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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Coming out of the clergy's closet

There must be a shortage of toaster ovens. That's the only reason I can think of for the number of clergy people who are coming out, possibly in response to the aforementioned home appliances the LGBT community is rumor to hand out to new recruits.

The latest clergy member to get in line for a free toaster is the Rev. Paul Barnes of Grace Chapel in Douglas County, Colorado. According to an article in The Denver Post, Barnes spoke to his 2,100-member congregation Sunday via a videotape and announced that he had struggled with his homosexuality most of his life. He also stepped down as leader of the church he founded.

Unlike the Rev. Ted Haggard, another Colorado native, Barnes was neither a high-profile evangelical preacher nor hypocritical enough to preach against the evils of homo-seck-shu-ality at roughly the same time he was getting a hands-free prostate massage courtesy of a male prostitute. According to the article:

Barnes and Grace Chapel stayed out of the debate over Amendment 43, a measure approved by Colorado voters last month defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

"I can't think of a single sermon where he ever had a political agenda," said Dave Palmer, an associate pastor.

Palmer said the church got an anonymous call last week from a person concerned for the welfare of Barnes and the church. The caller had overheard a conversation in which someone mentioned "blowing the whistle" on evangelical preachers engaged in homosexuality, including Barnes, Palmer said.

Palmer met with Barnes, who confessed. At an emergency meeting Thursday, a board of elders accepted Barnes' resignation after he admitted "sexual infidelity," violating the church's code of conduct. Church leaders also must affirm annually that they are "living the moral and ethical teachings of Scripture in my public and private life."

Also unlike Haggard, I can summon up sympathy for Barnes. He spoke in his 32-minute videotaped message about his experience of struggling with his gay feelings and his desire to serve a God he believes views homosexuality as a sin. It's in those moments when Barnes seems most human and most vulnerable ... and most like a person those of us who have struggled with reconciling our identities with the lessons we are taught in the religions in which we grew up. According to Barnes' videotape:

In their only talk about sex, Barnes said his father took him on a drive and talked about what he would do if a "fag" approached him.

Barnes thought, "'Is that how you'd feel about me?' It was like a knife in my heart, and it made me feel even more closed."

When Barnes experienced a Christian conversion at 17, it gave him a glimmer of hope. But his homosexual feelings never went away, he said. He said he cannot accept that a person is "born that way," so he looks to childhood influences.

Barnes said he asked God many times why he was called to ministry, to start Grace Chapel, carrying a "horrible burden."

Barnes' story hits home for me personally - and I'm willing to bet for a lot of other gay men, too. Especially those of us who grew up in conversative religious traditions. I remember struggling with my own feelings about being gay and knowing instinctually that it was something I had to hide. At the age of 16, I even planned to go into the ministry. That was my own form of bargaining with God, just as it was with Barnes.

Though I don't agree with Barnes' rejection of the idea that sexual orientation is something we are born with, I can respect his opinion. And I can respect him for being open with his family and his congregation ... even if the honesty came 40 years late and at the instigation of outside influences.

I hope the members of Barnes' congregation opened their hearts to his story of struggling with who he was. I also hope they are able to remember his story when it comes to dealing with gay issues.

For too long churches have been guilty of the spiritual abuse of their LGBT members. They have forced them into dark corners and denounced them as sinners. They have fostered a system that accepts LGBT folks only if they lie about who they are - to themselves, as well as to the church. For many of us, the choice boils down to rejecting our faith or rejecting ourselves.

As much as I love to poke fun at the hypocrisy of a Ted Haggard or a Lonnie Latham (the Oklahoma Baptist leader who was arrested for soliciting an undercover officer at the infamous Habana Inn in Oklahoma City), it's the experiences of Paul Barnes that drive home the cruel choices some religious traditions force upon their LGBT members.

It's also the experiences of people like Paul Barnes who will help begin to change the hearts and minds of some congregations.