After the recent massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I sat down with a gay friend and asked about his reaction to the news. He told me that he cried all day after it happened. I then asked him to help me understand why the tragedy hit him so hard.
“You have to understand the power of the gay bar,” he said. He described it as a “magical” place for gay men, most of whom have spent their lives on the margins. At these bars, they walk into a room where they’re not the oddball anymore — for perhaps the first time, they feel like they belong.
“Having someone come into that sacred space and commit such a horrific act of violence is, to me, like someone coming into a Bible study at that church in Charleston and murdering church members. That’s not supposed to happen. You’re supposed to feel safe there.”
His words came back to me again when I was reading “I Knew 17 Who Died in Orlando.” The article shares the story of Eric Roundtree, a tall, obese bouncer who worked at an Orlando gay bar where he met some of the patrons of Pulse. Despite being heterosexual, Roundtree found the acceptance and community he was desperately seeking, and he wasn’t the only one. One of the regular patrons of Pulse described Saturday nights at the club as resembling a church service.
I’m sure none of this is a surprise to atheist-lesbian-turned-Presbyterian-pastor’s-wife Rosaria Butterfield, who told the Gospel Coalition last year, “The gay and lesbian community is a real community from which the church has a lot to learn about standing with the disempowered and being good company for the suffering.” She also tells Christian parents with gay children, “You will have to work very hard to love your son and daughter as much as the gay community is.” Unfortunately though, I’m not sure most Christians are prepared to offer that kind of love to people in the LGBT community.
There’s a culture war going on, and the church is losing. No doubt, we’re thrilled to welcome gay visitors into our congregations, but we’re not quite prepared to embrace them unconditionally. We want to make sure they know that while we welcome them, we don’t affirm their lifestyle. It’s another version of the old, “I love you, but.”
How appealing this must be to the LGBT community.
All of their lives, they’ve heard “I love you, but” messages from believers — coworkers, pastors, family, and friends who couldn’t see beyond sexual orientation. Why wouldn’t they want to go to a gay bar? If they’re going to be defined by their sexual preferences, they might as well go to a place where it’s celebrated, where they are celebrated just as they are.
As the church, we could do so much better. We could offer a spiritual family that’s defined by radical hospitality to the LGBT community, one that acknowledges people’s sexual desires but isn’t fixated on them. It’s a place where we embrace first and then embrace some more and then step back and say, “Welcome home.” As John Perkins says in the film series, “For the Life of the World,” “You don’t give dignity to people; you affirm it. Hospitality is saying, ‘You’re significant. I honor you. I love you. You are under my roof.'”
That’s the kind of invitation the church has to extend to the LGBT community before we’re going to have any meaningful impact in it. But it’s going to require a level of empathy, curiosity, and vulnerability that won’t come naturally to churches that are committed to a defensive posture.
It will require us to stretch out our arms and love like Jesus, remembering that it’s His kindness that leads all of us to repentance (Romans 2:4). And until we’re willing to show that kind of love, and keep loving regardless of whether others change, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that members of the LGBT community would rather visit a gay bar than our churches. And while we cannot undo the acts of hatred and violence that occurred at Pulse, this is one tragedy we can work towards rectifying.