Bill Oliver offers his essay contest entry, a very personal exploration of faith and courage. Within this contest, one commenter at random will win an iPod nano, so add your responses to Bill’s story for your chance to win.

Bill Oliver

Sharing Our Stories
Monday evening, April 12th, 2010, I was one of six panelists participating in Vanguard Church’s “Community Conversation on Homosexuality.” [Vanguard, a large Evangelical church, teaches that “living homosexually” (whatever that means?) is a sin but not The sin.] The panelists, three gay and three ex-gay, met for a dry-run two weeks earlier. All of us were raised Christian, and five of us still are. Before the meeting was over, we all agreed that we were one six-person team – not two opposing teams, and we all wished the best for each other. This was not going to be a debate. Our intent was simply to share our stories – modeling the power we all have in doing so and how non-confrontational and engaging that can be.

The point I particularly wanted to get across in my story was to challenge the view of many conservative evangelicals that you can’t be both gay and Christian. I had a personal relationship with Jesus long before I came out, as well as afterwards – and my “lifestyle” didn’t change. I just finally felt liberated to be the person God made me most authentically to be.

We were amazed and gratified at the large turnout, estimated by the Gazette at 900. Following various welcoming messages, all the panelists spoke well. There was then about a half-hour for audience Q&A. Although there was a police presence outside, the entire event, as expected, was very calm and orderly.

The genesis for this event was the Pride Center’s publication about two years ago of “Colors of Courage,” edited by Rebekah Shardy. Rebekah wanted to continue this theme of telling our stories in a small group setting at local evangelical churches – thus the creation of “Dialogs of Courage.” Vanguard was approached and it wanted to host its Community Conversation ahead of the Dialogs. Eighty-seven people signed up for the Dialogs to be held at Vanguard later in the month. I will be one of the small group facilitators.

That Monday evening at Vanguard was a grace-filled moment for all who attended. I don’t know if many minds were changed, but I’m confident that a great many hearts were opened. If so, we succeeded!

A Community Conversation on Homosexuality Vanguard Church, Colorado Springs April 12, 2010

Ya know, I’m not used to doing this. The only reason I can do this is because I feel this is a “safe” place – that you all care about me and you want the best for me.

I’m willing to share part of my story this evening, but please know that this is awkward for me, as I’m not also hearing part of your story. We all have stories – stories worth telling and worth hearing. There are no “bad” stories. I believe all our stories are sacred.

And the best part about sharing our stories is in discovering how much we share in common: our common values, our needs and joys and struggles. And discovering how, as fellow Christians, we’re all on various paths of a lifelong journey in our walks with the Lord.

So, I’m Bill. By far, the most-defining part of who I am is that I’m a Christian – a beloved child of God. I’m mostly retired now as an engineer. I love helping people – especially those less well off. I have a passion for mountain climbing.

Oh, by the way, I happen to be gay. Most people probably wouldn’t know that I’m gay unless I told them. Now some people have tried to tell me: “Hey, dude – make up your mind, are you Christian or are you gay? You certainly can’t be both gay and Christian!”

Well, that’s pretty disconcerting to hear. Ya know, I would never tell someone “you can’t be both straight and Christian.” I know Jesus didn’t make up “rules” about who’s in the Kingdom and who’s out – but He was very critical of the Pharisees of His time who were fond of observing “rules” and judging people.

I grew up in a loving Catholic family in Los Angeles and attended Catholic schools through high school.

I prized my Catholic upbringing and I always felt close to God. However, I had a sense that God did not always feel close to me. I came to believe that God loved me when I was good – and He didn’t love me so much when I was bad.

However, as an undergraduate student at UCLA I kept my faith under wraps. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to question me about it. It wasn’t until several years later, as a grad student, that I became deeply involved with the University Catholic Center – and I discovered real Christian community, an embracing community that could support and challenge me in my walk with the Lord.

And I discovered something that was mind-boggling. I discovered that God’s love for me was unconditional. I didn’t have to do anything to “earn” His love; there was nothing I could do that would lose His love!

So, it was actually in regard to my faith that I first came “out of the closet.” Coming out didn’t simply mean that I no longer cared if anyone knew I was a Christian. Coming out, for me, meant that I actually wanted people to know that I was a Christian. I wanted them to know that I had a real relationship with Jesus.

I have to say that I was a “late bloomer.” Following a life-long struggle, it was only about 17 years ago that I came “out of the closet” – for the second time! – and finally accepted that I was gay. For me, the struggle wasn’t how could I still be a Christian and yet gay. By then, that was a no-brainer for me. The struggle was that I would have much preferred to be straight – having a so-called “normal” life, having a spouse and kids. Trust me – if being gay was a choice, it’s not the choice I would have made. However, it’s the person I am – it’s the person God made me most authentically to be.

There were basically no gay role models when I was young and struggling with my sexuality. I could not possibly identify with a group of people who were seen as being sick and perverted. That wasn’t anything like me – so, obviously I wasn’t gay. I just needed more time to get turned on to girls.

But deep inside, in my walk with the Lord, I knew better! And finally, one night – June 5, 1993 – I got out of bed, turned on the PC and typed: “I’m GAY! That’s the way you are, Bill. You can stop struggling with this now. You can accept that’s the way God made you – and just get on with life.”

I would no longer pretend to myself that I wasn’t gay. More importantly, “coming out” for me meant that I would no longer pretend to anyone else that I was straight. “The Problem” as I saw it was that most gays were still in the closet. They didn’t feel safe to be out – to openly be who they authentically were. Consequently, most straight people could probably say that they didn’t know anyone who was gay.

Of course, the reality is that, though often invisible, there are gays all around us. They’re our neighbors, classmates, co-workers, sitting in church next to us – and in our families. And the reality is that they’re just like you and me – just like you and me!

I would like to make the point, by the way, that when I accepted that I was gay, my “lifestyle” didn’t change. I didn’t redecorate the house. I didn’t change churches. I didn’t start a subscription to “The Gay Agenda.” I just felt liberated – I could accept and love myself the way God had intended me to be. And ya know what – my agenda is probably common to many of you – my “agenda” is Jesus!

About ten years ago in LA, I “converted” to Episcopalian, as I found that church to be far more welcoming and affirming of gay people.

– and it even had openly partnered gay clergy. I had found a wonderful new church home in which to share and to nurture my faith.

Then eight years ago I relocated to Colorado Springs. The church I attend here continues to grow, but it has lost people on both sides of this issue – and I deeply mourn the losses on both sides.

My heartfelt feeling is that there is so much more that we hold in common than the few things that would divide us – that we need to respectfully stay engaged with each other; that we need to share our stories; that we can still gather around the Lord’s table and hear His holy word as brothers and sisters in Christ.

In Colorado I guess I have unexpectedly become something of a justice “activist.” I’m the local head, and the state coordinator, for Integrity, a national organization of GLBT Episcopalians; I‘m active with PFLAG; and I’ve peacefully demonstrated outside Focus on the Family with Soulforce, a national organization “seeking freedom from religious and political oppression of GLBT people.”

Concluding, let me say that I welcome your prayers for me – a sinner. I know I sin in not loving the Father as much as I ought. I sin in not loving my neighbor, and myself, as much as I ought. But I know – I know to my core – that I would not be a sinner because I could love another man. I believe the great challenge for me – and for all of us – is not whom we love, but whether we love – whether we love!

Thank you so much for honoring me by hearing part of my story. Ya know, I’m confident that, in sharing our stories with each other, we would discover together that the Jesus I know and love is the same Jesus that you know and love – the same Jesus who loves all of us – gay or straight – more than we can imagine.

Read all of the contest entries here.

When the institutions that matter to you don’t agree with you — what then? Adapt? Break away? Change the system? And which takes the most courage?