LGBTQ Christian.

For many that’s a combination of terms which illustrates the ultimate oxymoron. Those non-LGBTQ Christians, as well as non-Christian members of the LGBTQ community, who believe the two states are incompatible—if not incomprehensible— usually point to scripture to validate their arguments.

“Much of the arguments against homosexuality come from a complete misunderstanding of the cultural milieu in which these texts were written,” says Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw, senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of Tampa in Seminole Heights. “When we attempt to apply biblical ideas to our lives today, we are wholly unable to do so without taking into account the cultural context of the text and our own current social location.”

One example of misunderstanding the text Hero-Shaw points to is the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

“In this story, angels of God come to town and are seen as strangers,” Hero-Shaw explains. “In order to show dominance over them, in a culture that was shaped by honor and shame, the men of the town decide to violently attack and rape these strangers. This is not a sexual act, this is act of dominance and violence. The whole story is about lack of hospitality to the stranger. Sodom was destroyed because of corruption and violence. Loving same-sex relationships had nothing to do with it.”

To help all of us better understand what many in the community see as an anomaly, I ventured out into the land of Christendom and asked some local members of the LGBTQ community to tell us about their walk with Christ.

There is likely no more ultraconservative, Christian education to be had than at the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University where Orlando actor and playwright Scott Browning attended from 1995 to 1998. Browning was raised by his fundamentalist Baptist parents in their Loxahatchee, Florida household.

“The white noise in the background of my childhood home was always Moody Radio with ‘Focus on the Family’ playing all the time,” Browning says.

Moody Radio is a “Christian radio network that helps you take the next step in your journey with Jesus Christ,” the station’s website reads. “Focus on the Family” is a ministry with a half-hour Christian radio program that has been running for 40 years.

Browning, who has self-identified as gay since the age of 10, says that the constant condemnation of gays booming from the family radio did not leave him keen to come out of the closet. After graduating from Liberty University, Browning toured the U.S. with the school’s Christian Drama Team before moving to Orlando in 2000. It was there that he began attending Northland Church—more specifically, the church’s support group for people “struggling with homosexuality.”

“The gay men were so miserable with who they were that I decided I wanted nothing to do with all that,” Browning, who left the church in 2002, recalls. “I started to come out to my friends and I haven’t been a consistent church goer since.”

But Browning says he did not, and could not, abandon Christianity. He now works fulltime as an actor and resident historian at what he describes, for the purposes of this article, as “a Jesus-centered theme park here in Orlando.” It’s there that he gives daily lectures on life in Bethlehem during biblical times.

Browning uses a laser pointer to indicate on a room-sized model of the ancient city exactly what area or building he is referencing. He not only has scholar-like expertise on Bethlehem, and biblical text in general, but appears to have an earnest interest in sharing his passion with those who visit the park.

This long-time employee also has refused to remain in the closet with his employer.

“For the most part I feel totally accepted and affirmed at my work place,” he says, “and for those that ‘disagree’ with me, I have made it perfectly clear I don’t have time for that nonsense.”

While no longer a fundamentalist, Browning says he remains in his faith because “there’s comfort and tradition in my Christianity.”

Tradition seems to be a recurring theme among those who identify as a part of the LGBTQ community and hold fast to their church affiliation.

24-year-old, lifelong Seventh Day Adventist, Christopher Gonzalez Milliron—who experienced a very real crisis of faith in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting—is still a member of the church from his youth partly because of his grandmother.

“As a small child she would take me to church,” Milliron explains, “and I saw how everyone responded to her. She was very active in the church and well respected in it.”

More than mere tradition, Milliron seems to have an agenda attached to maintaining his affiliation to a Christian denomination whose official stance on homosexuality is “non-affirming.”

“The reason that I stay active in the church is that I feel organizations can only change from the inside,” he says, with a palpable air of hopefulness. “As the core membership of my church continues to gear younger, it is those young members that are shaping the church in a way that is much more affirmative of people, from all walks of life, bringing them together and blending them into one unified body.”

Milliron’s faith led him to attend Advent Health University when he felt a calling to work in the medical field.

Browning and Milliron followed their paths of education and wellness with hopes of reshaping the attitudes of Christians from within their respective fields, but Hero-Shaw followed his calling directly into the church.

“I was not raised with a strong faith tradition,” he says. “I periodically attended the Unitarian Universalist Church as child, but I started to feel called to Christianity when I was in high school and attended a number of churches before joining MCC when I was a college student.”

Hero-Shaw—who is an openly gay, transgender man— didn’t grow up going to a church that taught anything negative about sexual orientation or gender identity, but he certainly was impacted by the general cultural teachings that it was wrong.

“I recall as a queer teenager being very concerned that there was something profoundly wrong with me. I thought I was broken,” Hero-Shaw says. “I believed that God could not possibly love someone like me. I believed this because cultural messages in the country incorrectly taught me that some people are more loved by God than others.”

Hero-Shaw says that because of the culture around him he felt being different meant that he deserved any suffering he experienced—including being bullied at school.

“I was incredibly depressed as a young person because I thought I was unlovable,” he recalls. “The way I was treated by homophobic and transphobic people in my life seemed to be evidence that God could not possibly love someone like me.”

It was while in high school, seeing this culture around him, that Hero-Shaw became a Christian due to “the loving experience of friendship with someone who taught me about Jesus.”

“A fellow student reached out to me with love and provided me with emotional and spiritual support when I needed it,” he says.”She showed me the face of God by expressing her care for me. To this day, I continue to believe what she taught me: God wants us to show each other compassion and love. This is the primary call of followers of Christ; this is how we are to do God’s work in this world.”

The friend who taught Hero-Shaw those lessons came out as a lesbian to her conservative church and was rejected by them. After struggling with the church for some time, she took her life in 1998. She was only 19 years old.

“The injustice of her death forced me to open my heart to receive the call to ministry,” Hero-Shaw says. “I continually strive to live in my spiritual calling in a way that is worthy of my friend’s memory. She would be 40 years old now, and I continue to grieve that the world missed out on an amazing opportunity, as she did not get to live into adulthood and the calling that God had for her.”

Rev. Shirley Strader is another member of the LGBTQ community who was led to join the MCC ministry after tragedy.

Strader left the Catholic Church of her upbringing to specifically minister to LGBTQ persons of faith at Orlando’s Joy MCC. Strader is an ordained minister on staff as a volunteer clergy and is concurrently a fulltime hospice chaplain with VITAS Healthcare. Strader’s change from Catholicism to the MCC denomination was far from immediate.

“[The Catholic church] is a religion deeply steeped in guilt, shame and sin,” Strader says of her time as a Catholic. “It wasn’t until I went to college, understood I was gay and came out that I turned my back on Catholicism and God. If the God of that understanding was going to damn me to hell for just being me, who I was born to be, then that was a God I wanted nothing to do with.”

Strader shunned organized religion through her 20s and 30s, during which time she freely admits that she “spent those decades in a haze of alcohol, drugs and promiscuity.” Like with Hero-Shaw, it was the love and encouragement from a friend that finally got Strader back into church.

“Church of the Assemblies of God is a Pentecostal tradition which shocked and awed this Catholic girl,” she says. “The minister was a long time missionary with a passion for serving and helping the poor around the world and sharing the love of God and Christ—and he actually did it, he didn’t just talk about it. I was moved by his powerful messages and how he wove it with the teachings in the Bible like I had never heard in a Catholic mass.”

While she only attended the church for a short time, Strader says the experience opened her mind and softened her heart to God. Years later, Strader attended Northland Church where she was impressed by the powerfully moving sermons of the charismatic Pastor Joel Hunter. She thoroughly enjoyed the praise and worship aspects of the church, she says, but once again came the unsettling teachings on the “sin of homosexuality” which seemed to Strader to be at complete odds with the same church’s teaching of Christ’s love.

“I stopped attending,” she recalls. “I could not and would not continue to attend a church or faith which didn’t honor me or my relationship and family.” At the time, Strader was attending church with her partner and her young son. Once again, she gave up on church.

Driven to have a connection with God, Strader began to grieve over the lack of having a church that would foster that connection without condemning who and what she is. She started to drink more.

In October 1999, Strader found herself drunk-driving in Orlando while sobbing and crying aloud to God. She says she hated her life and hated that she couldn’t stop drinking.

“One minute I’m driving, blackout drunk, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in a parking lot of a church I had never been to,” Strader says. “I knew no one who went there and didn’t even know how I got there. All I heard was a still, small voice telling me to get up and go inside … I finally did, and the church was Joy MCC. It was a church started by and for the LGBTQ community. A Christian church which not only accepted me for who I am and who I love but affirmed and celebrated it. To this day, I believe that God was behind the wheel of my car and drove me to Joy MCC.”

This year Strader celebrates 20 years of sobriety, and she has been intimately involved in Joy MCC—its activities, community involvement, social justice and equality—since she found herself inexplicably parked at the church. She also attended LGBTQ-accepting seminary and received a Master of Divinity, becoming an ordained MCC clergy in 2012. She is now a chaplain providing spiritual support for people of all faith traditions, or no faith, at the end of their lives.

The list of reasons why LGBTQ Christians carry on with this balancing act can vary. Some do it for the tradition, some for the passion; while others do it because of a higher calling. Some still do it because of love.

Roland “Dale” Irvin of St. Cloud, Florida grew up in a devout Mormon household in Farmington, New Mexico. As most practicing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints (LDS) are expected to do, Irvin served a two-year mission for his church, married a woman and sired multiple children. Once those biblical obligations where fulfilled, Irvin made the decision to come out. He divorced his wife and has long since “lived in sin” with his ex-Catholic partner, whom he “loves dearly.”

Despite his sexuality being considered at one time by his church to be “among the gravest of sins, second only to murder,” Irvin says he has not been able to divorce himself from that institution. Just as with each person who shared their spiritual quest for this story, Irvin had no real desire to distance himself from the Mormon church.

“I was always challenged with the complexity of homosexuality and worked with many church counselors on finding my own place in the big picture of things,” Irvin says. “There have always been varying degrees of understanding with church leaders and others as they are only human and this goes beyond most levels of human comprehension.”

Irvin explains that he remains moderately active in the church but does not “hold a calling” at the moment.

“There was a great man called Jesus that was probably only part human and walked the Earth and taught humans that the only true sense of happiness is found in our own divine spiritual creation,” he says of his own beliefs.

While he may not be fully able to reconcile his sexuality with church doctrine, Irvin says he has no intention of trying to alter who he is and does not ever intend to abandon the man he loves. Irvin is also equally reticent to abandon his church.

“I truly feel the love of God when I participate in church activities,” he says.

It seems that Irvin—much like Milliron—is willing to wait patiently for the church he loves to catch up with the times. Irvin brings his ex-Catholic lover with him when he attends LDS services and says his bishop is fully aware of the status of their relationship. He hopes that in some small way their presence as a gay couple will have a positive influence over how other church members view LGBTQ people.

“I have always stayed true to my fundamental belief in the LDS church but continue to believe there is much to be learned and loved from many other great spiritual truths out there,” Irvin says. “The LDS church holds, yet to be revealed, many great and wondrous things.”

The one common denominator among these LGBTQ Christians? They each felt an innate need to at least endeavor to reconcile their sexuality with their deep-seeded desire to stay connected to Christ.

Browning evolved to become an out and proud gay man who purposely spends his days entertaining conservative Christian tourists. While they may hold the belief that as a gay man he is headed for hell, he doesn’t care. Browning is happy doing his part in keeping the faith alive, for himself, and for those who listen to his lectures and enjoy his shows.

Hero-Shaw believes that God put him on this path. “I don’t know why God made me the way I am, but I am profoundly grateful for the journey. I am not a mistake of God, I am a person who lives his calling the best way he knows how,” he says. “The journey I took to become the man I am has shaped me as a husband, as a father and as a pastor.”

Strader provides us with no better illustration of “Jesus take the wheel” than as described toward the end of her journey, resulting in a happily sober woman dedicated to helping others die with dignity. She does this whether or not they believe the woman offering them comfort in their final hours is doomed for being a lesbian.

Irvin seems to be quite content loving his same-sex partner and escorting him on his arm to the very church which caused him to live a huge portion of his life as a lie. He does so now with the hope of possibly changing a few minds.

Milliron sums it all up. “I remain a Christian because Christ has laid a framework of kindness and respect for personhood that I can subscribe to regardless of what any church might say about the specifics. Christ’s teachings center on love and respect and those are the aspects on which I choose to place my focus.

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