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Progressive Love

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There is power in having the courage to stand up for what you believe is right. I'm learning this fact as I go through my journey of navigating the politics of the Seventh-day Adventist church, fighting to make our educational institutions safe for LGBT students. I realize that, although we call ourselves Christians, we are so often quick to pick up the first stone. I have had those stones hurled at me while trying to be transparent in my calling to bridge the gap between the LGBT community and the Seventh-day Adventist church. Stones hurt and, quite frankly, I'm tired.

I'm tired of standing up for a church that so frequently does not love me. I'm tired of trying my best to be a part of a community where I can feel their hands pushing me outside of the sanctuary as my fingertips grasp the doorway. I'm just so tired.

Relationships are a two way street, but I am on a one-way road heading in the opposite direction. This tight-rope balancing act they have me doing seems pointless when the church is ready, waiting on both ends to cut my wire. Just this year I've dealt with legal threats and personal attacks. People who once called me family have walked by me without so much as acknowledging my existence. All of this simply because I believe God's love is inclusive. I know that God loves me for who I am. His arms are open to all -- even lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Last week, a friend, ally and pastor, Ryan Bell, was let go from the Hollywood Adventist Church. One of the core reasons was because of his radical approach to LGBT members. In an eloquent open letter, he informed his church, friends and family that he was to no longer pastor there after eight years of service.

Ryan states:

"Some of the leadership decisions I have made have led the Southern California Conference administration to the conclusion that they cannot trust me to lead this church as a Seventh-day Adventist Church. [Some of those decisions include having a] community which is diverse in every way: young and older ... and now children!, multi-ethnic, poor and middle-class, gay and straight..."

The Hollywood Adventist Church is one of a handful of Adventist churches that is committed to the intentionality of accepting, loving and affirming their LGBT members. Many churches remove LGBT people from membership and allow no participation in leadership or ministry, constraining LGBT into second-class members unable to share their spiritual gifts or participate in the life of the church.

A friend of mine who came out publicly was asked to step down from all small groups, singing assemblies and leadership positions -- kindly permitted, however, to sit in the pew. If his story is not the modern day "sit in the back of the bus" scenario, I don't know what is.

But Ryan Bell, the aforementioned pastor, does not stick to the status quo. Ryan is a gracious, loving and humble pastor, who is determined to continue to work towards equality, beginning in our spiritual home -- the sanctuary. One trans* church member posted on her Facebook timeline, "You cannot imagine the love and grace Ryan exuded. ... He could have conceded to it and 'recanted' love, but his character would not let him."

Ryan fights for people like me. He fights for my salvation and refuses to scapegoat me for my sexuality. He is a cisgender heterosexual male with no obligation to stand up for me, to stand up for love. He stood up again and again until finally getting knocked down. Now I am tired. Now I am angry.

I'm angry that I fight to let our youth know that God does love them, even when our church shows them differently. I'm angry that I work so hard to keep a level head, responding to personal attacks in emails and messages and comments from "Christians" who are so bold behind a keyboard and use the Bible only as a weapon. Christians who are so quick to speak yet so slow to listen. I'm angry, but I am proud that Ryan stood up in front of his church with open arms and professed God's love.

I am still a Seventh-day Adventist, and it is the kind of courage Ryan has shown that gives me hope. An entire church mourns and their cries are heard near and far. A progressive pastor has been lost due to his radical ideas of love. Isn't that what I've been taught? All my life, as I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church, the message of love was preached from Sabbath school lessons, to my classrooms, to the pulpit. The message was loud and clear: Jesus died for me because He loves me. Stories were told of a man who walked this earth, not sitting with the Pharisees -- the important and "correct" theologians of the day, but with the prostitutes and the sinners, the tax collectors and the fishermen. You see, He too had radical ideas about love. Jesus never cast a single person out, but rather He laid down His life for me, for us. He extended his arms to embrace the world, only for the world to nail those arms down.

I believe Ryan intentionally works fearlessly to mirror God's love to his congregation. God is the first to show this kind of mindset. The Seventh-day Adventist church lost a wonderful leader when they deemed Ryan's love too "progressive" for the church.

Even through the sadness, this story gives me hope. A pastor in our church made change, and will continue to do so. It is much easier to give up and pack one's bags, but Ryan stayed. People try to deny that our church is changing, but this story is testament to the change in our church. For too long we have let our LGBT brothers and sisters stand alone outside our church walls. I, like Ryan, will not stand for this. It is through grassroots that one day this church will openly welcome everyone. Our narratives are crucial as we have this conversation. It is only when we share our stories that we begin to bridge the gap. And so, on Easter weekend, fittingly, the Adventist church forced out one of its best ambassadors of love. But the love he modeled for us all will not be forgotten. There are more and more of us who are realizing that God's love actually is big enough to include us all. We are tired. This recent episode is discouraging. But we aren't going anywhere.