December 14, 2018: For our next installment, and our first since our holiday concert, “A Million Reasons to Believe,” Josh had the pleasure of interviewing David Anderson, a former Christian pastor who was pressured out of the church and abandoned by his congregation when he came out to them in the 70’s. His story is one of forgiveness and acceptance, as he struggles to find himself in the Christian community. He’s learned many lessons; above all, “[Don’t] let anybody take your faith from you. That’s yours. It’s not given to you from the outside.”
DAVID: I was looking for a picture for the Polar Express song*, and there’s a picture in the scrapbook of me trying on my dad’s clerical collar. From about age 3. It reminded me that, for me in ministry, there was a kind of feeling of being destined to go into the church. I spent much of my formative years saying “No, no, no – not gonna do that!” All the while, I was being a good church boy.
The war came along, and I had a very low draft number. I was drafted, basically. They had a national lottery on television. You watched them – there were about 20 guys there – and they would pull out a birthday. All 365 days of year were ranked… anything above 140 would be drafted. I was 32. [I thought], “I’m drafted.” I knew would never qualify as a conscientious objector, and I loved my country.
I knew I had to go to seminary, though, and I went to church at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. It’s in High Park – pretty rough area – and the Obamas lived there! I had to figure things out; I couldn’t just stay in seminary for a year to avoid the draft. Then, a couple of things happened. Nixon invaded Cambodia, and Congress went berserk on him. To buy off Congress, he… took this huge clump of people who thought they would be drafted and moved them to the bottom of the pile. So I didn’t have war breathing down my neck anymore. About that time, seminary was working for me. This constitutes a call. It wasn’t a job – I thought, “I have skills and abilities and a reason to do this.” So I finished up in seminary and went to work at a small church in Philadelphia. It was a wonderful 7 years. My wife and I were pretty much the only white people for 8 blocks, so it was the cross-cultural experience of my life. As my son got older, though, my wife was getting concerned- where he would go to school? So we moved to Minneapolis [in 1981]. It offered everything a bit city could offer, but it was safer. When I interviewed, I asked them to drive me to the worst place in town. When we arrived and I just laughed and said, “Really?”
The congregation convinced me the wanted to be part of the surrounding neighborhood. And I probably could not have picked a worst place in my life – anywhere. These people were beyond homophobic. They said “We think it’s okay for homosexuals to be alive, but do they have to advertise?” What did they mean, advertise? They put signs up in their windows that say things like “No Nukes.” No, no, no! Those anti-war people. They’re probably raging heterosexuals. “We know that homosexuals are bad people, it says so in the Bible.” It does not, actually.
JOSH: LET’S FOCUS ON THAT FOR A MOMENT. HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU FIRST CAME OUT? DID YOU COME OUT TO FAMILY? YOUR WIFE?
DAVID: I used to say I was right in the middle of the Kinsey scale – really, (points finger sharply to the left)-but it was enough for me to get married [to a woman]. When Kevin [Deese] said he loved a woman as much as any gay man could, I could’ve written those words. I was late in coming out, and I was sloppy about it. I was cheating all over the place, and desperate. She found out because I would bring him little diseases here and there. I was in counseling for four years – it took that long to end the marriage. I was convinced I was bisexual. I went to a conference – FOR PRAY AWAY THE GAY? – no, it was a “Y’all are probably not gonna continue in ministry, things are not going well for you, so what are you going to do with the rest of your life” conference. Within 8 hours, I was in bed with this guy… I went home and said “This is over.” I knew I’d lose my job, I’d lose my family, I’d lose where I lived. I was terrified.
To make matters worse, my wife was pregnant. I was divorcing a pregnant woman. I came out first to her, and we started to deal with it. As I came out to friends, I started losing friends – lovely. I tried to be the non-sexual pastor of a church that was divorced. But she [my wife] would have none of that. She made sure that everyone knew I was gay. Phone calls late at night – anonymous calls – saying “We don’t want a faggot as a pastor.” I said “I gotta get out of here.” I’ve done good work here, but it’s all going to go tumbling down if I don’t get out of here. So I resigned. The Bishop gave me another call in La Seuer, but I had kids in Minneapolis. Fundamentally, ministry wasn’t the only thing I could do, though. I could still serve God without a paycheck from a church.
JOSH: HOW WERE YOU DEALING WITH THIS INTERNALLY? IF YOU COULD GIVE ME AN IDEA OF YOUR OWN UNDERSTANDING OF CHRISTIANITY AND YOUR INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE.
DAVID: My theological struggles with being gay were pretty much taken care of by the first year of seminary. I’d come to a number of very important conclusions. First – we are made in the image of God. God don’t make no junk! I often talk about myself as the last of the pre-Stonewall generation. Growing up, homosexuals were mentally ill. I knew I wasn’t mentally ill, so I knew [at the time] that I couldn’t be gay. I just liked having sex with men!
JOSH: WERE SPECIFIC ANTI-GAY SCRIPTURES EVER DISCUSSED IN SEMINARY?
DAVID: Yes. The laws in Leviticus are about hospitality. It has nothing to do with gay sex, per-se – you just don’t rape your guests. There are lots of things we learn in scripture that we’ve come to understand – “Well, that’s a product of its time, and their cultural understanding.” Scripture [also] says that women should be silent. And guess what – they’re not! If you actually sit down and look at the texts instead of just grabbing words and using them as armaments, we might actually get somewhere.
JOSH: THIS MUST HAVE ALL TAKEN A TOLL ON YOU PERSONALLY, THOUGH.
DAVID: No, it didn’t. Because I knew I was right. I had enough confidence knowing what I was doing, as someone who looked at it every which way. The pain, though, was two-fold: I lost a lot of close friends. I lost them because they were angry that I wasn’t a good husband. Within the church and the pain of leaving that place, it was a fear that we had done really good work to build a healthy congregation, and the hatred that was coming out would make it become a much more judgemental place. We really worked hard to make that church a place of grace. I didn’t want that – I had to get out.
[I asked myself], “So what are you gonna do about it – your church stuff?” I took one Sunday to pout, and then I went to All God’s Children, the MCC Church. It was a cold January morning. Three-fourths of those people had been at the 90’s the night before. It was so full that I had to sit in the lobby. I said, “Somethin’s goin’ on here.”
At this point, David details in length his process of finding a church he could call home.
JOSH: WHAT YOU MIGHT SAY TO PEOPLE WHO ARE STRUGGLING WITH CHRISTIANITY OR RELIGION AS A WHOLE? AS YOU KNOW, MANY OF US – YOURSELF INCLUDED – HAVE BEEN BURNED BY RELIGION. SOME PEOPLE HAVE BEEN THREATENED OR BEATEN, OR HARASSED, OR EXCOMMUNICATED, OR ABANDONED BY FAMILY AND FRIENDS. [SURELY] YOU’VE HAD EXPERIENCES WITH MEN WHO WERE/ARE GOING THROUGH THIS. WHAT LESSONS WOULD YOU [IMPART ONTO] THEM?
DAVID: The first thing I would say is that I’m sorry. Nobody should experience it. I’m lucky because I made myself be lucky. Had there not been a congregation, a church where I could have done some healing – and my healing was losing career, and wondering [if I] wanted to go back into the church… The days of not allowing gay people to be fully involved. At Mount Olive, half of our church is gay. The world has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. I mean, the thing that I never understand from somebody is… When I listen to people… I wouldn’t let anybody take [your] faith from you. That’s yours. It’s not given to you from the outside.
I would say to someone, “Find a safe place to exercise your faith as you understand it. Whatever it takes to do that.” If that’s sitting in your room burning sage, so be it. The principles of Christianity and of faith for me are communal. It was important for me to find people of faith. The Christian faith is about God in flesh. That’s not a mythology – it’s a story that informs how God operates. God operates through other people, so it’s important to find those people where God is also operating. I want them to find a safe place. I wanna be real. For me, that’s the essence of Christian faith – to embrace. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about the chorus is that it tends to embrace people. That’s God’s love in action. It’s a healing thing.
[Once, during a baptism], a man told me he wanted to quit, because he felt guilt from doing “bad things.” I said, “Wendell, I’ve got bad news for you. You can stop loving God, but you can’t stop God from loving you. He says, “Well, that’s not fair.” I say, “It’s just the way it works. It’s not about being good, or being bad. God loves you – that’s it.”
*(Editor’s note: for the song “Believe” from “The Polar Express,” we asked our singers to send in a photo of themselves from when they were a young child, and current photo. The photos were projected during the Chorus’s performance of the song during the holiday concert, “A Million Reasons to Believe.”)