I haven’t done the GCN Conference justice yet so I hope to remedy that tonight. I have struggled to write this post because, frankly, I don’t know where to begin. It was so beautiful, so touching, so encouraging and inspiring in so many ways. I will just break it down into some focused (hopefully) general topics:
An overall analysis
The general sessions
A summary of everything
An Overall Analysis
This was the first year I’ve attended the GCN Conference and I have vowed to never miss it again. My attendance there was one of the most spiritually and personally significant experiences of my life. I was a little hesitant going into the weekend, not sure what to expect or what I would experience. I wasn’t sure how welcome I would be as a straight ally, if I would be able to build friendships easily, etc. In reality, I was probably pretty concerned that people would demand to know my beliefs and stances on everything – conversations I don’t like to engage at a first point of meeting. Another thing I was unsure about was whether the conference would be about indoctrinating everyone to think or believe one particular thing about homosexuality. I don’t find those types of experiences to be particularly helpful personally, or for bringing reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community, so I was a bit hesitant, but very curious nonetheless.
To be brutally honest, I went into the weekend with a lot of prejudices. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent years hanging out in the LGBT community. All of the reading and research in the world still sometimes leaves you with pockets of ridiculous unfounded beliefs and fears that hide in dark corners and wait for the right moment to slither out. I laugh at myself now. Oh my own bigotry! I think there was a part of me that somehow expected that wild “gay agenda” to be a part of the weekend. I expected people to try to change me, argue with me, tell me what to believe and why, and become offended when I would refuse to share my personal beliefs and convictions. (Trust me, sometimes it is so darn TEMPTING to share my opinions. It would make it so much easier that way, but easy doesn’t make it wise.) So, in summary, I guess I was bracing myself for the possibility that people may 1) be offended by me 2) try to influence me to adopt their perspectives 3) reject me personally 4) be insincere in their desire to follow the Lord.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong! I have never in my life been so wrong! Instead of all of those things, I was encouraged, blessed, challenged, and embraced. I was truly struck by the sincerity of sacrificial worship in our times together, the depth of relationships that developed (in just a short 48 hours), and the honesty, and wholeness, and holiness that marked the paths of those I came in contact with.
One of the things I hadn’t anticipated was that I’d be mistaken for a lesbian. I’m pretty sure I should have expected that. It seems logical right? I’m at a gay conference – why wouldn’t people think I’m a lesbian? It didn’t bother me at all – actually, it weirdly made me feel honored because people automatically assumed I “belonged” in a sense. Throughout the weekend though, I’d refer to my husband naturally in conversation without even thinking about it, and then I’d realize that people were looking at me in utter confusion. The conversation would go something like this…
“Wait…did you say your husband?”
“Yes, I’m straight.”
“Oh. (pause) Are you here with someone?”
“So…why are you here?”
[Insert me sharing briefly why I love the LGBT community and my call to help the work of reconciliation.]
What followed the silence was beautiful. It was so emotional, a moment of pure holiness in our conversations. People’s eyes would go soft. I could literally see something inside of them turn towards me. Some would ask me why I would care enough to do this – to travel all this way, alone, to come and be there with them for the weekend. Some would wonder why I would paint a target on myself, take on the risk of rejection by my peers and faith community, by choosing to stand with them. Some were lost for words – they would just say things like “You’re awesome” and then stand there with a look of hunger in their eyes, as if they just glimpsed something they had been looking for their entire lives. All of them thanked me, with such sincerity in their voices, with such a humility, they thanked me profusely for caring, for being there, for speaking on their behalf to people and communities that they felt abandoned by. I was forever changed by these conversations, and forever humbled. Something was stirred deep within me. Something was disturbed in me, that even this small gesture of love and support was so foreign to them. They reached to me with their words, with their eyes, with their souls, with their arms. They hugged on me and loved on me. It was beautiful. Something big happened in my heart through these conversations – something life changing, something with the scent of God’s presence and transformation, something beautiful and terrible and terrifying and wonderful.
The General Sessions
The worship times at GCN were absolutely transformational for me. The first one was on Thursday night. I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with three lesbian women that night. We had such a great conversation and such a great connection that they invited me to sit with them for the worship. I was glad to have someone to tag along with. As I worshiped next to these women, and in the midst of 400 gay Christians, I was in awe. These people were so sincere in their love for the Lord. I could hear it in their voices as they sang. In fact, I sensed a level of sincerity, surrender, and humility before the Lord in our worship times that I haven’t experienced in a church in years. I was astounded! Gone were all the stereotypes I had brought along with me. It was an amazing thing to just worship God together. The next morning God really shook me during the general session. I sat alone, and I’m glad of it, because I wept and wept the entire time we sang together. I wept because it became so clear to me as we sang (songs like “I could sing of your love forever” and “Blessed be your name” and “Nothing but the blood”) that this beautiful group of people knew what it meant to live a life of sacrifice for Christ that most of us never could understand. So many of these people had been cast out of their churches and had experienced unspeakable pain in the name of Christ. So many of them had tried to change their orientations for Christ. They were willing to sacrifice everything to honor him. So many of them had experienced such an extreme faith crisis that, had it been me, I likely would have thrown the towel in and told God to just forget it because the sacrifice and the confusion would be too much. But they didn’t. They kept going. Their love for the Lord drove them to His feet. God overwhelmed me with a sense of this during worship on Friday morning and I wept. I wept because I have sacrificed so little for the Lord, and have been angry and bitter when he’s asked the little of me that he has. I wept because I sensed God’s love and favor and mercy on a group of people who are trying to make sense of things. I wept because these people didn’t choose their orientations, but they chose Jesus – and the church hates them for it. I wept because even in the midst of all the painful experiences present in that room, those beautiful people chose to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are deeply, truly, passionately indebted and bound to Jesus, no matter what. It was magnificent. Justin, the executive director of GCN, put it so well when he said “Many people reconcile their faith and sexuality by dialing back the faith. That never seemed like a good option to me. I was the kid with a Bible in my backpack all the time.” Justin, like many others at the conference, has not sacrificed his love for the Lord, or for Scripture, in his quest to reconcile his sexual orientation and his faith. And there were many more like him.
The speakers were great as well during the main sessions. Philip Yancey was particularly inspiring. He spoke of how one’s sin and temptation are the very thing that push us toward Christ, force us to rely on Him, even in our weakest of moments. He spoke of God’s reconciliation and forgiveness and grace. He gave voice to the reason I had spent the worship time in tears when he said, “There’s no advantage to you, as LGBT, to worship God. You are just asking for hatred from your fellow believers.”
I have to share with you two more of my favorite quotes from the weekend:
Philip Yancey – “The greatest danger is not that you will fail, but that when you do fail, you will be cast down by shame, rejection, and a belief that you cannot reach God’s grace.”
Justin Lee – “What a horrible state of affairs if people can’t go to their churches when they’re feeling so alone that they want to kill themselves.”
The workshops were great, but honestly, I only went to two of them (and part of a third). By Saturday, I really sensed the Lord showing me that I should focus more on building relationships than attending formal workshops. The two I went to were excellent, however. The first one was “Understanding and Supporting our LGBT Friends and Family.” I was really touched to hear each person at that breakout session share why they were there. Some of the stories were really heartbreaking. Several people admitted they came just because they wanted to have hope that their straight friends and family members could love them again someday, or want to understand and support them. I believe the leader of the session, Kathy Baldock, provided this insightful instruction (but forgive me Kathy if I’ve misquoted you):
“When you love and care for those on the edges of society, you will grow in mercy, and grace, and compassion. And there is no better spiritual qualities to have. You will look and smell like Jesus.”
I want to look and smell like Jesus.
The second workshop I went to was “Engaging the Evangelical Church” and it was fantastic. I am still processing it. There was quite a lot of education and evaluation that went on during this session – a really valuable time. The thing that struck me the most during our time together was a discussion that took place in which the attendees examined with the workshop leader how they might be able to respond with Christ’s love to those in the church who had dealt them hatred and pain in the name of Christ. I sat in my seat totally baffled. This was the one and only “gay agenda” present at the conference. The spirit of the people was strikingly, “How can we be more like Jesus, even when we are hurt and abused in his name?” I was totally awestruck. How often do I seek Christ like that, willingly wanting to respond in love when someone wrongs me? The discussions during this workshop in particular, and in many of my personal conversations, centered on how to be more centered on Christ, more submissive to his authority, seeking his holiness ever more. It was beautiful, and convicting.
This was the funnest part of the weekend, and one that I really truly miss. In two nights I got 7 hours of sleep – total. I couldn’t tear myself away from the people I had met. The fellowship we had over meals and into the wee hours of the morning every night was incredible. There was such a sense of acceptance and love in the friendships I made. One of my fondest memories of the weekend was lunch on Friday, when I met several of the people I now count as dear friends. We spent the first half of our time together laughing, bantering, joking, and having a good time. The conversation took a turn as we got our food and I had the opportunity to share why I was at the conference, the calling I feel on my heart to develop non-threatening environments to talk about faith and sexual orientation, and the love I have for the LGBT community. I was so humbled as one after another, each of them affirmed me, encouraged me, and spoke words of blessing, acceptance, love, and appreciation over me. It was such a precious, holy moment as God knit our hearts to one another. We shared openly about our struggles, our vulnerable spots, and our love for one another – no holds barred. It was the kind of intimate conversation you usually only get the chance to experience with people you’ve known for years, not hours. It was heart-warming and stunning. The rest of the weekend was filled with conversations, one after another, about how we could grow to be more like the Lord, what we could do to reflect him better, and sharing with one another about the amazing work He’s done in our hearts and lives.
A Summary of Everything
As you can imagine, this conference was overwhelming. The thing that was most striking of all though was that, although it was a gathering of LGBT individuals, the focus wasn’t so much about sexual orientation as it was about Jesus. Everything was so centered on how to be faithful followers of Christ in all areas of one’s life, not just in sexual orientation. These are the kinds of conversations I think are so important. When we reduce a person to his/her sexual orientation, we miss the beauty of his/her personhood. There is so much more to a person than orientation – there are hopes and dreams, insecurities and fears, victories and passions, beliefs and convictions. I suppose, at the heart of things, that is what I loved about the GCN conference – it did not diminish any person or any conviction. Instead, it focused on the things that united us all – our faith in the almighty God, his Son who was sent to pay the price for our sins, His worthiness to be praised and honored, and His holiness that demands our lifelong gratitude, service, surrender, and allegiance. It called on us to remember these things, and to take heed of them in our daily lives. And it called us to them in a way that was affirming and challenging, generous and faithful, nurturing and open, with a dedication to living in the tension of disagreement with one another, in love.
That is why I will never miss another GCN Conference again. I hope some of you will go with me next year.