Last weekend, I was privileged to attend the Gay Christian Network Conference. It was a very moving experience. Here are some of my takeaways.
Worship at GCN was… unexpected.
I used to attend services with GCN-like worship, with the band on the stage and the lights and the projected song lyrics written in this century. I was that person who would cry and raise his hands and the whole thing.
But as I grew more progressive, I found that churches that worshiped in the style I enjoyed were often paired with horrible theology and sermons that made me not particularly want to be a Christian.
Since then, I have gotten used to more formalized liturgies and hymns and organs and pianos and the Presbyterian liturgy, but there’s still a part of me that wishes for drum kits and guitars and maybe one song by Chris Tomlin, even though I know – I know – I’m going to walk out of that service furious.
So I walked into the first session and was immediately thrown off-balance. GCN had the modern worship style I liked without the horrible-theology-that-made-me-immediately-angry rest of the service that often goes along with it.
I’ve been looking for that worship service for the past three and a half years, and there it was – but only for one weekend.
On the con side of that, there was also a former megachurch pastor named Paula Williams who said in a breakout session that the mainline churches are dying because their worship is awful. As a Presbyterian Church (USA) seminary student, I didn’t like that comment much. I didn’t agree either, but it wasn’t the best experience.
What can you say about the stories from GCN? There were so many stories, many of which followed the same sad trajectory:
- Person becomes aware that they’re LGBTQ.
- Person outs self or is outed.
- Person is rejected by family and faith community alike.
If the person was called to some kind of ministerial leadership, they were immediately removed from that place of leadership.
It was heartbreaking. It was exhausting.
The first night, a mom spoke about her son’s experience of being bullied for being gay. A roommate recorded him in an intimate encounter during his freshman year of college and shared it publicly on social media. He was cyber-bullied relentlessly and committed suicide days later.
A former megachurch pastor told about being born with male parts but knowing from very early on that she was not a boy. Not wanting to be a girl, or wishing to be a girl, or being angry about being a boy, but knowing she was a girl. She built up a huge ministry, but when she came out as transgender, she was fired from all of her ministry roles within a week’s time.
During testimony night, there was story after story from person after person who said GCN Conference had literally saved their life. One person said they kept a list of reasons to keep living, and some days, GCN Conference was the only thing on the list.
Church, pay attention.
GCN Conference has tried to be inclusive. They have done their best to be accessible. They had all-gender bathrooms, ASL interpreters, live captioning, a meetup for LGBTQ people of color (who weren’t especially well-represented).
There was even a different schedule for “Side B folks,” which is to say, LGBTQ Christians who believed their orientation was a command to celibacy. For the most part, the “Side A” and “Side B” people seemed respectful of each other.
Apparently, when you’re part of one group that hasn’t been included, it makes you more aware of other groups, or at least more willing to listen. Maybe.
At first, I was confused by the all-gender bathrooms. For the first day or two, I stayed in the “family restroom,” thinking it was the same thing. I finally ventured into one side of the all-gender restroom. Not knowing which side to go to was slightly disorienting, but I got in and entered a stall after a woman left it.
The stalls weren’t super-tall, and if I wanted to look over the stalls, I could’ve seen the people next to me, or they could’ve seen me, but I realized I was a decent human, and so were they. I did my business and washed my hands. I was amazed by the simplicity of the experience.
I never saw a single line outside the bathrooms at GCN Conference.
There was often a line at the elevators, but never outside the bathrooms.
I used the all-gender restrooms almost exclusively after that, mostly because they were closer than the gendered restrooms. I got used to not needing to check which side was which. At a movie theater last night, Kristen reminded me that I had to use the men’s restroom because not everywhere had all-gendered restrooms.
The stall walls should be higher and lower, and maybe there should be a specific bathroom for women who are nervous about sharing a bathroom with men for a while, but all-gendered restrooms turned out to make so much sense that gendered restrooms now seem silly and dated. But maybe that’s just me speaking as a straight white cis-gendered male.
Privacy / Safety
When I arrived on Thursday, I was asked if I wanted a blue lanyard or a red one. Blue means I am okay with my photograph being taken; red means I am not. We were also warned not to tag people at the conference in photographs on social media.
GCN Conference had to take special care to make sure not to photograph or post photographs of people who were not yet out of the closet. Besides the potential for rejection by family and friends, and besides being outed when they’re not ready, in 31 states of the US, people can be fired for being LGTBQ. Like lose their jobs fired.
Let that sit for a minute.
In 31 states, including my home state of Pennsylvania, being tagged in a photo at the Gay Christian Network Conference could be the trigger that costs you your job. Why? Because your boss’s faith requires them to not employ gay people.
What kind of screwed-up faith would require a Christian employer to fire someone for attending a Christian conference?!
There’s persecution going on in this country, but it’s not for Christians who are holding to traditional definitions of marriage; it’s for LGBTQ Christians.
Some Christians are now losing their jobs because their faith prohibits them from performing certain required actions at work, but the Christians at GCN could be fired because they attended a Christian conference while not at work – and most likely, by a boss who is a fellow Christian.
Jesus is weeping somewhere.
But go on; tell me more about Christians with traditional sexual ethics are being persecuted.
Actually don’t. After GCN I have lost 98% of my patience for that bullshit.
There were a fair number of vendors at GCN. The best-represented groups were book-sellers and seminaries. My own school, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, had a booth. I was very proud of them.
The messages were fantastic. Of special note and awesomeness was this testimony by Bishop Gene Robinson. If you have time, you should watch it. They don’t make people bishops for nothing.
Faith and Such
I had an epiphany of sorts during one of the sessions:
(I don’t usually accept friend requests from people I don’t know, so to avoid confusion, my official blog page is fb/davidmschell/).
During testimony night, I kept hearing again and again about the ways the conference had been literally life-saving for so many people. In the middle of the service, I had to tweet this:
Identifying with Jacob: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” #gcnconf
— David Schell (@DavidMSchell) January 8, 2017
It was both heartbreaking and beautiful to be in a worship service with people whose churches had most often discarded them. The rejected had found acceptance. The unloved had the love and grace and goodness of God and others poured over them again and again and again until they almost drowned in it. The solitary had been set in a family. Those who thought they were doomed to live life alone? One couple who got married during the conference. The gospel was preached – the gospel of the wild and untameable love of the crucified God.
You wanna know what church is, child of God? That’s church.
And if your church looks like the opposite of that, it may be time to find a new one. GayChurch.org has some listings of churches that mean “all” when they say it.
And if you can’t find one in your area, GCN Conference is coming to Denver in next January.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.