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An ally in spirit - The Sun Chronicle : Local News

An ally in spirit

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Posted: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 12:00 am

He was what you call a practicing Christian.

Then, he became an outspoken advocate for what many Christians call practicing homosexuals.

By the time Aidan Kelley, 22, started at Wheaton College in Norton, he felt a pull toward ministry. The Massachusetts native majored in religion and spent his early college years in Intervarsity, an evangelical campus ministry.

But on campus, Kelley would also defend the rights and religions of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) community. Though heterosexual, Kelley found himself participating in events like Pride Week, putting together panels that dealt with spirituality and GLBT identity.

"Love is love," Kelley said.

In terms of his own Christian faith, Kelley believes that who you love "doesn't make you any less inclined to be part of a religion that is founded on love."

"I say that you can definitely be GLBT and be a Christian," Kelley said. "People would say it's impossible for a GLBT person to be Christian because homosexuality is sinful. My problem with that is that they elevate it to the sin of all sins."

Some believers see Kelley's faith-based activism as a contradiction.

However, Kelley may be one of many young Christians who are taking a far more open stance on homosexuality than their older counterparts.

Depending on the perspective, it's the hope of a more open generation - or the moral decline of one.

Vereene Parnell heads Wheaton's Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility, where Kelley interned his senior year. It was through her office that Kelley coordinated his GLBT events, whose diverse guests included a Baptist minister and a married Catholic lesbian.

Parnell absolutely sees students becoming more accepting of the GLBT community.

Of all Wheaton's diversity programs, GLBT events have the largest attendance of all others combined, Parnell said.

"This is a very hot issue for students, and they really come out, no pun intended," she said. "It doesn't mean we don't have negative incidents here and there, like the rest of the world."

Parnell also sees a greater acceptance among Christian students, but contends they are still everywhere on the issue.

"Episcopalian teenagers can now have a gay bishop," said Parnell, referring to Gene Robinson, New Hampshire's openly gay Episcopal bishop.

"Lots of folks have gay priests, Protestant and Catholic, whether they know it or not," she added. "In almost every Christian denomination I can think of, this conversation is happening. Kids can hardly be involved in church without hearing the conversation, being aware of this discussion."

Parnell has a ministry degree and is part of the United Church of Christ, whose national church body is one of the few to come out as supporting GLBT clergy and members, though ultimately individual churches have the final say.

While debates on homosexuality threaten to split many Christian denominations and churches pass amendments and agendas on the issue, a younger generation of Christians might be taking the issue more in stride.

Age, it seems, is a prime indicator of one's position on homosexual issues like same-sex marriage, according to an April 2008 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Those under 30 are more likely to support same-sex marriage (49 percent), while more than two-thirds of those 65 and older (67 percent) oppose same-sex marriage.

But, according to the same report, church attendance remains a litmus test for views on homosexuality, with regular churchgoers (73 percent) being far more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than those who attend less often (43 percent).

Only time will tell what will happen as young churchgoers come of age.

Kelley doesn't think his generation is naturally more accepting, but perhaps has been more exposed to alternate sexualities and messages about acceptance.

Parnell has observed that since homosexual young people are coming out sooner, it is getting their classmates into the conversation earlier.

When three local Christian teens were interviewed by The Sun Chronicle, their views on homosexuality were much more liberal than what their church teaches. All three had gay friends and all named their faith as the most important part of their lives.

One high schooler said, "I know as a Christian we're not supposed to support that lifestyle, but I know a lot of people who are gay. We have a Gay-Straight Alliance at school, and I fully support that."

A fellow youth group member concurred, and disagrees when older people condemn homosexuality: "That's what they believe, but I honestly can't agree with them. I used to be friends with a guy who was gay and a very good Christian."

The teen went on to say that homosexuality is not a choice.

"I know too many people to think people would choose that kind of ridicule," said the youth. "I honestly can't agree when older people say it's wrong."

All three teens emphasized that God's love is more important than judgment.

A church official went on record saying, "From the pulpit, we hardly mention it. At the same time, we believe in the Bible and believe active homosexuality is a sin."

But one of the church's youth said, "I do get frustrated when people are against (homosexuality) because I don't think that's right, but I personally don't know how my parents feel."

Parents and church leaders did not want this report to go to print, and the teens later denied their statements, perhaps caving to pressure from an older generation unmoved to accept the views of a younger one.

The church official said the congregation welcomes everyone, and noted that teens in the church certainly struggle with homosexuality or know people who do.

Still, the official said, "We want to help people love the person but not condone the lifestyle."

For Kelley, who was raised United Methodist, neither his former campus ministry nor his childhood denomination condone homosexuality, but he does.

It was actually at a Christian retreat in college where Kelley first confronted the tension head-on.

"I went to a seminar on Christianity and homosexuality, and was kind of in shock about attitudes expressed there," Kelley recalled. "The leaders had a Bible and were quoting Scripture, using it to say homosexuality was sinful. They had a really negative attitude and that was really hard for me."

Kelley, who grew up in a moderate church with open parents, had never been active in GLBT issues before, but that experience triggered much of his advocacy work as a straight ally.

Straight allies like Kelley can be a major resource for GLBT youth, according to psychologist Cheryl Giles, who teaches a course on the spirituality of GLBT youth at Harvard Divinity School and is writing a book on the subject.

GLBT young people often feel unwelcome or closeted in churches, she said.

"Unfortunately, we're not really engaging a wealth of kids who need that mentoring," Giles said. "Some have found it in GLBT programs, but some of them are just lost."

"Churches, schools and homes - that's where values are shaped and where kids can be mentored. Those places are often lost to GLBT youth," she said.

Kelley would like to encourage churches to reach out to those who feel unwelcome in their pews, regardless of whether they regard a homosexual Christian as an oxymoron.

"According to a lot of Christians in this country, the Bible has a clear stance on homosexuality. It's in black and white," Kelley said. "But being Christian isn't just one thing. Christianity as a world is so complex and diverse."

Kelley, who graduated from Wheaton this past May, spent his senior year applying to seminaries, but has deferred for now. Whether he chooses ministry as a career, he hopes to continue to press on these issues.

"The Christian community may disagree on what is moral and what is 'good' in the eyes of God," Kelley said. "But one thing we cannot do is prevent any person from experiencing the unconditional love of God. God's love and grace is available to anyone. If we learn nothing else from Jesus, I pray that this is one lesson that will stick."

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Welcome to the discussion.


  • anonymous posted at 1:51 pm on Tue, Sep 2, 2008.

    anonymous Posts: 0

    G, L, B, T? Why the T? I appreciate his desire to serve God, I always wonder why people feel a need to say "I am gay". I am straight and don't announce it when I go to my church, or apply for jobs, or anything else. Just be yourself and in 2008, things will usual workout.

  • anonymous posted at 10:33 am on Tue, Sep 2, 2008.

    anonymous Posts: 0

    I don't think that one's sexual orientation should have anything to do with one's faith,as these are two totally different facets of a life.