A pastor opts out: “God loves me as a gay person, not in spite of being one”
Written by: Mónika Szekeres /
Read the original article (in Hungarian), published here: https://nlc.hu/ezvan/20190718/istenhit-egyhaz-reformatus-lelkesz-meleg/
Translated by: Amy Kósa
A lot of people are forced to make a choice between their faith and their sexual orientation — and for pastors, this choice is a necessity. However, M. has managed to overcome this dilemma: he identifies as a gay Christian, even though this decision cost him his pastoral robe.
“Although I’m completely out in every aspect of my life, after giving it a long consideration, I’ve decided not to disclose my full name,” says my interviewee. “I came to this conclusion because in Hungary, being gay is still seen as something shameful, and even though I’m not ashamed of my past or my present anymore, I do not want to expose my family and loved ones to potential backlashes. Whoever doesn’t know me, will still understand my story, and whoever knows me, will know.”
So M., who used to be a Reformed preacher, is gay. But I was also interested in why he loves city parks so much, why he meditates every day, and how he taught himself German in such a short amount of time.
“I’ve decided to bury my desires”
“I grew up in a conservative family, which left a huge impact on my childhood,” starts M. “So, for example saying that being gay is okay and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, well, that wasn’t really an option. And this was in complete agreement with all the messages I’ve received from society, the lightest of which was that homosexuality is ridiculous, escalating to being shameful, and culminating in posing a threat to society. I was fifteen years old when I first realized that I was gay. I had been in love with a classmate as a child, but adolescence was what helped me to put it into words — at first, of course, only to myself.”
M. still considers himself lucky, because a friend of his had been there for him since the very beginning. At the time, she was the only one who he could be honest with, and he still looks back at this friendship as something that made him feel completely secure, as if she guarded over his mental health.
“Of course I had my share of doubts and fears, so I tried to do my research. The book I found said that a homosexual person will experience these feelings for at least six months, without any discontinuity. I don’t know how credible this definition would be today but considering that I’ve been ’experiencing these feelings without any discontinuity’ for eighteen years already, it’s safe to say that it fits me,” says M., laughing.
“Just about the exact same time, I had another life-changing moment: I converted. Spirituality, community, prayer and the Bible all became very important to me. I didn’t feel that being gay would be a problem at all — I have to add though, that back then I didn’t know anything about the official standpoint of the church. But a year later I did: that being gay is a sin, a problem, or at least some kind of a sickness that makes you susceptible to sin… This message wasn’t personal, it wasn’t targeted at me, but it was very present, especially because it resonated with what I heard when I was a child. That it’s shameful and disgusting.”
M. then felt that both things wouldn’t work out, but he couldn’t evade either — so he was forced to make a choice, almost still as a child. “I was so devoted to God and I felt that my calling was so strong, that at the age of seventeen, I decided to become a preacher, and that my gayness was my cross to bear, and that my desires need to be buried.” Meanwhile, he notes that he has never thought of his attraction to boys as unnatural.” This is what was natural to me. Doing the same thing with girls was what I couldn’t wrap my head around, even though back then I never had experiences of heterosexual relationships, or relationships of any kind. I was encouraged by many to get a girl to rid me of my feelings. So, for the first time in my life, at the age of twenty, I got a girlfriend. I loved and respected her as a person, but as soon as we started dating, our meetings felt forced and stressful, and I felt pressured about having to be together. This relationship lasted only a few months, and assured me that I wasn’t on the right path.
My mother’s enthusiastic, my father’s accepting
At the age of eighteen, M. was admitted to the reformed theology. And even though his upbringing wasn’t too religious, his family got hopeful that this would lay the foundations of a pastor dynasty (as his maternal grandfather had the same profession).
”During my years at the theology, I was a militant fundamentalist, devoted to proving my liberal peers wrong: I claimed that no matter what they said, homosexuality was a sin,” he recalls, and immediately adds: “Today I know that all of this was a projection of my inner struggle. But back then I completely internalized this belief, saying that this was the only truth, which I had to stand up for. As a result, I left to Oxford for a year to study apologetics. Later on, after coming out to my family, my father had a comment on that: ‘Who’s the one to study apologetics? The one with a weak faith…’ Well, that hit close to home. Still, I do not think of this period as a time of hypocrisy. I was in an honest relationship with God, probably the only hypocrisy of mine was talking about gayness from a neutral position, as if I hadn’t had any personal experience.”
As for the coming out…
“It wasn’t like I called everyone into a room and told them that I was gay. I talked to one family member at a time, sometimes years apart. My siblings were not hostile at all. My parents were upset at first, but by now they both have come to terms with it. My mother’s very enthusiastic, as of today, she’s nearly a gay rights activist, which was a long, but heroic way for her to go. My father’s at the point of accepting and welcoming my partner. In my extended family everyone’s understanding at different levels. There is only one person who accepts me as gay, but doesn’t accept my partner and my relationship, but they still think they’re behaving in an accepting way. They probably think that being gay, but not talking about it or showing it would be completely okay… Which is literally the same as the teachings of the church. But it’s impossible to accept only one certain aspect of my life. That would be the same kind of division I was forced to live in while I was a pastor.”
I’m in love, and what I feel is beautiful
In his university years, M. carried the world before one, he excelled at ancient languages, and he was seen as a particularly gifted sermon-giver. As an ordained preacher, he found himself in a town in the Great Hungarian Plain, and he is still thankful for the — as he puts it –” wonderful six years” he spent there.
”It was indeed wonderful. I found a community in the small-town environment and in my church. I was a youth pastor and I loved my job. So on the surface, everything seemed to be alright. But inside I felt that ’It can’t go on like this!’ This is a phrase I put in my journal very often. I dreaded that they would figure out who I actually was. I had excruciatingly haunting fantasies that they would chase me away with firebrands and scythes, and that I’d kill myself after that. I felt as if I had been a sinner, but I haven’t even done anything against the church law: I was celibate with no clandestine relationships. The next turning point of my internal struggle found me when my strategy of freezing myself effectively failed: I fell in love. I didn’t make a move, I didn’t have the courage, it didn’t feel right. It lasted for two years, and I went through all the pain of unrequited love. But this love transformed me. I knew that what I felt was not sinful, but beautiful. That I could give my life for this man…”
After being matured by the times of fear and one-sided love, a new door opened for him: the door of mindfulness spirituality, which is present in every religion, not only in Christianity. The notion which puts experience before teachings. ”Its basic principle is that whatever exists, is allowed to exist. In practice, this is a kind of meditation, and doing this for half an hour or an hour per day has had a huge impact on me. As I started to accept the world as it was, I also started to accept myself as I was. I’ve realized that God loves me as a gay person, and not in spite of being one.”
Mindfulness, acceptance, love… When he reaches this point of the story, my chest becomes a little less tight, and my palms become a little less sweaty — these have been there since the beginning of the interview. It might seem unbelievable, but I was worried for him and rooting for him all along, even though he sat across me healthy, smiling, and visibly in balance with himself and the world. But…
“I lied about this only once. I was holding a Religion class in high school, and I mentioned homosexuality. I had a routine in this, although I wasn’t as hostile about it anymore as in my years at the theology. And then one of the teenage girls — as teenagers do — asked me: ’Why, M., are you gay?’ I too was surprised that after so many years, I was still not prepared for this question. I stuttered and blushed, and then finally said no. At home I was completely desperate, thinking that I was done for, that this was going to be the moment when they chase me away. But this passed in a couple of hours, and got replaced by a completely different feeling: ’And so what? Even if they chase me away, God will still be by my side!’ And suddenly, there was nothing left of my earlier desperation, and what’s more, I was even happy that I couldn’t lie that well anymore. That my body tells. All of this was a journey towards honesty.”
Because no matter the humane, small-town surrounding, or the community-creating power of the church, or the beloved profession, this was an isolated way of life.
“I thought that my church only loved me because they had no idea that I was gay. And this thought became more and more excruciating. Around this time I suffered a serious accident, and the fact that I survived was borderline miraculous. Not so much time later I took part at a retreat, with a broken collarbone and my arm still in a sling. During these annual retreats, we stay silent for a week to practice mindfulness and meditate, to get connected to God and ourselves. Upon seeing the traces of my injury, my spiritual leader said that this accident was a sign that I wasn’t on the right path. This very much resonated with my aforementioned journal entries, so I decided that I would tell the world who I was, that I didn’t want to be afraid anymore, not even from the question ’And why don’t you have a wife yet?’”
The first people he told about his coming out plans were his fellow preachers. They met his decision with love, and they all looked up the relevant church laws together. According to that, homosexuality is not a sin, as long as the individual doesn’t practice or propagate it — although it is unclear by law what the latter means. For a while they were both hopeful that M. could stay with them as a celibate preacher, who at least won’t have to hide his orientation. Although soon enough it was obvious that this cannot be compromised.” I had to decide between staying in this silent turmoil or living openly outside of the church. I kept struggling for another couple of months, but I couldn’t stop the landslide: I started coming out to members of my congregation, one after another. And I made my decision: yes, I’ll leave in hopes of a more genuine life.
“When we said our goodbyes, 95 percent of my church assured me of their love and support, and found it painful that I had to leave. Although I know that this number would have been different if I had stayed… It was also interesting to experience how many other emotions were surfaced by my coming out. Because, after that, many people asked themselves: ’What if I would also be open about my differences and imperfections?’ For some, the sheer thought of this gave hope and prospect, but it left some others deeply panicked.”
But there was something before the final goodbye — something which not even the young pastor knew about. He tears up just talking about this.
“It was my thirtieth birthday. As I stepped into the empty community house, music started to play, my favorite music, and my congregants — adults, children, teenagers — came out of every corner of the building, singing. They organized a surprise party for me. And I cried, because I was assured that they loved me, and not because they had no idea who I actually was…
I am still thankful to my old church, but my relationship with the church as a whole is rather ambivalent. The system tends to tolerate difference with great difficulty (And you don’t even have to be gay for this!), and I’m afraid that this is a kind of prodigality they might regret later on. There are, for example people who would make excellent church workers, but nobody needs them because of their sexual orientation. Or the numerous gay pastors, who are currently serving, but are in the closet, which puts a huge burden on their shoulders.
I know from my example that living like this is like being at the bottom of a pit, they can only put in half of their potentials. If they were set free, they would flourish. I remember that after I came out, one of my church members told me that even my walk changed.
Of course, a lot of people will say that the church has to stick to the Bible’s moral compass. And that’s absolutely right! But what exactly does that compass say? Many (including biblical scholars) agree that the most important question is not whether being gay is a sin, but what actually matters is whether we should tolerate discrimination. Paradoxically, there are also some people who leave conservative churches on a moral basis.”
It is a common belief that because of the church’s promotion of tradition, its flock is aging rapidly and fading quickly. However, some churches call the youth too — some try to influence them with positive messages, while others reach the same effect with negative ones.
”Radicalism can be a powerful tool for the youth too, and newly converted people love it. And these ready-made answers can actually be calming in a sense. They make it obvious that this is the good side and it is worth fighting for — this is the way I used to think as well. If someone has such an obvious moral compass, they will automatically feel entitled to say: the other person is a sinner, but I am not, or at least I’m less of a sinner. Because their sin makes mine smaller — that I’m stingy, or that I’m in a loveless marriage, or that I abandon my child, and the list goes on. This is basic psychology. And this contrast-effect is always needed. There are movements that move masses of young people. But there are also movements which don’t allow you to enter if you don’t arrive on time — even if they preach the gospel the same.”
Free to raise my voice, free to stay silent
After giving up his robe, summer found the man in Budapest. He left his profession, his home and his community behind…
“It was difficult, and it was made difficult by things I didn’t even take into account, such as suffering from a kind of identity crisis: am I a preacher now, or not? I didn’t even think that this could ever be important to me, or that this could ever be a question. But one moment, I was preaching from the pulpit and everyone was curious about my opinion, and the next moment nobody really cared about what I had to say.”
When searching for a job, he found his way to a multinational company, which welcomed him with his perfect knowledge of English and German. Because even if he didn’t start a pastor dynasty, the legacy of the pastor grandfather has helped to build M’s life: his library was full of German books, which made the curious grandson decide to learn the language.
“Welcoming me to the company was heartwarming for a different reason, though. It was Pride month, and when I arrived for the job interview, I entered through a gate decorated with rainbow colors. I obviously took this as a good omen. And the best thing was yet to come: I met my partner that fall. It was love at first sight, my first reciprocated love. I was looking for a gay Christian community, that’s where we met almost three years ago, and we’ve been together ever since. Life is never easy, not even mine, my relationship too has painful moments, like every relationship out there, but at least now these are the kind of natural challenges that everyone goes through.”
When we had this conversation, it was the end of Pride month, the events of which M. participated as an activist. He also volunteered at an event which was violated by a far-right extremist group.
”Looking back, I realized that I was not afraid at all. Not even when the harassers started filming us, the bouncers, cameras in hand. Why should I have been afraid? And this holds a symbolic power: it means that I am completely free. I’m free to let others know who I am, and I’m free to remain silent, but I don’t have to. Of course, this doesn’t mean that from now on my life will be engulfed in cotton candy. My partner and I have been thinking about having our partnership registered. But we’re also thinking about this not taking place in Hungary. This is not what we want, this is not what we’re planning, but we’ve been thinking about moving too. It’s a shame that we live in a country where the already existent exclusion is further bolstered by political powers, a country where people are afraid of their sexual orientation turning out at their workplaces, or they are just simply worried because their country is not a safe place for them, and that it’s a place where leading politicians are allowed to make comments on us being secondary citizens.”
Still, his days are fulfilled. He loves his job as a trainer, he’s open about himself at his workplace, and his colleagues love him the way he is. He practices mindfulness daily, and he’s a member of Mozaik, an LGBT+ Christian group. He is still a believer, and he still hasn’t given up on his dreams about how the world should look like.
“Today I know that what I’ve been taught, and what I too was teaching, is just one interpretation of the Bible. There are other, valid explanations too, which accept LGBT+ people as well. Actually, most Western Reformed churches have such views. And as for gay rights, I don’t think that there’s such a concept. There are human rights. If we respect those, we don’t need anything else. My dream is living in a country with no gay bars, or lesbian hikes, or LGBT+ churches. What for? There would be only bars, hikes, and churches.”
Learn more about the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups at www.lgbtchristians.eu.