By John Pierce

Sad. Very sad, on many levels.

That was my reaction to a well-researched, well-written article in the Sunday edition of The Chattanooga Times-Free Press. It focused on Matt and Frances Nevels, whose young-adult son died of AIDS in 1992.

Matt had been a longtime, beloved minister of education at Red Bank Baptist Church north of the river in Chattanooga before going to work for the local Baptist association. He and his family were deeply immersed in the congregation.

It was only after Stephen had moved to Atlanta and become very ill that his parents discovered he was gay. Matt reveals in the newspaper story that his love and acceptance of his son trumped the condemnation of homosexuality that he had long heard and held.

It was quite revealing, however, to read: “In all his years as a minister, Matt never spoke in depth with anyone about homosexuality.”

That is hard imagine for even the most conservative church or minister. Perhaps avoiding the subject is more common that I would have believed.

Tragically, this family’s great suffering was compounded by those who should have provided the most comfort and hope. Instead the Nevelses experienced distance from the congregation — even from the pastor at the time, Fred Steelman, according to the article.

Stephen had requested that his father conduct his funeral at the church where he had been raised and had made significant Christian commitments. What I read next startled me.

“Steelman said he wanted the funeral to be tasteful and respectful of the church …” the article reported. “[He] made it clear that he did not want the funeral to be a celebration of Stephen’s lifestyle. There were lines the church couldn’t cross.”

WHAT? A family has lost their dear son and the bigger concern is protecting the church’s reputation or doctrinal positions — or, perhaps, the pastor protecting himself against criticism?

Tragedy is heaped upon tradegy.

When compassion for those who are suffering is trumped by an effort to protect reputations, jobs and institutions, Christianity is reduced to something far less than what was said and done by Jesus. (Remember his tarnished reputation?)

The very essence of the Christian faith — unconditional love — was sacrificed in a fearful, inflated effort to solidify some kind of “right thinking” that apparently these church people held in higher esteem.

How tragically wrong and sad on so many levels.

Now two decades have passed since the Nevelses left their “home church” feeling resistance and repudiation. The article explains additional experiences that led up to that painful decision.

However, with remarkable grace, Matt and Frances decided to return on a recent Sunday and give their “home church” another chance to be the Body of Christ for them. Maybe it’s a new day. Perhaps some scales have fallen off weary eyes and some of the fear has subsided.

That’s what grace is all about  — a second chance or more. For all of us.


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