Christians and gays with a different story
“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”
—Rick Warren, pastor
As someone who holds a confessional MB perspective on homosexuality, I cling to this quote. It gives me hope for the future of my beliefs – and for my witness. In my memory, I will forever see Rick Warren’s words on the whiteboard of Room A269 at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) where, for the first time in my life, I witnessed a straight community and a gay community come together and try to understand one another.
A month prior to that night, Derrick Uittenbosch, president of University Christian Ministries (UCM) at UFV, had walked into my office at the student newspaper. Both active members of MB churches, we would later start a Bible study and become spiritual brothers, but at that time I was surprised by his visit.
“I’ve been approached by a UFV Pride club member who wants our two groups to hold a joint movie and discussion event,” he said. “I want to know what you think.”
“It’s a trap,” I said after learning the documentary to be screened was the controversial For the Bible Tells Me So. “That documentary is a theological disaster. If you complain, you’ll be accused of ruining the spirit of the event; if you don’t complain, people will think you agree with its assertions.”
Derrick flashed his trademark cheery-yet-rock-stubborn half-smile. “I thought you might say that,” he admitted. “But I’ve been praying about it for weeks, and somehow, I think God is going to make this work.”
Derrick has a sensitivity for the Holy Spirit I’ve always envied. In the coming months, he would recruit hundreds of people to pray for the event, while also working to address concerns like mine.
I’d met Finn, a Pride member, the previous spring, introduced by a mutual friend at a karaoke bar. He was quiet, gentle, yet with a sharp sense of humour. I sat across from him and his boyfriend Greg, and realized it was the first time in my life I’d talked to a couple I knew was gay.
The joint event was Finn’s idea. He and Derrick had met at one of UCM’s outreach initiatives, a free Thursday morning pancake breakfast where Finn had shared an idea to bring UCM and Pride together. Derrick stalled, and Finn let the matter drop. At the start of the new semester, from his position as Pride treasurer, Finn had approached leaders from both clubs.
The Pride president loved the idea; the vice-president hated it. Both said Finn would have to organize the event, including enlisting campus security, if it were to happen.
After all, at most schools the Christian club and the Pride club aren’t on speaking terms. At most schools, a meeting of the two clubs would draw community members with placards and war chants.
I arrived at A269 just early enough to secure a chair. The room was already full, and as I shook hands with Derrick and Finn, I spotted UFV president Mark Evered in the crowd. There were a dozen other familiar faces, smiling, but slightly nervous. Abruptly, I realized I didn’t know which “side” many were on – UCM or Pride. Yet why did it matter?
Derrick and Finn had joked that their vision of success was surviving the night “without any chairs being thrown.” They were worried, as was I, that Warren’s
“cultural lies” would overwhelm the fragile cooperation in the room.
No chairs were thrown. People told stories, and laughed at old jokes as if it were the first time they’d heard them. A few were cut off and pointed to the “safe space” rules on the whiteboard when they tried to push the discussion toward a debate. Many, including myself, stood to share things they hadn’t expected to reveal. The room was booked for three hours; the event went for four.
The leaders of both clubs hung around afterward, talking honestly and vulnerably with the generosity success brings. I was encouraged as well, and felt foolish for having doubted humanity’s ability to get along.
Like all things under the sun, it didn’t last. A week later, a woman wrote to the student paper to accuse me of homophobia in my event coverage, spawning a torrent of online comments. I was confused. I was angry. It seemed a tenuous trust had been broken.
When we confront problems we can’t personally solve, most people look for heroes. My hero turned out to be Finn, who was perhaps the only person who could have defended me. His letter to the editor ended the controversy with a finality that my rebuttal could not have achieved. I am still in debt to him.
We hadn’t compromised. Derrick’s and my theology was clear – and so was Finn’s. Yet Finn and Derrick had managed to plan and execute an event for which I have found neither precedent nor imitation.
How much trust did it take, I wonder, for members of the Pride club to file into that room? Fear of reprisals almost kept me away. Finn himself, as both a Baha’i and a gay man, had lived much of his life navigating layers of societal tension. His LGBTQ friends often had bleak expectations of the religious study groups (including Bible studies) he attended. “They hate you!” his friends would say. “But you don’t even know them!” he would reply.
“I try to make it a principle to always see the best in everyone, and…let them prove themselves individually,” Finn told me. “I’ve had a lot of experiences where someone I knew would say something bad about someone else, and then I would actually meet this person and it turned out I liked them.”
I asked Derrick, after the event, if he would allow interested Pride members to join UCM. It was a dilemma I was still wrestling with. Derrick smiled and replied with an easy “of course!” as if it were the simplest question he’d ever been asked. He understood he wasn’t compromising conviction, simply showing something more important: compassion.
UCM would later receive a student leadership award, while president Evered recognized Derrick personally in his ceremonial address.
“I saw a situation where students associated with the Christian club were curious and got a better understanding of the LGBTQ students and saw them as real people,” Evered told me later. “The same was true on the other side, with the lesbian and gay students who might have been [previously] inclined to have automatically labelled someone who was involved in the Christian student organization as being homophobic.”
“Both groups came to the table truly determined to understand each other and to reach out to each other in friendship, in compassion and understanding – I think that’s the model for how we can hold these conversations, whether it’s at the government level or the student level.”
UCM and UFV Pride would later hold another joint event: an evening of appreciation for UFV’s janitorial staff that both student groups worked side by side to plan. Two groups, with different views and different stories, united by a common interest in supporting their community.
Derrick and I don’t always agree, yet I love him like a brother. Finn didn’t need to help me when I was accused of homophobia, yet he chose to defend a person he didn’t truly know, trusting I would prove worthy. They taught me to embrace Rick Warren’s vision, rather than dismiss it as naive or contradictory. Together they created a story that should not be lost.
As Mennonite Brethren continue to discuss sexuality within our community, and as we engage in conversation with LGBTQ individuals, let’s think about people like Derrick and Finn and what they’ve been able to accomplish. When we believe in each other, when we allow hope to overcome fear, and we reach out our hands rather than sticking them in our pockets, the church becomes a far more potent institution.
—Paul Esau is a communications intern with CCMBC and the MB Herald.
—Artwork by Asher Klassen. Asher is an illustrator and comics scholar finishing a BFA at UBC Okanagan. He is a member of Kelowna (B.C.) Gospel Fellowship.