I saw the most fascinating (and very familiar) narrative in the New York Times about a personal war in one corner of American evangelicalism: How a transgender dad changed the life of his son and the church that this son pastors. And how evangelicals, led by a few brave congregations, are bound to change their views on gay and transgender people sooner rather than later.
Why? Because of the power of narrative, of story, of the injustice visited upon those who want change by those who don't.
You can't argue with a person's story, can you? And so the article begins:
Jonathan Williams was three months into his ministry when his father called to say they needed to talk. Paul Williams, Jonathan’s father, was prominent in the evangelical Christian world, chairman of an organization that started independent churches around the country. One of those churches was Jonathan’s, Forefront Brooklyn, a new congregation that met in a performance space downtown. Paul Williams’s organization, Orchard Group, had helped it raise $400,000 and assemble a staff.
Paul Williams had never felt entirely comfortable with who he was. When he was very young, he thought he would someday get to choose his gender, probably before kindergarten, and at that point he would choose to be what he felt, a girl. And when the figure he thought of as the gender fairy never materialized, he soldiered on.
He followed his own father into ministry, preaching as a guest in some of the country’s largest evangelical churches; he married a minister’s daughter, fathered three children and became a successful executive in a conservative Christian organization. From their home on Long Island, he loved to take Jonathan hiking or mountain biking. He was an alpha male, the head of a religious home. Whatever else was going on in his mind, he decided, was a secret that he would take to his grave.
One detail here bothers me; the observation that this Orchard Group organization is "prominent" in the evangelical world.
One quick survey of the folks on the GetReligion team didn't turn up any of us who'd heard of it, and together -- our combined Godbeat experience is something like 140 years -- we're aware of a pretty large swath of who's who in evangelicalism.
Let's keep reading:
Then, sometime before his call to Jonathan in late 2012, he decided that he couldn’t do that any longer.
Jonathan, who is now 40 and favors rumpled shirts and faded jeans, came to ministry without strong positions on sexual or gender issues. He knew few openly gay people, and no transgender people. “Abortion I didn’t have an opinion on,” he said recently at the Whole Foods Market near his home in Brooklyn. “Premarital sex, same thing. My wife and I waited until we got married. It was something we valued at the time. The evangelical culture told you that that’s what you do, and we did it.”
This was a red flag for me. This guy is an evangelical Protestant and he has no opinion on abortion? Pro or con? That’s like an environmentalist saying he or she has no opinion on climate change.
As for the premarital sex rule, people in the evangelical culture he cites -– agree with it or not -– doesn’t value the wait-until-marriage idea just because they're sex-phobic. They do so because it’s a precept taught in the Bible, part of a traditional Christian approach to moral theology that has been around since the early church.
That may sound like nitpicking, but it’s a telling quote that tells me a lot about the speaker. The reporter has covered religion for many years , so I’m a bit curious why he missed that detail. Or maybe he didn’t miss it but is throwing us a hint.
In December 2012, when his father flew in from his home in Colorado to talk with him, Jonathan thought that his parents might be splitting up, or that his father had cheated on his mother. Maybe, he thought, his father was going to say he was gay.
Then his father said that he wanted to live as a woman.
The article goes on to describe Jonathan’s bewilderment and depression when the man he’d only known as a father turned into someone different. He was suddenly orphaned, as it were. It was a death, yet not a death.
His father had been his male role model and daily counselor in his ministry, as well as his entry into the evangelical world that financed his church.
Now, he said: “I felt betrayed, lied to. I didn’t want to know my dad’s new name for six, seven months after it happened. Then she said, ‘Paula,’ and I said, ‘O.K., it’s not that bad.’ But I was still feeling angry.”
Meanwhile, the Orchard Group, upon learning of Paul’s sex change, demanded he resign on the spot. (See this Denver Post piece for more on that).
Jonathan goes through months of loss and depression, feeling there is no category for what he’s going through. Church, friends, the Bible; little helps. He’s in therapy for several years.
The article then switches to Paula’s story, with numerous quotes from her. It then switches to the story of Stefany Fontela, a lesbian who attends Forefront after being rejected by other churches. Which was all very interesting, but why all the anecdotes?
Then I see a pattern. The article is very similar to narratives of parents who’ve been stalwarts at their church until their son or daughter has come out as gay and then their theology changes, they experience rejection from their friends and they decide their previous form of Christianity has been too narrow and judgmental and now they’re in a much freer place.
The key theme, of course, is that there is good Christianity and bad Christianity. Thus, the folks left behind don’t get a voice. Or if they do, it’s a tiny sound bite compared to the massively sympathetic treatment accorded the main characters who are evolving toward the doctrines of, well, The New York Times editorial page.
Anyway, Jonathan goes through a metamorphosis in terms of his church’s stance on transgendered people.
It hurt him, he said, that his father would be a second-class member of the church. At a staff meeting in 2015, he told his core group that the church would move toward full participation for gay, lesbian and transgender members.
“We took a tour of everybody who’s done this in the evangelical world,” seeking advice, Mr. Williams said. “It was not a big tour.”
Doug Pagitt in Minneapolis was one stop on the tour. Mr. Pagitt is the pastor of Solomon’s Porch church and the founder of the Organizing Progressive Evangelical Network, a loose association of churches that strives for greater inclusiveness. He estimated that several dozen evangelical churches have officially affirmed gay members in recent years, with many more moving in that direction. … “In mainline churches, clergy tend to be more progressive than their congregations,” Mr. Pagitt added. “In evangelical churches, clergy tend to be more conservative than the people in the pews. And people like it that way. So when the pastor becomes more progressive, that shocks the system.
Well, with words like "inclusiveness" and "progressive," you get the drift.
As the piece goes on (and it’s pretty long), the narrative was on the people who stayed on as Forefront became gay-friendly. But the voices of those who left are never heard. Yes, there is a mention of how the Orchard Group would not comment for this piece but I would have liked a mention of the Orchard Group’s connection (or at least that of some of their leaders) with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ movement and where it stands on transgender issues. Would it have been that hard to have tracked down a dissenting voice?
(Will say my read on those who dissent is that they feel it's a no-win situation to say anything. New Testament sexual mores are a tough sell 20 centuries later and especially in this culture. Who wants to be portrayed as narrow-minded, non-inclusive and a host of other ills?)
The piece ends with Jonathan Williams stressing that he didn’t want sexual issues to dominate Forefront’s identity. Yet, he’s active in Convergence, a network of churches and leaders like him; he’s gotten a gig with the Huffington Post; his church is heavily involved in gay pride activities so clearly his father’s sex change has permanently altered the son.
The piece defies easy categorization and it's a fascinating glimpse into the impossible situation faced by the son. But what of the equally impossible situation faced by church members who see the ground shift under their feet and their pastor turning into someone they don't recognize?
I'm not criticizing this choice of a news topic. I merely wish that readers had a chance to hear the voices of other believers who are at the heart of this story. Why were some voices given the chance to speak, and speak, and speak, while others were silent or perhaps avoided?