By Jay Bakker
Imagine being told that God hates you. Imagine being told that God condemns your most important relationships. This experience drives too many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths to despair, as evidenced by the deaths of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi and others in recent weeks.
The organization Soulforce will be holding an all-day symposium in Philadelphia on Saturday to debunk the myths that plague our national conversation about homosexuality - namely, that one's sexual orientation can be changed and that there's a reason to change it.
A study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that parental rejection of gay children was strongly associated with suicidal tendencies and unhealthy behavior. Too often, Christianity is used to justify such rejections. Many gay Christians lose their faith as a consequence, and too many lose their lives.
The church almost cost my friend Jef Evans both. Jef grew up in a conservative evangelical denomination. "God hates fags" was the lesson he learned. And while Jef was a model Christian teen in every other respect, he couldn't deny his growing attraction to men. "I was doing everything right," he recalled in a talk he gave to my congregation at Revolution Church in Brooklyn. "I would say to God, 'I don't want this; take this away.' "
Jef heard that Liberty University, the conservative Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell, had a counseling program for gay students. He decided to go there, thinking, "They can help me be straight." By the time he arrived on campus, however, Liberty had shut down the counseling program.
"Liberty is the most ill-named school. There was nothing liberating about it," Jef recalled. Referring to the name of the school's sports teams, the Flames, he joked: "I couldn't help but wonder if all the money for the counseling program for Liberty's 'flaming' students was put into the Liberty Flames football team instead."
At the time, however, it was no laughing matter. Jef found himself with nowhere to turn. When he hesitantly confided to a friend that he was gay, she gave him a booklet from Exodus International, an "ex-gay ministry" that tries to "cure" gay Christians by encouraging them to suppress their sexuality. The booklet suggested responding to lustful thoughts about men by quoting a Bible verse, singing a hymn, or praying. Needless to say, it didn't work.
Despairing, Jef failed his classes and dropped out of school. He was so anguished by the judgment he felt from his faith and his peers that he contemplated suicide. One night, he decided to put his fate in God's hands.
"God, you've got one more chance or I'm gonna kill myself," he prayed. "I'm gonna flip through the Bible and put my finger on a Bible verse at random. If it speaks to me, I won't kill myself."
He landed on a verse in Paul's second letter to Timothy saying: "Do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord. ..." He interpreted that as an affirmation of his faith and decided to carry on.
Unable to reconcile his sexuality with his religion, Jef began to chip away at his concept of God. He found that the less he believed in God, the more comfortable he felt. He came out as a gay man and an agnostic at the same time.
Those of us who preach the true message of God's grace and universal acceptance know there's no contradiction between being gay and being Christian. We must instill in young people a message that their sexuality is a gift from God, not a curse. That's why I'm working with Soulforce, an organization that spreads that message, and why I'll be in Philadelphia this weekend.
Christianity should be a refuge from despair, hate, and ignorance. But on this issue, tragically, it's often part of the problem. We owe it to each other - and to God's good name - to set the record straight.
Jay Bakker is a member of the advisory board of Soulforce; the author of the forthcoming "Fall To Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society" (Hachette/FaithWords), from which this is adapted; and the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. For more information about the Soulforce symposium, see www.soulforce.org/symposium.