My views of gay and lesbian people began to change after I moved to Philadelphia to work with at-risk youth in an inner-city neighborhood. Back in my white, middle class hometown, it seemed like the only two sins that Christians ever talked about were homosexuality and abortion. In North Philly, I saw a neighborhood ravaged by unjust economic systems, racism, and civic neglect. I came to recognize the presence of sin in social structures and cultural norms that caused suffering in the lives of individuals. It also became apparent to me that many privileged Christians were obsessed with sexual sin because they did not want to confront their own sins of greed and materialism. Still, at the time, I viewed gay rights as a “minor” issue that paled in significance to more pressing issues like racism and poverty. However, my perspective began to change when I met a new friend, John Derrick Leary.
I first met John when we both enrolled in a seminary course on youth ministry. I was a young, twenty-something, white male who was overwhelmed with the challenges of serving in an impoverished neighborhood. John was older, African American, more experienced with inner city life, and deeply spiritual. When John offered to take me out for a beer and talk about our ministry experiences, I was happy to oblige. John was a huge encouragement to me and soon became like a big brother. He opened my eyes to African American church culture in the city and he invited me and scores of other young, white seminarians to preach at his church. His life passion was to bridge the racial divide.
Despite John's deep faith and his larger-than-life personality, he often seemed lonely and depressed. He worked a low-wage job as a security guard and he was never able to secure a full-time position in ministry. There always seemed to be an overwhelming sense of sadness that covered him. We had developed a weekly routine of going out for dinner and drinks on Sunday nights. One evening he said to me, “David, I have a secret to tell you. Can you handle it?” “Well sure,” I said, “we’ve been friends for a long time.” “I’m gay,” John said. We sat there for a moment in awkward silence. “How could a minister be gay?” I asked. He replied, “I’m trying to change. I’ve asked God to cure me of this sickness. I’m seeing a Christian counselor who is trying to make me turn straight. Please pray for me.”
This revelation troubled me. I had never knowingly been friends with a gay person before. I wouldn’t have cared if he said he been to prison, or if he were a drug addict, but being gay – that made me uncomfortable. I started to re-think our whole friendship. Was he trying to date me? Was he trying to take advantage of me sexually? Thankfully, these irrational fears in my heterosexist mind began to subside as I spent more time with John. “Gay people are sinful,” he always said, “but they are loved by God.” John and I would continue our weekly excursions for dinner and drinks, and he sometimes took me to gay establishments like Woody’s, the Twelfth Air Command. For a straight, Christian kid from rural Minnesota, this was pretty exotic stuff. But what I noticed more than anything was the way that bartenders and patrons in these places would often embrace John when he came in. They would ask John to pray for them – sometimes right on the spot. Even though John spent many evenings in the gay clubs to alleviate his own sense of loneliness, he was also there to show love to people who had been rejected from the church. He was truly a chaplain to Philadelphia's gayborhood.
My theology about homosexuality would undergo radical shift when in 2000, I started attending Arch Street United Methodist church in downtown Philadelphia. I was attracted to the church because of its commitment to social justice. At first, I still wasn’t sure if Biblical teaching could be reconciled with an openly-gay lifestyle, but the pastor’s sermons challenged me to take seriously the breadth of God’s love. I began to consider the heterosexual bias with which I had long read scripture. By reading the Bible through the experiences of LGBT persons, I no longer read the Genesis 19 text about God’s plan to destroy Sodom as proof that God condemned homosexuality. After studying the scriptures more carefully, I learned that the true sin of Sodom had to do with the abuse of power and the denial of hospitality. Ezekiel 16:49 says that God was angry at Sodom not because of the “sin” of homosexuality, but because of its arrogance and exploitation of the poor. In fact, the concept of “homosexuality” did not exist until it showed up as a term used in clinical diagnosis in the late nineteenth century. Biblical writers, even Paul in the New Testament, could in no way have imagined consensual, loving, committed relationships between persons of the same gender as we know them today. I was finally intellectually persuaded that the church was on the wrong side of justice and that a faithful commitment to following Jesus meant challenging hatred and bigotry.
Armed with a new perspective, I was eager to persuade my friend John to accept himself as a gay man loved by God for who he was. I was sure he would find this new perspective liberating. However, it soon became clear that he was not yet ready to come out. As an African American gay man seeking to be the pastor of a church, it was not easy to go public. Most black churches would not have accepted a gay pastor. The few white churches that would embrace his gay identity did not embrace his traditional black preaching style. He was stuck in an in-between place and often suffered from bouts of depression. Given the constraints on his ability to make a living wage, he continued to toil at a part-time job working the graveyard shift. The stresses of his predicament began to weigh on his body. He wasn’t eating right. He wasn’t sleeping right. He went to the doctor for a variety of ailments, including heart problems. He continued to live in a small room at a conservative seminary – a place where he was forced to remain secretive about his identity due to the campus lifestyle policy.
Outside the walls of that seminary, the world was beginning to change. Popular television shows like Will and Grace humanized gay men. The state of Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church. The culture began to shift. Little by little, John began to reconcile his identity as a gay man and a follower of Jesus. He finally connected with a church that had an outreach program for young gay men. John started to build a faith community that was diverse – both by race and sexual orientation. After he finished a divinity degree at the seminary, he enrolled in a doctoral program to help him develop a plan to expand his ministry. I’ll never forget the last phone call I had with him. He asked me to be one of his advisors on his project. He said that he had finally settled on his thesis, which would apply Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy for confronting racial segregation to the plight of gay and lesbian people in the contemporary church. I happily said yes and I felt so grateful to God for the changes I had witnessed in John’s life. He had finally come out to his friends, his sister, his mother, and finally, the biggest obstacle of all, his father. They all embraced him with love. John was forging a new direction for his life and his future seemed bright.
Three weeks after that conversation, John’s sister called me seemingly out of the blue. “John died of a heart attack last night,” she said. “They found his body in his car in the seminary parking lot. He must have been on his way to the midnight shift, but they didn’t find his body until the next morning.” He died the day before his 50th birthday.
It has been over four years since my friend’s death. I still miss him dearly. I often wonder if he would have lived beyond his 49th year if he had been born a decade later during a time when American culture and the church would have been more accepting of his identity. When we think of violence toward LGBT persons, we often think of physical violence – like when a gay couple was attacked and beaten by a group of bullies in Philadelphia’s gayborhood last year. But I think we know intuitively that violence is exercised in a variety of methods. According to historian Jon Pahl, violence is a lot like an iceberg. Physical violence is like the part of the iceberg that you can see from above. However, most of the iceberg lies below the surface of the water, invisible to the eye, and thus poses the greatest threat to passing ships. It is this shadowy mass, says Pahl, that is the realm of cultural, religious, and verbal violence. Just as the massive, floating substructure of the iceberg makes it possible to view its very top, religious violence provides a foundation upon which physical violence can rest. Even when physical violence against LGBT people does not occur, religious institutions exert symbolic violence on LGBT persons by telling them who they can and cannot love, and defining gay love as “sinful.” John’s spirit and body suffered greatly from the wounds caused by religious violence.
What is the best way to respond to religious violence? I am often tempted to lash out at traditionalists with my own self-righteous certitude and condemnation. However, in them, I still see myself. The examples of MLK and Jesus show the way of nonviolence - responding in love when we, or our friends, are attacked. Both the perpetrators and the victims of religious violence against LGBT persons have been wounded. Part of the genius of MLK’s theology is the notion that both the oppressor and the oppressed suffer. The key, said King, is to recognize that we are all woven together as a single garment. We are in this together, gay and straight - a beloved community. Together, we name injustice, we confess our complicities with injustice, and we tell the stories of those who have suffered. These are the first steps in healing the wounds of heterosexism.
I deeply regret the hateful and hurtful words I uttered as a teenager but I am eternally grateful for the transformative friendship I had with John. His life and early death inspired me to challenge the church’s hurtful policies. John is the reason why I supported the Arch Street Wedding of 2013.