The point was to find stories—mostly stories that haven’t been told, stories that can help illuminate the difficult intersection of the Christian faith and homosexuality.
For those of us who grew up in the church and/or are in it today, stories are an important addition to what’s already out there in terms of theology. I’ve been criticized by some readers for not writing a more traditionally theological book. Well, I’m not a theologian—I’m a journalist. You can go out there and find some academic tome for nearly every point on the theological spectrum on this topic; no need for me to add to that. But what we do need—and what I was capable of adding, as a reporter and a writer—is more humanity and more stories.
Pastors have said to me that they think their congregations are not ready for this discussion. Well, it’s happening already—in family rooms and at kitchen tables, with friends and loved ones. Churches ignore this topic at their peril. Also, the price for many of us is that the struggle is so lonely, whether it’s someone who is coming to terms with his or her own sexuality or a mom who is trying to figure out how best to love her gay son or daughter. One of my main goals was to combat that loneliness, to say, “Hey, there are other people who have walked these paths. Look at what they’ve done.”
I hope that some of my readers will come from outside the church, and for them, the point is to shine a light on the religion that informs a lot of the public-policy debate around things like gay marriage. For better or for worse, the U.S. remains the most religious country in Europe and North America. It’s important to understand the social and cultural roots of our sentiments on an issue as divisive as gay rights. Some of us may live in less-religious bubbles—like my neighborhood in Brooklyn—but the reality is, religion is a major part of American life.
Why have you stuck with religion?
I haven’t stuck with religion at all. In fact, I’m tired of religion. The bureaucracy, the politics, the posturing, the hierarchical bullshit—so much of it is extra-biblical and doesn’t fit at all with what I have come to believe about the way of Jesus. I get the need for order and leadership in the church, but sometimes it obstructs love and obscures grace. I have hung on to some measure of faith—or maybe it’s better to say that faith has clung to me. In my experience, belief in God is not something that you choose to have or choose not to have. It’s not about reason or proof or on/off switches. That’s why it’s called faith.
Do you still go to church?
Yes, I go to a wonderful church in Park Slope called Old First Reformed Church. One of the most amusing things for me is that I got elected an elder this year. When I told my mom, she said, “your church must be a very liberal church … I will pray for you.”
In previous interviews, you’ve talked a little bit about your relationship with your mom. Why?
Yeah, she hasn’t been too happy about that. I love my mom so much, and she loves me. We are both trying to do our best, knowing that we come from very different places theologically but basically the same place emotionally. We want the best for each other, but sometimes we disagree on what that looks like. But here’s the bigger point. I know that, according to Chinese culture and to some degree popular Christian culture, we’re not supposed to talk about a lot of this stuff publicly, because it’s embarrassing and shameful. But a lot of people and a lot of families have paid a huge price because we’re trying to hide what we struggle with. I guess I don’t mind making my mom a little uncomfortable and being uncomfortable myself if it means that some other people, whether someone next to me in a pew on Sunday or across the country whom I’ve never met, feel a little less lonely. I believe there’s immense power in being present. I have the rights I have today because other people have stood and been present, at much greater cost. I’m trying to do that in my own small way.
Do you think of yourself as an activist?
I’ve been asked that before, and I hate that question. What does that even mean? If it means that I’m not willing to sit and tolerate the status quo, I guess. I don’t really feel the need for that label, nor do I like it. Activists can be really annoying. I’m just trying to tell some stories about other human beings.
What was your writing process like? What kept you going, given that some of these stories—writing about Westboro, writing about Southern Baptist leaders who say pretty denigrating things about gay people—must have been a challenge?
I write best in coffee shops. This one was fueled by double cappuccinos at a little place called Café Martin in Park Slope, not far from my house. The owner, Martin O’Connell, is this grouchy Irishman who couldn’t care less who you are or what you are doing. I also write best with music. For this book, I had a writing playlist that was heavy on David Guetta and the Killers, with a little Mavis Staples, a little Mika, and some other stuff I’m too ashamed to admit is on there.
There was a time when I wrote best to Westlife. I hope most people don’t know who Westlife is. There was no Westlife involved in the writing of this book.
Talk to me about the book’s title.
To be honest, it’s not my favorite. Some readers have told me that they really love it, that it speaks to a core question for them and that it is inviting. Others have told me that it’s a bit off-putting. My husband, for one, really doesn’t like it—he says it sounds like a self-help book, maybe the beginning of a series that could also include “Does Buddha Really Love Me?” and “Does Vishnu Really Love Me?” I guess I wanted something more literary and a little pretentious, since the subtitle already does the explanatory work. I was thinking Stumbling toward Jerusalem.
That sounds Didionesque.
Like I said, I was skewing a little more pretentious. And I like the biblical allusion.
Is the book really about Jesus?
Yes, in the sense that one of the things that I learned was that Americans worship a lot of different Jesuses. There’s the kind and all-loving Jesus. There’s a more vengeful and judgmental Jesus. And everything in between. Really, we worship mix-and-match, á la carte Jesus. But no, in the sense that it’s mostly about people. It’s about church.
What do you want from readers?
Well, obviously, the egotistical side of me would like for them to a) buy the book, and b) like the book. But the book market is tough, and we’ll never get unanimity on that second count. So what I’d really like is an empathetic reading. That means that I hope for them to read it as I meant it to be read. But that’s pretty much an impossible thing.
What do you mean?
We all approach a text with our own baggage and our own biases, and it’s asking a lot to hope that someone will be able to set aside all those in order to read it as it was intended to be read. As I said, that’s pretty much an impossible thing. But I live in hope—high hopes, low expectations.
OK. What else? What do you hope to leave readers with after they’re done?
My dream is that people would get from these very personal stories a greater sense of empathy. Even if I disagree with some of the choices that some of my subjects have made—obviously, for instance, I haven’t chosen celibacy and I haven’t chosen to marry a woman—I have a much greater understanding of why they chose what they chose. It’s harder for me to make sweeping judgments about how they live their lives. It’s harder for me to stereotype them. And it pushes me toward a more gracious, more gentle way of talking not just about them but also about this really difficult issue.
We’re talking about people’s rights here. There are absolute rights and wrongs.
Yes. But I don’t think there’s an either/or choice between defending a person’s inherent dignity and rights and having a gracious conversation. Grace isn’t spinelinessness. Gentleness shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness. One of my subjects is a young gay man—he was closeted when I first got in touch with him—and his mom Febrezes the house and wipes hard surfaces down with bleach after her gay stepbrothers visit. His sister says terrible things about gay people. That’s absolutely and clearly wrong. But how does the son choose to interact with his mom? How does he respond to his sister? He can be firm about who he is—and even perhaps help educate them a little bit—and respond to their ignorance in a way that is gracious and kind. I don’t think shouting is going to get us anywhere.
Who surprised you most during your journey?
Why does everyone always ask this question? What has surprised me most is really that everyone, journalist and non, has asked this question. Is “surprise” really the thing that we most seek in story? I’ve never been that fond of surprises. I’m far more interested in what resonates, what drives, and what compels than what surprises.
Come on. You sound kind of like a douchebag.
You know that song in “Avenue Q”—“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”? I think maybe, on some level, everyone’s a little bit douchebaggy. I hope just a little bit, though.
Your book is about calling people to a gracious conversation.
And everyone gets tired sometimes.
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.