I was sitting in the dimly lit auditorium for the conference in my sparkly shawl with my done up nails tapping away at the bright screen of my phone. I opened up Grindr, a popular LGBT+ dating app, to see if there were any people who had messaged me. My profile had been created accompanied by my chest tattoo as the avatar with “M19Conf” as the username. When the app loaded, sure enough the red notifications down on the bottom of the menu were sitting there calling out for my attention.
I was sitting in Bartle Hall at the Kansas City Convention Center for the M19 conference, a Nazarene missions and evangelism conference. This year some of our denominational leaders were accompanied by speakers like Ed Stetzer and Brian Zahnd. The goal of the conference is to provide an opportunity for pastors and church leaders to receive training, encouragement, and networking. As I sat in the M19 plenary sessions, I learned that the theme of the conference was “The Gospel Unleashed”. The three pillars I noticed being repeated throughout were justice, restoration, and wholeness.
The Nazarene church boasts itself as the largest denomination in the classical Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. We believe in entire sanctification, which is a fancy way of saying that the grace of God, through Jesus, fills us with a self-less love for both God and all of humankind. Our church is made up of almost 2.5 million members in 6 world regions including Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eurasia, Mesoamerica, South America, and USA/Canada. Our mission is to make Christlike disciples in the nations.
About a year ago, I was an active Nazarene seminary student. However, a few days after I had publicly come out, I was approached by the now former administration of the seminary with a request to sit down with them for a meeting. As the meeting started, there was an unbearable awkward silence.Eventually, they told me that my leadership roles were going to be re-evaluated if I were not silent about being a Christian who is openly LGBT+. Apparently, donors were calling the seminary and threatening to withdraw funds from both the Seminary and denominational headquarters.
A few weeks prior to the M19 conference, a few of my Nazarene friends and mentors from out of town called and text me because they knew that I was getting ready to move across country to California. I was only going to be in Kansas City for a couple of more weeks and this was likely the last time they would see me before I moved. They asked me if I was going to go to the conference so we could meet up, to which I replied, “Probably not, but I’d love to get dinner!”
Somehow in the following weeks I found myself at the conference. My friends must have some sort of magical abilities, or they are just really good friends. And though somewhat apprehensive at first, I felt fierce. Here I was, clearly and unapologetically queer among a denomination that remains intentionally or unintentionally ambiguous about their stance on all things queer.
As I sat in the conference alongside my friends, I could feel the stares burning through my back. One of my friends put their hand around my shoulder to communicate solidarity, and then moved their other hand to uncover my done up nails that I had under my shawl. They looked at me, smiled, and said, you are enough, bringing me into the warmest embrace that you can do while sitting down side by side.
As those words settled into my mind during worship, I began to wonder if there were other queer Christians at the conference. I wondered if they had a community of support. I wondered if they had been told they were enough and that they belong. I wondered if any of them were hiding. I wondered if they felt alone. Worship came to a close and the few thousands of us gathered began to find our seats.
What started out as a conversation with friends, turned into a burning curiosity. It would be narcissistic to think that I was the only LGBT+ person at the conference. Besides, I know that I am not the only one in our denomination. Wanting to connect with LGBT+ persons at M19 grew out of the desire of encouraging them to know that they were not alone, and for me to know that as well.
As I tapped the small message box at the bottom of the screen with several red notifications, I was greeted by a handful of conference goers, both my age and older. Some asked me the typical Grindr question of what was I looking for. I was honest with them and said that I wasn’t looking for anything. That I just wanted to know if there were any gays at the conference. Immediately, two individuals blocked me, as I’m sure they were afraid of being ousted.
As I was going to close the app, I received a message just as my home screen appeared. Immediately, I was pulled in with the question are you at the conference too? I’m guessing he was around the same age as me. I told my new Grindr confidant that I was indeed at the conference. I asked what they were doing and they told me that they were walking around outside. I was curious as to why they were walking around instead of being in the session and he said he didn’t want to be because he had a few things on his mind.
The next few moments I received a thread of messages explaining to me that he was struggling to understand his sexuality. He talked about having girlfriends but ultimately being attracted to men. He then asked me if you could really be a gay Christian. I was gitty about this question! I told him that I thought so. Our conversation developed further into church history and theology. We talked about the purity culture and celibacy. I suggested resources like Q Christian Fellowship Conference, Church Clarity, and The Human Rights Campaign and explained how they are working to bridge the gap.
As our conversation continued my Grindr confidant even became interested in what I was trying to accomplish. He jokingly exclaimed that I was using Grindr as a tool for evangelization. Which now that I think about it, there are a ton of these types conversations that happen on Grindr. Interesting, right? Scripture does say where two or more are gathered, there also I (the Lord) will be. There is no place, including Grindr, that is void of the Holy Spirit.
Though I was expecting conversations that were much more shorter in this endeavor, I wasn’t surprised that this took place. Our church’s last general assembly was the first time they dived into a conversation on human sexuality in years. We literally just removed the word abomination from our manual in 2017. Our manual now says, “…While a person’s homosexual or bi-sexual attraction may have complex and differing origins, and the implication of this call to sexual purity is costly, we believe the grace of God is sufficient for such a calling...”
The Church of the Nazarene has mentioned that they realize these conversations and life experiences aren’t without their complexities. There are those in leadership such as pastors and district superintendents, our version of bishops, who hope that the church can dig deeper into these conversations both with honesty, integrity, and compassion. However, there are also individuals in higher leadership roles who insist that this is not a global conversation. The tension between the different thoughts seem to be growing at a much slower pace than what we have seen in our sister denomination the United Methodist Church who recently voted to not affirm LGBT+ persons in ministry and marriage.
I recognize that the Church of the Nazarene is also a global church and I am grateful for this! I also recognize that there can be limitations because these conversations look different in various global contexts. I am proud of the church of the Nazarene and its innate ability to think deeply and carefully about the conversations and lived experiences in our various communities, but I am afraid that the Church of the Nazarene will continue to be left behind if they are unable to recognize honestly, that there is some responsibility to be held in engaging with the various cultural contexts that they seek to serve, where ever those contexts may find themselves. Ignoring these conversations would be to forfeit not only the church’s voice but also future influence in both protestant circles as well as the larger society, if it hasn’t already.
It is my hope that Church of the Nazarene, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, recaptures their prophetic imagination in ministering to and serving the most vulnerable of society. I’m not advocating for the church to go back to the “good old days”. I am asking what does that prophetic imagination look like for today. For the Nazarenes, a man named Phineas F. Bresee is a big deal. He is credited for the development of the denomination, alongside many others, including several women. Bresee had a desire to live among the poor and disenfranchised, work against those systems that created poverty, and cultivate places of belonging. For Bresee, holy living meant identifying and accustoming oneself to the very breath and life of those marginalized and pushed to the edges of society. While Bresee was not perfect, he yearned to be like Christ, that is to give oneself up for the life of the other. Imagine with me what it could mean for 21stcentury Nazarenes or persons of faith to give up their lives for the sake of those various groups that are disenfranchised in our society, for the sake of their LGBT+ siblings.
During one of the plenary sessions, the district superintendents of the northern Californian region gave a message on how the Nazarene church needs to move into a place of being known for what they are for, rather than what they are against. They discussed with those few thousands gathered that one of the reasons why they believe their district is not doing well is because of the church’s treatment towards LGBT+ persons. Their local communities believe that the Church of the Nazarene is fearful, and maybe even a little hateful. They encouraged those gathered at M19 to get to know people who were different from them, to learn their stories, and to share meals with them.
Imagine being invited to a meal, but when you got there, you weren’t allowed to eat. The practice of sharing a meal together is not new to the Christian faith. In a sense, it is a part of what makes us human. As we share a meal with one another we enter into a place of vulnerability and intimacy together. But what happens when sharing a meal is just an invitation rather than a mutual participatory act? It’s one thing to be invited to the table, it’s another thing to have a seat at the table and participate in the meal. Unfortunately, queer persons have been led to believe that we do not belong in most spaces, much less a place of faith. When spaces and communities of faith are tied to a theology that opposes another human being, or simply tolerates them so that they can seem “welcoming” then not only is this this theology harmful for all involved, it is also a theology that kills. Being welcoming isn’t enough. It is ambiguous and sub-human. The Nazarene church practices an open table, meaning that anyone can participate in the sacrament of communion. It is my hope that as the Nazarene church and Global Church move forward, that their tables become a place of belonging, forged in the trenches alongside all those marginalized, rather than a collection of siloed walls. That will be the Gospel unleashed.