She interrupted the sermon I was preaching. "Excuse me. I don't mean any disrespect. I'm a lesbian. You're talking about all of this love and mercy. What does this mean for me?"
It was the launch day of our church plant in Long Beach, California. Long Beach has a large LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) population. (Only West Hollywood has a higher LGBT population in Los Angeles.)
Our new church was perched on the edge of the rainbow district in a 16-acre park that hosted homeless people, pushers, prostitutes, skaters, families, and gangs. Across the street the city's premier gay coffee house borders the thoroughfare that the regular Pride parade marches through, which sometimes makes it impossible for us to get to our building.
My mind raced through various responses I could give. I knew that whatever my answer was, it might cost us half of our core church planting team.
As I faced the crowd, I was the only one who could see the tears glistening in her eyes as she fought back the emotion. I braced myself to give her the only answer I could give …
Rewind the Tape
The church has been in a difficult position since the 1980s, when the church was broadsided as movies like Philadelphia hit the box office, raising public awareness of the AIDS crisis. A new prejudice—sexism—was the talk of Tinseltown. While gay bashing or cracks about homosexuals could still be heard in pulpits to like-minded individuals in some churches, as they chuckled, the rift widened between straight followers of Jesus and their LGBT neighbors.
As a young Christian, I felt called to the LGBT community. To reach them though, I felt I had to go outside of the church. I trained as an RN, intending to work in an AIDS hospice. Back then, reading the gospels as a new convert, Jesus struck me as a radical. I was convinced that if Jesus had come today, he'd hang out with those who had AIDS.
After all, they had been ostracized like modern day lepers. The Jesus I read about was always on the wrong side of popular religious opinion. He alienated the "righteous" because of his proximity to the broken. He was the "friend of sinners." He broke taboos spiritual, racial, and social.
Two thousand years later, the church rarely comes close to being as radical as Jesus was.
Take the woman at the well, for example, or the woman caught in adultery. Jesus, without minimizing truth or justice, set their sins aside so that he could get at their souls.
As Christians, we've been grumpy neighbors. We've fought political wars instead of loving people compassionately. Those listening to us believe that we consider LGBT people as our enemies. We haven't learned our lessons from our mistake of the 1980s.
A Missed Opportunity
Thirty years ago, as AIDS swept the nation, Christians missed a unique opportunity. Prominent Christians preached that the disease was the judgment of God, while the gospel took the back seat. We missed the chance to suffer alongside AIDS patients, to bring the sick and dying whatever comfort or mercy we could extend.
Had we done so, instead of fighting the traditional values battle, we'd have neutralized any accusation of bigotry, because although we disagreed with the lifestyle, we still viewed them as worth saving and worthy of love. Such action would have been an embodiment of the gospel itself.