“My Son, Beloved Stranger” Revisited
by Carrol Grady | 28 August 2018 |
Has it really been 30 years since that unforgettable day that divided my life into before and after? That day when I learned one of my three sons was a homosexual? When I felt that my world had fallen apart? My minister husband and I had recently returned home from 15 years as missionaries in Singapore and were both working at the General Conference. How could something like this happen to our family?
At that moment, I didn’t really know anything about homosexuality, except the impression I had that it was something perverted, sinful, and unmentionable! And I simply couldn’t reconcile that with my dear son, who had always been a very spiritual boy. As a result, I felt compelled to learn everything I could about it. There was actually quite a bit in the information on this topic, once I started looking for it, and everything I saw, read, or heard added a new piece of information I hadn’t known before.I took a creative writing class about this time, where we were supposed to write about the most difficult experience we had ever had to face. That was a no-brainer for me. And after we read our stories aloud, the professor and other class members all urged me to write a book. Since I had felt like there was no one I could talk to and was sure there must be other Adventist parents out there who felt the same way, I decided to write for them. My Son, Beloved Stranger was published in 1995.
Almost immediately, I was invited to speak at Kinship Kampmeeting. I had never heard of this organization until soon after we found out about our son. Good friends, who also worked at the General Conference, came over to visit one evening and told us their daughter, a lesbian (another shock), had seen our son at Kampmeeting and told her parents we needed their support. They told us that Kinship offered love and caring to Adventist and former Adventist gays and lesbians, which they did not find in their churches. I arrived at Kampmeeting in the evening and listened with tears in my eyes to the old hymns of the church being sung with emotion and enthusiasm by mostly male voices. As I told my story about our son, I was touched and amazed to receive standing applause.
Trying to Help
When one young man asked me to do something for other parents, I decided to start a newsletter. I tried to advertise it in the union papers but was turned down and I began to realize how much hostility there really was in the church. But Kinship members sent me their parents’ addresses and the news spread by word of mouth. I kept up that newsletter for nearly 15 years, before starting an online support group and putting up a website, Someone to Talk To. Over those years I talked and listened to hundreds upon hundreds of heart-broken parents share their dismay and fears for their children, and as a natural extension, I learned to know many of their sons and daughters. Literally people from all over the world have contacted me, including quite a few people from outside our church. I have found that being open about my story gives others permission to talk to me about their problems. I can’t remember how many young men have told me, “Your book is just like my story.” And so many parents have told me the same. I guess it’s a pretty universal experience.
Back then, I was still at the beginning of my journey. The church was basically silent on this subject, although its disapproval seeped through strongly enough that I knew it was something I should be ashamed about. But as I began to learn more about current knowledge and to understand how painful homosexuality was for those who lived with it, I felt a strong calling to share what I was learning, even though it seemed the church didn’t want to hear about it. I felt like a “voice crying in the wilderness”!
When I sought help from the church for “my friend, who just found out her son is gay,” I was given material about Colin Cook, a gay former Adventist pastor who was helping gay men overcome their “problem” at a live-in program in Pennsylvania. It was sponsored by the church, which felt proud of this very first ex-gay program with “the answer” to an uncomfortable problem. But just a short time later, I learned that Cook had been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with his counselees. This, sadly, was never acknowledged by the church, and neither those young men, who had been deeply hurt by this, nor their parents have ever received an apology from the church.
In my early days of coping, despite growing media coverage of the issue, there was little acceptance of homosexuality in general society, and I doubted society would change in my lifetime. As for the church admitting this was even a problem among its members, I felt sure that was far in the future, if ever.
Looking back from my vantage point today, I am amazed by the vast change across many cultures and societies. In 29 countries, same-sex marriage is legal today, and several more are considering it. In secular America, there is little to no prejudice toward gays and lesbians, though there continues to be strong prejudice in many religious communities. I would never have dreamed of this much progress. And even less would I have dreamed of the progress in our church, though it is really still in the beginning stages.
Not too long after I spoke at Kinship Kampmeeting, I was invited to become the Family and Friends Coordinator for Kinship. I enjoyed this responsibility for several years and grew to love the special and wonderful members of Kinship. I now realize what a dull, gray place our world would be without the color and imagination of our LGBT friends.
In 2000, an advisory group of pastors, church administrators, professors, physicians, editors, etc. who were sympathetic to members of the Kinship organization, was formed, with the express intent of fostering understanding within the church. This Kinship Advisory, of which I have been a member until no longer able to travel, has become a group of special friends with whom I have developed a very close bond.
Also, in 2000 I had a booth at the General Conference in Toronto, and at the ASI Convention in Michigan, to share about my ministry for families and friends of lesbians and gays. Unfortunately, someone complained to the organizers of the ASI Convention about my booth being inappropriate, so I was banned from ASI conventions thereafter. But I did have a booth at a number of other large church conventions in Orlando, Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis, and Denver, before I was black-listed by the church. At each of these conventions, we met so many people who were thirsting for someone who could understand their pain, either as family members or as gay and lesbian people themselves. And even when we talked to people who knew little about the issue and were opposed to the church being involved with it, they usually left the booth with a little broader understanding than when they came.
In 2010, when I was turned down for a booth at the GC Session, Spectrum invited me to share their booth, representing the Big Tent of Adventism, but when this became known to the Exhibit Hall coordinator, he informed Spectrum’s editor that I could not be a part of their exhibit. So, my fellow exhibitors, who by that time, had already purchased air tickets and reserved rooms, decided to go anyway and do a survey on “Hot Topics in Adventism” among those passing through the Exhibit Hall. We interviewed over a thousand people, and the answers to questions on homosexuality were not very encouraging. Most of those who believed homosexuals should be allowed to be members of the church, limited them to celibates or those married to an opposite sex partner.
Two years later, in 2012, we tried for a booth again, this time at the Educators’ Conference in Nashville. To my gratified surprise, they accepted my application, with my topic being how teachers could deal redemptively with their lesbian, gay, or trans students. But just a week before the conference began, we were disappointed to receive word that we could not have a booth. Again, having already purchased air tickets and reserved rooms, we decided to go and just walk the halls, talking to people. As always, we met many who were looking for help in dealing with homosexuality and handed out some of our literature. Stephen and Daneen, who were there to show their film, Seventh-Gay Adventists, thought it was rather hilarious that church leaders were so afraid of this old, gray-haired grandma, and they made up t-shirts that showed my face, surrounded by the words “Beware of Carrol.” The shirts left over were a popular item for sale at Kinship Kampmeeting.
Publications and Media
Ten years ago, Adventist Forums published Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives, resulting from a conference AF sponsored two years earlier. In direct response to this book, Andrews University held a conference for those with a conservative viewpoint and published their own book, Homosexuality, Marriage, and the Church: Biblical, Counseling, and Religious Liberty Issues. I attended the AU conference, along with several members of the Kinship Advisory. It wasn’t easy to sit still and listen to the biased and prejudiced remarks.
A great deal of progress was made five years ago, when Stephen Eyer and Daneen Akers produced their documentary, Seventh-Gay Adventists, about three Adventist lesbian or gay couples who at the time were still connected to the church. This was followed by Enough Room at the Table, a model for dialogue among people who have different viewpoints, and Outspoken, a series of individual stories. One of these, the coming-out story of a young female pastor, Alicia Johnson, drew special attention beyond the church, being covered in a number of public venues. These films caused a definite sympathetic reaction among most of those who saw them and an overt conversation in many areas of the church that was hard to ignore. Apparently, it was in response to this general focus that the following year the church called a worldwide conference in Cape Town, South Africa, “In God’s Image: Scripture. Sexuality. Society.” While the world church president made very clear the response he wanted to come out of this conference, I was happy to see that a few presenters were in tune with current psychological and scientific understandings. However, a group of several “former” gay and lesbian people, who had spent the majority of their lives in sordid, promiscuous, drug-filled behavior, returning to God later in life, were invited to speak, as the only representatives of the gay community, because their narrative represented what the church prefers to hear.
I might mention here that my interest in learning the latest information on this topic has continued over the years. At first, I resisted reading anything regarding new theological approaches, but eventually I was persuaded to take a look. There has been an explosion of theological study on this issue, as pastors and other theologians have had to deal with students, family members, and parishioners who come to them for help. Efforts to understand the context and history behind the few texts in the Bible that mention same-sex behavior, have resulted in new understanding of what they mean. It didn’t take me long to see that these arguments made a lot of sense, especially as it became well-established that homosexuality was not something people choose, but the way they are born. I was reminded of Ellen White’s counsel, “Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.” RH.1892-07-26.008. And“We must not for a moment think that there is no more light, no more truth, to be given us.” GW.311.001. Jesus also counseled, “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: … and he will show you things to come.” John 16:13
Over recent years, church leaders in several European countries and, in a less centralized way, in Australia and the North American Division, have begun to align themselves with the latest understandings about homosexuality. A group called “Building Safe Places for Everyone” has been holding regular workshops in Europe where these new insights are presented by professionals and discussed. One of the achievements of this group has been a booklet authored by Reinder Bruinsma, long-time church leader and author: Basic Alphabet Theology. (So-called alphabet people are referred to as LGBTQIAs: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, allies.)
Perhaps most encouraging of all is a new booklet prepared by the North American Division Commission on Sexuality, Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones. It is a slightly edited Adventist version of one written by Bill Hensen for other Christian groups and includes research by Adventist scholars. Its message is about loving and accepting your gay child (and his/her partner, if any), and offers many helpful details about how parents, as well as pastors and teachers, can understand this touchy subject. While advocating for compassion, even toward LGBTs living with partners, it still includes on the last page the official Adventist statement on marriage being between one man and one woman.
I believe the growing body of knowledge about homosexuality is a present truth for today that God’s Spirit is bringing to the attention of people around the world, because God wants his beloved LGBTQI sons and daughters to know he loves them too, and that they are as much a part of his family as anyone else. That is the message I hope will soon spread through our church.
Carrol has been retired for 30 years, stays home and prays for her husband Bob when he takes seniors on mission trips, responds to all requests for help from LGBTIs or their family members, and quilts, reads, and writes her family history in spare time.