The Portland Convention Center became such sacred space for me this weekend.
As a pastor, walking into Christian conferences and into large rooms with people singing songs of praise to God is nothing new. In fact if I’m honest, over the years I’ve become somewhat jaded and apathetic and tired by gatherings that have so often felt like showy bits of religious entertainment, with Jesus being used simply to push product and manipulate people and build buildings.
This time was different. This was no show. This was The Church, as true and raw and desperate for God as I’ve ever experienced it.
The massive conference room was filled with 1,500 people, most of them LGBTQ Christians, along with their children, parents and friends, as well as pastors, ministers, and activists who love and support them, or are seeking to learn how to.
I went to the conference as a straight learner, wanting to hear firsthand what it was to be gay and to follow Jesus; to talk to LGBTQ people, not just talk about them. I came simply to meet them and listen to their stories as believers.
To many religious people who feel that being both gay and Christian is an oxymoron, I may as well have been searching for unicorns.
Well friends, I found them, and they’re more beautiful than you know.
The second I stood in the midst of the that first night’s worship gathering, I was nearly knocked over by a swirling flood of humility and sadness and gratitude; gripped by a palpable sense of shame for the way these brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ have been so horribly wounded and mischaracterized and left out by their own. I was overwhelmed by the joy that radiated in their praise. I was sad that so many who choose to condemn from a distance, could not or would not care to witness it in person.
But perhaps the most powerful part of that moment, was realizing how much stronger they are than those who have mistreated them.
I actually felt sorry for heterosexual Christians in America, many of whom will never have the faith that gay Christians do, simply because they’ve never had to.
Without yet knowing the names or ever hearing the stories of any of those standing alongside of me, I instantly knew something true about all of them that makes them different: Their faith has really cost them something different.
Their songs have come with a tremendous price, one that as a straight Christian, I’ll never have to pay; one that I’m not sure I’d be faithful and committed enough to pay.
Their passionate pursuit of Christ is one horribly marked, not only by the valleys and difficulties and doubts that life brings to all who seek faith, but by the violence and shunning and silence of their own family in that faith.
For their entire lives, they’ve often had to overcome Christians just to try to get to Jesus.
As these brave men and women quietly entered their worship session, The infamous Westboro Baptist Church (a group that admittedly doesn’t represent most Christians), was there with their hateful signs and loud, violent preaching, while a group of Portland area churches and residents lined the walkway, serving as a human shield “wall of love” between them and the picketers, with smiles and signs of welcome.
A local new story captured the odd dynamic perfectly: Christians, protecting Christians from other Christians.
While not always as starkly illustrated, this is nothing new for the LGBTQ Christian community and those who love them. This is the daily toll of simply living and believing.
I’m more than willing to be a human shield for them if I can from now on.
Ironically, one of the most profound things about the gathering this weekend was how very “normal” it all felt, (which incidentally, is how normal it actually was). Whatever silly, graphic, frightening images of decadence or hedonism so many fire-and-brimstone preachers would want to paint of a “homosexual” Christian event, simply dissolved in the presence of the sweet warmth of kind, loving, imperfect people, living lives oriented toward Jesus; striving and stumbling and striving again together. It was a time filled with honest prayer, deep theological discussions, local service projects, wonderful times of story-sharing, heartfelt worship, and life-giving community. It was family; not by blood, but by something greater.
That’s what The Church at its best, is.
The most tragic thing about this weekend, is the reality that few heterosexual Christians, (especially pastors and church leaders), would ever step foot into that space at all to see or listen, or to experience what God did there; how eloquently the Spirit spoke through the lives of those gathered.
I have no doubt that if they did; if they were brave enough and caring enough and tough enough to do that, it would radically challenge whatever tidy theology they came in with. It would shatter the convenient stereotypes and tear down the flimsy rhetoric that so often dominates our conversations. It would put them shoulder to shoulder with flesh and blood brothers and sisters on the same path as they are on, and they might find a humility and compassion that protected pulpits, bullhorn picket lines, and anonymous blog comments never require.
Since so many of you straight Christians weren’t there, let me help you understand something my dear friends: The passionate, faithful, beautiful souls I had the fortune to worship alongside and serve this weekend; they are in your church right now, or at least they should be. They deserve to be. Their families do. Their children do. Your community would be blessed by this.
So this Sunday, when you gather in the places where you sing joyful, grateful, desperate songs to God, look around and realize that the place where you are standing is indeed holy ground.
And realize too, that you are quite likely sharing that space with LGBTQ people who love God in ways you’ll never imagine.
May you learn to make Church as diverse as God’s creation is.
May you step into the difficult, complex stories of those whose road is different from your own.
May you choose to gladly sing songs with unicorns.
I have, and will.