The Closet of Compassion

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When I began my ministry I had certain preconceived ideas about people who were homosexual. But the truth of the matter is that I had ideas about homosexuality and not homosexual people. The difference is noteworthy.

I knew one or two people who were homosexual, but my own disinterest, presuppositions, or fears stopped me from getting to know them at a deeper level. At best, my awareness was extremely limited. Once I realized someone was gay, I allowed that aspect of his personhood to summarize and then define his entire identity.

However, as I reflect on it, I don’t want to be known by or defined by one part of who I am. I am a Christian Reformed minister. I am a husband, a father, and a heterosexual. I am a man who loves sports, long walks near the water, and one who enjoys several hobbies. I am tall, slightly overweight, and what remains of my hair is continually graying. Each one of those descriptions tells only a part of the story of who I am. If you want to really know me, you cannot stop at just one of those designations. You must move beyond one aspect of my identity. I am a heterosexual—and that is a very important part of who I am—but there is so much more to me than that.

Since entering ministry, my eyes have been opened a little wider to see whole persons. I pastor people who identify themselves as gay, I am friends with homosexual people, and I serve those who live in fear of the Christian community because they have a family member who is homosexual. In each circumstance there is an overwhelming fear of discovery and a nagging sense of rejection from the Christian community. As one near to me has said, “In the church I need to keep my compassion for homosexuals in the closet.” As a committed minister in the Christian Reformed Church I share that sentiment. I often wonder how safe I am in befriending, caring for, and advocating for those who are gay in my congregation.

My fears rise when church people and clergy colleagues join in causes and campaigns that are anti-gay. My anger rises in such cases when colleagues and members assume there is only one response that Christians can have toward homosexuality. It seems to me that in such initiatives personhood gets overlooked.

Not too long ago I received an e-mail from a colleague asking me to sign a petition that affirmed the only legitimate marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The goal of the petition was to get a certain number of pastors to sign as a way of “taking a stand” against homosexual unions. After some reflection, I decided I could not sign it. My reasons had little to do with homosexual marriage.
I had numerous other reasons, and I will name a few.

1. The CRC synod advocates active ministry rather than taking a stand.

After a lengthy study in the late 1960s and early ’70, in 1973 the synod of the CRC differentiated between what it called homosexuality and homosexualism. To use more modern words, synod said there is a difference between homosexual acts and homosexual orientation. Synod declared that Scripture speaks against homosexual actions but does not condemn homosexual orientation—something over which someone may have little or no control. Synod said people who are inclined to homosexuality—by nature or because of the environment—are called to live celibate and chaste lives.

Thus, said synod, non-active homosexuals are eligible to serve in all offices of the church. Synod further advised that Christian Reformed churches ought to develop ministries of support and incorporation for their homosexual members. In 1999 the CRC formed a study committee to examine how well congregations were doing. The committee reported to Synod 2002 that few churches had followed the mandate to develop ministries mindful of homosexual members. Synod recognized a time of repentance for the denomination’s failure to develop such ministries.

In the past few years I’ve grown painfully aware of our churches’ failure. In large part we do not know where to begin to develop those kinds of ministries. And we are extremely afraid of asking the question, “Who among us is wrestling with his or her orientation?” I understand and want to be sensitive to the desire of some to draw a clear line on what should and should not be permissible in society. For me, however, signing that petition seemed to fall more into the category of “failing to minister,” failing to care for and make space for our homosexual members.

2. I have several homosexual Christians in my life.

Signing the petition would disrupt my ministry, friendships, and ministry partnerships. Once I began to move through some of my own fears and uncertainties, I started to grow and become more honest and open, seeking dialogue. I am seeing how Christian community has suffered because of the ways I have lacked hospitality and have failed to help people feel safe for deeply personal matters they needed to share.

3. As a minister who seeks to embody the presence of Jesus Christ, I need to use care and be thoughtful about the stands I take.

Acceptance is for me a higher value than agreement. I believe churches need to be places where struggles can be talked about and worked on, not where truth is kept in a closet. All members of the church need a safe place where they can be themselves without fear of isolation and judgment.

4. I have come to see the importance of ministry to homosexual people, but even more significant for me is a development of ministry with homosexual people.

If I focus on a ministry to someone else, it’s often communicated that the other person is the recipient of something I have to offer. Such a perspective expresses an inequality. But if I understand ministry as ministry with or alongside, there is a partnership. And what gets communicated is that both parties will learn from one another and will grow because of the relationship.

5. When I hear about petition drives in churches—particularly ones with political motivation—I sense both fear and enthusiasm.

I think long-term ministry is hard to do from those two places. Sometimes petition campaigns seem to function as ways to defensively “circle the wagons” to make a point. One of the problems with this strategy is that it rarely involves dialogue or interaction with people who might have a different perspective. When petitions hit the church, there is a presumption that everyone ought to see this matter the same way and ought to sign. Important matters of ministry then become “issues” without human faces and hearts. In Christian community, signing a petition generally does not bring anyone closer to interacting. Instead, petitions tend to promote monologue in places that should be filled with dialogue.

6. For me, incorporating homosexual people in the life of the church is a matter of fairness, justice, and equality in the body of Christ.

Not every Christian will see ministry with homosexuals as a civil-rights matter. But most heterosexual Christians don’t need to look hard to find their feelings of discomfort as they imagine ministry with homosexual people. Such feelings of awkwardness and unfamiliarity make us aware that we bring to the table many of our own fears. These fears of unfamiliarity remind me of the feelings and sentiments expressed by the church when it faced matters related to ministry with divorced people, ministry with people of color, and ministry with women. Perhaps the real issue behind each of these matters of “equal access” was not the people themselves, but the church’s emerging awareness that it was being called to engage something it had previously left alone.

Awareness of homosexual people in Christian community causes heterosexual people to face some of our own uncertainties. Homosexual people in relationship to the church is another conversation that the church may be called to engage in. For some this dialogue bears resemblance to other matters that were once “obvious” but now have at their center concerns of how to be a fair and just community of Christians.

7. If the church is serious about accepting, ministering to (as well as with), and incorporating its homosexual members, we need to work harder at sending more hospitable messages to this isolated part of our communities.

We can begin by making room in our lives and congregations for such people to be themselves. This is a hard thing. Sometimes when we open our doors, we are surprised at how close such people really are to us.

8. As a pastor, I need to be more courageous, bold, and outspoken on behalf of those who feel alone or isolated in my congregation and community.

The truth, however, is that I am often apprehensive. I am sometimes frightened that if I let my “compassion out of the closet” as an advocate for homosexual people, I will compromise the effectiveness of my ministry. In general, I find most Christians don’t welcome talk about compassion for brothers and sisters who are homosexual. This leaves me and a handful of other clergy feeling rather alone. If this is the kind of isolation I feel, I cannot even begin to imagine how it feels to be in hiding as a Christian who is gay.

For me, writing this article is an important first step. In the Christian community I don’t do so without some apprehension. If this is how it is for me, I have to believe that there are others in the closet of compassion too. So I find myself living with the question, “Is the church a safe place for me to ‘come out’ as an advocate for gay brothers and sisters in Christ?”

About the Author

Rev. Marc Nelesen is pastor of Georgetown Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.

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