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Us not them

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Posted August 17, 2018

Craig Hutson says that growing up gay in the church was ‘death by a thousand cuts’, but he is now using his faith to bring life to others. Ingrid Barratt discovers the human face behind the debate.

There is no “them” and “us”, there is only “us”,’ says Father Gregory Boyle, head of a US gang reintegration programme Homeboy Industries. Within the church, there is a variety of views on homosexuality, and the arguments are nuanced and complex. We often fall into ‘us’ and ‘them’ debates. But one issue should not be contentious for Christians. And, ironically, it’s the very thing we are often charged with: homophobia.

A ‘phobia’ is simply fear. And biblical teaching leaves no room for choosing fear over love. Jesus’ good friend John made his famous statement, ‘God is love’, and declared: ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear’ (1 John 4:18).

God’s love is the overarching theme of the whole Bible. Love closes the chasms we have created between us, so we all become part of God’s great neighbourhood.

Territorial Commander Commissioner Andy Westrupp, speaking at the opening of the Newtown Worship and Community Centre, recalled Jesus’ brilliant answer to a cynical lawyer who was asking him to describe his ‘neighbour’ (one whom he should love). Jesus told the pivotal story of the Good Samaritan: ‘This story is a hinge story in human history,’ Andy said. ‘Not just Christian history. It is a paradigm shifter. It clearly challenges the “them and us” thinking we so easily fall into when someone who is not like us comes into our world.’

‘The Salvation Army stands against homophobia, which victimises people and can reinforce feelings of alienation, loneliness and despair. We want to be an inclusive church community where members of the LGBTQ community find welcome and the encouragement to develop their relationship with God,’ says a statement released by The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters.

Yet, we cannot deny that we have a muddied history with homophobia. In New Zealand, this became particularly fraught after The Salvation Army led a petition against the 1985 Homosexual Law Reform Bill.

Colonel Melvin Taylor (now promoted to Glory) was Social Secretary in 1985, and has since described the campaign as ‘homophobia in action’. There has been much regret among Salvationists about the era and the hurt it caused. In 2006, an apology was issued for our part in opposing the Bill, but the scars still remain.

Jesus and the ‘not normals’

LGBTI* comedian Hannah Gadsby describes a harrowing story of being assaulted for not looking feminine enough—or as her abuser called her, being ‘a lady faggot’.

‘He beat the s*** out of me and nobody stopped him, and I didn’t report it to the police and I didn’t take myself to hospital because I thought that was all I was worth. And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame, and give permission to another to hate …

‘I am “incorrectly female”, I am “incorrect”,’ she says, in her critically acclaimed show Nanette. ‘This tension is what “not normals” carry inside of them all of the time. We think it’s more important to be right than to appeal to the humanness of the person we disagree with.’

Hannah’s words are a prophetic appeal to the church. Jesus never allowed any debate to diminish the humanity of the outsider. It could be argued that the thrust of Jesus’ whole ministry, as he marched his way purposefully to the cross, was to gather in the outsiders as he went—declaring, ‘This is what the kingdom of heaven looks like!’

He reached out to the leper and the bleeding woman, he counted prostitutes among his friends (can you imagine?), he spoke to a shunned Samaritan woman, he quite literally touched many who were considered unclean. Then, in the crescendo of his ministry, he declared his manifesto: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ According to the Forerunner Commentary, ‘poor in spirit’ has many translations, including ‘oppression’, ‘being defenceless’ ‘low’ and ‘socially inferior’.

Through determined and deliberate acts of love, Jesus brought out the humanity in the ‘not normals’.  Behind the debate, there is always a human face.

Craig’s story

In his mid-30s, Craig Hutson is still coming to terms with being a gay Christian. He describes sharing his story with War Cry as ‘ripping off the Band-Aid’. ‘Hiding is what kept my relationships around me together, so every time I decide to be open with someone, I fear that they will reject me,’ he explains.

Growing up gay in The Salvation Army was ‘death by a thousand cuts’. As his awareness of his sexuality was burgeoning, Craig remembers homosexuality being ‘lumped in with any deviant behaviour’—including paedophilia and incest. ‘As a child, I pieced this together and thought, “Am I that? Am I deviant?”’

Craig was only five when he first sensed there was something ‘different’ about him—although he had no words to describe it. By the time he was 11, he had discovered the words: ‘fag’, ‘sissy’ …

‘That was the beginning of putting up a front. Transparency and honesty are so important to relationships in general, but it was a vicious cycle of thinking, “I want to be honest. I can’t be honest”. So I pushed it all down.’

Craig felt tormented about being fake, but wasn’t free to be genuine. The homophobia he absorbed began to turn inwards and became self-hatred. He had his first bout of serious depression at the age of 14.

At the time, ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ was a popular mantra—but for Craig, being gay was not a doing, it was a being. From an early age, he was a committed Christian and Salvationist, following our holiness tradition—something he still holds to today: ‘Holiness is important to me, it adds to my relationships and to the happiness of people around me. But, because of the messages I received, I felt like I was deviant and that even if I saw gay people doing good things, it had no value,’ he reflects.

During his teenage years, Craig earnestly cried out to God: ‘I constantly called out to God and asked him to change me, to take the pain away, and it did nothing. Ultimately I believed that God was love, but so much had caused me to believe that he wasn’t interested in my wellbeing at all.

‘I thought to myself, “Can I have happiness and love in life? No I can’t. Okay, I’ll just cope”.’

Unravelling and rebuilding

Craig managed to ‘just cope’ until he was 26, when all the denial and self-loathing began to unravel.

His friends and family were getting married, and Craig was doing the rounds of weddings. The emotional effort of hiding also took its toll on his work and career dreams. ‘That’s when I started to come unhinged—I was working too much so I was burnt out, feeling a failure in my career, and there was this inner talk, “There you go Craig, you’re a failure again. You can’t have love and a relationship. You’re a disappointment to your family”.

‘There was a tape player in my head that was full of negative thoughts: “I really am everything I have heard I am, I’m a bad person, I don’t belong”. I thought being gay was bad, so my mind started to look for ways to prove that.’

Craig had a breakdown and was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. He worked hard on improving his health, but still couldn’t bring himself to admit the reason behind his depression. It took another five years before he finally got himself to a counsellor, and began the journey towards healing.

During a year of counselling, Craig was finally able to talk honestly through his experiences, fears and unhelpful beliefs. Through all this, he was repeatedly assured by his counsellor that he was not only a good person, but an exceptionally kind, caring and compassionate man.

It’s been less than two years since he has been more broadly ‘out of hiding’—but there are still people in his Christian community who don’t know, because it doesn’t always feel safe.

‘I still feel like people will judge me by the “promiscuous” stereotype. Number one, that’s not true of me, or something I feel would positively add to my life. But also, I feel I have to prove to other Christians that I hold all the same values they do. I feel that everything I am can be shut down because I’m gay.

‘I have a heart to be an example of Christ. But I have to justify my existence and prove myself as a child of God, and I have to defend my right to have a faith.’

He adds: ‘The church in so many ways gave me tools for kindness, compassion, mercy and justice, but it also gave me the tools to show hatred and anger towards myself.’

Part of Craig’s healing journey came in reframing his faith with a self-acceptance he had never experienced. ‘I had to realise that if Jesus came to set the captives free, he wouldn’t leave me captive against my will.’

Today, Craig is using his experiences to advocate for LGBTI people of faith, through a group he helped found and now coordinates: ‘Faith Communities United in Love’. The group provides support for each other and—alongside other Salvationists—has taken part in Wellington’s Pride Month for the past three years. They serve at events, provide free baking, and create a space for LGBTI people to talk about faith.

Craig says he is still on a journey of bringing together and affirming all parts of his identity, but ‘there is this part of me that is an extended hand—let me help you understand, let me tell you my story.’

In seeking to repair the damage of homophobia, we need look no further than the loving example of Jesus, who always held his arms wide open to those the established church rejected. If we want to make love complete, we are to be like Jesus in this world, said John (1 John 4:17).

We all have a story to tell, and we are all invited to join Jesus’ ever-expanding Kingdom. We are all neighbours. There is no ‘them’.

*This is the preferred term from the collective, meaning ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex’.

A Parent’s Perspective

Our son Craig, like all of our children, was the cutest baby ever. He was always a very relational person—he still is. Nearly everyone likes Craig. My wife Lynette and I are very proud of the person he has become.

However, a few years ago he experienced a significant depression. He would tell us of his feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness—and would frequently indicate that people wouldn’t like him at all if they really knew him.

On a bad day, his feelings were incredibly—even frighteningly—dark. As a parent you struggle to listen to this. You want to ‘fix’ it. You feel as if you are descending into the very same pit of despair yourself!

We encouraged Craig to go for some counselling. This in itself was a long process—12–18 months. Then, when we were seriously wondering if counselling was helping at all, almost out of the blue Craig told us: he was ‘attracted to the same sex’.

When Craig told us that he was gay, the main feeling was one of huge relief. Here was our much-loved son in such pain, and we finally knew the source of it all. Also, when he saw that we weren’t rejecting him but embracing him, it was like a burden was lifted and we started getting our Craig back—the real Craig.

The journey since then has been mostly joyful but not always easy. How could our son have come to believe we wouldn’t love him, anyway? Coming to terms with the fact that Craig’s deep sense of faith and love of the Army meant he developed a tortured idea of a God who could not love him as he was: What kind of faith had we and the Army communicated?

Trying to give him our support and to protect him from the potentially hurtful responses of others can also create anxiety. But knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

By Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hutson

by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 11 August 2018, p6-9 - You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.