In the wake of the recent shooting in Newtown, the Westboro Baptist Church, perennial anti-gay provocateurs, reached a new low. The group announced their intention to picket at the funerals of the children who had been killed, and blamed their deaths on Connecticut’s legalization of same-sex marriages.
The nation recoiled at the group’s plans, just as we have when they have shown up to picket at the funerals of Marines killed in Afghanistan or those who have died of AIDS. What they do is, all but the smallest fringe of us agree, absolutely reprehensible. Even those who oppose full civil rights for LGBT people can agree that what Westboro does goes far past the pale of what is socially acceptable.
The Westboro Baptist Church is the closest this country comes to agreeing on something that is “wrong” in America. And I agree that they are absolutely detestable. But the ironic thing is, when it comes to anti-gay rhetoric from churches, I am far less afraid of the Westboro Baptist Church than I am of little-known congregations all across the country. Maybe even one that’s in the town where you live.
You see, Westboro Baptist Church puts their prejudice right out there. It’s up there on the vulgar signs and in the press releases. It’s stated loud and clear in everything they do. They don’t hide their contempt for LGBT people. It’s right there.
But imagine this. Imagine you are a LGBT person who is looking for a church that will accept you. And so you find yourself looking at the webpage of a congregation down that street that says they “welcome all”. Maybe you even go to the church and talk to the pastor and ask if LGBT people are welcome there, and the pastor says “of course! We love everyone!”
Now, there’s a chance that they really mean you are welcome. As in, welcome to come in and be who you are and be accepted and affirmed. That’s true of a growing number of Christian churches.
But there’s another possibility too. One that far too many LGBT people face. After being initially welcomed by a congregation, it doesn’t take too long for the truth to come out. They are still welcome to worship, but the church believes that their sexual orientation, their “lifestyle” or “choice”, is a sin.
In one-on-one counseling with the pastor they are told that their homosexuality is the same as an alcoholic’s addiction. They aren’t sinners for being attracted to others of the same sex, but they must learn to not act on those feelings, the same way an alcoholic may obtain sobriety. Maybe they’ll even be referred to so-called “reparative therapy” meant to change their sexual attractions. And all the while, they are told that the church loves them. That they are called as Christians to “love the sinner” but “hate the sin”.
In happens all the time. When a church not far from me moved to town they wrote on their blog that part of their draw to Vermont was that other churches here were “embracing liberal theology such as universalism and homosexuality”. Yet on the ground, this isn’t mentioned, even when they try to recruit LGBT people to attend their services with a “we welcome all” attitude.
And, unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, I believe that they really believe that they love gay people. And that’s why they’re so dangerous. Because it’s often the harm that churches do to gay people out of a misguided “love” that becomes truly dangerous.
Most of us can look at the Westboro Baptist Church and know that they are preaching a distorted Gospel. But when it comes to the gay kid being raised in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” church or the adult woman who finally works up the courage to talk to their “welcoming” pastor about being a lesbian, there is a real danger of pastoral malpractice with potentially deadly results.
I want my anti-gay preaching right out there in the open. I hate what the Westboro signs say, but I appreciate knowing that anyone who sees them will know exactly what they are dealing with when they see them. I want these churches that proclaim a “welcome” to gays and lesbians to be really clear about what the conditions of that welcome actually entail. I want them to tell the truth: we will never affirm who you are, we will never officiate at your marriage, and we will never accept that God made you who you were and wouldn’t want you to be alone. That’s just basic honesty, and that’s the least that one should be able to expect from our pastors.
For now, though, plenty of us who are pastors practice a sort of downstream ministry. Once the harm has been done by churches that claim to be welcoming, and once the people who they have harmed have recovered just enough to go out on the limb and try to explore faith again, we open the doors and say “no really…you really are welcome and affirmed here…just as you are.”
It’s amazing how long it takes until people who have been badly wounded by a church in the past actually believe it. But when they do, it often feels like coming home. I just wish more of them could find that home without being misled on their journey there.