When most people come out, they roll out their big news slowly. First you tell a few people, dip your toes into the water of public opinion and use loved ones as an emotional litmus test. But when Brad Allen came out, he went big. He was already out to those who knew him well, but after making the decision to start dating last September, Allen came out on Facebook.
"I've never been one to do anything half-assed," Allen shrugged over a cup of coffee.
Devoutly religious, Allen shared his coming-out story with Facebook friends through an essay on Pastor in Process, a Tumblr blog about his personal religious journey. Allen's sexuality was a huge component of his understanding of God. He says that rather than forcing him to turn away from God, it brought them closer together. He writes:
I believe God's perfect Plan A was that everyone would be heterosexual and marry one opposite-gender spouse and make 2.5 kids with an eternal puppy and fruit from the Trees of the Garden. Most of us did not get Plan A. Some of us got a version of it, but it has been revised a few times. When Plan A isn't possible because of divorce or war or infertility or homosexuality, does that mean those people are shelved forever because Plan A is unattainable? Quite the contrary, God, in His infinite patience, enters and makes a beautiful Plan B, C, D, or ZZ. He never stops creating beauty from our messes.
Here I find myself: looking for love, messy as ever, loved by Abba to the point of ridiculousness, and still trying to figure it out. I can't wait to have a beer with Christ in heaven and talk this out with Him. He's going to either say "Good job, kiddo. You did the best you could with what you were given. Welcome!" or "Brad, my dear son, you really messed that one up. Welcome!" I hope to see you there listening in on that conversation after I listen in on your conversation with Him over what has troubled you your whole life.
Those conversations are going to be pretty rad.
Last month's Facebook post became a lightning rod for discussion among Allen's mélange of Christian, conservative and gay friends, populations that complement each other as often as they clash. Allen was unapologetic about his decision to remain a follower of Christ's teachings, seeking to be "the best gay Christian [he] could be." Many applauded him. Others argued that he'd been led astray. One commenter took Allen to task for "consummating his homosexual desires," writing, "While I'm proud of you for 'confessing your sins one to another,' I also need to call you out...I hope you recognize your sin and remove yourself from that." This comment garnered 11 "likes" from Allen's Facebook friends.
Rather than dismissing his critics, Allen did exactly what a "pastor in process" would do: He engaged them.
"I didn't cut out the people I disagreed with," he said. "I wanted to disagree with them publicly so we could debate. No one's public mind was changed, but in personal emails, they were extremely encouraged to see the tenor of the conversation unfold."
In that way, Allen succeeded.
"I wanted to get the conversation going amongst other people who would never talk about it," he said.
Allen grew up in a "religious cult," where topics like these were never addressed. Until he was 17, Allen lived in a closed community that was "incestuous and weird," but he claims it taught him about "how groupthink happens and how massive groups of people can all think the same way." In the cult, members were banned from getting shots or wearing jewelry. Even wedding rings were forbidden. Allen wasn't allowed to wear shorts or short sleeves, which were considered "immodest."
"It took me five years for to be able to put on shorts without that twinge of being a sin," he said.
Instead of running away from faith after this radical experience, Allen stayed with the church after leaving the cult. He joined Exodus International, the right-wing Christian organization that preaches gay conversion therapy. At the time, Allen thought that if God wanted him to be straight, then there must be a cure for his desires. He said that it wasn't the cult that made him want to be perfect. It was God.
"I wasn't repressed," Allen said. "I was trying to change."
Allen thought that Exodus might have the answer, but he found the reality of Exodus far different from the message it preached.
"Their motto is 'change is possible,' but it's a bait-and-switch," Allen stated. "When you get inside the gates, they don't claim to really change people."
In addition, it was Exodus' political orientation that convinced Allen that the organization wasn't for him. Allen said:
Exodus was political for a short time, and I happened to work there during that time. Christ came to be countercultural. We're not supposed to use the weapons of the world to fight the world. I saw a bunch of Christians who would pray and then go into the most partisan, American-centric, Republican-centric nonsense. This is not what Christianity is about. The fact that they are calling it Christianity is taking God's name in vain.
Allen left Exodus to explore the community's conflicts through ministry. He described himself as a "bar pastor" and said that he found his calling among other gay Christians.
"I saw so much pain from gay people who were religious," he said. "This is a group of people who genuinely need to know the unconditional love of God. I felt like the next manifestation of my calling began to form when I visited gay bars."
Allen recounted an experience of informally ministering to a man in Denver:
There was a guy by himself with his phone. We talked to each other for two hours. He was thinking about doing something illegal to make money and was desperate and at the end of his rope. I took him out to his car and prayed for him. It was so beautiful that I believe that that's what God wants me to do. I am called to be like Jesus, and I get there maybe a seventh of the time. If I can be in a place to love like Christ did, I can be a pastor without ever using religious words.
Allen says it's important that the faithful minister to their "gay brethren" and have these sorts of conversations openly, or they'll risk alienating people in harmful ways. He noted the risk of suicide among the queer and religious.
"I was prepared to kill myself before I finally accepted my sexuality and faith," Allen said. "I am just thankful that God saved me from that fate, although others haven't been so lucky."
Allen credits gay-affirming congregations like Denver's A House for All Sinners and All Saints and relationships he's built with allies with helping him find a home in the church. He said it wasn't just the "unconditional love" of his supporters that saved him but also the "conservative friends who took the time to listen":
My friend Dave is older and a self-admitted homophobe, and he asked several times to sit down and hear my process so he could grow. He said, "Brad, you are my best chance of overcoming my homophobia, because I love you so much, and I respect your journey. Help me know how to grow." I felt more loved by this man than almost anyone.
Allen says Christianity has so many internal conflicts because there's always some tension in being human, and as a gay Christian, he lives that tension every day.
"Some days I do a decent job," he said. "Other days I f*ck it up. Story of my life."
This blog post was originally featured on WBEZ.