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Does Jesus Really Love Me?
A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America
By Jeff Chu
“Yeeeah, Sydney!” the songwriter and comedian Tim Minchin shouts into a microphone. “Are you up for a . . . sing?”
The crowd laughs a little nervously when Minchin, an outspoken atheist, begins to sing, “I love Jesus, I love Jesus.” They bought tickets to a comedy show, not a religious revival. Minchin prompts the audience to join him. “Who do you love?” he asks. “Sing it!” Soon the whole crowd is singing “I love Jesus, I love Jesus,” along with Minchin, in a video that has been viewed half a million times on YouTube.
Then Minchin changes the lyrics: “I love Jesus, I hate faggots,” he sings. “I love Jesus, I hate faggots.” The crowd stops singing along. Minchin looks up from his guitar, pretending not to understand what the problem could be.
“What happened? I just lost you there,” Minchin says. He makes a halfhearted attempt to get the singalong going again before giving up. “Ah, well,” he shrugs. “Maybe these are ideas best shared in churches.”
Those ideas — loving Jesus means hating gay people — are proclaimed in Christian churches and on Christian television and radio broadcasts. The combined efforts of the Family Research Council, the National Organization for Marriage, “The 700 Club,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Westboro Baptist Church, and countless conservative Christian activists, preachers and politicians have succeeded in making antigay bigotry seem synonymous with Christianity.
This can cause a lot of heartache — with sometimes devastating consequences — for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children born into fundamentalist or evangelical Christian families. Such was the case for Jeff Chu, the author of “Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.” Chu is an accomplished journalist who recently married his male partner. But Chu’s mother, a devout Baptist, didn’t attend her son’s wedding. She still cries herself to sleep every night, Chu writes, tormented by the certainty that her gay son is “lost.”
As a child, Chu adored the song “Jesus Loves Me.” But does Jesus love him now that he’s an openly gay adult? Chu has his doubts: “There are still moments when I wonder whether my homosexuality is my ticket to hell.”
Chu spent a year traveling all over the country, but it wasn’t God he sought on his pilgrimage. He has never lost his faith. Instead he spent a year meeting with preachers, pastors and ministers who fall all over the map when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, despite the fact they cite the same Bible. Some churches Chu visits are actively hostile (the crowd at Westboro Baptist); some are passively hostile (gay and lesbian worshipers are welcome to attend — and to tithe — so long as they understand that they are not a part of God’s perfect creation); and some fully embrace gay people and approve of gay sex — but only in the context of a committed, monogamous relationship, of course.
In the most moving chapters, Chu profiles gays and lesbians who are struggling to reconcile their faiths with their sexualities, some more successfully than others. Particularly heartbreaking is Kevin Olson, a “homosexual but not gay” man living in Minnesota. Olson chose a life of celibacy and community musical theater. He’s never had a boyfriend. He’s never had sex with anyone. But Olson’s honesty about his sexuality makes his Christian friends uncomfortable, so he no longer attends Bible study, and he stopped performing in musicals because of questions — “voiced and unvoiced” — about his sexual orientation.
“Sometimes, I do feel cheated because I haven’t been able to experience certain things in life, but then I remember that it’s not about me,” Olson tells Chu. “As a believer in Christ, you accept that this isn’t all there is to life. There’s a life to come. That will be a happy time.”
Olson attempted suicide in 1997 after his twin brother died and he developed a crush on a male co-worker — two events that Olson seems to view as similarly traumatic.
Suicides don’t go to heaven, of course, but some gay kids are convinced they’re going to hell already because they made a choice to be gay — a choice they don’t remember making and can’t unmake.
“I am not going to change, so I am going to hell,” an adult lesbian tells Chu. “Like most good Christian kids, I thought, Why wait? So I attempted suicide.”
A great many of the stories Chu relates are grim — I eventually lost count of the number of suicide attempts — but there are moments of humor. Andrew Freeman decides to move to Sweden at 26 in a last-ditch effort to turn himself straight. “I thought if there’s ever a place to find a beautiful woman, it’s Sweden,” he tells Chu. “Then I got there and I thought . . . this isn’t helping anything. Sweden has beautiful men!”
And there is hope in this book, too. After Benjamin Sullivan-Knoff came out to his parents in his sophomore year of high school, his mother begged her son not to do so publicly. She was working as an associate pastor at a conservative church — an Evangelical Covenant Church — and she feared she would be fired if her son came out. A few months later she reversed herself, asked for her son’s forgiveness and gave him her blessing to come out. “I love this denomination,” Eva Sullivan-Knoff tells Chu, “but I love my son more.”
A million moments like this are playing out all over the country. Taken together, they’re building toward a cultural tipping point, and as a result, the marriage of Christianity and homophobia is increasingly harming the churches that espouse it. The damage done by religious bigots used to go one way: churches preached homophobia, gays and lesbians suffered. Increasingly, religious bigots are hurting themselves. In 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center surveyed “Millennials,” people between the ages of 18 and 24, and found that huge numbers of young people were abandoning organized religion. One of the reasons these Millennials gave was the perception that Christianity is antigay.
But while Chu is gentle with gay people who are working to reconcile their sexualities and their faiths — straining in some cases to do so — he is far less generous to those of us who are no longer believers. For gay people who’ve left organized religion, the condescension that creeps in around the edges of his narrative begins to feel like contempt. Chu bemoans the “decline of belief for gay people,” with a lot of hand-wringing about those who have abandoned the faith. He dedicates the book “to those who have endured.”
The most maddening example — Chu’s most uncharitable and, if I may say so, his least Christian moment — is his handling of a man identified only as Mr. Byers. Years ago, Mr. Byers was the Bible teacher at Chu’s high school in Miami. A married man with a wife, a young son and another child on the way, Mr. Byers was forced to resign after his homosexuality was discovered. His wife divorced him and he moved away. Chu tracks him down and interviews him in a restaurant in Vermont. Mr. Byers opens up to Chu about his past, about the details of his outing and about his current life. When Chu asks about his beliefs now, Mr. Byers explains that he is no longer a Christian but “a pantheist . . . with pagan tendencies and earth-centered rituals.” Mr. Byers assures Chu that he’s at peace.
“I don’t believe him,” Chu writes, “because he doesn’t seem at peace, although that could be because he’s sitting across from a guy who keeps asking him invasive questions.”
Or it could be because Mr. Byers, as we learned on the previous page, gave up his parental rights after his wife divorced him; his wife’s second husband adopted his children, whom he hasn’t seen in more than a decade; his brother refuses to speak to him; and his parents think his lifestyle is despicable. Maybe such acts of emotional and spiritual violence, committed in the name of Christian beliefs, account for the sadness Chu detected.
Chu worries that gay people like Mr. Byers have been “pushed out of the church.” That’s not true for all of us. My father was a Catholic deacon, my mother was a lay minister and I thought about becoming a priest. I was in church every Sunday for the first 15 years of my life. Now I spend my Sundays on my bike, on my snowboard or on my husband. I haven’t spent my post-Catholic decades in a sulk, wishing the church would come around on the issue of homosexuality so that I could start attending Mass again. I didn’t abandon my faith. I saw through it. The conflict between my faith and my sexuality set that process in motion, but the conclusions I reached at the end of that process — there are no gods, religion is man-made, faith can be a force for good or evil — improved my life. I’m grateful that my sexuality prompted me to think critically about faith. Pushed out? No. I walked out.
There were moments when I wanted to throw this book across the room. In fact, there were moments when I actually did throw it across the room. Chu’s nuanced and surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Westboro Baptist Church — which rose to prominence protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, with members waving signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Fag Matt in Hell” — sits in sharp contrast with Chu’s sneering takedown of Metropolitan Community Church, a gay Christian denomination founded in Los Angeles in 1968. While Chu succeeds in humanizing the members of Westboro Baptist (a minor miracle), he dehumanizes the members of M.C.C. He complains bitterly about an older man at an M.C.C. service who winked at him; another hugged him a moment or two longer than necessary. If encountering a couple of creeps in the pews means an entire church can be dismissed, what do we do with the Roman Catholic Church, where ordained creeps have molested countless children?
Chu goes easy on Exodus International, the largest “ex-gay” ministry in the country, despite the harm the group does to vulnerable gays and lesbians, particularly gay children. He gives an approving nod to the sneakily homophobic Marin Foundation, an evangelical group that shows up at gay pride parades holding signs that say, “We’re sorry!” and offering hugs to paradegoers who have been harmed by religion. But Andrew Marin, the group’s founder and public face, has urged his followers to target Christian teenagers struggling with “same-sex attraction” because they’re easier to talk out of being gay. Marin has refused to say that gay sex isn’t a sin, and he seems to believe that gay people can change their sexual orientation. The more you learn about the Marin Foundation, the more it looks like Westboro Baptist in the drag of false contrition: God hates you — now with hugs! Chu blasts M.C.C., but Marin gets a pass.
Those not-so-minor quibbles aside, Chu has written a fascinating, thoughtful and important book. He captures the fractures and conflict at a moment when the issue of what to do with L.G.B.T. people is tearing Christian denominations apart. “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” deserves to be widely read. But I wouldn’t recommend reading it on airplanes or while waiting for a connection at the Salt Lake City airport. I made that mistake and was approached three different times by people who wanted to reassure me that Jesus did love me. A woman sitting next to me on my flight out of Salt Lake City put her hand on my knee, asked me if I wanted to pray with her and started praying “with” me in a loud voice before I had a chance to say no.
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