A Gay Man’s Journey Through the Adventist Church
By James Baran | 7 October 2021 |
I want to thank Adventist Today and Pastor Loren Seibold for the thoughtful feature on the (non)acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
Let me tell you about my journey through the Seventh-day Adventist church.
My parents saw that I was being bullied and harassed in public school by the time I was ten. They took me out of public school and sent me to the local Adventist school. They then decided to become Adventists, taking me with them to church and the baptismal tank.
The bullying didn’t stop, though. Children are children, unaware that they are replicating the prejudices taught them at home. I didn’t want my parents inconvenienced any more with changing schools. So I took it. In fact, I thought it was my fault. I was laughed at, bullied, called names such as Rosebud and Femalon (this from one of my most “righteous” classmates) and with each taunt about the way I walked, talked, or dressed, the entire class would pile on with other wisecracks or jokes about me, loving that they had someone they could humiliate—the “other” who does not belong.
Puberty and adolescence set in, and we all started to grow up, some faster and some slower. For a while, I became somewhat more comfortable in my body, accepting that I was just different, and decided it was just too bad that some people couldn’t see my good qualities.
But I hadn’t learned my lesson yet, apparently: I went on to Southern Missionary College (SMC).
Southern Missionary College
SMC was a hotbed of Adventist fundamentalism. There I became aware that teachers, cooks, people I didn’t even know personally, had vivid imaginations about the private lives of others. Their judgments about me were backed up with old fashioned petty gossip, all based on outward traits: the way I spoke, walked and dressed, and also that I never had a girl on my arm.
I was only 20 at the time, but some people seemed concerned that I wasn’t planning marriage, as if this should have been my immediate goal. One of my music teachers commanded me (I will never forget the conversation): “James! I don’t care what you do, just get a girl—any girl—and be seen with her. People are talking.”
This was about 40 years ago but I remember it as if it were yesterday. My ears got hot, my heart pounded, I was embarrassed, hurt. I wondered, why is my social life such a concern to others?
Up until that time I had not given sex or relationships much thought. But now I was forced to. Among my closest friends (yes, even the rejected and ostracized have friends) I began slowly to open up. I never admitted being gay, because I had no real understanding of what that meant; I had thought, from about 16 or 17 on, that the sexual attraction thing would just resolve on its own, that it was nothing to worry about. So I went about my business, which at the time was to study, practice piano and organ, and become the best that I could be.
But I was now aware that people—nosey people—were watching and wondering.
It was November 1981 when the letter came. It was just signed “Project Cleanup.” The letter instructed me to leave SMC as soon as possible, and that unless I left the college my parents, my home church, and the Seventh-day Adventist denominational headquarters would all be informed of my homosexuality. I felt alone, distraught, disowned, hated, judged.
Project Cleanup was, as far as I could tell, not an official organization. I suspect it was just a loose association of people around the college: teachers, staff, possibly dorm monitors and other personnel. There was no person’s name on it: “Project Cleanup” was written in the place where a signature would normally be. These people had, as far as I know, no concrete reason for their letter to me, except for someone’s perception of characteristics they saw in my person that offended them. I was someone they wanted to get rid of in order to “protect” their pure young men.
I took this letter to SMC president Frank Knittel. I didn’t make an appointment to see him: I simply walked boldly past his secretary’s desk and into his office. He was standing, his back toward me, when I entered, and he swung around in surprise. I introduced myself, showed him the letter. I told him how hurt I was by it.
He read it and passed it back to me. It didn’t seem to surprise him. I recall him saying something like, “We will just have to wait and see what they have to say.”
I believed that his response was just a way of telling me he wouldn’t deal with it. So I prepared to leave the college at the end of the term, though I did not tell anyone of my plans. I was afraid, hurt, terrified, in a state of panic—survival mode. All I could do was look forward and try to chart a course that would prevent further pain, especially to my parents. It would have devastated them, and I wanted to prevent that.
At 20, no one should have to go through this. But it was happening to me.
At the end of the term I left Collegedale, with all its gossip and judgment.
A secret world
In the previous semester, I had become closer friends with several other students in the music program. We gradually shared bits of our stories, pieces of our lives—but always cautious, never going too far. One weekend, a friend of one of my friends was visiting, and we became instant friends. This friend was the son of a prominent Adventist pastor from Georgia.
This pastor had a reputation for being a traditionalist, a strong conservative, and in today’s lexicon, a homophobe. Yet his son, my new friend at this point, and I, discovered a genuine attraction (intellectually and physically) to each other. I also learned that homosexual activity was not uncommon in our dorm. As long as you looked like a track star or tennis pro and had a girl on your arm in church, no one was likely to ask questions.
I was different, though. I wasn’t an athlete. I was in the arts. Anyone could have added things up, and some apparently did. I felt wounded, damaged, and it took me years to re-learn my own value and realize my integrity.
Religion gone wrong
But why did I have to go through all of this in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? I still wonder. I suspect that people who care about these things are insecure, and feel threatened. Add to this the notion that your religion, and the practice of that religion to the strict letter of its dogmatic core, make you somehow superior to others.
In some parts of the world we can see extreme examples of this, where religious practitioners feel they must prove their worth by their venomous hatred of—even to the point of hurting or killing—the people they want to remove from society.
I realized that I could no longer sit in an Adventist church pew, knowing how much I was disliked by Adventists. They may have only refused to shake my hand, or ignored me as I looked for a place to sit. It matters not. The very idea that I am hated and rejected by practitioners of a particular religion is all I need to know about their faith. Why waste my time with such people? If they have written me off as damned, a predator, unclean, why stay?
Can such people ever realize this is going about the Christian life in a misguided manner? They may have been misled by dogma, by hearsay and gossip, by a sense of religious superiority, by a subjective interpretation of one or two Bible verses—the particulars don’t matter. Jesus taught us that to enter his kingdom we must welcome the stranger, we must forgive, we must show compassion—we must love without condition.
Where religion goes wrong, and where, I think, many Adventists go wrong, is in having a long list of conditions for acceptance.
Good religion builds bridges. It does not alienate and ostracize. Real religion helps people demonstrate God’s love to the world, with compassion, inclusion, acceptance, just as we are. God’s table is big enough for us all, but we have to be willing to sit at that table, hold hands and break bread with everyone.
My faith journey, to use another term in the new lexicon, has taken me to the Episcopal church, where I have felt welcomed and part of a family since the first day I walked through the red-painted door. It is a place where all are welcome. And I have never looked back, except a glance now and then to remember my history.
At the end of an Episcopal mass the celebrant charges us to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Embodied in this command is the reminder that we treat others we meet with the same grace, forgiveness, compassion and acceptance we were given during the mass that just ended. Our work is to simply spread that love wherever we go. While it’s a tall order, it helps to remind ourselves of it. Some days we succeed, others we fail, but we keep trying to build ourselves and others up.
And I believe this is what we need to do. Build each other up, become slightly less intolerant, less selfish, more generous, more willing to see the good in people. And in this act, maybe Jesus will see us as trying to build some new part of his kingdom.
James Baran is a designer, fine-art photographer, and writer. He has spoken at conferences on magazine design, and he served on the board of directors for Association Media & Publishing, a society for publishing professionals. He received his undergraduate degree in Music from the College of Fine Arts, Illinois State University, in 1984, and went on to complete a master’s degree in English Literature from the Graduate School, Illinois State University, in 1986. He graduated from Broadview Academy in 1979 and attended Southern Missionary College from 1980 until 1981. James is a former Adventist, now a member of the Episcopal Church. He works in photography and is writing a memoir in the form of short stories. He lives in Chicago and southern California.