Updated: Friday, February 9, 2018, 4:20 PM
The day that Crystal Cheatham sang about her love of God before 200 fellow churchgoers was the day that set her on a path out the door, never to return.
The youth concert was supposed to be an important moment in her quest to become a music minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The organizing pastor, a mentor who knew Cheatham was gay, wanted her to speak and sing.
Minutes before she was to walk onto the stage, though, that changed. He told her she could sing but not talk. And there would be no next time. She could not be both gay and a leader in the church, he said.
Rejection by a man who had guided her through a faith practiced by generations of her family impelled her to leave, to search elsewhere for acceptance.
Eight years later, Cheatham, 32, a singer-activist-writer from Philadelphia’s Fairmount section, has created an app that she hopes will be a digital sanctuary for LGBTQ people, a virtual haven where they can find the affirmation eluding them inside churches.
“Our Bible” includes more than 300 devotionals, podcasts, and essays for progressive Christians. More than 150 contributors, solicited by Cheatham, consider social-justice issues, spiritual growth, sin, and overcoming fear. The app offers 14 English translations of the Bible and one in Spanish; they range from the King James to The Message, a late-20th century, slang-laden version. There are also discourses on spiritual preparation before coming out, Lenten devotionals for people with disabilities, and analyses of what are called “the clobber texts” — biblical passages often used to shame and shun the LGBTQ community.
“Christianity comes with the weight of what fundamentalists and conservatives have done with it,” Cheatham said.
She cites the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as one used against the LGBTQ community. Some progressive interpreters contend that God’s condemnation did not arise from sins of the flesh, but from the cities’ failure to take care of the needy.
About two-thirds of people who attend worship services at least once a week say that homosexuality conflicts with their religious beliefs, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center. Also in the study, large majorities of LGBTQ respondents described evangelical, Catholic, and Mormon Churches, along with the Muslim faith, as unfriendly toward gay people.
“For people who are literalists, nothing that I say or that Crystal says will work for them,” said the Rev. Louis Mitchell, cofounder and executive director of Transfaith, a Philadelphia-based national nonprofit that educates religious communities on transgender issues. “But I think for most thinking and feeling people trying to figure out what God wants from me, having the opportunity to look at the text anew, wrestle with it anew, pray about it and have their hearts prayerfully discern right action, [the app] is a gift.”
“Our Bible,” released last month, represents a two-year project begun in February 2016. Cheatham raised $86,000 mostly from friends, family, and private donors. Available on Android and iPhone platforms, the app has been downloaded 38,000 times so far and has 5,000 daily users. A $10 annual subscription offers ad-free content; the proceeds help fund additions to the app.
Cheatham wants “Our Bible” to be an answer to conservative apps such as “YouVersion,” introduced in 2008 by Life.Church, an evangelical, multi-site megachurch based in Oklahoma. But it also reflects her personal need.
“I’m still looking for community,” she said.
Cheatham is the daughter of two Seventh-day Adventist missionaries who met at Walla Walla University, the church-affiliated college in Washington state, and later served together in Zambia.
The family settled in Cochranville, Chester County, when Cheatham was in third grade. She grew up singing in the church, learning guitar, and becoming a mainstay in her congregation’s praise-and-worship team. She was 24 when her mentoring pastor asked her to speak at a youth gathering in Washington, D.C., only to silence her at the last minute.
Afterward, she said, “he told me I couldn’t be in leadership. I couldn’t even be on stage. I was crying, crying, and he didn’t even put his arm around me. Our entire relationship was dependent on a part of me that I couldn’t change, and didn’t want to.”
Within six months, she came out to her mother.
Anne Cheatham was “terrified” at first, her daughter said, and told Crystal that her father, who had died when she was 15, would turn over in his grave. But since then, the now 59-year-old nurse anesthetist has reconciled her faith and her love for her daughter.
“We speak the words of inclusiveness, but we’re actually exclusive,” Anne Cheatham said of the Adventists and other denominations. “My daughter is gay. For me, I feel the word of God belongs to everybody. There is no religion, no creed that has the [only] access to God.
Since coming out, Crystal Cheatham has developed projects including the IDentity Kit for Queer Christian Youth, which provided faith-oriented resources, and Follow the Red Balloon, an online collection of essays and interviews about faith. She has traveled to college campuses with Soulforce, a social-justice group advocating for acceptance of LGBTQ people, and hosts a podcast called Lord Have Mercy, during which she and guests discuss God, sex, and the Bible. She has recorded two albums of music and is working on the app full-time.
Her inability to find a church home is not for lack of trying.
Joining up with one nondenominational church recently, she asked to join the praise-and-worship team, she said, and was turned down because of her sexual orientation. She left.
But she knows that opinions are ever-evolving. About 64 percent of adults in the U.S. believe same-sex marriage should be legal, the highest percentage ever, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 62 percent of white mainline Protestants also favor gay marriage, and a similar percentage saw no conflict between their religious beliefs and homosexuality.
Cheatham wants her app to be a force in further changing the landscape. “How can we lift each other up and become a voice that drowns out what the [religious] right is doing?” she said. “I want people to feel safe in their spiritual skins again.”