Jean Larson Hurd, Lutheran Campus Pastor for the University of Montana, says that this spring, her congregation was the first in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s Montana synod to be “reconciling in Christ,” meaning the church is now “open and hospitable” to gay and lesbian worshippers.
Now she wants to engage others in a conversation about being gay and Christian, which she will accomplish at the 1999 Knutson Conference, to be held throughout Missoula from June 10 to June 13. Funded by a grant from the Rev. Philip N. Knutson Endowment, named for a pastor who struggled as a gay man in the church and lived with AIDS, the conference focuses on sexuality every four years.
“It seems so congruent,” Hurd says of the this year’s topic. “Jesus didn’t have any barriers. He welcomed those outside of society’s acceptance.”
Hurd says her church really struggled with the decision to be reconciling in Christ, and says the discussion of sexuality in all denominations is a lively one. Steve Jerbi, who is a student on the planning committee, says, “I think it’s such an important issue. Often the only voice heard is one of dissension.”
Jerbi got involved with the conference because the pastor who confirmed him was gay and left the church because of it. Although the bishops of the ELCA wrote an open letter in 1996 denouncing “words and acts of hatred toward gay and lesbian persons” in their congregations, there is still no official policy about homosexuals in the church.
Clergy can be gay, according to Jerbi, but they must live a celibate lifestyle. Straight clergy, however, are not required to refrain from sexual activity. And the “ex-gay” movement, which has fundamental Christians denouncing their past homosexuality once they’ve been “turned straight,” is particularly detrimental, he says.
“Contemporary understandings say for the most part that the gay lifestyle is not a choice,” he explains. “So if you’re going to say it’s wrong, then the way God created us is wrong.”
Will Fellows, who is discussing the unique challenges of being gay in rural areas at the Knutson Conference, says that there has been quite a lot of conversation and conflict over the issue of being gay and Christian in the American Baptist denomination that he belonged to when he was growing up in Wisconsin.
“Some churches are able to accommodate and provide common ground, and others are really torn by it,” he notes.
But Fellows’ religious upbringing was not heavy-handed, despite his family’s active role in their church. What he describes as a “venomous perspective on human nature,” where those not fitting a perfect picture are headed to Hell, was absent.
“My parents and others put an emphasis on not judging others,” he says. “The Golden Rule was instilled in me. I felt my worthiness as a person just as I was. Then when I was dealing with my sexuality, I was able to acknowledge it in a constructive way.”
When he came out in his late teens, Fellows says his parents were not so consumed by the supposed sin of it, but they struggled to deconstruct their notions of him having a wife and children and living a life similar to theirs.
“Not long after I came out, my father took the initiative to foster more open dialogue about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in the church,” Fellows says, adding that his father became a leader in the fight against anti-gay discrimination in the church. “He really stood up against some homophobic notions.”
Fellows is looking forward to the conference partly because he will be addressing topics from his book, Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest in a relatively small town. It’s an issue he knows well. Isolation and the lack of a strong, visible gay population are the most negative aspects to growing up gay in a rural area, he says. Fellows added that the migration of urban gay people, who are used to living up-front and empowered lives, to smaller towns are the most likely catalysts to stir discussions of gay life in their new communities.
“I’d like to see farming publications discuss homosexuality, but that’s a very difficult gate to open because of inherent conservatism,” Fellows says. In fact, his goal for the conference is to educate people about being gay in a part of the country he feels can use the conversation.
For her part, Jean Larson Hurd says with the students, clergy and parents of gay and lesbian children from near and far expected to attend the conference, her aim is simply to pass on the ability to be open-minded.
“One interpretation of scripture is that homosexual expression is sinful in a unique way,” Hurd says. “But there are folks working to change that. My primary hope is that this does help congregations become as welcoming and loving as they can.”