As an 18-year-old college freshman, Tyler Clementi threw himself off a bridge after what has been widely described as an incident of anti-gay bullying. Other students had surreptitiously filmed Tyler while he was having an encounter with another male in his dorm room, and they streamed it over the internet.
Tyler’s death rests in company with three other teen suicides during September, all of whom had allegedly been targeted and taunted because of their homosexuality. Of course, these are just the ones we know about.
In response to these tragedies, a Southern Baptist seminary president, Al Mohler, pondered the role of the Christian faith community and rightly pointed out that teens such as Tyler “need to know that they are loved and cherished for who they are.”
“Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear,” said Mohler. “Far too many evangelical pastors talk about sexual orientation with a crude dismissal or with glib assurances that gay persons simply choose to be gay.” In these statements, Mohler is surely correct.
But then he asked this question: “What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church?”
I found myself wondering exactly what churches Mohler was talking about.
In June 2009, “it took messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting… only 30 seconds” to oust a church from affiliation “because of the church’s perceived toleration of gay members.” The convention’s messengers “chose overwhelmingly” to dismiss the church, and they did so based on a recommendation that was approved by the convention’s executive committee without a single dissenting vote.
So it doesn’t seem realistic to imagine that Tyler Clementi could have been in a Southern Baptist church – at least not if he presented himself as a gay person – because the SBC ousts churches that have openly gay members.
It is good for Mohler to talk about how churches should show love to gay people. But first things first. Before Southern Baptists can become more loving in their interactions with gay people in their midst, they must start by allowing gay people to come into their midst – and by welcoming them just as they are, as children of God.
No one is asking Southern Baptists to lie about their beliefs. But an essential first step for churches that want to show Christian care to gay people is to open their doors to gay people.
Teens watch what we do, and actions speak far louder than words.
What message do you imagine teens heard when the North Carolina Baptist Convention adopted one of the strongest anti-gay measures of any church body in America by authorizing denominational officials to investigate churches so as to ascertain whether they were being supportive of homosexual behavior? Many churches came under suspicion, and Myers Park Baptist Church was ousted because it reportedly acted in ways that “welcome and affirm” homosexuals as members and in leadership.
What message do you imagine teens heard when the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention ousted a church because it allowed its facilities to be used by a separate ministry group, Eklektos, which was welcoming of gay and lesbian people? “We are united in Christ and in the affirmation that all people are loved and called by Christ to be His disciples and to be part of His healing/reconciling work in the world,” said the Eklektos website. The church that dared to allow this organization to even use its facilities was a church that got ousted.
What message do you imagine teens heard when the country’s largest statewide Baptist organization, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, asked a church to remove itself from affiliation after learning that the church had added to its website a statement that the congregation was “a vibrant mosaic of varied racial identities, ethnicities, [and] sexual orientations”?
What message do you imagine teens heard when one of the SBC’s largest churches, Bellevue, refused to allow a women’s softball team into the league because the coach was a lesbian? As reported in the Commercial Appeal, church officials told the coach that her team couldn’t compete because of her “deviant” lifestyle. Yet, this same church retains a senior pastor who, for six months, kept quiet about a staff minister’s admitted molestation of a kid.
Teens see examples of conduct like this and they take away a message. It is not a message that communicates loving care for gay people.
Mohler has said some good words, but actions speak louder. By their actions, Southern Baptists have helped to foster a climate in which anti-gay sentiments can all too easily fester into anti-gay bullying.
Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.”