Two of the identities I hold dear to my heart are my faith and my orientation. As a child, I wondered if I could lead a "normal" life as a gay Christian. My family and I attended a Baptist church in eastern New Mexico, and I had numerous experiences within the church that shaped my core values: love for family and neighbors, a yearning for strong community, and a calling to pursue justice and equity. These values have helped me troubleshoot the most difficult times in my life and have helped foster my sense of purpose. They are the same values that give me strength to understand I will never need to choose between my faith and orientation, even though there are some who think I should.
I recently came across a story of a young Zimbabwean named Carlos Mpofu. Like myself, he is a gay Christian; he comes from a middle-class family, where he is the middle child of three; and, in his community, he also found a sense of purpose through faith.
"In the church I was given a position as a junior youth leader, leading 250 kids between 8 and 15," he said. "I became a very prominent Sunday school teacher ... It was a hectic three years but the best I ever had in my life."
Carlos struggled to come out to his family and friends but eventually found a way to make the relationships tolerable. Though he was afraid to go to school where students hurt and picked on him and other gay and lesbian students, his experience in the church was different.
"I was precocious and very intelligent. I challenged the pastors and directors of the church ... My [identity] was not [known, or] an issue there." The congregants accepted Carlos because of his dedication to his faith; the pastor promoted him and offered him two jobs for the same reason; and the church continued to provide him a medium to truly live out his purpose.
But then, something changed.
A mother of one of his students suspected Carlos was gay, and immediately told the pastor she had a problem with him around her son. "She was afraid I would molest him, or I already had," Carlos said. The pastor didn't believe her and dismissed her accusations because of his experiences working with and knowing the solid character of the Sunday school teacher. But that moment triggered something. Whispers began to spread amongst the congregation. Whispers that said, despite Carlos' character, a man "suspected" of being gay should not be welcomed in the church. Carlos' pastor did not know he was gay, but when he heard these things and "confirmed" that Carlos dated men, he fired him on the spot.
"They 'preaccused' me of things they thought I would do to school kids -- molest them or corrupt them. They said they had to fire me to prevent that. I lost both jobs within 10 minutes, and all my positions within the church."
Carlos' life took a downward spiral after that. Because he lost his job, conflict ignited between him and his family. He developed animosity toward the church that had never existed before.
"I always want to tell people, 'Don't expect sympathy from the church if you are gay,'" he said. Carlos attempted suicide for a month. He struggled with his family until he was chased out of the house. He became a heavy drinker and became promiscuous, "leading a very dangerous life." He was frequently beaten up because of the social activism he tried to pursue after being fired. And in 2002, Carlos died.
As I read his story, my heart pounded thinking about how some Christians can treat other Christians. Like many, I don't attend services as often as I would like, but my experiences within the Christian framework have inspired me to believe we should be in community with each other regardless of orientation or faith. The church is not a vehicle to cast out or destroy others; it is an environment that should seek justice, equity and welcome all persons into the sanctuary.
My recent experiences in the church have matched this reality where an individual's character is defined by their heart and mind, instead of assumptions based on fear or misinformation about their orientation. In Zimbabwe, where the Christian church is heavily a part of the local culture and has a decisive voice and influence in local politics and the economy, this becomes particularly critical.
As Carlos' story shows us, when Christians reject gay or lesbian Christians, the consequences can be severe. It can lead to unemployment in struggling economies or trigger a dangerous downward spiral that leaves many in isolation and defeat. Yet, at the same time, Carlos story shows us how the same church or congregation can also give hope and propel individuals into a future with the potential for endless opportunity.
What if our collective Christian identity were able to achieve this? This situation so clearly demonstrates the Christian community at its best and worst. But most importantly, it shows the potential within all of us to love without labeling or casting others out for impractical reasons. The lines that divide Christians around this issue are artificially constructed and dangerous. We all have the potential to welcome everyone in faith, but what will it take to get there?