Stereotypes are often not all they're cracked up to be...
As a student of what's often considered to be one of the more "progressive" or "liberal" seminaries located in the Chicagoland area, my classmates and I often make jokes about those students of the more conservative schools in the city, one of which is Moody Bible Institute. I would be lying if I said I didn't hold in my head images and stereotypes of what these students are like. I would also be lying if I said I was always right.
A good friend of mine (and one of my former neighbors) is now a student at Moody. A short while ago, he asked to meet up and talk, to catch up. I said sure. During out conversation, he had a favor to ask of me. One of his classes this semester is on cross-cultural missions, and a requirement is that he and a small group write a paper and offer a presentation based on their interactions with a person who is a member of a different population. As a gay friend of his who is in seminary and pursuing a vocation in ministry, he thought I would be a great person for him and his classmates to interview. He also thought I would enjoy the opportunity to "talk shop" with people whose theological frameworks might be different from my own.
...He couldn't have been more right
...I couldn't have been more wrong
I just returned from my second meeting with the group, and in both encounters, I felt such a presence of love, acceptance, and genuine listening, one that I haven't really felt in a while, and one that blows the lid off of some of the stereotypes my friends and I have surmised about students from the inner city institution. Their questions were deep, their responses showed a sincere desire to understand my experience, and their demeanor was loving, empathic, and authentically loving.
I love talking theology, but over the years as my own theology has been transformed and become broader in scope, I've been hesitant to engage those whom I believe to be more conservative than myself, fearing rejection or ostracism. However, these new friends were nothing short of kind and loving, even as I made statements and theological claims that most "evangelicals" would consider staunchly blasphemous. One of the group members asked me about the tagline on this site, the whole "thoughts and ramblings of a self-avowed, practicing heretic." I told him that, as I understand it, heretics are not necessarily wrong in their beliefs. They simply came out on the losing side of a theological debate. They are the minority, the marginalized, and as such, I'd prefer to align myself with them than with the doctrinal majority, even if we disagreed. That is why I identify the way that I do. It's about empathy. It's about solidarity.
Between the two meetings, the number of times I was thanked for my willingness to participate and engage was gratuitous, as if I'd made some gargantuan contribution. In all honesty, the sessions were a blessing for me, a chance to break down some of the assumptions and presuppositions that I've built up about conservative Christians. It was an opportunity to develop trust for people I'd been advised to distrust, to tear down the skepticism for those I'd been told were not the best influences on my life. The conversations I shared with these people, the hugs, the words have re-instilled in me a certain hopefulness.
We talked about my experiences with Exodus International and Living Hope Ministries, my time in reparative therapy, my years away from the Church, and my eventual return to it. We discussed shame, sex, self-worth, and suicide. I never once felt judged. In fact, I never once felt anything but loved, respected, or admired even. I don't know why this is—I was just being myself. But these people made me feel, even more so than my own denomination had at times, that my call to ministry is real, and that my sexuality is an innate, intrinsic part of what makes my call so vital to the future life of the community of the people of God. These new friends offered me a healing that I have so desperately needed over the last few months. Odds are, prior to reading this, they didn't even realize the gift they have given me.
These new friends, contrary to what some might think of them based on their institutional affiliation, were truly Jesus to me...
I wish some of my seminary colleagues had the chance I had to meet and speak with these amazing new friends. I wish they realized the harm that is potentially done when we build walls based on labels and identifiers that do nothing but limit relationships. Regardless of what differences exist between myself and my new friends from the missions-oriented mecca, the fact remains that their call is the same as mine, their love for Jesus aligns with my own, and their hopes for the world share more in common with my hopes than they are different from them.
An institution does not define its community members and participants. Just as the students at Garrett are diverse and are not defined by the school, so also are the students at Moody and countless other institutions. We might be different, but we're also the same. We're all God's beloved, called to change the world, called to love with the love of the Redeeming One. This is community. This is love.