Early on a Saturday morning in Feb. of 1997 the phone rang in my dorm room at Emory University. When I took the phone my mother asked in a panicked voice whether I had been at the gay bar that had just been bombed.
The day before Eric Rudolph had left a bomb inside the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar in Atlanta. That night it detonated, seriously injuring patrons. It was the third of four bombings he would engineer between 1996 and 1997. Over the course of his spree two people were killed, and more than 100 were injured.
I had always known there were those who deeply hated gay people like me. I had grown up in the South and had been called just about every hateful anti-gay name you could imagine. But now I knew there were people who would actually try to blow us up.
That night gays and lesbians across Atlanta poured into the bars in a show of defiance and mutual protection. Local LGBT groups spoke out. Some local politicians did too. But despite the fact that the bombings were motivated by religious hatred of LGBT people, most of the churches, even the gay-friendly ones, were silent. That silence weighed heavily in the coming weeks.
Fifteen years later, two days after this past Christmas, I woke up to an email signed by a Christian clergy member. I won't dignify the organization to which this person belongs by naming it here, but the Southern Poverty Law Center has called their organization a "hate group." They are strongly tied to Eric Rudolph.
The email told me, "You put your soul in danger of eternal damnation for welcoming unrepentant homosexuals into God's house. You blaspheme the Name of God. Homosexuality should be criminalized. Homosexuals commit crimes against God, against nature, against the Holy Bible and against the human race."
I found out later that many of my LGBT colleagues, and our allies, had also received the same email. I wish I could say it was my first piece of "hell mail," but it's not. There have been other emails and creepy anonymous text messages. There was the ex-gay leader who got within a foot of me and accused me of wearing a fake clergy collar to fool people. And there was the guy from Twitter who emailed me messages about hell from an account using my own name. The first few times these things happened I double-locked my doors.
The Otherside Bombing had taught me that there was reason to be afraid of religious extremism. I still believe that. But religious violence doesn't always come in the form of bombs set off in bars. It doesn't even come in the form of blatantly anti-gay emails. Sometimes it comes in the day-to-day interactions LGBT people have with people of faith. And while the intent of someone with a "love the sinner, hate the sin" theology isn't deadly, the reality is that the consequences can be. And now, with lawmakers in states like Tennessee trying to open loopholes in bullying laws in the name of "religious freedom," LGBT people -- and youth in particular -- will continue to navigate a world where spiritual violence is given free reign.
Fifteen years ago I tried to understand how one night I had gone to bed young, idealistic and full of hope; and then had awakened to a community wondering not if another bomb would be detonated, but where. I wish I had heard more voices of faith leaders in the coming weeks.
Today we wade through the news of suicides, bullying, reparative therapy and religious wars over marriage equality. And while there are certainly inclusive faith voices, we still are often too silent.
And our silence helps the anti-gay vitriol of some faith groups to seem that much louder, and that much more representative of all of Christianity. The sheer surprise I still hear from LGBT people when they find out they are welcome in a growing number of churches is telling. We are often beginning to do the work we need to do in our own faith communities, but we aren't doing the external work of reconciliation that would reach out to those who have been alienated by the church.
That saddens me the most, because I know some churches can be places of healing for LGBT people.
The author of the First Epistle of John wrote, "Perfect love casts out fear." I've learned to trust that. That night after the bombing, 15 years ago in that Atlanta bar, I knew that there were people who wanted me to be afraid. And I also knew that the love that held me in that place was bigger. Not even Eric Rudolph could destroy that.
When I read that email a few weeks ago, I remembered what had happened in Atlanta. But I also remembered what years worth of witness from inclusive Christians has taught me: God's love, unapologetically claimed for all of God's creation, can always triumph over fear.
We pastors tend to turn the theological into the person. And so five days before that email arrived in my inbox, I got down on one knee and asked the woman I love to marry me. She said, "Yes." That night I told her that she makes me feel like I can do all the things that terrify me.
The same is true of the love of God, and what it can make us do.
The people of faith in my life who dared to speak louder than the anti-gay voices around them made me believe that was true. They often spoke at their own peril, challenging the official policies of their denominations, but they spoke anyway. They couldn't be compelled by fear to do otherwise.
To me, that is the strongest indication I have that the love of God is real. That it is so good, and so filled with grace, that it makes us feel like we can do the things that terrify us. For denominations, churches and clergy standing on the edge, preparing themselves for the fearful moment where they take a stand for true inclusion of LGBT people, and for the very real backlash that stand will create, I commend that to you. Trust the love, and not the fear. The love may make you do the things that terrify you. But it will always be worth it.
Follow Rev. Emily C. Heath on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emilycheath