Leaving Church-Part II
God and Gays at Calvin College
By the spring of 1993—the second semester of my junior year at Calvin College—my allyship had waned. It’s not that I no longer supported the “gay community.” I did. If conversations happened about gay people adopting children or being ordained or “civilly unionized,” I was on board. After two acquaintances—including Jon of the previous post—died of AIDS, I supported AIDS research, wore an “AIDS Cross of Love,” and scribbled “Safe Sex Saves Lives” on my notebooks. Small acts of support and solidarity (because, of course, AIDS affected many more beyond the gay community).
But like a good twenty-year-old, I was self-centered, fighting for my own rights. In 1993, my feminism fueled every fire in my soul—and I attended a school of a denomination that still didn’t allow women in leadership.
Here’s the thing, however: No matter how self-centered a person is, it’s hard to fight for equality just for yourself or your “type.” Believing that women fully share the image of God and are called and gifted as fully as men are isn’t just about women—it’s a view of humanity. We are all equal. We are all image bearers. We are all one in Christ.
And so, when the Calvin College Young Republicans announced a “debate” between a notorious anti-gay crusader (and Hope College Grad—whose name I’m leaving out) and Rev. Jim Lucas, a gay Christian Reformed (CRC) pastor, I had to go.
I knew little about the brouhaha that preceded the event. In fact, I only just learned that the Young Republicans had originally invited only Hope Grad—who was supposed to answer: “Can You Be Gay and Christian?” As the CRC had answered this question decades earlier with a resounding YES and as Calvin is a CRC university, gay Calvin students rightfully objected. Long story short, Calvin’s president offered a compromise: They would invite Rev. Lucas, and the event would be a debate.
And so, on that night, 1,000 of us packed into Calvin’s Fine Arts Auditorium. I’m told another 1,000 listened outside.
I wish I remembered what exactly was said—or that I could find my notes! But alas, the night comes back to me in sharp images and feelings, in cringes, in audience groans—and best of all, in the comfort of Christ’s presence.
Because amid the scenes of “debauchery” that Hope Grad flashed on screens, among the words of disgust Hope Grad spit out for fellow image-bearers, for the conclusions Hope Grad made about children of God based on parade behavior, that night Rev. Lucas showed us what it was to be the very face of Jesus in the midst of brutal attacks. What it was to love our enemies and our persecutors. What it was to respond with grace and mercy and dignity even as vitriol and hate flew at him from the other podium.
I’m not sure what the Young Republicans* hoped for. I’m told it was an attempt to show how the “Gay Agenda” was ruining America. If so, the plan backfired. At least, for a while.
The ugliness and hate of the anti-gay crowd was on full display in that auditorium. Students and professors were distraught. Indeed, in the days and weeks after the event, my professors, heartbroken over what was said on our campus, denounced Hope Grad and his words.
Here’s how some other fellow Calvin folks remember that night:
“The vast majority of the room would’ve said, ‘That’s not how you treat other human beings. It’s not the way of Christ.’ Almost everyone connected to the college was horrified by what happened. ” — Former Calvin Administrator
“The vitriolic and contentious atmosphere made this easily the most frightening moment of my thirty-plus career at the college.” — Former Calvin Administrator
“That night was definitely a formational and transformational event in my life. I remember thinking how loving, humble, and pastoral Jim Lucas was compared to the other speaker.” — Former Calvin Student
Because of this, in my twenty-year-old naïveté, I thought a tide had turned for our gay friends—at least in the CRC. I thought perhaps seeing Hope Grad’s ugliness toward a people group would reveal how un-Christlike factions of the Church had become. I thought we’d figure out that judging people by how they behave in a parade is the definition of ridiculousness (if you disagree, please stay out of my town during our upcoming St. Patrick’s Day parade!).
For many of us, the tide did turn. This is when my allyship took root theologically. Even after my conversation with Jon, I assumed the Bible “clearly” condemned homosexuality (and that I just had to ignore that). But that night kick-started new curiosity about what the Bible really said—especially since in that same auditorium, during a Christian Perspectives on Learning class, I learned about biblical interpretation, genre, and critique. Where I learned that the Bible was a product of its culture, that the Bible was not a science textbook, and that the Bible writers—armed with limited information and ancient cultural perspectives—got lots wrong (see: the Creation account). Or at least, we do, when we read them literally and uncritically. In that auditorium I learned that God is the God of everything. Of every last sphere. I learned this was why we seek to transform culture with the light and love of Jesus—not battle it. This is our Father’s world, after all. We don’t need to win it back for God. God’s got it.
But apparently not enough of us caught or held onto this. Indeed, just a few years after being so roundly and publicly praised for Christlikeness, Rev. Lucas would be “released” by the CRC for his support of same-sex unions (this was long before marriage was on the table). And of course, nearly thirty years after the debate, that same stage would host folks offering more words of both grace and vitriol. That same room would declare the Creation account a science textbook book on gender. And that same space would shelter a Synod that affirmed that one could indeed be queer and Christian, but their ability to belong or minister in CRC churches would require scrutiny of sex lives or surgeries.
I share all this not because this story “proves” anything about what the church’s approach to the queer community should be. Certainly it “proves” nothing about what the Scriptures say (more on this in the next post). I share this not because I believe our experiences matter more than the Bible or “two-thousand years of Church history.” My experience does not mean I am right, and you are wrong. Neither does the reverse.
But experience does matter.
If we’re willing, if we’re open, God uses experiences to bring us to the heart of God, to bring new questions to the Scriptures, to help us seek and hear the Spirit. Because, guess what? God is the God of experiences (and even postmodernism mumbo-jumbo, for those of you thinking this)!
As such, my experiences in the Fine Arts Auditorium shaped and sharpened me—and many others. Indeed, those of us who are Reformed and for full inclusion of our queer brothers and sisters in the church believe this because of our Reformed understanding of how to engage the Scriptures, because of the Reformed call to transform (not battle) culture, because of the movement of the Holy Spirit, because of the words, actions, and redemption of Jesus, and because we believe that God is still speaking.
Next up: The Bible Clearly Says
*Note: I voted for George H.W. Bush the fall before (not before the Fall). My feminism wouldn’t allow me to vote for the misogyny I saw in Bill Clinton. Just in case you’re tempted to pin me down politically.
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