By Mollie Teeter
Growing up in Orange, Va., Gregory Miller often felt less than accepted. As a gay student at a high school where a gay-straight alliance student organization was considered taboo, he was forced to find acceptance elsewhere. For him, he found comfort in his local church.
“I couldn’t have gotten through high school— literally every single day being called ‘faggot’— without God,” he said. “I’ve been constantly teased throughout my life for just being who I am. I’ve been through a number of really difficult things that I don’t know how I would have gotten through if there weren’t a higher being.”
Miller, a devout United Methodist and a sophomore magazine major at Syracuse University, spent each Sunday morning in the pews of Trinity United Methodist Church until he left for college. Religion has since provided him with a sense of consistency and comfort that he finds nowhere else.
But the development of his relationship with God has been complicated. He hid his sexuality for years, fearing what it might do to his relationship with God.
“For a lot of gay people, there’s a selfish motivation for hiding their sexuality, like whether other people will judge them or that their lives will become harder,” Miller said. “For me, though, it was whether it is okay with God.”
Miller sees his sexuality and religious views as compatible. And in a denomination like the United Methodist church, whose official Web site states, “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends,” he feels safe and accepted.
“Church is definitely the warmest place in my life,” Miller said. “In fact, look at the church’s slogan. ‘Open hearts, open minds, open doors: The people of the United Methodist Church.’ That says wonders to me. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of something like that?”
But this mixture of sexuality and religion often fosters feelings of confusion in a society where the two historically do not mix. And as comfortable as Miller feels sitting in his church’s pews, the official stance of the United Methodist church on homosexuality states, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” according to the denomination’s Web site.
Members of the SU community are fighting to combat this contradiction in church dictum, history and practice, most notably Hendricks Chapel’s new dean, the Rev. Tiffany Steinwert.
Steinwert, a proponent of reform in the United Methodist Church, has continually fought for LGBT members to have the opportunity to participate in all levels of the church processes. She believes that there is a huge contradiction in the church’s official stance on homosexuality, as stated in their guidebook, the Book of Discipline.
“If people are of sacred worth, then they must be admitted to the full participation of the Church. In the UMC, we believe in what’s called the means of grace, meaning that participating in the life of the church offers you access to the grace of God,” Steinwert said. “When you deny full participation, you in effect deny people the grace of God, which to me is in full opposition to everything that our denomination stands for.”
Followers of other denominations, too, are frustrated with inconsistent views on the gay community. Caroline Godden, a sophomore communications design major, is a member of the Episcopalian Church who aspires to one day become a priest, like her father. Her parents, who divorced when she was 3 because her mother came out as a lesbian, remain friends. Her older brother, who is also openly gay, is still very much welcome in her family.
“I think a lot of people make this blanket statement that all Christians hate gay people,” Godden said. “Usually when I tell people that my dad’s a priest and my mom’s a lesbian they react by saying, ‘Oh my gosh, do they want to kill each other?’ And I’m just laughing and say, ‘No way.’”
She, too, finds Christian teachings incompatible with homophobia.
“With Christianity, you are raised to love everyone,” Godden said. “It’s super contradictory to me, and I don’t get how you can say how it’s a religion of acceptance and love for anyone who comes to worship there and then deny any entire group of people certain rights.”
Bringing up the example of gay marriage, Godden points out that marriage is the most obvious overlap between religion and sexuality.
“I don’t see sexuality and religion as separate issues,” Godden said. “Part of being a religious person is having love for another person on this earth and having a family, and marriage is a huge part of what people do as religious people. I don’t really see how you can deny someone the ability to profess their love in front of whomever they believe their God is.”
Steinwert advocates changing issues like gay marriage in The United Methodist Church. As a founding pastor of the Cambridge Welcoming Ministries of Massachusetts, she has been a proponent of ministries that, according to the group’s official Web site, aim to be “an open and affirming, progressive faith community dedicated to proclaiming God’s love for all with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight persons.”
“It was really important to have a safe space for people to come, to know God, to heal, and to advocate for their own inclusion,” said Steinwert. “I think that in every movement for liberation people need to speak for themselves. So creating Cambridge Welcoming Ministry was a way of empowering the LGBTQ community to have their own voice to clamor [for] their own inclusion.”
Steinwert also plans to plead the case for members of the gay community at the church’s global conference, called the General Conference, in 2012. There, the denomination’s guidelines are put up for discussion, allowing Steinwert to lobby for the LGBT community. Because she speaks out against the church’s official stance, her actions are considered civil disobedience, but Steinwert has only the best intentions for her denomination, she said.
“I don’t really battle the church as much as I think I stand for the tradition of the church, and I seek to carry that forward for our denomination,” Steinwert said. “I feel that our denomination has digressed from that deep tradition, that deep commitment that we have of justice and equality for all people in the last 40 years. So I am calling my church back to faithful obedience to who we are in the body of Christ.”
With progressive steps being taken within certain denominations of Christianity, religious members of the LGBT community are being welcomed and recognized in their congregations. Godden observes that at least five couples who regularly attend her father’s parish in Delaware are gay, and do not hesitate to participate in church life.
“They’re acolytes, they’re in the choir, and it’s clear that their religion is very important to them,” she said. “That’s why I find it disheartening when I see churches that push them away because that is so contradictory to what Christianity is supposed to mean.”
Progressive changes to the church’s views on homosexuality have made it possible for LGBT members to use God and religion as a coping mechanism. Miller believes that he couldn’t have made it as far in his life without his relationship with God.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but God is the only person that is there for me,” Miller said. “God is my best friend.”
Miller knows that religion is often used as a weapon against the queer community. He believes using the Bible for that purpose is both invalid and wrong.
“I don’t know if homosexuality is a sin. I don’t think it is, but even if it is, so is drinking hard liquor. The Bible has so many literal rules. It says if your son disobeys you to take him to a cliff side and stone him,” he said, laughing. “Why you would pick one tiny little aspect that’s brought up maybe five times in the whole Bible, not one time adding up to more than a paragraph, and make it into a huge thing? It’s just sad.”
And if Miller’s relationship with God has shown him anything, it is that religion is meant to spread love and to be accepting of everybody, no matter the circumstances.
”All you have to do is open the Bible to see that God says to love everybody,” he said.