when World Vision announced it would hire people in same-sex marriages, then-President Rich Stearns told Christianity Today: “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate.”
Instead, he said, the decision was “us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues.”
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After World Vision’s almost immediate about-face, Stearns acknowledged an unspecified number of canceled donation pledges and the “loving” counsel some had offered that accepting gay marriage “was simply not consistent … with the authority of Scripture.”
The reversal did not end the controversy.
“When they caved, World Vision was, in essence, saying they would rather stand with ministers of hate,” wrote Oregon Pastor Adams Phillips in HuffPost. Some called attention to the organization’s federal funding — $271 million from USAID alone over the past two fiscal years, according to a spokesperson for the federal agency. (World Concern received $614,788 from the agency in that time period.)
World Vision retreated into silence on the issue. “We have no further comment beyond what’s on the record from 2014,” said spokeswoman Cynthia Colin.
Similarly, Union Gospel Mission President David Mitchell did not respond to interview requests. The organization in June won a favorable King County Court ruling in the lawsuit brought by Matthew Woods, the rejected job-seeker. He is appealing to the state Supreme Court.
State and federal anti-discrimination laws offer an exemption for religious organizations, many of whom hire people only of their faith. But Woods is arguing that the exemption, due to a state Supreme Court precedent, does not apply because the staff attorney position he sought does not have religious duties — a point contested by Union Gospel Mission.
“LGBTQ Christians are asked to leave their jobs at Christian organizations every week,” said Matthew Vines, a 28-year-old Kansan whose 2014 book, “God and the Gay Christian,” helped reignite the call for a more accepting theology.
Vines said he’s met hundreds of them at annual conferences of The Reformation Project, an organization he founded that seeks to engage conservative believers, and which will hold its 2019 conference in Seattle.
To some extent, he understands. Dependent on largely conservative donors, religious groups, he said, face the question: Do we stand up for this minority group and jeopardize our ability to help lots of people in need?
Still, he said, the failure to do so raises questions about groups whose mission is to help marginalized people.
He sees a changing landscape at churches across the country, however. “The conversation is very different than it was 10 years ago.”
Change of heart
Over the past five years, Pastor Paul Corner has led First Covenant Church of Seattle, on Capitol Hill, through a process of opening up membership and leadership positions.
“Our leadership called every household in the congregation to talk to them individually,” he said. The church was going forward no matter what. “We just wanted to make sure everyone felt heard.”
The change did not come without cost. Some 30 or 40 of the then-180-member congregation left, he said, and new members have not made up the difference.
The church is part of the Evangelical Covenant denomination, which allows individual churches leeway on membership and leadership questions. At the same time, it forbids clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings — and has cracked down of late by suspending pastors who do.
He said he feels marginalized himself because of his LGBTQ advocacy; he helped found a national group fighting for inclusion within his denomination.
As a pastor, he said, “there aren’t a whole lot of churches I could go to.”
Roberts, the Belltown podcaster, said a surprising number of gays in the Seattle area find themselves in the same position.
“Everyone is welcome here,” Roberts says many churches proclaim. Welcome to attend. Welcome to give money. But not, LGBTQ people find out, welcome to become a member or deacon, or to get married in church.
It’s easier to find a truly “affirming” mainline church, he said, using the term referring to complete acceptance. But many gay Christians grew up in the evangelical tradition and are most comfortable with its rhythms.
Some are also comfortable with a degree of nebulousness.
On a Sunday morning, Corissa Calico and Jess Latousek arrive for the 9:20 a.m. service at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond. At a coffee shop inside the evangelical megachurch, the two twentysomethings tell the story of how they met online, prayed for each other to become straight, and eventually gave in to feelings for each other. Robertson, whose experiences with her son led her to become a kind of den mother to young LGBTQ people, looks on encouragingly.
It’s because of Robertson that Calico, Latousek and a number of other same-sex couples attend Overlake, sitting together in the pews.
If you lived here in the ’80s and ’90s and put together a list of homophobic churches, Overlake might be at the top. Former Pastor Bob Moorehead was renowned for condemning gays, before he was accused of inappropriately touching men, which he denied.
That was the old Overlake, Robertson told Calico and Latousek. The new Overlake is much different. Witness the group Affirming Hope, which Robertson started under the auspices of the church to support young LGBTQ Christians.
Linda and Rob Robertson’s son Ryan was 12 when he told his parents he was gay. They belonged to an even more conservative church at that time.
“Our son’s soul was in danger,” Linda Robertson said they believed. “He was walking into a life of promiscuity and drug addiction.”
“What we did is what led him to that,” she said.
But that realization came years later, after they had taken him to Christian counselors and a meeting of Exodus International, a group devoted to encouraging gay Christians to overcome their desires. Ryan never did. Darkness and drugs overtook him.
He died of an overdose in 2009, at 20.
In 2013, Linda Robertson wrote a long Facebook post “learning to truly love our gay son” that caught fire online. Alan Chambers, the head of Exodus, called her.
Experiencing his own change of heart, she said, Chambers asked for the Robertsons’ forgiveness and invited them to speak at what would be the last Exodus conference. Nobody knew what was coming.
The LGBTQ kids there loved it, she said. Other parents didn’t speak to them.
The Robertsons looked for a new church after their son died. They tried Overlake. On their first visit, Senior Pastor Mike Howerton, who adopted a son with HIV from South Africa in 2010, apologized from the pulpit for the church’s previous failure to mobilize around the disease.
The Robertsons were sold.
Overlake is not officially affirming, Linda Robertson said. Howerton declined to speak on the record about the church’s policies on gay members, leaders and marriage.
Unofficially, though, the church is trying to move beyond the “welcoming” stance, according to Linda Robertson.
Calico and Latousek say they have been enthusiastically received as members. Calico, who after coming out was kicked off the musical “worship team” of her previous church, expressed a desire to work on a young leadership team at Overlake. The response, she said: Great, when can you start?
When Howerton took the stage this Sunday morning, after an energetic band finished performing and the dimmed lights went up, he subtly signaled acceptance.
No matter your ethnicity, your nationality, your gender, “how you reckon your sexual journey,” he said, “in Jesus, there is always one more move.”
It was perfect, Latousek said afterward. Not overly celebratory. Just clear.
“We aren’t the kind of people who shove a rainbow flag in people’s faces and say ‘if you don’t believe this, you’re wrong,’ ” added Jessica Klein, a 28-year-old who attends Overlake with her wife.
For a time, the couple attended EastLake Community Church in Bothell, an evangelical church whose pastor suddenly declared the church affirming in 2015. It lost hundreds of members and closed campuses.
Some of those remaining felt isolated by the new stance, it seemed to Klein. She believed in giving people time.
She and her wife have this supportive group to worship with every Sunday. Her wife, a child-and-family therapist, volunteers in the nursery. For her, she said, it is enough.