I’m remembering our time at Gay Pride in Cincinnati this afternoon, and all our amazing volunteers who made the day such a success. Was it really three whole weeks ago? It was.
Gay Pride is one of our regular events at LOVEboldly. We go in hopes of emulating the Jesus we love. We go to hang out with the folks who are the least likely for church-folks to hang out with, to offer our friendships and love, to show kindness to those who have, perhaps, only been met with God’s anger or condemnation.
I’ve been to more gay pride events than I can count now, but this year was different. Just two weeks prior to Cincinnati Pride, a man had entered a gay club on Pride night in Orlando and killed 49 precious folks like those we knew we’d be hanging out with. He wasn’t a Christian, but many have conjectured that his killing rampage was religiously-motivated and, whether right or wrong, many have wondered how conservative Christian theology is much different than that which inspired his actions that horrible night.
Would LGBTQ+ folks even want Christians around at Pride, this year? Or would we just be a reminder of past pain and hurt experienced in religious communities? Would LGBTQ+ folks even want Christians around at Pride, this year? Or would we just be a reminder of past pain and hurt experienced in religious communities? Could we blame them if they were angry, if they lashed out? Would our presence be healing, or would it just pick at an old scab that was not yet healed, causing deeper scars, more bad blood between us? Would our hopes of helping bring healing to our divides or just inflict more hurt?
I was nervous, more nervous than even my very first gay pride event in 2008. I rethought the entire thing – should we nix our whole plan? Order different signs? Change our entire approach? Call it all off?
Perhaps more than ever before in my lifetime, the LGBTQ+ community needs to know that we Christians are here and that we care.After turning it over and over in my mind for three days, I knew – we just had to go. We had to be there, whatever the reception. Now, perhaps more than ever before in my lifetime, the LGBTQ+ community needed to know that we Christians were there and that we cared. We were ready to listen and we wanted to hear their voices and apologize for the things we’ve collectively done to hurt those who came by our booth. Even if it was scary, uncomfortable, or difficult for us, we wanted pride attendees to experience God’s love in a tangible way. And so, we went.
We mounted our canvas graffiti walls, asking attendees to share what they wish straight Christians knew about them. We told them we would travel and share their voices with churches, small groups, whoever might be willing to listen (if you’d like to have us come and share the graffiti walls with you, contact us here). We handed out apology cards, we confessed that we’d sinned by what we had done, and by what we had left undone. We offered free prayers and hugs. We passed out thousands of hand fans, wristbands, and rainbow lollipops – all in an effort to show that though we don’t have all the answers, we want to try to find a way to heal our divides. We want to try to create a space for all of us who want to grow in our walks with Jesus to share our joys and sorrows with one another, and work to become more faithful disciples – whatever our sexual orientations or gender identities might be.
Before we even finished our setup, the “thank you’s” began. We were met with an onslaught of hugs, a torrential downpour of gratitude to see Christians there, in their sacred space, wanting to live and love like Jesus, even when it was hard, even when sometimes we faced disagreements together. Before long, there were lines ten or twenty people deep, waiting to sign the wall, snapping photos, smiling ear to ear. There was a torrential downpour of gratitude to see Christians at Gay Pride, in their sacred space, wanting to live and love like Jesus, even when it was hard, even when sometimes we faced disagreements together. Some of them burst into tears at spotting us. Dozens stayed with us, shared their stories of growing up in the Church, being raised by pastors, praying nightly to be delivered from same-sex attractions, leaving the church or getting kicked out when they discovered they either couldn’t or didn’t want to become straight. The loss that followed – lifelong friends and families quietly sauntering away from them, or outright rejecting them. The silence and confusion was next: If I still love Jesus and want to follow him, what does that mean for me? If God is real, and he wants me to be straight, why wouldn’t he make me that way or change me now? How can I find Christians who will help me keep pursuing Jesus, who will talk to me about more in my life of faith than just my sexual orientation or gender identity (which after years and years, I’m so tired of talking, thinking, and praying about that I just need a break)? And if I can’t find anyone, am I just lost? Do I have to just give up on Christianity, or will I have to practice my life of faith all alone? Does Jesus still love me, even if I’m gay?
We listened. We embraced. We talked together. We loved. Few questions were asked for the purpose of answers. Most just wanted understanding, or “you’re not alone”, and “how can we help?” and so we gave it. “I’m sorry you went through that, I can’t imagine what that was like for you, tell me more, we want to understand, what’s it like to be you?, how can we do things better?” – these are the conversations we had for twelve beautiful hours with people of all tribes and groups. With each interaction, I watched our hearts open towards one another, looking to each other in shared encouragement, support, shock, sadness, hope, and joy at each interaction.
Sometimes folks accuse me of being too loving. I hope I am. If I’m going to err in this life, may I err on the side of being too graceful.Sometimes folks accuse me of being too loving. I hope I am. If I’m going to err in this life, and I know I will err, I would prefer to err on the side of being too graceful. I’d rather include and love folks no one else wants. Because friends, if we don’t, who will? I hope, somehow, we were a good reflection of Jesus in those moments. I’m always struck by the way he was most gentle with those who were most scorned and kicked-around by the religious elite of his day, so I hope our gentleness smelled like his three weeks ago.
I often think I’m the Good Samaritan, helping the one beat up by the side of the road, only to discover it is I who am beat up, and it is they that are the goodhearted, brave ones tending to my wounds, despite being labeled as outcasts. I knew we’d be met with many opportunities to be Jesus towards those at gay pride this year, even if we were met with anger or hate. Afterall, if Jesus did one thing well, it was loving his enemies. But what surprises me every year, even when I can anticipate it, is the way LGBTQ+ folks are Jesus to me. I often think I’m the Good Samaritan, helping the one beat up by the side of the road, only to discover it is I who am beat up, and it is they that are the goodhearted, brave ones tending to my wounds, despite being labeled as outcasts. That’s the great reversal of the Good News, I suppose.
Both of our graffiti walls were filled to overflowing. Out of hundreds of messages, there were only a few that were offensive. Many expressed a hope for equality, non-judgement, and fair treatment. I was struck by the dozens who expressed humble pleas for kindness and graciousness, and those whose vulnerability shone through with comments like “We are scared of you”, and “You liked me before you knew I was gay”, and “We are people.” Even more stunning were the extensions of forgiveness from those who had been truly treated badly and called names by “good Christian folks” in their lives like this one:
This kind of love turns my heart towards the One who is Forgiver of all, the one who loved his enemies. It humbles me to see that, after receiving that sort of treatment from a Christian, this person could find a way to respond with God’s love to his/her hater, emulating the very Jesus who had been used to dehumanize him/her. This was not the only message of forgiveness shared on our graffiti wall that day – there were handfuls of them.
So yes, this year like others, in the wake of brutality towards LGBTQ folks, I found Jesus at gay pride. And all of us volunteers – we will never be the same. How could we be, after encountering God’s love in the “other” in our midst? May he transform us all like this, each and every day. Thanks be to God.