As is true of September 11, June 12 is a date in American history that elicits a miasma of emotions. Just one year ago today, one the most tragic mass shootings on American soil took place. The target was clear--the "LGBT" community. It garnered the attention of the world from the most notable to the most obscure of media outlets. It elicited responses that put on display the best and worst of humanity. A year later, it still populates the mind of many especially in Orlando, as services of reflections, lament, and hope saturate our city. As a local church planter in downtown Orlando (SODO) which meets right down the street from the blood stained side walks of "PULSE" (a church which had members witness people running passed their house for dear life, and which meets people only steps away for coffee), my mind is still preoccupied with this awful tragedy. The matter is so complex. My heart breaks for the loss of innocent life regardless of one's sexual orientation; yet, I am accountable to present the biblical view of sexuality which doesn't accord with many who were most affected by the "Pulse" tragedy namely, the "LGBT" community. Among the many questions prompted by the event was "how should we as Christians engage members of this community?" So, one year later I offer my reflections and what I hope to be encouraging thoughts on how to move toward our "LGBT" neighbors.
Following news of the tragedy I gathered with a group of local pastors to prayer. Afterward, a few of us drove over to ground zero to listen, learn and pray. Our hope was to gain a better understanding of the tragedy, meet someone directly impacted and discern how we can be better ministers of the Gospel to our city. Our findings were sad, eye opening, and hopeful.
Upon arrival to ground zero, we prayed with law enforcement then proceeded to a location within eye distance of "Pulse" only separated by Orange Avenue, Einstein Bagel, a house, and yellow crime scene tape. It was real. I was unable to freely travel a street that I used everyday nor access the parking lot of a coffee shop where I met people situated directly across from "Pulse." It was a sobering moment to behold with such clarity, the callous pervasiveness of the fall. As we stood there praying, two people approached us and we invited them to pray. In the following moments we struck up an informative conversation with one of them who happened to be a Jewish LMHC and LGBT activist. We offered the services of our ministries and she received them with glad arms. Then the "one more thing" question came. "Are you going to oppress them like everywhere else?" she asked. We said "no" and then we engaged her in a loving discussion, confession of the church's imperfections and sincere admission about our worldview differences, all prefaced by our desire to learn. With weapons placed back into the holsters, she gave us helpful insight into the "LGBT" narrative of our city. After we concluded, she agreed to keep meeting, exchanged contacts and departed with gratitude for the prayers.
Our next stop entailed multiple conversations with people who descended on our city from as far as the Nordic region of the world along with other American news reporters who had covered the Mother Emmanuel shooting; the latter was particularly moved by the church's presence during the "Pulse" crisis. Then we traveled to the "Subway" less than a block away where many locals and people connected to the situation were refueling. Only moments before his TV interview, we met a gay male attorney who grew up in a conservative home, who was all too familiar with the tragedy having both friends who died and were medical responders. We asked questions, listened, and learned. Similar to the first woman we met, we acknowledged that as member of the Christian church some of our outreach efforts have left more to be desired. He was a fascinating person. His knowledge of history was palpable. His particular awareness of and interest in the plight of blacks in America bonded us nearly instantly. He too, was moved by our presence and openness at ground zero. He was speechless at points. He asserted that he had many questions for us too. We exchanged contacts and he said that he wanted to visit our respective churches. We went out to engage in Jesus' name and it appeared that he was drawing people in by his name.
Our time with individuals connected to the LGBT community demonstrated that a great relational chasm existed between them and us (the Church). To some degree, this was no surprise, as our worldviews inform us differently regarding sexuality. Vitriolic statements about people in the LGBT community from the mouths of Christians who sadly receive representative authority, even in response to this tragedy elucidates, widens and buttresses the expanse. The LGBT community's perception that the majority view of Christians toward them is hatred proves that dialogue is lacking. When as Christians, our outreach is regarded as oppression that is packaged in disingenuous love and furthers marginalization instead of liberty and inclusion, miscommunication is clear.
We are further learning that the LGBT community should not be conflated to a monolithic group. There are people who regard their sexuality as the sum total of who they are so that any attempt to love them without affirming their sexuality is regarded as oppressive. To illustrate this, one person said "it's like telling your kids you love them but don't approve of their sexuality which is apart of who they are. This leads to self depression and even suicide when children feel hated by their parents." Disapproval without dialogue has also contributed to feelings of oppression and hatred in homes. Some people feel imprisoned because they assert they didn't choose homoerotic desires that beset them, concluding that it is their identity and wonder why people think they would want to suffer being a pariah if they didn't think the latter were reality. Still, there are others who having sustained abuse by someone of the same sex at key impressionable developmental stages and even over long durations of time, have come to view their desires as norm. There are also those who see homosexual inclinations as deviant behavior yet, remain identifying with the LGBT community for fear of being rejected by the church due to this struggle, continued acceptance and still having authentic relationships even if they are no longer pursuing same sex conjugality. Then finally, though not exhaustively, the pursuit of the LGBT community with a loving attitude of open dialogue even with acknowledged disagreement is appreciated and not all of its members perceive the Christian view of sexuality as oppressive and even welcome the activity of mutual persuasion to other worldviews.
How can we as Christians engage the LGBT community? I am careful to acknowledge that this is what I've learned in Orlando and my spheres of contact. It will take proactive pursuit, loving honesty, and accepting persecution
Jesus a Jew, proactively engaged the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). This prompted immediate curiosity on the woman's part owed to the intense animosity that existed between their people groups. Quickly, it turned into Jesus offering hope of the gospel, exposing her sin which involved obvious sexual brokenness and showing the gospel again which resulted in her conversion and a Samaritan Revival. I have pursued "LGBT" friends and a similar progression of, disbelief, discussion and relationship occurred. Some have invited my wife and I to outings with a gracious warning that not everyone will hold my views regarding sexuality and some have even agreed to visit our church. I don't know how the Lord will work in these friends but I know that their perceptions have changed even by simply taking a proactive risk.
Speaking the truth in and as love is critical. Paul reminds us that if our conversation lacks love it will sound like a clinging symbol (1Corinthians 13). Peter tells us to defend our "hope" with gentleness and respect for the other so that our Christlike character will put the other to shame. Callous responses to people who struggle with sexual identity is not Christlike in any situation and even worse when they are the victims of heinous crimes such as "Pulse." There are "LGBT" community members who prefer honesty with a respectful tone over and against disingenuous bait and switch platitudes that pretend Christianity accepts homosexuality, in efforts to create relationships only to discover the contrary in the course of time. Furthermore, some have real questions with which they are wrestling and they don't benefit from the church obfuscating apologies for attitudes towards people in the LGBT community with orthodox beliefs about God's design for gender and sexuality. Speaking the truth in love is critical to gaining trust and creating honest bridges into the LGBT community. Notwithstanding, there will be hostility regardless of how loving one's approach is.
Jesus says "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5)." Paul intimates as much and says "bless those who persecute you (Romans 12). Hostility to the Christian message is a given no matter what one's sexual preference is because Jesus makes exclusive and radical claims that unsettle people who idolatrously value autonomy; Christians though converted and in dwelt by the Holy Spirit still struggle with this (or are quite familiar with this- might sound better). In the "LGBT" community, some view their sexual identity tantamount to the way black or minority persons view themselves; an ethnic group that should not be discriminated against on the basis of how God made them.
As a black person, I personally understand discrimination--which, in turn, drives me to compassion for my "LGBT" friends. Moreover, I'm a Christian. Thus, I believe no image bearer should be disrespected under any circumstances. However, I believe that God ultimately defines sexuality and gender, therefore, if someone is inclined in the opposite direction of God in this connection, I must lovingly say that "it should not be equated to the plight blacks in America." I also hold this to be true for any other God opposing behavior that one uses to define who they are and not a sin with which they struggle, i.e. racism, pedophilia, adultery, murder, or theft.
Christianity teaches that people, are delivered from a pantheon of sins by God's grace, are being liberated from sins by God's grace and will one day no longer struggle with sins for all eternity by God's grace. This reality is no less true for those who struggle with sexual brokenness. I have friends from the "LGBT" community who have embraced God's design and have opted by God's grace to live celibate lives in community with other believers who will think no less of them because they struggle with a sin that impedes their desires for the opposite sex and even requires God's grace to have authentic relationships with the same sex. Christians must in love uphold God's standard in all of life's matters, be ready to accept that opposition will ensue and pray that God will bless those who administer the persecution.
Brothers and sisters, I'm no expert on this subject; and, I consider myself to be in the process of learning how to reach my friends in the "LGBT" community for Christ. At present I have prayed, sought friendships, listened, respected and repented. And for some reason, God has given me more friends than enemies. There will always be those who may consider me to be the latter (which is expected); but, I pray for them and I am still pursuing them. Reaching people for Jesus has always had both a simplicity and a complexity to it. In light of this fact, we must be both loving and courageous in reaching out to our neighbors in the "LGBT" community because Christ is working is us and through us via the Holy Spirit to accomplish his agenda of love. It is my deep desire that you and I would commit to #prayforOrlando.
Michael Aitcheson is the church planter/pastor of Christ United Fellowship in Orlando, FL. Mike has contributed to Tabletalk Magazine. You can find him on Twitter at @Mike_CUF and friend him on Facebook.