I remember the day I first felt righteous indignation spark deep within my soul about how gays and lesbians were treated in the Seventh-day Adventist church, the denomination my family has been a part of (often in leadership roles) for five generations.
My husband and I were attending a small, progressive church in San Francisco that wasn't officially Adventist but met on Saturday mornings at 11 AM (the traditional worship hour for Adventists) and was pastored by two pastors who had both been Adventist pastors. Word was getting out that if you were an Adventist on the margins in the Bay Area, you were welcome. We had found the Adventist churches in the city to be deeply conservative, and this spiritual community grew and challenged us in all the right ways.
Two women, Linda and Jacquie, who were long-time partners and life-long Adventists started coming to our little church community once in a while. They also were active volunteers in one of the biggest churches in the area with a host of positions. Between them, they ran the church website and newsletter, coordinated the children's programming, played the organ for services, and directed the choir (and that's just what I can remember).
They were the type of people who are the life and backbone of a church--church ladies, in the best sense. And one or both had been part of this church for more than 16 years--and so had several other LGBT Adventists in the area.
In the fall of 2004, a fundamentalist and zealous young heterosexual couple came to town, convinced that God was calling them to purify the church. To them, that meant ousting every LGBT person who had anything to do with the life and leadership of the church. Things got ugly pretty quickly, and gradually Linda and Jacquie were stripped of their positions, starting with the children's Sabbath School program. Somehow, Linda and Jacquie kept going to most Sabbaths, participating where they could and willing to forgive far more than I think I ever could.
And then Prop 8 came to town.
I'm sure readers here remember this incredibly divisive piece of 2008 legislation that eventually banned same-sex marriage in California. It stirred up a lot of angst, fear, stereotypes, and hype, and conservative churches were ground zero for the spread of propaganda. Well, the pastor of this big church had preached a sermon that a well-known, ultra right-wing Adventist pastor had also preached (and shared with other pastors in order to maximize the exposure) titled, "Gay Marriage: A State of Dis-grace."
It was a sermon full of the lowest and most debase arguments that circulated in the run-up to the 2008 election. He talked about gays being "blinded by lust" and that their relationships were "shameful" and "disgraceful" and that "they can get the victory over temptation" if they wanted to. Most bizarrely, he added that twin brothers or triplets might try to get married, and that the repeal of Prop 22 in CA (a court-overturned earlier ban on same-sex marriage) coincided with a week of intense storms, fires, and lighting strikes in California, suggesting that it wasn't just coincidence--God was letting us know how angry He was about our perverted culture.
The two women sat through this dehumanizing sermon, wondering what had become of their church. The next week, they lodged a complaint with the pastor, who in turn interrogated them about their relationship. They hadn't ever hidden their status, but he was a newer pastor, and apparently he hadn't quite realized they were a couple.
This led to a series of meetings and inquires that resulted in Jacquie and Linda being stripped of everything but the right to sit in a pew (and tithe!).
They couldn't participate in the life of the church in any way, and they were specifically instructed that they couldn't do anything from the platform facing the congregation. In a bit of a loophole, Linda could continue to direct the bell choir because they didn't have anyone else who could do that. But she had to keep her back to the congregation. Not surprisingly, they stopped attending. To this day, only a few people from that church they were a part of for over 16 years have even called to ask how they are doing.
It's been more than four and a half years since I first heard that story, and it still makes me shake with anger to type it.
I'm tempted to ask if readers here can imagine what it would feel like to be told they could direct the choir but only with their back turned to the congregation; however, I now know that far too many people actually do know what this overt marginalization feels like. I've now heard story upon story from LGBT Adventists on the receiving end of "Love the sinner, but hate the sin"--like the young mother who was told, when it was discovered that she was a lesbian, that she could drop-off her almost-two-year-old child for Sabbath School but couldn't be around the other children herself.
Or the lesbian who was told she could only play her trumpet from the pew and not the platform, as the board wanted to make it clear that they didn't condone her "lifestyle."
Or the college student who was outed by unsigned pamphlets slipped under every dorm room door the night before he was running for a student association office.
Or the young woman whose father, a pastor, kicked her out of their home when she came out a few months ago.
Or the many stories I couldn't hear because far too many gay young people of faith have committed suicide, convinced that the rejection they felt from the church over their sexuality was from God.
Over and over again, I've heard stories that seem like the absolute antithesis of Jesus' directive in John 13:35, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Seeing this huge injustice done in the name of Christianity--in my church--really got my attention back in the late summer and fall of 2008. My husband and I worked with several other social justice-minded Adventists to start an online petition called, "Adventists Against Prop 8". Our hope was that we could tap into the historically strong respect for the separation of church and state that has been a big part of Adventism since Adventists feel like a misunderstood religious minority themselves. Keeping a 24-hour Friday sundown to Saturday sundown Sabbath makes Adventists more similar to Jews than other Christians in many ways, and this leaves Adventists a pretty unknown group in the wider culture.
Many laws that protect freedom of religion are thanks to Adventists fighting for these rights.
We felt that even if California Adventists weren't sure what they thought of same-gender marriage from a scriptural or doctrinal perspective, they of all people would get that the state shouldn't be writing a religiously-motivated definition of marriage into the constitution that would deny their fellow Californians crucial rights and the dignity of a family that was equal in the eyes of the law. It actually worked quite well to raise the consciousness of this issue within the Adventist church, and many high-profile Adventist thought leaders signed on.
When Prop 8 passed in November of 2008, we were deeply disappointed. This was something directly impacting the lives and families of people we knew and worshipped with weekly. And the arguments we'd grown up hearing about the scriptural wrongness of same-gender relationships weren't holding up for us in the lived experience of Sabbaths spent with our gay and lesbian friends and their families.
If I looked at the fruits of their life, I knew God was working in their lives the same as in mine. They were teaching me more about love, gentleness, compassion, patience than those who were condemning them. I realized that the assumptions I'd always had might need adjusting in the light of day and real people.
After all, the same Edenic model and Pauline texts that had historically been levied against women were being reexamined as the Adventist church gradually started to catch up with other denominations and consider ordaining women. And, I visited the South a lot to see family, and I was reminded on every visit that it wasn't that long ago that most Christians used the Bible in a passionate defense of segregation and slavery before that.
Adventists have a belief in something they term "Present Truth." It's the idea that God isn't done speaking and revealing divine truth. So Adventists actually have more of a model than other conservative denominations in changing course when given new evidence and new paradigms.
That's what happened to me.
But beyond theological debates, which I realize are far from over as really good, earnest Adventists from a variety of perspectives start to actually engage in this important conversation, I wanted to engage in my denomination to prompt some serious reflection on how we treat each other when we have a disagreement. Surely the status quo of rejection, marginalization, not to mention the staggeringly high number of LGBT Christian youth who attempt suicide was telling us a change was needed. Something was deeply broken.
Oh, and, not insignificantly, I was eight months pregnant with our daughter in November of 2008 when Prop 8 passed, and my husband and I were wondering if she was going to grow up to be a sixth-generation Adventist. Could we raise her in a church that marginalized our good friends, relegating them to roles that kept their backs turned to the congregation? The answer was no, so the next step was wondering if we could help spark a consciousness shift.
The vast majority of Adventists we knew weren't homophobic, even if they were theological traditionalists.
But they didn't realize how people on the margins were being treated because it just wasn't talked about, and certainly not in an authentic way. I knew my church could do better if they knew the harm being done in their name to our LGBT members.
So we set out to tell stories, stories like the ones that had first opened our eyes and hearts.