June 02, 2013
If I were putting together the soundtrack of my life, I’d pick “Jesus Loves Me” to cover a big chunk of my childhood. As a boy, I believed that song, and I wanted to believe it. “Jesus Loves Me” is straightforward, in the way that children’s songs often are, and faithful, in the way that children can be:
Jesus loves me, this I know.
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong.
They are weak, but he is strong.
We sang that song often in Sunday school. And during school vacations, which my sister and I always spent with Grandma and Grandpa, the lyrics were a weekday thing, too. Religious tendencies in Berkeley, California, where they lived in a big, brown-shingled apartment building for old people, might typically lean more toward earth worship, or anti-establishmentarianism, or just standard righteous, aging-hippie narcissism. But for fifteen or twenty minutes, every morning at 2050 Delaware Street, Apt. 105, my Bible-teacher grandma stirred up some old-fashioned Baptist revival in her warbly soprano and a hailstorm of hallelujahs.
She’d read a Bible passage aloud in Cantonese—her English didn’t go much beyond “Hello!” and “Bye-bye!” and, when we were at McDonald’s, “Filet Fish!”—her index finger moving slowly down the columns of characters, right to left across the crinkly thin pages. My Baptist-preacher grandpa, retired from the pulpit and semi-silenced by a bad stroke, would listen, his eyes closed and his rocking chair moving pendulum-like. My sister and I would sit on the afghan-draped sofa, trying not to fidget. Then, before we said our prayers—for our family, for Jackie, who managed their apartment building, for the salvation of the president of the United States—we’d sing.
The songs came from dog-eared bilingual hymnals that emigrated with my grandparents from Hong Kong in 1969. Within the cracked, Longhorns-orange covers, the songs that my grandma gravitated toward were the straightforward, unabashed statements of faith with titles that tell you everything you need to know: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” “Victory in Jesus.” There was lots of Jesus, and not much subtlety or doubt. “Trust and Obey,” one of the hymns regularly in my grandmother’s mix, seemed always to be a warning to us: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Of all the songs we sang when I was five, ten, fifteen, “Jesus Loves Me” is the one that has stuck with me. For a long time, its reasoning, so neatly encapsulated in the line “For the Bible tells me so,” worked for me. I accepted it with a childlike faith. How could it not be true? Why should it be more complicated? But as I got older, the Bible felt more and more like reading someone else’s mail—interesting, no doubt, but ultimately secondhand and indirect. The truth I had grown up with, the teaching that had been fed to me, it wasn’t necessarily that I thought it was false, but I longed to hear it for myself. I wanted to know faith for myself.
Occasionally, fragments of the song still pop into my mind—sometimes in the Cantonese words I grew up with, sometimes in the English words I learned later. Often it’s the chorus: “Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.” And I think about how nice it would be if I were sure of that fact. What would it feel like if I believed that Jesus really loved me?
I went to high school in Miami. At Westminster Christian School, we had chapel weekly, pledged allegiance to the Christian flag as well as the American, and were assigned to read books like This Present Darkness, a novel that taught me nothing about literature and lots about how demons are everywhere, including probably digging their claws into all of us right now. The school’s name derives from the Westminster Confession of Faith, a bedrock theological work written in 1646, and a snippet of the Westminster catechism (“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”) was emblazoned on an outer wall of the athletics building. Judging by the school’s priorities, a Westminster Warrior’s chief means of glorifying God was winning baseball games. This high school of barely three hundred students won the national championship twice in my years there—an achievement that, to my mind, remains one of the great uninvestigated anomalies in American sports history.
During the fall of my freshman year, I took a class called James and Philippians to fulfill my Bible requirement. It was taught by a pale, earnest Bible-college graduate named Mr. Byers, who at twenty-four was one of Westminster’s youngest teachers. He and his family, who also attended my church, were beloved on campus. His wife worked in the school office, and their toddler, Owen, could often be seen tottering around.
Mr. Byers said unexpected things in class. One day, one of my classmates raised a hand and asked, “What is heaven going to be like?” Mr. Byers got this far-off grin on his face and blurted out: “Heaven is going to be like an eternal orgasm.” After a long, awkward pause, he added, “But you’re not supposed to know what that is.”
A couple of months into the semester, Mr. Byers did not show up for class one day. Rumors started to circulate around campus—churchy, Christian-school moms have raised gossip to fine art—each news report prefaced, of course, by the admonition, “we should really be praying for ______, bless his heart.”
A few days later, a special chapel was called to address Mr. Byers’s mysterious disappearance. I have almost no recollection of what happened during the assembly, other than that our perpetually ill-at-ease principal, Mr. Adams, stood at the podium saying something bad about Mr. Byers. But my friend Shawn says he remembers that chapel “very well. Actually, I can recall what Mr. Adams said verbatim: ‘Mr. Byers has been involved in an adulterous, homosexual relationship’”—awkward pause—“‘with another man.’” I think I recall it so well because I found it hysterical that he felt the need to include ‘with another man.’ ” The only thing my friend Heather remembers from that chapel is that the guy next to her said, over and over and over, “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!”
What I remember is the fear that swamped me. My palms still get tropical when I think of that chapel. At the mention of the word homosexual, I knew the truth: Even if I didn’t have the words to define it then, I knew I had feelings like Mr. Byers’s. And this was the lesson that I learned: Nobody could ever, ever find out, because if they did, I would be damned and cast out, just like he was.
The United States is the most demonstrably, demonstratively Christian nation in the developed world. About three-quarters of Americans identify as Christian, according to a wide range of recent surveys, and more than a third say they’re regular churchgoers. A study done in the early 1990s by Kirk Hadaway of the United Church of Christ and Penny Marler of Samford University estimates, though, that the number of churchgoers is actually about half that, and the fact that so many Americans feel the need to tell pollsters they go to church even if they don’t says a lot about how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen. Such sentiments may in fact matter more than the statistics, because they illuminate why and how we talk about our faith in the context of our politics, our courts, our communities, our relationships with neighbors. And this is where our reality gets especially messy: Even if we agree that, for better or for worse, America is a Christian nation, we disagree, often bombastically, rudely, and even violently, about what that information means and what it should mean. For some people, it is and should be no more than a demographic fact. For others, it’s an indication of divine blessing and a call to action.
From time to time in recent years, I’ve been told that the culture wars are over. I wish they were, as I’m bored with the term, but they’re not. They are still being fought not only in the courts, at the ballot box, on our political talk shows, and in our editorial pages, but also in my family and in families like mine all over the nation, and the single most explosive issue today is homosexuality. Witness our continuing fierce, often angry debates about gay marriage, gay adoption, and gay everything—debates that are infused with extra emotion because, for all their public-policy implications, these issues are inextricably, painfully personal. This issue is about sons and daughters, friends and lovers, our neighbors, ourselves. It is also about our freedom, our faith, perhaps our salvation.
I am now thirty-five. According to the blueprint I once had for my life, I should now be married to the lovely, smart, and accomplished woman I met in college. We would have four children (Alexander, called Xander, and Oliver, known as Oli, and two girls, but for some reason I never could come up with good girls’ names) and one dog, all paid for by a career selected from the Official Chinese Parent List of Approved Professions (medicine, computer science, banking, law, engineering). I would drive the clan around in a Volvo. I would play tennis twice a week with a buddy. I would be a pillar of the community and a church deacon. Sometimes I would teach Sunday school or read one of the Scripture passages during the service. My life would be a shining example of the Good Christian Man.
I veered a little off plan, except I do have my Volvo. The only children in my house are my two nephews, who smile at me from a picture frame on the mantel. I’m a journalist. I barely exercise. Forget about deacon or Sunday school teacher; it’s a good Sunday when I manage to get myself into a church pew and an excellent one when I can get through the sermon without daydreaming. My mother still cries herself to sleep at night, praying for her “lost” homosexual son and wondering what she did wrong. Thank goodness the lovely, smart, accomplished woman I dated during and after college found a nice Anglican priest to marry. There are still moments when I wonder whether my homosexuality is my ticket to hell, whether Jesus would love me but for that, and how good a Christian could I be if I struggle to believe that God loves me at all.
I suspect I’m not so different from many people who struggle to make sense of these matters of the soul. For most of us, it probably has nothing to do with being gay. Truth is, many of us have spiritual wedge issues—personal obstacles that stand in the way of us fully believing, topics or teachings that gnaw at us and at what faith we may have left. It may be some other disagreement with church doctrine. It could be something a church lady said once that was more hurtful than you’d ever want to admit. It might just be a gut feeling that you’ve never been able to translate into words and sentences. For me, that spiritual wedge issue is homosexuality.
I wish that I could go off into my own little corner of the world and figure it out on my own and with my God, but theology and church practice, public policy and civil liberties, are in play. Even if you do not care about Jesus and how he feels about the gays, how others feel about this issue has had inordinate influence on our modern, American lives. And the ramifications of the debate ripple far beyond our borders. To note just one example, the teachings of American preachers have helped inspire Uganda’s ongoing infatuation with legislation to impose the death penalty on practicing homosexuals.
The issue probably isn’t going away anytime soon, neither in American society nor in the American church. Tony Jones, a Minnesota theologian who likes to describe himself as an ecclesiastical proctologist, poking at the places that make the church uncomfortable, says homosexuality is such a sensitive issue because it’s so primal and personal. “Abortion is one step removed for most people,” he says. (True for men, in particular.) “Creation is three steps removed—it’s almost theoretical. But when it comes to what you do with your penis, well, that’s real.”
From time immemorial, humans have been making pilgrimages. Tibetans believe that pilgrims have been traveling to their sacred Mount Kailash for fifteen thousand years; it’s said that talking the trail around the mountain erases a lifetime of sins. In Old Testament times, Jews would travel to Jerusalem to worship at the temple on Mount Zion. The oracle at Delphi drew ancient Greeks in search of guidance. The hajj to Mecca is de rigueur, at least once in a lifetime, for every Muslim.
But pilgrimage isn’t necessarily just about getting to and from a famous shrine. The word can refer to any journey of spiritual significance. A pilgrimage can be any trip taken with the goal of getting to a transformative place, any trip that’s less about entertainment and more about enlightenment.
So in that spirit, I decided to embark on a year of travel, by plane and bus and train and brain wave, asking the questions that have long frightened me. My hope was to find some answers at last. My plan was to crisscross America as well as the spectrum of American Christianity. My goal was to understand why those who call themselves followers of Christ start from the same point—a god-man who lived two thousand years ago and left behind a church with his name on it—but end up in such radically different places on the issue of God, the church, and homosexuality. I would take this trip with the curiosity of a journalist and the searching spirit of a simple pilgrim. I’m no theologian, no crusader, just a regular guy trying to hang on to something resembling the faith I grew up with, as irrational as that may be.
I traveled with baggage: I grew up Southern Baptist. I am gay. I have a boyfriend. I’m relatively conservative (I’ve voted for both Democrats and Republicans) in a relatively liberal city (I live in Brooklyn, New York), where I attend a relatively liberal church (Old First Reformed in Brooklyn, New York) in a relatively conservative denomination (the Reformed Church in America). I doubt. A lot. And yet I can’t not believe in God.
That belief was solidified during my tortuous, torturous coming-out period in my twenties, a time when, ironically, I almost never went to church. As I told friends and loved ones about my homosexuality, I was repeatedly told what I should believe and how I should live my life. On the conservative side, I got plenty of Bible verses, including those delightful ones from the Old Testament about gay “abomination”—complete with the “they must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” part. On the liberal end, friends expressed not just occasional fury and disbelief but also head-shaking pity. I felt them judging me, too: What a shame that I insisted on trying to hang on to my archaic faith. How pathetic that I had so little self-worth that I insisted on maintaining relationships even with those who called me an “abomination.” Yet few people ever asked me what I wanted, what I was hoping for, why I was making the choices I was making.
In that season, I clung to God. He had to exist in my mind, because I had to believe that someone bigger and more powerful would someday make this all okay. But I didn’t push much deeper than that, either, not in earnest, until this journey. In the end, I flew more than twenty thousand miles and drove more than five thousand, visiting twenty-eight states and churches from more than a dozen denominations. I crashed on friends’ and strangers’ couches. I ate at church picnics. I was yelled at and hung up on and leered at and leaned on. I believed, and sometimes I didn’t. I was scared, and I was emboldened. I interviewed more than three hundred people, recording their stories and seeking to grasp what they believe about whom we love and who loves us.
What I found was a country that deeply wants to love, but is conflicted about how to do so. I encountered a church that’s far more divided than I imagined, led in large part by cowardly clergy who are called to be shepherds yet behave like sheep. I encountered myriad people with distinct voices—so distinct, in fact, that I’ve chosen to share several of their stories as oral histories, which you’ll find amid the chapters of this book. I met a young man named Gideon Eads, who, while I was on my journey of faith and discovery, was going on one of his own. I heard the testimonies of resilient spirits and indefatigable souls, each seeking and struggling to do the right thing, whatever that may mean. And I saw the many, many faces of God in America.
Excerpted from Does Jesus Really Love Me: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, with permission from Harper Collins, 2013.
JEFF CHU grew up in Berkeley, California, and Miami, Florida. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, earned a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and has received French-American Foundation and Harvard Divinity School fellowships. He has written and edited for Time, Condé Nast Portfolio, and Fast Company, and lives in Brooklyn.