(Timothy Hearsum)

(Timothy Hearsum)

Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America
By Jeff Chu
HarperCollins, 2013

Of all the songs in the “dog-eared bilingual hymnals” that Jeff Chu’s grandparents brought with them to the United States from Hong Kong in 1969, “Jesus Loves Me” is the “one that has stuck.” As a child, Chu happily accepted the chorus of the song, a simple, playful refrain of its title. The intervening years between that innocent, uncomplicated belief and what he labels as his current “baggage”—namely, that he is gay and Christian—have, nonetheless, brought doubt. “A lot,” he writes. And therein lies his predicament, one shared by a number of people in the LGBTQ community in similar stages of confusion, suffering, and general uneasiness: “I can’t not believe in God.”

To figure out how to live his own life of juxtaposition between a faith and feelings that possibly challenge its teachings, Chu, a Princeton-educated editor of the business magazine Fast Company, embarks upon a journey in his first book to figure out how the rest of America feels about faith and homosexuality, an issue Tony Jones, a Minnesota theologian, calls “so primal and personal.” In Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, Chu spends more than 20,000 miles in the air and another 5,000 miles on the road crafting an in-depth survey of the vastly varying views of Christians in the United States toward those among them that are attracted to the same sex.

In history, the label “homosexual” is a recent invention. It is only in the last few decades that people who identify as both Christian and homosexual have begun to come out, in more ways than one. Particular American congregations, no doubt, have been significant in facilitating this ecclesiastical revolution. Morningside Friends, a Quaker worship group in New York City, has been blessing same-sex unions since 1987. In 1992, Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church lost its membership in the Southern Baptist Convention after it decided to bless gay marriages. In 2011, according to The News & Observer, the congregation voted “to prohibit the church pastor from legally marrying anyone until she can legally marry same-sex couples under North Carolina law.” Another North Carolina church, Winston-Salem’s Green Street United Methodist Church, recently took a similar stance, ceasing marriage ceremonies until the denomination lifts its ban on same-sex marriages.

Nonetheless, the voices encouraging gay Christians to keep quiet remain loud. Chu’s first profile follows the story of Lisa Howe, a collegiate soccer coach forced to leave her job at a historically Baptist college after coming out of the closet. Another of his subjects, Kevin Olson, chose to remain celibate because of his sexual orientation. And in perhaps the most provocative chapter of the book, Chu describes his feelings about Westboro Baptist Church before he travels to meet with its members in Topeka. He expresses his own insecurities as someone who worships what Westboro’s parishioners purport to be the same God.

But every time I saw a photograph of church members picketing with these signs and every time I read an article about Westboro … so many questions arose. … Why do they hate gay people so much? … Why do they look like they’re having so much fun? … What if I found that they were not in fact crazy? Worse, what if I decided that they were right?

Chu’s interviews with Westboro members, including 82-year-old patriarch Fred Phelps, provide a brief look into the founding of the church and its underlying beliefs and practices. “[I]f you don’t point out your neighbor’s sin, you not only fail to show that person love but also share in his guilt,” writes Chu in summarizing a Leviticus passage that underlies Westboro’s message. In carrying out this missive, one Phelps family member says she started picketing when she was three. “I remember I would usually hold a sign that said No Fags and it had a happy face in the middle,” she recalls.

Most Christians, including those of the evangelical variety, come nowhere close to Westboro’s positions on homosexuality and other sensitive church issues. In fact, polls show a rapidly growing acceptance of the LGBT community and same-sex marriage nationwide, including within churches. Half (50 percent) of Americans say “gay and lesbian people should be eligible for ordination as clergy,” according to Public Religion Research Institute, and little more than half (51 percent) of white evangelicals under 35 are in favor of same-sex marriage. A March Pew poll found that roughly a third (32 percent) of “those who say they have shifted to supporting same-sex marriage … say it is because they know someone—a friend, family member or other acquaintance—who is homosexual.” Chu suggests that as more gay Christians open up to their fellow parishioners about navigating life, these personal encounters may effect similar shifts in opinions, some of which may need to move left and some of which may need to move right.

Chu states the goal of his project was “to understand why those who call themselves followers of Christ start from the same point … but end up in such radically different places on the issue of God, the church, and homosexuality.” And Chu never fails to find these different views along the spectrum of being gay in a Christian America. From David Shelley, leader of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, stating, “I see [homosexuality] as the biggest threat to our civilization,” to Wayne Lindsey of the Metropolitan Community Church of Las Vegas giving a sermon entitled, “Get Your Drag On!” one discovers the closeted and the out; the quiet and the loud; the damning and the forgiving; and the disillusioned and the hopeful.

Many of the optimistic voices appear in first-person essays penned by prominent figures in the Christian community, writings that Chu intersperses between his own chapters. Mary Glasspool, the first lesbian to be elected bishop in a major American denomination (the Episcopal Church), provides a view of homosexual identity that runs counter to many in the movement that foster so-called “gay churches.” “I’ve never wanted to be a one-issue person,” she writes. “I wanted to normalize this issue and not have that one aspect of my life be preclusive.” The congregants of the non-denominational Highlands Church in Denver feel similarly. “We are not a two-year-old gay church!” founder Mark Tidd preaches. “We are a Christ-centered church!”

Tidd’s words signify in some ways Chu’s own journey and his concern about predominantly gay churches, which he explains in the book. “[F]aith does not seem to be its unifying element—sexuality does,” he writes about the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Chu confirms this assumption in his visit to a MCC congregation, where parishioners hit on him twice during the passing of the peace. “It plays right into the stereotypes of gay people as hypersexualized,” he writes, adding later, “The biggest problem is that these two men reinforced my own suspicions that the MCC is more focused on people than on God.”

Throughout the text, Chu illustrates the realness of discrimination by interweaving an ongoing email correspondence with Gideon Eads, a young man whom Chu meets on Twitter after sending out a tweet for a “totally closeted gay Christian to profile.” Chu includes these back-and-forth messages to illustrate in real time the coming-out struggle many homosexual Christians experience. In the penultimate chapter, Chu flies to Arizona to meet with Eads, who is Southern Baptist and is contemplating coming out of the closet. One may guess Eads’ coming out would make the perfect ending to the book at this point, but that would be too easy. Eads tells Chu he simply wishes “to live a life according to the same standards you’d expect of straight people in the church.”

Ultimately, Chu’s book is an unscientific yet human and noteworthy depiction of Christians grappling with homosexuality, as told through a journalist’s narrative. Several of the individuals Chu profiles evoke the writer W.H. Auden, who identified as gay and who, at times, was also an avowed Christian. In 1947, Auden wrote in a letter to a friend that he had “come to the conclusion that it’s wrong to be queer, but that’s a long story.” In Chu’s book, Christians take time to tell their longer tales of faith and queerness.

In his conclusion, Chu ponders Christianity’s Apostles’ Creed, its mention of the “holy catholic church … with its small c, meaning ‘universal’ and ‘singular.’” “It’s a nice idea,” Chu writes. “But the first major lesson of my pilgrimage is that the church in America is neither holy—by which I mean entirely devoted to God’s work—nor catholic; in other words, one.” The American church may not be one, or unified, in interpreting what Jesus taught, or on the morality of homosexuality, but even as Chu bemoans this fact, all hope is not lost. Later on he writes, “The pilgrimage is not over, but then what journey, if it is of any true and lasting significance, ever is?”

Win Bassett is a writer, lawyer, and entering Yale Divinity School student who has written for The Huffington Post, Sojourners, Patheos, and other publications.