PJI JOURNAL Spring/Summer 2021: Love Without an Asterisk: A Pastor Comes Out

Friday, February 12, 2021

By Josh Bell, Executive Director, One Orlando Alliance

God is love.₁ I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not know this phrase. Raised in a practicing Christian family, God’s love was a concept that I learned about from an early age. I learned that there were three primary words in Greek that we translated as love. Phileo was sibling love or friendship. Eros was romantic or erotic love. Agape was unconditional love. God’s love was always described as unconditional.

This love meant a great deal to me as I was growing up. It anchored me in several difficult periods of my childhood and teenage years including experiences of childhood trauma, grief and depression. I do not know where I would be if I had not learned very early that God loved me. I am grateful for my family and the extended family of my local church that taught me about this love, and as an adult, I can also see the ways that the teaching I received was incomplete.

As I grew beyond a child’s understanding of my religious context, I learned about an ongoing conflict within my denomination, The United Methodist Church. That conflict was whether or not to allow gay people to be ordained and to get married in our denomination. In my local community, the consensus was that to allow gay marriage and ordination would be disobedient to the teachings of the Bible.

This conflict within my denomination intersected with my own identity. I have always experienced attraction to my own gender even before I had the words to describe it. I have always been gay, and from an early age I learned that being gay was wrong. No one taught me this with malicious intent. They passed along to me the concept of God that they had received, a concept which elevated God’s “righteousness” and “holiness” far above God’s love.

I learned that in practice “God is love” included an invisible asterisk corresponding to limitations and exclusions. God’s love was not actually unconditional. God loved us all as “sinners” but “hated our sin.” I learned that homosexuality was an “abomination.” People tried to distinguish between God’s love for people and God’s hatred for sin, but in practice there was no distinction. I received the message that being gay was sinful in and of itself.

I learned to accept God’s love for the portion of myself that I understood to be lovable. Simultaneously, I learned to hate my attraction to men, because I believed God hated it too.

As a teenager desperate to reconcile my faith with my sexuality, I learned about the concept of “conversion therapy” and Christian groups that claimed to provide “healing” and “wholeness” for people like me who “struggled with same sex attraction.” Although I did not enter formal therapy until I was an adult, this toxic framework became the structure for my self-understanding.

I sought “healing” in one form or another for my sexual orientation for almost 20 years. It is difficult to overstate how harmful this process was for me and the people I care about. Internally, there was a constant, devastating conflict as I sought to excise a part of myself through desperate prayers, conversion therapy, books and accountability groups.

In college, I was very involved with my campus ministry, and I surrounded myself with people who thought like I did. Although I knew a gay man who was a leader in the local church I attended, I viewed him through my conversion therapy lens. In hindsight, I can see that I was an arrogant young man. As I pursued a calling into ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church, I deliberately chose a conservative seminary that would affirm my conversion therapy mindset. My inner conflict was incredibly strong, but I reassured and comforted myself by avoiding people who thought differently than I did.

However, I was not successful in avoiding everyone. Even as I pastored in a conservative church after seminary, I encountered LGBTQ+ people who chose to live openly and still attend church. In hindsight, I see the courage that it took to show up each week, often with their partners, in an environment where they were “welcomed” but not affirmed as their full selves. As their pastor, I extended grace and welcome to them, but I retained my own beliefs about myself. The more I witnessed their full, healthy, normal lives, the more my own framework for understanding myself began to be shaken.

Parents of LGBTQ+ children also attended the churches I served and often came to me to process their own experiences of reconciling their faith with loving their children. In all of these interactions with parents, I told them, “You cannot change your child. You can only love them as they are.” Extending this truth to them also echoed in my own life. Each time I had one of these conversations, the conflict within myself grew. How could I believe this truth for someone else and not believe it for myself as well?

One retired couple came to me after leaving their lifelong church because their adult gay son was not welcome there. They met with me to determine whether or not I would be a safe person for them and their son. Their confidence about God’s love for their son and their willingness to challenge me to be more openly affirming made a powerful impression on me.

LGBTQ+ people and allies kept showing up in the religious bubble that I had constructed for myself. Each of these interactions challenged me, because I so often saw in them a deeper expression of unconditional love than I was taught was possible for someone “living in sin.” I believe each person helped me to take a few more steps on my journey.

A major milestone in my journey toward self acceptance occurred in the aftermath of a horrible act of hatred.

On the Sunday morning of June 12, 2016, I preached three services while details were still emerging about the Pulse tragedy. I offered our church and my help for funerals, and I invited greater compassion from church folks for the LGBTQ+ community.

The community and worldwide response to the Pulse tragedy showed me more of what unconditional love looked like. I saw it in the lines at the blood donation centers. I saw it in the mounds of flowers. I saw it in grief-stricken faces at candlelight vigils. I heard it in the ringing of bells and the songs of choirs. In the aftermath of this horrible act of hatred, the LGBTQ+ community and allies showed the world what love looks like.

One year later, on June 12, 2017, I opened our church worship space for candle-lighting and prayer in the evening. I sat with a first responder who had been one of the first through the wall. I talked with someone who had lost employees. I lit candles, I cried, and then I went home to bed.

At 2 a.m., I was ripped awake by a sudden, intense pain in my leg. I had never experienced that pain before, and I have not experienced it since then. I looked at the clock and realized that my friends from St. Luke’s United Methodist Church were at Pulse holding “prayerful presence” with the congregation from Joy Metropolitan Community Church.

I got down on the floor and said to God, “If you want me to go all the way down there at 2 a.m., you’re going to need to make that really clear.” At exactly that moment, my friend Rev. Jad Denmark from St. Luke’s texted me, “Are you here?” I responded, “I’m on my way.”

When I arrived at Pulse, Jad gave me a gray stole with rainbows on it [pictured]. In that moment, it made me very uncomfortable because of my internal struggle, but I wore it and stepped into the outpouring of grief and love that night.

The many milestones in my journey eventually led to a breakdown in 2018. I had to reckon with my own truth and speak it out loud to myself and others. I had to navigate the extensive personal and professional repercussions of coming out, including a choice to step out of ministry. I began to learn what it meant to truly love myself unconditionally, and I began to navigate life as an openly gay man. I found welcoming places to work at the Community Hope Center in Kissimmee and at the Peace and Justice Institute at Valencia College.

The gray stole is now one of my most prized possessions. It is a reminder to me of the beauty that can come in the aftermath of extreme pain and tragedy. It reminds me that light and hope are never extinguished, and that part of my reason for living is to care for hurting people and to help build a community where everyone is safe to be themselves.

In October 2020, I began serving as executive director of One Orlando Alliance. The seed that became One Orlando Alliance was planted just days after Pulse to help many wonderful organizations communicate and coordinate care for our deeply harmed community. The Alliance was formed out of love for our LGBTQ+ community, and it is that same love that drives our work today to make Central Florida a place where LGBTQ+ people can belong and thrive.

I am very aware that many people do not identify with my religious tradition or have any religious affiliation. I honor that. I believe everyone finds their own mental, emotional, spiritual and/or relational space that feels like home. I have found mine in the person and teachings of Jesus. I also know that people who claim to follow Jesus have been some of the most influential creators and enforcers of homophobia and transphobia, white supremacy and racism, misogyny, ableism, and other abusive power structures.

The invisible asterisk has been used to dehumanize and harm incalculable numbers of people. At the same time, the asterisk has been used to consolidate and preserve power for the thin slice of humanity to which I belonged prior to coming out. I still carry considerable privilege, even as a gay man, that can all be traced back to the asterisk.

I do not defend the Christian community for the harm we have done throughout the centuries. Instead, I invite people within my own faith tradition to reflect on this harm. To acknowledge it. To own it. To do better.

I know that God loves me as a gay man, and my relationship with God is now so much more whole than it ever was before. I am one part of the beautiful spectrum of diversity that we all collectively embody. God’s love is not confined or limited to small segments of humanity. God’s love does not exclude. Every person is loved by God exactly as we are. There are no exceptions. God loves without an asterisk.

In all of the possible ways that you might understand yourself and your identity, and in whatever mental, emotional, spiritual, and/or relational space feels like home to you, I hope and pray that you experience truly unconditional love.

₁ John 4:8b

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