In mid-April, my intern Neely piled into a car with her buddies and drove six hundred miles to the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.
“We took a road trip in college,” I tell her. “But it was like Boones Farm and White Zombie and — well, never mind. How’d yours go? See anybody good?”
“Jeff Chu!” says Neely. “The gay Christian guy who wrote the book Does Jesus Really Love Me? He stole the show. He made people cry.”
“Crying?” I reply. “Why?”
“He, uh, read a menu.”
“Yeah. He read a story about trying to reconcile with his mother after coming out — details of the meal she fixed for him and his partner when she finally came to visit. He started to cry and everybody else did too.” Neely pushes up her smart girl glasses and shifts from side to side. “It was a sweet moment, really. But I guess you had to be there.”
I couldn’t be, but I called up Jeff directly. He is an editor at Fast Company and the author of Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, a book about his yearlong cross-country journey to seek out stories of the faithful struggling to come to terms with a religion that preaches love for all but often practices intolerance. We also talked about the death of his friend Fred Phelps, myriad American Jesuses, and what’s been going on since his book hit stores.
Does Jesus Really Love Me? is now out in paperback. What’s happened since the initial release?
I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around the country speaking in bookshops, churches, and college classrooms. It’s been incredibly exhausting but also very rewarding. Especially among older gay men and women, I’ve encountered a great amount of anger and pain. One woman in Iowa told me that she hadn’t set foot in a church for over three decades, but in part due to the stories in the book, she was thinking about whether she’d just tried to ignore an element in her life that shouldn’t be ignored. No matter where a congregation or a denomination stands theologically on this issue, it’s important, I think, to acknowledge and apologize for the immense amount of hurt and harm that has been done, in the name of God, to gay people.
Obviously the trend lines are changing in the church, but there are still many, many young men and women who are hurting. It’s been humbling to meet some of them along the way, to hear their stories, and to be reminded that, as much as society has changed, we’re still not great at loving one another or having a gracious conversation.
My experience over the past year has reinforced for me the amount of healing that is still needed. Many, many churches are still having a hard time reckoning with this issue. I’ve been a part of some difficult but important conversations in the past year — and I’m grateful for the pastors who have been brave enough to begin that process with their flocks. It’s hard, because there are a lot of worries. Pastors are afraid they’re going to lose money by having a conversation that will make people uncomfortable, but really, they should be afraid that they are going to lose souls — and potentially lives — because they’re not having it.
A favorite from your book is the story of Gideon Eades, the closeted gay Christian from rural Arizona struggling with how to come out to his strict religious family. I found myself wondering about him later, hoping, praying he was doing all right.
I end the new epilogue for the paperback with an update on Gideon. It was heartbreaking for me to learn that his brother and sister found out that he was gay via Does Jesus Really Love Me? and he was subsequently cut off from his family. What’s most remarkable is how Gideon has maintained a stance of complete grace and unconditional love for a family that believes the proper response to his sexuality is to “break fellowship.”
I was intrigued by the notion that you met a lot of different Jesuses on the road. How do you know which one is right?
We don’t, and we can’t. Nobody can prove that they have got Jesus all figured out, and I’d laugh at anyone who makes that claim. This is why they call it faith — it exists beyond reason. And I’d bet that we all have glimmers of accuracy in our conceptions of Jesus, as well as severe flaws.
You visited my hometown, Christian Hollywood — Nashville, Tennessee. What were your thoughts?
It’s always dangerous for an outsider to describe a place — it just opens you up to criticism from those who live there. But I think Nashville, like pretty much any place, is complicated. There are different pockets, and Brentwood, for instance, is very distinct from Germantown. What does make the place interesting from the perspective of a religion reporter is the great concentration of Protestant culture there — the publishers, the denominations, the music companies. It is a power center in American Christianity, and worldly power often doesn’t fit comfortably with the Gospel.
You state that you found America “eager to love but conflicted on how to do so.”
What does love mean? Does it mean you tell people that they have to be celibate in order to be acceptable to God? Does it mean that you embrace them as they are? Does it mean that you tell them they’re going to hell? These are all answers that people provide, invoking the word “love.” So we really mean totally different things when we’re talking about love.
Fred Phelps passed away recently and you were able to spend some time together. What was your perception of Reverend Phelps?
He was one of the toughest interviews of my career. I think he was so used to being caricatured that he pretty much expected reporters to get it wrong. He was, with outsiders, a pretty hard man, but I also saw him being incredibly tender with his family. It was a reminder to me that we all have our facades, that we all put on masks and that we all act. I know many people were skeptical of his theology, but I believe he was sincere in his teachings. I think he really believed the things he said about God and about gay people.
Fred stated you might be able to have a friendship. Did he know you were gay?
I don’t know. He never asked me, and I never said. My philosophy of reporting is that any time I spend talking about myself is time that my sources aren’t talking. So while I will answer questions, I won’t offer unnecessary information.
Quote from the book: Members of Westboro Baptist were much nicer than I expected.
There’s a widespread misperception of Westboro as a group of hatemongers. While that is true on some level — we obviously and quite fairly read those “God hates fags” sign as not the most loving — they actually believe they are the world’s most loving people, because they’re warning us that we’re hellbound unless we repent. And when I visited, they were really hospitable. They were happy to talk about everything from their faith to what they’d been reading to what movies they liked.
They see themselves as evangelists, and anyone who engages them in a respectful way will get (from most of them, anyway) a half-decent conversation. If you approach them with hostility, well, we all know they’re pretty good at reciprocating. But yes, they were nice. They were pleasant to talk with. They were good hosts. Does that excuse the harmful, terrible things that they preach? No. But I want to put that horrible messaging in its proper context.
You were raised Southern Baptist. What were your formative experiences with faith?
I don’t think faith can be narrowed down to one or two formative experiences, at least in not my experience. It’s an organism. It’s shaped by everything one experiences every day. Some days, my faith is stronger. Other days, it feels less so. I suppose it made a big difference to me that my grandfather was a Baptist preacher and that my grandmother was a Bible teacher and a deaconess. They were really the ones who instilled in me a sense of respect for Scripture and an understanding of the power of faith. Their life experiences also have shaped my views on the relationship between faith and government, because my grandfather had to leave China, after the Communist revolution in 1949, because of his ministry.
I also went to a Christian high school that was officially nondenominational but that has strong roots in the Christian Reformed Church. I attended a youth group and church in my teen years that were part of the Presbyterian Church in America. And I was part of a college fellowship group that was staunchly evangelical. So you could say my religious upbringing was very conservative.
I hear you recently became an elder in your church.
There are more and more churches that don’t see sexuality as a deal breaker. My church, Old First Reformed in Brooklyn, is walking distance from my house, and I stumbled into it one Sunday when I was trying to find a place that felt right — not too liberal, not too conservative, welcoming, smart. I like that it’s a church in my neighborhood, that it’s a diverse congregation (young, old, black, white, straight, gay, rich, poor), and that it’s open to all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds not only attending but also serving.
How does Old First Reformed handle the issue of homosexuality?
We don’t really talk about it that much — there are many more-pressing questions, like how we’re going to find the million-plus dollars that we need to fix the ceiling that’s falling down and to restore a beautiful Brooklyn landmark so that we can keep serving the community. One of the things that I like about it is that we open each service with a welcome that announces that we are a community of Jesus in Park Slope — which means that we welcome everyone, no questions asked.
What do evangelicals need to learn about the gay community? What does the gay community need to learn about evangelicals?
That we can have a civilized conversation, meeting at the table as human beings. It seems so elementary, but it’s so, so hard. It’s going to require grace on both sides. It’s going to require a lot of listening. It’s going to require that we set aside our expectations and come to the conversation simply with hope. It’s going to require people from both communities realizing that we are not our labels and our caricatures. It’s going to require people from both communities to see each other as people, not “issues.” And it’s going to require all of us to view each other as complex, as more than our theological convictions and as more than our sexual identities and orientations. We have a tendency to be reductive, and that doesn’t help the conversation at all.
Can we find a faith that fits without making a god in our own image?
It’s pretty much impossible, but humility is a good first step. Our minds are feeble. We’re going to make mistakes. I choose to believe in a gracious God who gets that, who understands our hearts and our motives, and can tell when we’re trying to do right.
Does Jesus really love any of us or are we all screwed?
It depends on whom you ask. But I happen to believe in a Jesus who loves us more than we can even comprehend.