During the polar vortex that gripped the United States earlier this month, nearly 700 people packed up their bags and battled ice storms, cancelled flights and highway traffic to get to Chicago. Men and women from many different faith backgrounds met to discuss their understanding of faith, share their stories, and learn where sexual orientation and gender identity fall into the Kingdom of God. This was the 2014 Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference.
The warmth of the people inside evaporated the brutal Chicago weather outside.
"The love of God was alive at the conference," Greg White of Bethany, Okla. said. "Somehow, despite our common stories of fear, shame, and rejection, our deepest wounds inflicted in the name of God, I felt God's presence and love through [God's] people -- the very people that the Church had discarded."
Whether it was learning the differences between being Side A (affirming of same-sex relationships) and Side B (celibate) while navigating the "L" transit system or sharing a coming out story at Intelligentsia Coffee or discussing the impact of a session at Lyfe Kitchen in downtown Chicago, these unscheduled conversations became the conference take-aways for many.
"I walked into the GCN Conference not really knowing anyone and I walked out with some powerful and important friendships -- people whom I now can call upon to walk with me in life no matter the time of day!" Gary Hazen, of Toronto, said.
"It was like a gathering of my tribe, speaking my language and telling my stories," said Ben Parman of Milwaukee. "It was like coming home."
"I attended my first GCN conference in 2008," Paul Creekmore, of Kansas City, said. "It was a life-changing affirmation for me that year to be surrounded by so many LGBT people and allies who understood what it means to be gay and Christian and to be free to simply exist among them honestly without risk of condemnation."
During the conference there was a lot of buzz around Kansas native Matthew Vines's presentation from his upcoming book God and the Gay Christian, and Vines did not disappoint. In it, he explained that one could still make a biblical case for same-sex relationships and hold a high view of the authority of Scripture. His session was especially useful since many in attendance come from fundamentalist or evangelical protestant backgrounds. The book is expected to be a game changer in the discourse on LGBT inclusion in the evangelical church.
Carlos Mendoza from Houston was struck by the stories od Mix-Orientation Marriages (MOM).
"It opened my eyes to the true suffering people will endure when they try to go into marriages to fix or change their orientation," Mendoza said.
The GCN Conference became a place of refuge, strength and support for folks all across the LGBTQA spectrum.
"As a straight ally, I have spent years in non-affirming churches and seen the wounds we inflict upon our LGBT brothers and sisters," Ana Velasco-Sanchez, of Orlando, said. "We have done ourselves a disservice to [the] body by denying ourselves their presence and gifts."
Parents were a focus of this year's conference. The story of Rob and Linda Robertson, whose blog about how they reacted when their son came out, brought just about everyone to tears.
"When they read from the two letters their son wrote, I was in tears," Mendoza stated. "Just hearing the initial despondency and final redemption in their relationship. It was a great analogy for God's love throughout every stage of our lives."
After the conference was over keynote speaker Rachel Held Evans "came out" as an affirming straight ally in her blog.
"It was church if I've ever experienced it. And as I wiped tears from my eyes, I became as convinced as ever that if the Church continues to marginalize and stigmatize LGBT Christians, then the Church as a whole will suffer," Evans said.
The conference ended on a Sunday morning with celebrating Holy Communion.
"GCN was a chance to feel as though I truly stood amidst the kingdom of God... in its fullness and with all its people," Velasco-Sanchez concluded.
The Chicagoland Area is no stranger to ecumenical gatherings. In 1954, Evanston, Ill., a northern Chicago suburb, hosted the 2nd Assembly of the World Council of Churches. In a time of divisive rhetoric in many denominations, it is refreshing to come together and truly be "one holy and apostolic Church." A community of believers on the fringes of the Church is leading the way for to the Church Universal on how to work together.
Next January, the 2015 GCN Conference will take place in Portland.
"I keep coming to the GCN conference every year until hopefully one day when the world won't need an organization like GCN anymore," Creekmore stated.
See you in Portland.