Sign the Open Letter Regarding the Menlo Church Scandal

If you’ve been following the scandal involving John Ortberg and Menlo Church (see my previous post for more) and you’d like to do something about it, here are a few ways you can:

– Sign this open letter to Menlo Church leadership calling on them for a completely new investigation, removing john ortberg and the current elder board, and implementing a mandatory LGBTQIA+ training for staff, elders, and volunteers.

– If you know anyone on Menlo’s staff, contact them directly with your concerns and encourage them to take collective action.

– Menlo Church belongs to a denomination called ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, and they are part of the Bluewater Presbytery. Email Luke Barnes, moderator of the Bluewater Presbytery, calling on him and the presbytery to fulfill their responsibility to hold their pastors accountable.

– Ortberg sits on the board of trustees of Fuller Theological Seminary. If you are a student, faculty, staff, or alumnus of fuller, email Mark Labberton, the seminary’s president, with your concerns about his position on the board. And if you are connected to anyone on Fuller’s faculty, staff, or board, please contact them as well.

Evangelical megachurches rarely change course unless public pressure and negative press force them to. Thank you for doing your part to move the needle.

The Astounding Recklessness of John Ortberg

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

Danny Lavery is the son of John Ortberg, the influential Christian writer and senior pastor of Menlo Church, an evangelical megachurch in Silicon Valley. Last week, Lavery made a startling report: His 30-year-old brother, a student ministries volunteer at Menlo, disclosed to Ortberg and his wife two years ago that he was sexually attracted to children.  Ortberg not only allowed him to continue to serve with youth, he also supported his son’s decision to do this as a way of “treating” this attraction.  His son did not step down from serving with youth, both at the church and elsewhere, until he told Lavery about his attraction in November and Lavery insisted.  Lavery then alerted Menlo leadership about the situation, as well as his parents’ collusion.  Menlo conducted an internal investigation, in which they did not interview Ortberg’s son, any students, or any parents, and found no wrongdoing on Ortberg’s part.

This troubling story has countless layers, most of which have been thoughtfully explored by people closer to the situation.  Religion News Service published a thoroughly reported piece.  Detailed timelines of the allegations and the church’s responses are available online.  Danny and his wife Grace have been active on Twitter, detailing their experiences of attempting to address this situation with the Ortbergs, from whom they are now estranged, and the church.  Megan Goodwin, who studies sexual abuse in American religious communities, wrote a thoughtful piece on the Sojourners website.

As someone who has some relevant experiences that I have not yet seen represented in the conversation, I want to draw attention to what’s happening at Menlo and offer a few thoughts.

As someone who, like Ortberg, earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary, I am completely dumbfounded by his response to his son’s disclosure.  Fuller’s clinical psychology PhD program is fully accredited by the American Psychological Association; it is not a program that teaches pseudoscience or prescribes prayer and Bible verses as therapeutic interventions.  Furthermore, clinical psychology is a discipline that so highly values the safety of children that reporting child abuse is one of the very few reasons why it is legally permissible to breach confidentiality.  Given Ortberg’s training, the notion that he could see spending time with children as a safe and effective way of managing pedophilia is incomprehensible.  I might understand this response from an evangelical pastor who was skeptical of science or had no fluency in psychology or psychological disorders.  Ortberg, however, has no excuse.

As someone who went from Fuller to a position in student ministries at an evangelical megachurch similar to Ortberg’s – so similar that a number of interns from my time there went on to permanent positions at Menlo – I am, again, dumbfounded.  I have spent the last week putting myself back at that church, trying to imagine a scenario in which a volunteer disclosed to me (or anyone else on staff) a sexual attraction to children and was not immediately relieved of their role and connected with a specialized therapist.  I have come up empty, as have all the former coworkers with whom I’ve discussed this situation.


Here’s the thing about student ministry:  The only currency you have is trust.  The trust of the students, certainly.  But equally important – if not more – is the trust of the parents, who dictate whether or not you get to spend time with their children.  No one is required to let their kids spend time with you.  It’s not school.  Their kid isn’t destined for hell if they don’t go to your overnight camp.  It is the job of the church to do not just the bare minimum to maintain that trust, but to go above and beyond to protect it – which means full transparency and full disclosure, so parents aren’t left wondering what you aren’t telling them.  Because if that happens, your currency is gone.

After its internal investigation, Menlo told the congregation at a town hall meeting – which was convened for another reason entirely – about the volunteer’s disclosure and departure from student ministries.  After completing a “restoration plan” with the goal of regaining trust with the church, the details of which are unknown, Ortberg apologized to the congregation for his poor judgment.  But a restoration plan to regain trust is of little use when the congregation was told that Ortberg made a single poor decision – failing to notify church leadership about a disclosure from a volunteer about a sexual attraction to children.  The church’s recent statement on the matter, as well as Ortberg’s apology this week, similarly suggest that this was a one-time mistake.  But in reality, Ortberg was regularly confronted with the reality of his son working with students, both at Menlo and elsewhere, over the course of 16 months.  Ortberg is not responsible for one poor decision; he is responsible for 16 months of consciously allowing this danger.  And he would have continued had Lavery not brought it to light.  This is not a single oversight or lapse in judgment – this is a lapse in judgment that lasted more than a year, resulted in children being exposed to danger for that entire time (16 months of camps, retreats, missions trips, and one-on-ones), and stopped only when someone else took action.  I am troubled by the vast discrepancy between this reality and what Ortberg and Menlo have owned up to and communicated to the congregation.


Another thought from a student ministry perspective: Menlo has also been quick to state that every staff member and volunteer undergoes a background check, which should absolutely be the case.  But background checks reveal only criminal histories — incidents that were reported to authorities and where the individual was found guilty. They cannot reveal incidents that aren’t reported — and most sexual and physical abuse is not. In addition, many inappropriate behaviors involving children — too much time together, too many texts, too much emotional intimacy — are not reportable to authorities and would thus not appear on a background check.  Furthermore, in my experience dealing with Child Protective Services, reports of yelling and other forms of emotional abuse are rarely pursued.  Menlo’s assertion that everyone is background-checked is, if anything, more damning than reassuring:  Even a background check could not keep someone with a sexual attraction to children off of their volunteer staff.

Menlo has also underscored that they found no evidence of misconduct.  But misconduct with children is not always clear-cut, and this is especially true in student ministries at evangelical churches, where building relationships is everything.  At what point is an adult investing too much time in a student?  Is it appropriate for a youth pastor to use Snapchat to communicate with students?  At what point is too much emotional intimacy being cultivated?  The answers to these questions will vary from person to person, adults and students alike.  So the fact that Menlo’s investigator found no evidence of misconduct after interviewing church staff and reviewing emails does little to assure me that no misconduct actually took place.  Perhaps none did, but without interviewing any students or parents, who are in the best position to make that call — or the volunteer himself — it’s hard to say that with any credibility.


A final thought from this angle: When an organization is invested in minimizing a danger or a failure in leadership, as Menlo appears to be, it becomes difficult for the organization to provide the people most directly affected by the situation the space they need to process it.  I have no doubt that every student and parent in Menlo’s student ministries is now aware of why this volunteer abruptly departed in November.  If Menlo maintains that this was a one-time failure of judgment, Ortberg has apologized and been restored, and it’s time to move on, are they giving students opportunities to process their complicated feelings about this volunteer?  Is the staff providing space for students (and their parents) to grieve the fact that their senior pastor knowingly put them in danger for sixteen months?  How are they communicating students’ and parents’ concerns in a meaningful way to leadership?  Do any of their concerns matter, given that Ortberg’s restoration process is already complete?  It is almost impossible to validate the concerns of the families impacted by the situation, make them feel heard, and give them agency in the response while also downplaying the problem and insisting that it has already been resolved.  The former things are of utmost importance to maintain the trust from families that student ministry requires, but you can’t do the former things if you’re also doing the latter.

As an observer of American evangelicalism – this is where things stop being surprising.

The megachurch was a hallmark of American evangelicalism in the ‘90s and early 2000s, its many orbits centered around a charismatic preacher who was usually white and always male (Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Tim Keller – the list goes on).  Ortberg is a pastor of that generation, and everything at Menlo – its multiple campuses, its marketing, its mythology – circles around him.  It is sadly unsurprising that Menlo is more invested in minimizing the gravity of this situation and protecting the Ortberg brand than holding him accountable.  Even when the safety of children is at stake.

The fact that Lavery is trans has tragically provided many Ortberg defenders an easy reason to discredit him, an escape hatch from seriously considering his account.  It is profoundly sad that even when the safety of children is at stake, many evangelicals have been quick to side with Ortberg, who enabled a pedophile for sixteen months, instead of Lavery, who is the sole reason why this pedophile is no longer working with children.  Others have already observed the irony that many conservative Christians have demonized queer and trans people as pedophiles, but when a trans person wants to protect children from a pedophile, the trans person is somehow the problem.  For me, this situation has been a clear illustration of how toxic, unaffirming theology isn’t just harmful for LGBTQIA+ folks (which would be reason enough, mind you, to discard it).  It is harmful for everyone.

I suspect that Menlo perceives itself as different from “those” evangelical churches, the ones who voted the current president into office, who claim religious persecution when they’re told to stop gathering during a pandemic.  In many ways, it is:  It’s situated in the diverse, liberal San Francisco Bay Area.  Its senior pastor has a clinical psychology PhD, a pointed contrast to the anti-intellectualism that permeates American evangelicalism.  The Menlo congregants and staff I know reliably vote Democrat and endorse the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Ortberg famously supported the women who accused evangelical megachurch pastor Bill Hybels, once his boss and close friend, of sexual harassment.  But this situation illustrates that even with all of its unusual qualities, Menlo is not immune to the powerful forces of minimizing, deflecting, and rationalizing that get set in motion when a charismatic leader – the sun around which everything orbits – makes 16 months of wildly reckless decisions.

As someone who has been watching American evangelicalism for the last 15 years, all of this – the impulse to minimize the problem, the transphobia, the choice to prioritize the reputation of the pastor even over the risk of child sexual abuse – all of this, unfortunately, makes sense.  Menlo is not an exception. The toxicity that pervades American evangelicalism is there, too.

As a parent, in light of everything discussed here, I have trouble imagining a scenario in which I would send my children to student ministries at Menlo.  I say this knowing several people on staff there – people with whom I’ve worked, whom I like and respect, whom I imagine were not aware of this volunteer’s attraction to children until Lavery reported it.  But after seeing the chasm between what Lavery reported to the church and what the church reported to the congregation, how could I send my child there without constantly wondering what they weren’t telling me?  When a pastor demonstrates that they are more committed to protecting their family’s reputation than the children they serve – and church leadership follows suit – how could I ever trust that pastor or church again?

I am not concerned about sending my children to Menlo, or any evangelical megachurch, anytime in the foreseeable future.  But in the wake of this story, I wonder if I can trust my children with anyone at all.  Churches, sports teams, schools – who is safe?  Who can I trust to make the right decision if my kids’ safety is at odds with the reputation of the institution? The scandal at Menlo has given me yet another reason to be suspicious of any organization that wants time with my children.


If you’ve ever been a therapist or worked in student ministries, you know that inevitably, you will hear a horrible revelation that requires you to intervene. It is part of the job. A client will recount an experience of child abuse at the hands of a coach who still works with kids; a student will report being hit at home. The process of reporting these incidents is invariably terrible — brutal conversations, disrupted relationships, broken trust. The only things you can control are 1. fulfilling your legal and ethical obligations to protect minors, whether you know them or not, and 2. your effort to repair the relationships and rebuild the trust that were broken in the process. Regarding the former, Ortberg failed for sixteen months, and he would have continued failing if not for Lavery’s intervention. And now he and Menlo appear too invested in downplaying the severity of the situation to allow for the latter.

I do not know where they go from here. I do not know how they can go about rebuilding trust when they are committed to a position that doesn’t allow for it. And trust is the only currency they have.

Still a Progressive Asian American Christian, Now a Lot Less Lonely

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

I sat in a plastic chair in the fluorescent-lit conference room, leaning on the small tablet desk attached to my seat.  The chairs were arranged in a circle around the edge of the room, filling one by one as people trickled in.  Eighteen.  Nineteen.  Twenty.  I could hardly believe it.

It was the first San Francisco Bay Area meetup of Progressive Asian American Christians, an online community I had inadvertently helped to start.  Less than two months prior, I had written a piece about how lonely it is to be a progressive Asian American Christian.  At the end of it, I linked a then-empty Facebook group that a new friend of mine, Lydia Suh, had created.  It would be a place, I imagined, where people who resonated with the piece could go to see that other people like them existed — where they would see a bunch of profile pictures and feel validated and maybe post the occasional article.

Neither Lydia nor I expected what followed:  Three hundred people joined the group the day after the piece went up; less than six weeks later, we had two thousand.  But it wasn’t just the numbers that surprised us — it was the energy and enthusiasm that these folks brought with them.  They immediately started sharing their stories, discussing controversial topics, asking when we could start meeting in person.  The first meetup took place a month after the group started (in Minneapolis, impressively enough); within the next three months, eight more cities would start their own.

On this sunny Saturday afternoon in February, on the fourth floor of an office building in the city, the first Bay Area meetup about to begin.  As I watched people rolling in — peering around, introducing themselves, finding seats — I noticed an unfamiliar feeling in my chest.


Over the last six months, friends have regularly asked me what it’s been like to co-facilitate this online community, which now has over 3600 members.  I tell them the truth: It’s been amazing, one of the most profound and meaningful things I’ve ever been a part of.  It has also been wildly stressful.

The amazing part is easier to grasp.  Some people in the group have said that they finally have a space where they feel at home — where they aren’t on the margins, as they are in their conservative Asian American churches or in their predominantly white progressive churches.  A few folks who stopped going to church because they were tired of not fitting in anywhere have told us that this is the first spiritual community they’ve had in years.  One person shared that after years of Christians telling him that his views on women and gay people weren’t Christian, he had resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t.  He Googled “asian liberal christianity” in a last-ditch effort to see if there was any place for him.  My piece came up, which led him to the group and showed him that he isn’t alone in his convictions.  Another person started a subgroup solely for Asian American LGBTQIA+ and questioning Christians, which, I’m told, has been life-giving and life-changing for its members.  Responses like these have been overwhelming and humbling.

And there are countless smaller moments that are also deeply meaningful.  People post photos of meetups in Boston and DC and Philly where they shared their stories and discussed what it looks like to live as a progressive Asian American Christian.  People share vulnerable questions and experiences and the community rises to meet them, offering empathy and validation and solidarity.  People have thoughtful, nuanced discussions about everything from Israel and Palestine to Hollywood whitewashing to why they continue to identify Christian in a time when so many Christians espouse ideas that are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.  People say how much they’re learning from the group, how they wouldn’t be able to have these conversations elsewhere, how the group has empowered them to be more vocal in their real-life communities.  It’s an honor to witness these exchanges, to know that a space I helped create is making a palpable difference in the lives of the people who are in it.

But running the group is not all sunshine and rainbows.  Neither Lydia nor I anticipated the amount of time that it would take in our already-full lives.  Moderating alone is a significant time commitment, let alone planning in-person meetups and a national conference, applying for grants, building a website, incorporating a non-profit.  We receive a good amount of feedback from people we’ve never met, some of which is thoughtful and tactful, some of which is less so.  And it’s incredibly difficult to maintain boundaries with a group that runs 24/7 and is almost immediately accessible, no matter where I am in the world.  Most of the time, it chugs along just fine on its own — but every now and then, something or someone in the group will demand immediate attention, and it’s almost always when I’m on a walk with my toddler or sitting down to dinner with my husband.

And then there’s everything that comes with navigating a space on the internet where most of the people don’t know each other in person.  Tone can be hard to read online and people come to the group with vastly different experiences, personalities, and contexts, so innocuous conversations can turn combative in a matter of moments.  I sometimes see comments that are less than charitable and make me cringe.  And on the rare occasions when something in the group blows up — say, if someone posts something offensive — intervention is rarely straightforward.  Even when the moderating squad has a clear sense of how to respond, which we don’t always, there’s usually a case to be made for why we should do things another way.  So we drop whatever we’re doing to furiously text each other about what to do and we do it, knowing that our decision will be disputed and some people will likely end up feeling aggrieved.  This comes with the territory, but that fact makes these situations no less stressful in the moment.

But the trickiest part of facilitating the group is trying to create a space where people at all different stages of the journey feel welcome.  “Progressive” is a relative term, after all, and what’s progressive in one context may be charmingly (or less charmingly) quaint in another.  For some, even asking whether women can be pastors or whether same-sex relationships might be okay is enough to be deemed a heretic in their community, especially if they’ve only ever gone to Asian churches.  For others, these questions are a distant memory, if they were ever on the table at all.  Some folks in the group wonder why reproductive rights are still up for discussion in a group with a progressive label; others, who perhaps have never encountered pro-choice Christians before or heard a Christian argument for reproductive rights, worry they’ll be shot down for asking questions.  At various points, people at both ends of the spectrum have been frustrated, and Lydia and I totally get why.  And we recognize that it’s a tall order to be both a space where progressive Asian American Christians can talk freely, where we don’t have to explain or defend ourselves, and a space where people who are still working out these issues feel safe to ask questions.  We want those folks to be privy to our conversations, to hear perspectives that are rarely seen or heard in Asian American Christian communities, because that’s how progress is made.  Most of the time, I think we manage to do both.  But that isn’t always the case, and those moments are the most stressful of all.

At those times, Lydia and I do whatever we need to do to take care of ourselves.  And then I return to the group and see lovely things happening — people connecting, sharing their stories and talking about important issues, learning from each other.  I read sweet messages from people sharing what the group means to them, offering words of encouragement, volunteering to help however they can.  I chat with the new friends I’ve made in LA, in Boston, in London who understand not only the things I care about but also the experiences that brought me to this point.  I see people having the transformative experience of finding a place where they belong, and it is sublime.  And then I remember that all the time and energy and stress is worth it.


Thirty-five people showed up that Saturday in February, driving in from as far as San Jose and Vallejo, an hour in either direction.  The only agenda item was to share your story:  Why are you here?  Why do you identify as a progressive Asian American Christian?

We went around the room, pausing occasionally to make room for a latecomer, and the stories were captivating:  Stories of growing up in conservative immigrant churches in California and Texas and Illinois, experiences that awakened them to some kind of injustice, finding themselves at odds with their communities.  Stories of not fitting in in Asian American churches or in progressive churches.  Stories of working as lawyers for refugees and homeless people, as teachers and pastors and social workers, as graphic designers and educators about food justice.  Stories of coming out to unsupportive, condemning communities; of starting organizations so that no one would have to go through the same experience.  Stories of being fired from Christian organizations for being LGBT-affirming.  And above and beyond, stories about wanting to find a decolonized, authentic Asian American Christianity that isn’t just a haphazardly-applied version of white evangelicalism.

As the stories flowed, the unfamiliar feeling in my chest started to expand, spreading through my torso and down my extremities.  And as it warmed my arms and my feet and my toes, I suddenly recognized what it was:  I felt like I was home.

If you’re interested in checking it out, you can find the Progressive Asian American Christians Facebook group here.  We’re also hosting a national conference in San Francisco from June 16-18, where we’ll be talking about everything from social justice and activism to mental health to feminism; you can find details and register here.

The Loneliness of the Progressive Asian American Christian

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics. It was later picked up by the Huffington Post.

For a long and formative time in my life, the Asian American church was my home. I came to faith at 15 in the high school ministry of a Chinese church. This was the place where I started to grasp the idea of a gracious God who loved me unconditionally; it was also where I came to terms with my Asian American identity, something I had been bitterly fighting for a decade. It was the first Asian American community I’d ever been a part of, and for the first time in my life, I felt normal. I now had friends who innately got how I interacted with my family, how I thought about school and college and the future — all the experiences that made me so different from my peers at school. I felt seen and accepted and understood, both by God and the people around me.

In college, I was part of a Chinese American campus fellowship — but as the years went on, I started to notice a disconnect between my friends there and me. I was beginning to care a lot about race, politics, current events, feminism. No one at my fellowship discouraged me from pursuing these things, but for the most part, they weren’t interested in discussing them either. Whatever the reason, when I wanted to talk about those issues, I mostly had to look elsewhere.

And then I went to grad school — a clinical psychology graduate program that was housed in a seminary — and my whole world got blown open.

I took theology classes and learned that the context in which each part of the Bible was written is crucial to understanding the text and applying it appropriately to our context. I hung out with students from a whole spectrum of Christian traditions — most of whom were not Asian — and saw the myriad ways in which they practiced their faith, many of which did not look like mine. I heard theological ideas that were way edgier than my own, espoused by professors who took their faith seriously. I learned more about power and privilege and the systemic nature of racism in this country. I sat with dozens of clients and heard their stories of pain and trauma and resilience and hope, and I realized that all of us have far more in common than not and everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. I finished grad school with a completely different understanding of my faith than when I started. It was no longer just about Jesus as my personal Savior and helping people like me; it was about Jesus as a revolutionary who came to set the oppressed free (Luke 4.18), and it was about using my voice and my privilege on behalf of those who don’t have those things. Following Jesus was no longer primarily about my individual relationship with him; it now meant continuing his work of embracing and advocating for the marginalized and fighting injustice.

I’m grateful for how my faith transformed during that time. But it came at a cost: Early on in my graduate career, I started to find it difficult to be in Asian American churches. They still felt familiar and comforting in some ways, but the messages that I heard, both from the pulpit and the congregation, rarely acknowledged the things that were becoming central to my faith. There was, at least in the communities I visited at that point in time, little mention of injustice or how to Christians should respond to it. Aside from musicians in the worship band and the occasional Scripture reader, I almost never saw women up front. If LGBT issues were ever raised, it was to reiterate the notion that homosexuality was unacceptable. Almost invariably, I left Asian American churches — once the places where I felt most at home — feeling like I didn’t belong.

As I looked for churches that were a better theological fit, I ended up in ones that were predominantly white. For the most part, I haven’t minded being in the racial minority; it’s an experience I’m used to, having grown up in the Midwest, and I value diversity and having friends of all kinds. But there are times when it wears on me — when I wish that connecting with my Christian community was as effortless as it once was, that I didn’t have to explain so much about myself or my experiences. I wish, sometimes, that I were a little less alone.

Being a progressive Asian American Christian can be lonely — because for us, finding a Christian community often means having to choose between shared theology and shared experience. We can join churches that match our ideology, which are usually predominantly white or black. Or we can join churches that mirror our cultural experiences, which are often silent — if not actively oppressive — when it comes to women, other people of color, and LGBT folks. Finding a community often means making a choice between integral parts of ourselves.


It’s no secret that Asian American Christianity tends to be conservative. Asian immigrant churches are especially so, and since 92% of Asians in America are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, most Asian American Christians have spent serious time in these communities. The conservativeness of these churches stems from several factors: For one, they generally maintain the social mores of their home culture, which are usually more conservative than broader American culture on every front, from clothing and appearance to interactions with elders to dating and sexuality. Then you add the immigrant mentality of playing everything very safe and going out of your way to avoid trouble; you also mix in the conservative views of white American evangelicalism, upon which Asian churches draw heavily for resources (books, curriculum, etc.) and general direction for how Christians should respond to political issues and current events. You end up with communities that can be even more conservative than the typical white evangelical church: they’re vehemently pro-life and anti-gay marriage, and they may also perceive questions as challenges to authority and forbid high school dating.

So if you’re in an Asian church and you start to think that, say, women should have the same rights and privileges as men when it comes to doing ministry and church decision-making, you may find yourself at odds with the people around you. While many Asian countries have made strides in this area, patriarchal values still permeate Asian cultures to varying degrees, and these values can shape how Asian clergy interpret the Bible. Though I don’t have hard data, I would bet that the majority of Asian immigrant churches don’t allow women to hold the same leadership roles than men do. I would also wager that many churches targeting American-born Asians, while somewhat more progressive, don’t either. (And many of the ones that do in theory, I suspect, have no female pastors in practice.) So if you’re at an Asian church and you come to the not-so-radical conclusion that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men in a church context — since we now have the same access to literacy and education that men do, which was not the case when any part of the Bible was written — your perspective may not be warmly received.

And if you’re in an Asian church and you start to think that, say, black people experience more police brutality than other groups do and maybe Christians should talk about that, you may again find yourself at odds with the people around you. Asian Americans are often silent on issues of racism for a number of reasons: the cultural value of harmony, an immigrant mentality of looking out only for yourself, anti-black racism in both Asia and America, a belief in the model minority myth. This tendency can be especially pervasive in Asian churches, where fear of disrupting the community can make individuals especially reluctant to bring up issues that could be controversial. And since Asian cultures tend to be more hierarchical than Western ones, church leaders may cherry-pick verses about obeying authority to invalidate the idea that the police or the government might ever be wrong. So if you want to talk about systemic injustice at an Asian church, you might not find many willing conversation partners, and you might be silenced altogether.

And if you’re in an Asian church and you start to think that, say, LGBT folks should be allowed to have the same relationships and rights to marriage that straight people have, and should be allowed to participate fully in all aspects of the church even if they’re out, you may really find yourself at odds with the people around you. If Asian churches aren’t totally sold on women, it’s not surprising that they’re even farther behind when it comes to LGBT issues, which are taboo both spiritually and culturally. “There isn’t a Korean church in America with a non-traditional view of marriage,” an affirming Korean American pastor once told me. I can’t think of any Chinese or Taiwanese churches that do — or any East, Southeast, or South Asian churches, for that matter — though I would love for both of us to be wrong. (If you have a counterexample, please let me know — I’d love to hear about it.) The only predominantly Asian American church I know of that’s engaging these issues at all is Evergreen Baptist Church LA, but even they don’t have an officially affirming stance. So if you’re at an Asian church and you start to think that LGBT people should have the same rights as cisgender heterosexuals, you may find yourself alone on the issue, if not rebuked for thinking so. (And that’s if you’re merely an ally; if you identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, the ramifications of being in these communities are infinitely greater, and all the more if you come out.)


To be clear, I don’t think Asian churches are bad. They understand and are uniquely equipped to meet the needs of their communities — this is especially true for immigrant churches — and they provide a respite for people who have to spend the rest of the week constantly crossing cultural barriers. But for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned, it’s not hard to see why progressive Asian American Christians often find themselves unable to participate in these communities.

The next step for many of us, then, is to find other churches that care about these issues. But these communities are usually predominantly white (or predominantly black, though these churches are rarely progressive on LGBT issues), and that can carry its own baggage. It can be hard to be the only Asian American person around, or one of only a few, both because of how you stand out and because you have to do so much more work to be heard and understood. You no longer have cultural experiences in common; the shorthand that you can speak in Asian American churches doesn’t translate. You may find yourself having to explain a lot — about your family, about your culture, about what your faith looks like — to people who have no firsthand experience of these things. The fear of being misunderstood, or of misrepresenting an entire culture, or of having to defend how you do things is real and exhausting. And it can be hard to be in a community where you don’t see your own experiences reflected in any part of the worship or the liturgy or the leadership. It’s easy in spaces like these to feel like you don’t belong.

And some of these progressive communities, for all of their rhetoric about supporting black lives and standing against injustice, don’t really know how to talk about race or how race and racism affect their members. Some of these communities think they get it because they say the right things but don’t actually see how pervasive whiteness is, even within their own walls. So the progressive Asian American Christian may find themselves feeling alone and even alienated, again, this time because of their cultural identity.


So to summarize: I feel out of place in Asian American Christian spaces, though I can’t overstate the impact they’ve had on my life. And while I’m grateful for the progressive Christian spaces that I’ve had — the fact that I have access to any is as gift, as I know they’re hard to find in some parts of the country — I often feel out of place there, too. In my most cynical moments, I’ve wondered why I bother trying to participate in any of these communities and why I continue to pursue this faith at all. But at the end of the day, I can’t get away from the fact that at the core of my convictions about justice is my belief that we’re all created the image of God, who values each of us wholly and equally, and my belief in Jesus as a revolutionary who came to dignify every person and to level the hierarchies that our societies create. Try as I may, I can’t escape those things. My progressive values and my faith are inextricably intertwined.

So I stick around. And while I love diversity and inclusion and having friends of all stripes, every now and again, it would be nice to have a place where I didn’t have to choose between people who get my theology and people who get my experiences. And I know that people who get both are out there. I know a lot of them, actually; I made a list, and what started as a trickle became a flood. But we’re scattered all over the place, both in terms of geography and the churches we attend. My one-on-one interactions with these folks are normalizing and life-giving; these meals and coffee dates are now my spiritual home. But we don’t really have places to connect more broadly.

And I know more of you are out there. Some of you are lucky enough to attend churches like City Church San Francisco and Vox Veniae — exceedingly rare places that are progressive and have sizeable Asian American contingents. You’re fortunate to have a community where you don’t have to choose between the two. I get why you’re there.

Some of you are sitting in the pews at Redeemer and Pacific Crossroads, at New Song and GrX, in the English ministries of the immigrant churches where you grew up or where you work with students. Maybe you quietly ignore the church’s stances about women in ministry and LGBT issues or their silence about racial injustice because it’s nice to have friends whose stories are similar to yours. I get that. Or maybe, in spite of your ideological differences, this church is still the best option among the ones you have available to you. I get that. Or maybe you’re trying to do the incredibly difficult, admirable work of creating change from within. I get that too.

Some of you, not feeling like you belong at progressive churches or in Asian American ones because you can’t be fully yourself in either, don’t go to church anywhere. I get that.

And some of you affirmed women or other people of color or gay folks but saw no place for that in your church — or, worse, were reprimanded for doing so — so you left the faith altogether. I get that. If the only options I knew of were to dignify all people or be a Christian, and these options appeared to be mutually exclusive, I probably would have chosen the former too.

I know you’re out there, and I wish we all could meet somehow. I’m not arguing that we necessarily need progressive Asian American churches, though I’d be stoked to know that one exists. But it would be lovely to have spaces where we didn’t have to choose between shared theology and shared experience; where we could connect with people with similar stories; where we didn’t feel the need to turn down the volume on either our ideology or our cultural experiences. Where we could be fully known and fully understood every once in a while. Where we could feel a little less lonely.

If you’re interested in such a space, here’s a start: Join the Progressive Asian American Christians group on Facebook, curated by Lydia Suh, a pastor at City Church San Francisco. We’re still figuring out what the group is, but at the very least, it’s a place to know that we aren’t alone.

Photo credit: Diana Chen

Goodbye, InterVarsity

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

I arrived at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2000 as a naïve, eager 17-year-old. I spent my first week on campus doing the standard litany of Welcome Week activities: getting as much free food as possible from all the student organizations hosting events, traveling everywhere in a pack of te, going to see if fraternity parties lived up to the hype. College was the best.

And then classes started, and I quickly learned that college was not the best. College was a lot of work. More importantly, college could be incredibly lonely, especially for a new freshman. I had plenty of friends on campus from high school and my home church, but they were all busy doing their own thing, taking their own classes, starting their own lives. I was meeting tons of new people, but you could only go so deep in a few weeks. I’ve never enjoyed drinking, which ruled out a significant amount of weekend activity. I remember climbing into my lofted bed on a Saturday night in September and listening to the sounds of people walking and laughing outside my window, heading south on State Street toward Sigma Chi; I pulled the covers to my chin, folded my hands on my chest, and blinked into the dark. I had never felt more alone.

The first six weeks of college were hard. But then a remarkable thing happened: I went to a dinner hosted by Chinese Christian Fellowship (now Asian InterVarsity), one of the three InterVarsity chapters on campus. I’d been attending their weekly events, trying to figure out how I fit into this mass of people with whom I had at least two things in common, but nothing had really clicked. On this particular evening, though, a junior named Kelly invited me to sit with her and a handful of other freshmen I had never seen before. We clicked. These girls became my small group and my closest friends on campus. They were the ones who turned college around for me.

CCF became my spiritual home on campus. Though I would eventually roll in a lot of different circles, CCF was the hub, the center to which I always returned. My CCF friends were the ones who consoled me after breakups and with whom I had deep conversations about meaning and purpose; the ones with whom I went karaoking, drove to Canada to get dim sum, went up north at the end of every school year; the ones with whom I sat in dazed silence in Couzens Hall on the afternoon of 9/11. And not only did I love my CCF friends, I loved what InterVarsity stood for. A week-long training on racial reconciliation opened my eyes to the reality of systemic inequality and completely transformed my understanding of race and justice. There were campus fellowships you could join if you just wanted to have a lot of fun, and others if you wanted intense emotional experiences, but IV prided itself on being the one that encouraged you to intellectually engage with the campus and the world around you. IV wanted you to think, and for someone who was just starting to see how interesting and complicated and beautiful and terrible the world is, it was a great place to be.

InterVarsity’s impact on me didn’t end after college: My old staff worker helped me get me my first job after grad school. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I befriended a number of IV staff, some of whom contacted me out of the blue, because of what we had in common: Our commitment to racial and social justice was deeply rooted in our Christian convictions. I had never seen Christians so deeply committed to advocacy and activism, nor have I met any since. And though I had diverged theologically from IV on a number of issues since college, I was proud that it was one of very few evangelical organizations to affirm Black Lives Matter and that many of the people at the forefront of the BLM movement in the Bay Area were IV staff. These folks were the real deal.

And then it all came to a screeching halt.


Last week, Time reported that InterVarsity is asking all of its employees that do not accept a traditional view of human sexuality, as outlined in a position paper, to resign. Staff members who express disagreement and do not voluntarily resign will be terminated.

I first caught wind of this news last year from a friend on staff, Susan*, who told me how IV was circling the wagons on the issue of sexuality and her days with the organization were probably numbered as a result. Around the same time, the child of another IV friend, Ginny, began the process of coming out as transgender. On top of all of the personal ramifications of this transition, Ginny had to worry about whether her willingness to accept it would cost her her job, especially in light of these circling wagons. She ended up keeping her job, at least for the time being; her higher-ups told her that they would treat her child’s transition as though it were a behavioral issue and not penalize her for it. The reprieve was short-lived, though. In July of this year, IV’s interim president and president-elect emailed supervisors to notify them about the implementation of the new policy:



Ginny was fired in September, one of three staff workers from UC Berkeley that have resigned or been terminated since the start of the school year as the result of IV’s ultimatum. Susan, who is still with the organization, tells me that more resignation letters from Bay Area staff are coming, and her own is likely among them.


The shocking part of this story is not InterVarsity’s view of sexuality. Progressive as it may be in some respects, at the end of the day, IV is still an evangelical organization. The shocking part is their decision to expel all employees who disagree. Jonathan Merritt, in an excellent piece for The Atlantic, aptly summarized the situation: “It is not extreme to hold the conservative Christian position on marriage and sexuality. But it is extreme to think that those who don’t, but are otherwise committed to your mission, should be fired.”

IV’s move is especially surprising to me for several reasons. First of all, InterVarsity views itself as a missions organization with the aim of reaching students for Jesus. The decision to force out supporters of a marginalized group is completely counterproductive to that mission. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus choosing to hang with prostitutes, tax collectors — people ostracized and viewed as sinful by the religious establishment. If Jesus were around today, I am 99% sure that he would be kicking it with LGBT folks. But instead of choosing Jesus’s MO, InterVarsity has chosen to side with the Pharisee and condemn those who fully embrace the marginalized. Not a good look for an organization trying to encourage discipleship and Christlikeness.

Second, as I alluded to earlier, InterVarsity has always prided itself on being the thinking Christian’s fellowship. Multiple perspectives are welcomed and valued (at least aspirationally, if not always in practice); this is especially evident in the organization’s emphasis on racial reconciliation. So the fact that IV would choose to fire all of its employees who do not hold a particular belief — one that is well outside the bounds of its doctrinal statement, and one that is widely contested — is astounding to me. It’s a surprisingly totalitarian move from an organization that claims to celebrate a diversity of opinion.

And then there’s the selective application of the stances in their position paper. The document also says that divorce is sinful, but divorced people are not being asked to voluntarily resign. And if they’re asking anyone who supports LGBT relationships to leave, then anyone who’s attended the wedding of a previously divorced person should also be asked the same. But no, apparently that’s all fine; it’s only disagreement on this specific part of the paper that merits termination. (The paper itself is also confounding at several points. For example, in the discussion on sexual identity, it claims that “sex is not the ‘big deal’ that our society has made it to be” — yet sexuality is the only issue that has ever warranted a staff-wide purge in IV’s 75-year history.)

And then there are all the practical debacles. InterVarsity didn’t have to reaffirm its stance on this issue, and even if they did, they didn’t need to fire everyone who disagreed. They could have required affirmation of their position from new hires while keeping their existing employees who are doing good and fruitful work. But they chose to take these steps anyway, and they’ve invited a ton of terrible PR in the process. Divestment campaigns are underway. Conversations have started about beginning a new campus organization that welcomes students of all sexual orientations. And in this day and age, what 18-year-old wants to be a part of an organization that is so hostile not just to LGBT folks — i.e., their hallmates, their friends, their siblings — but also those who affirm them? I wouldn’t. So in one swift move, IV has successfully terminated good employees, alienated donors, opened the door for competition, and put off the very students that they exist to reach. From an organizational standpoint, this decision is baffling.


After posting the Time article on Facebook, several of my staff friends from other parts of the country were quick to reach out. One told me that she has people on her team who disagree with IV’s stance, but none of them are being terminated or resigning. The process seems to be playing out differently in the Bay Area than elsewhere, several said. But these reassurances are empty; it does not make me feel better to know that some stealthy LGBT-affirming staff are staying on elsewhere because they or their supervisors are keeping their mouths shut. It doesn’t change the fact that the organization has chosen to take these actions, and it does nothing to help LGBT students, because these staff workers need to keep their positions quiet in order to keep their jobs. I don’t understand how this don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation is supposed to be satisfying to anyone — least of all the higher-ups, who, in their email, sound pretty keen on smoking out dissenting voices.

I’d like to think that so many more staff people in the Bay Area are leaving because they have more integrity. That may or may not be true, but a more likely reason is that the issue is just more salient here than it is elsewhere. Bay Area staff workers work daily with queer students and queer leaders. It’s easy to keep your mouth shut on this issue when you lead a chapter in the Midwest or the South, where social stigma is more likely to keep students closeted. It’s much harder to do that when you work with out students every day. The dissonance between the organization’s stance and your reality is simply too great.

One thing that my staff friends from other regions did assure me, though: No one they know is happy with the policy, even those who hold traditional stances, and no one thinks the process has been executed well. All of them lamented the wreckage and pain that this disaster has caused and will continue to cause. It’s a small consolation. And the apparent disconnect between the people on the ground and the people at the top seems to point to yet another organizational failure.


I was surprised by how heavy I felt in the wake of the Time story, given that I already knew about the policy and had seen some of the fallout up close. Part of it was seeing the reaction, particularly from Christians who identify as LGBT and their allies; part of it was also InterVarsity’s response, which was convoluted at best. Shortly after the article’s release, they responded by saying that the piece was wrong; they have no official policy on how their employees feel about civil marriage. Their rebuttal was almost comical, given that this was a semantic error and no one was upset about the organization’s stance on civil marriage equality. The outrage was about the organization’s actual stance — that all same-sex relationships are immoral, and anyone who disagrees needs to leave — which the article accurately described and is far more concerning. IV went on to say that they are taking their stance in an effort to uphold the dignity of all people, which was also hilarious, because their position is a clear affront to the dignity of LGBT people, and this seems apparent to everyone but them.

Things didn’t get really galling, though, until the end of the response: “Within InterVarsity and elsewhere, there are LGBTQI people who agree with this theology, at great personal cost.” I’m still shocked by how tone-deaf this line is, because the great personal cost borne by these LGBTQI people is the result of the message that InterVarsity is trumpeting. These folks have given up the hope of ever having the kind of intimate companionship to which their heterosexual peers are entitled — because organizations like IV demand this as a condition of acceptance. And that’s just the beginning: Some are filled with anxiety that someone might find out about their sexuality, that they will be rejected by their loved ones, or that God will condemn them to hell. Some are depressed because they think they have to be alone forever. Some have been subjected to the abuse of so-called “reparative” therapy, which is opposed by every major medical and mental health association in the country. Some contemplate suicide because they believe that they’re defective — and far too many have followed through. So much of the suffering that LGBT people endure is caused by Christians — even well-meaning ones — who tell them that something is wrong with them, that they are less than, that they are not entitled to the full range of human experiences. So by invoking this suffering in their response, it felt like IV was attempting to garner sympathy for itself by pointing to the pain of the people whom they are oppressing. And that was appalling.

And then, perhaps limited by the bounds of Twitter or perhaps seeing that they had nowhere to go with this line of thinking, the response ended with “We are learning together.” This line feels especially rich in light of the aforementioned email sent to staff, in which IV leadership states, in no uncertain terms, that they will not budge on this issue. Also, it’s hard to believe that you’re interested in learning when you’ve forced all dissent either out of the organization or underground. As Merritt notes, “You cannot engage a conversation when you’re frightening or even firing your partners in that conversation.” So much for learning, then.

The following day, in a longer response, InterVarsity reiterated that LGBT people are welcome in the fellowship — but I have a hard time imagining why an LGBT person would want to be a part of it. Judging from its position paper, IV seems to recognize that sexual orientation isn’t a choice, which is what science and the experiences of the overwhelming majority of LGBT people tell us. So essentially, IV maintains that God would create you a certain way and then deny you the right to the most intimate and meaningful relationship a human being can have. That is completely at odds with my understanding of God as 1. entirely good and entirely loving and 2. an inherently relational God (three-in-one, heyo) who created people in God’s image as relational beings who are fully human only in the context of relationships. The God that IV implicitly describes is not a God that I would be interested in if I were an 18-year-old gay college student, nor one that interests me as a 33-year-old heterosexual adult.


Thus, my relationship with InterVarsity is coming to a sad end. I doubt the organization will feel my absence, but for me, this means saying goodbye to a place that’s influenced so many aspects of my life. I find it astounding and heartbreaking that IV is choosing not only to send such a hostile message to a group of people who are already at the receiving end of so much hostility, but also to cut off those who embrace them fully. And I’m just an ally; I can only imagine what this might feel like if I identified as LGBT.

Goodbye, InterVarsity. You were a wonderful home to a lonely freshman 16 years ago. I’m sorry that you’re choosing not to be for so many others.

Are you an InterVarsity alum who’s unhappy about the purge?  You can sign a petition here.

* Name has been changed to protect their identity.

How I Came Around on Gay Marriage

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

I climb out of my Pontiac Bonneville and slam the door shut; my 16-year-old brother follows suit on the passenger side. We walk down the beige concrete path to the front entrance of the middle school near my parents’ house, which leads us into the gym. One wall is lined with a row of voting booths, each enshrouded in dirty grey fabric. My heart beats a little faster.

It is November 2004, and I am about to vote in my first national election. I had been three months shy of 18 at the time of the last one, when I watched my fellow college freshmen register to vote in dorm lobbies and on the quad, and when I would eventually hear more about hanging chads and the state of Florida than I ever cared to hear. Four years — a lifetime, really — have passed since then; instead of a wide-eyed, insecure freshman, I am now a newly minted college graduate, enlightened by years of studying and paper-writing and classroom debate. Or so I think, at least.

I step into a booth, my brother to my left (though he is too young to vote himself, he is an aspiring politico who lives for elections), and draw the curtain behind us. I make my largely uninformed choices for president, for congressional representative, for justice of the state supreme court. I quickly breeze through the ballot until we get to the last item, Proposal 04-2, an amendment to the state of Michigan’s constitution:

To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”

I stare at the text, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. This item is not a surprise. I knew it would be on the ballot. I thought I knew how I was going to vote, but the last few days have brought a wave of second-guessing and self-doubt.

Minutes pass. My brother also starts to fidget. I start to worry that I am taking too much time, that there are people impatiently waiting in line, tapping their feet and checking their watches. I exhale and fill in the bubble for “yes.” It won’t come down to your vote, I try to reassure myself as I gather my things. I open the curtain, feed my ballot through the machine, and step with my brother into the late afternoon sun.


In hindsight, the fact that I felt conflicted about the decision at all was a surprise, given the trajectory I had been on in the years leading up to that moment.

I became a Christian when I was 15. The consequences of this change are too numerous to list here, but one of the most immediate was that, after years of trying to make sense of a confusing, ambiguous world on my own, I felt like I finally had clear, black-and-white answers to all of life’s questions. Did evolution happen? Here’s what the Bible says. Why does a good God allow suffering? Got my list of reasons right here. (For real. I had a list.) Thus, I spent the next several years in what I call my neofundamentalist phase, being exceedingly rigid and dogmatic and brashly calling out anyone who didn’t see things in the same way that I did. (I didn’t need to be gentle or tactful, see; I was speaking truth, and if others were hurt or offended, that was their problem, not mine.)

It wasn’t until the end of college that I started to come out of this phase, when I started to realize that almost everything is more complicated than it seems — even when faith is concerned. My original stance on gay marriage had been borne out of the same simplistic reasoning that I used to form all of my political views: “There are verses in the Bible saying that homosexuality is wrong; therefore, gay marriage should not be legal.” I had started to question this position the year I graduated, the same year I found myself hemming and hawing in that voting booth. But in the heat of the moment, my very new, somewhat nuanced way of seeing the world faltered in the face of the staunch dogmatism I had been building for years. Hence the “yes” vote, which was far less surprising than the struggle that preceded it.


I would come to regret my vote in a shockingly short amount of time — months, maybe even weeks — as I started, perhaps motivated by my internal debate in the voting booth, to have the kinds of conversations about the issue that I should have had before I went to vote in the first place.

Most significantly, these conversations helped me realize that civil marriage and religious marriage are not the same thing. Even now, I’m surprised by the number of people who don’t know that there’s a difference; when I ask people what civil marriage is, many give me the definition of common-law marriage. So it seems worthwhile to pause and explain:

Civil marriage is marriage in the eyes of the law, secured (in this country) by a marriage license signed by someone the state has authorized to sign these kinds of things. It confers a whole host of benefits, like tax breaks and visitation rights and the ability to be covered by your partner’s health insurance. It is entirely possible to have a civil marriage without having any kind of religious marriage; it happens all the time when people go to city hall to get married by a justice of the peace and don’t have a church or synagogue wedding.

Religious marriage, on the other hand, is marriage in the eyes of your particular faith tradition. Different traditions have different requirements for who can participate and what this looks like. It is entirely possible to have a religious marriage without having a civil marriage, though few people forgo the civil part unless the law forces them to; the practical benefits of being married in the eyes of the state are just too great. But plenty of people for whom civil marriage is not an option — most notably, same-sex couples, until recently — have had religious marriage ceremonies without civil ceremonies or paperwork.

Understanding this distinction helped me see that same-sex civil marriage — the kind I was being asked to vote on in that election — was not a moral issue; it was an issue of civil rights. The government was denying a group of citizens the rights and protections that others freely receive. And that is discrimination.

My brother has long maintained that all couples, same- and opposite-sex, should be issued civil unions and marriages should fall solely under the purview of religious institutions. He’s right, I think — but marriage and the state got tied up centuries ago, and it’s far too late to untangle them. So if heterosexual people can have the rights and privileges that the government bestows on married people, it’s only fair to extend those same rights to same-sex couples.

So shortly after I voted to ban gay marriage in my home state, I realized that I had gotten it wrong. My stance on civil gay marriage should have nothing to do with how I personally felt about gay marriage; it was an issue of making sure that all citizens have equal rights. Churches and religious groups could make their own decisions about whom they would allow to marry — decisions that are protected by the First Amendment — but when it came to government-sanctioned privileges and protections, it was only fair to give those rights to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.


A few years after I changed my stance on gay marriage as a civil rights issue, the needle started to move for me theologically as well. This came as a surprise to me, in no small part because it happened at the evangelical seminary I attended for graduate school.

First, through my various classes, there came the realizations that the Bible wasn’t actually as clear on homosexuality as I previously thought.

Those Old Testament verses in Leviticus? Don’t hold a lot of water, sandwiched as they are between verses about not mixing fibers or eating shellfish, things we do without hesitation or condemnation in our current culture. If we’re under a new covenant, then we’re no longer beholden to those rules.

Sodom and Gomorrah? Not so much about homosexuality but about gang rape and being inhospitable to strangers, to put it mildly.

Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in various letters? Not the word generally used to refer to same-sex sexual behavior at the time. Probably better translated to mean pedophilia or perpetrators of sexual violence. Consensual same-sex relationships between two people with equal power weren’t so much a thing back then.

Paul’s use of the word “natural” in Romans 1? The only other time he uses that word is in 1 Corinthians 11, describing men with long hair. So what he’s talking about seems to be more about cultural norms than the so-called laws of nature.

So those verses started to lose a lot of their weight. At the same time, I started to see that when viewed as a whole, the trajectory of the Bible moves away from unequal power hierarchies — between men and women, between Jews and Gentiles, between masters and slaves — toward liberation for the oppressed and equal status for the oppressed and the oppressor. And that seems to be a central mission of Jesus; he kicked off his ministry by declaring as much in Luke 4, and he spent most of his time hanging out with and affirming those who had been marginalized by society and shunned by the religious leaders of the day. Which sounds an awful lot like the LGBT community of today.

Second, I became convinced that sexual orientation is not a choice.  Science says it is not; the experiences of the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians say it is not; reason says it is not. Considering how gays and lesbians have been treated throughout history, and how they continue to be treated in most parts of the world — and even most parts of this country — why would anyone choose that kind of oppression?

Finally, and most powerfully, were the conversations and relationships I started having with people who identify as gay and lesbian.

Though I had gay friends before then, it wasn’t until grad school that I started really hearing the stories of LGBT people. This was in part because I started practicing as a therapist, seeing clients who laid out their deepest struggles and fears, and in part because becoming a good therapist requires you to confront yourself in ways you maybe haven’t before, and several people I knew did the very brave work of facing themselves and dealing with the consequences and were gracious enough to share those experiences. All that to say that suddenly, from peers and clients alike, I started hearing a lot more stories. Stories of people who had tried to change their sexual orientation for years — through reparative therapy, sheer force of will, or some combination thereof — and found themselves not only unable to do so but also plagued by depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and shame as a result. Stories of people who had been told by pastors and churches that they were broken and unlovable the way that they were. Stories of people who had been taught that they were not good the way they had been created, and were thus relegated to a lifetime of condemnation from society and an eternity of the same from the God who created them in the first place.

Needless to say, these stories were devastating to hear — let alone to actually live. And I could not reconcile an all-loving, all-knowing, all-merciful God who would create people a certain way and then require them to forsake one of the most meaningful relationships they could possibly forge, especially as I fell in love and was profoundly transformed by my relationship with my now-husband. I could not reconcile the God I knew and a God who would deny gays and lesbians the same kind of love and intimacy that my heterosexual friends and I got to freely experience.

So I came around on religious gay marriage, too. Again, this transformation wasn’t necessary for me to support civil marriage equality; my personal feelings about the issue were irrelevant, frankly, to the issue of whether or not gays and lesbians should have the same rights as all other American citizens. But this second change also happened, and for that reason, I am all the more elated about the events of Friday and the millions of marriages that are now possible because of the Supreme Court’s decision.


I want to conclude by stating that I’m not an expert on this issue in any way. I’m not gay, lesbian, or bisexual, so I don’t have firsthand experience to draw from. I’m not a theologian or a scholar of ancient Greek. I’m aware that in the great scheme of things, the amount that I understand is infinitesimal compared to what I don’t understand. So it’s entirely possible that I could be wrong about all of this. But at the end of the day, this is how I feel convicted, and I would much rather err on the side of more love and more grace and more inclusiveness than less.

For more stories, check out this New York Times interactive piece: How We Changed Our Thinking on Gay Marriage

Confessions of a Former Neofundamentalist

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

During my senior year of college, I mentored a freshman in my campus fellowship.  We met in the lounge of her dorm every week to talk about life and a book we were reading together, and during one of these meetings, she told me that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to have children.

Slightly horrified, I said to her, “Can you think of a single godly marriage in the Bible that didn’t result in offspring?”

That effectively ended the conversation.

Eight years later, this young woman — still a dear friend of mine — reminded me of this exchange over sushi at a restaurant near LAX, where she was passing through on business.  My eyes widened with horror as the memory, so long dormant, replayed in my mind.

“I’m sorry,” was all I could say in the moment.

Reflecting on this conversation later, I realized that I had a lot to apologize for.

I’m sorry that I didn’t consider that the social and cultural context in which the Bible was written — specifically, an agrarian one in which children were needed to help plant and harvest crops, in which having children was essential to survival — was completely different from the one in which we live, thousands of years later.

I’m sorry that I basically repeated verbatim what I had heard a missionary say years before, without thinking about it critically or processing it with anyone.

I’m sorry for tacitly implying that people who aren’t able to have children aren’t godly people.

I’m sorry that these words seem to have stuck with you and may have influenced your life choices.

I’m sorry that I was a neofundamentalist back then — not quite a head-covering fundy, but a slightly more modern version that went to public school and listened to pop music — and that I imposed those views on you.


I became a Christian when I was a sophomore in high school, after years of wrestling with questions of religion and spirituality.  The experience of being in a faith community was transformative for me; just as significant was the sense that I finally had answers to all of life’s questions.  The world, once so complex and confusing, was suddenly simple and easy to navigate.  Had a question?  The Bible had an answer.  The end.

The problem was that many of these new answers didn’t seem to line up with the ones I had before.  I was raised by parents who had PhDs in math and science, in a household where scholarship and intellectual rigor were paramount.  But suddenly, after my conversion, I started questioning everything I previously knew, from the validity of evolution to whether women were truly equal to men.  It was the Midwest in the late ’90s — a time and place where science and religion were still seen as at odds with each other (which, I gather, is still the case in many parts of the country) — and I didn’t really have anyone to have these conversations with.  My scientist parents weren’t religious.  The Christian women in my life told me to look for a spiritual leader.  I didn’t hear anyone talking about how evolution and the book of Genesis could be reconciled.  I felt forced to choose between what I knew pre-conversion and what I was learning post-conversion, and because my experience with my faith community had been so life-changing, I opted for the latter.  Science, once so central to my life, was now something I viewed with suspicion.

I carried this skepticism with me to college, where I learned a ton but spent more time than I should have resisting the ideas swirling around me instead of engaging them.  The Christians I knew who had opinions on matters intellectual and political were mostly right-leaning; a few claimed persecution from the biology faculty for their dissenting beliefs.  Seeing no other options as a Christian, I bought into these ideas too, which led to some conversations and election votes that I wish I could take back.

Near the end of college, I must have voiced some of these opinions to my longtime academic advisor, an Episcopalian woman with very left-leaning tendencies, because she gently directed me to Sojourners, a Christian organization committed to issues of social justice.  I visited their website, where my mind was promptly blown.  “God is not a Democrat or a Republican,” it read — which, being in the Midwest in the early 2000s, was news to me.  The website’s list of moral issues centered not on abortion and gay marriage but on war, poverty, the environment.  The idea that I could care about these things — that, as a Christian, I should care about these things, and my faith should inform these opinions — immediately felt right.  And just like that, an entirely new world of intellectual and political possibilities was opened to me.

A few years later, I started a doctoral program in clinical psychology that was housed in a seminary, and my theology classes continued the demolition of my black-and-white beliefs.  How do we reconcile the fact that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 tell different stories of creation — or that much of the Psalms are word-for-word replications of Egyptian religious texts?  How do we reconcile the promises of Proverbs with the realities of the world around us?  Instead of giving me answers, my classes not only unraveled the ones I had but also raised questions I hadn’t known to ask.  The only thing that kept my faith from coming completely unglued was the fact that the professors asking these questions seemed to retain their faith in the midst of them.  They demonstrated that it could be done, that faith and questions weren’t mutually exclusive, that one didn’t necessarily quash the other.

If my theology classes took a wrecking ball to my simple, literal faith, then working with therapy clients blew the remains to pieces.  As I sat with people in pain and listened to their stories, a few truths became clear to me: that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have; that things do not always turn out well for people who make all the right choices; that you can’t really separate bad people from good people, because anyone, in the right circumstances, will do just about anything.  More than anything else, my time as a therapist made me see that my old black-and-white beliefs simply didn’t fit the world around me; the world was much more grey than I had ever realized.  I needed to learn how to be comfortable with that, and I needed to figure out what my faith was going to look like in light of these realizations.

My faith is still intact, but it looks completely different than it did before — and, I’ve come to accept, it will forever be evolving.  In contrast to when I started this journey, I have a lot more questions now than answers.  I’m aware that I know virtually nothing compared to what I don’t know.  But I think I have a much better understanding of how the world actually is; instead of forcing everything into boxes that feel manageable and safe, I can see that the world is messy, complex, contradictory, unpredictable.  And as a result, I have a lot more compassion for people than I did before — and a much greater appreciation for a God who entered the messiness, who knows suffering and pain, who gets just how effed up the world and its inhabitants are but loves them all the same.  So even though it’s a lot more complicated and a lot less comfortable, I think my faith is more real, more honest, better this way.  And I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Oh, and Jenny — it’s cool.  You don’t have to have kids.