This is a 3-part essay about my journey to becoming an Ally. I wrote it to introduce myself to the readers of Q View Northwest, a GLBTQA magazine out of Spokane, Washington for which I wrote a monthly column for much of 2009.
“Since when did you become such an … advocate?”
“Since when did you become such an … advocate?” The question stung coming from my former college roommate. I knew twenty-eight years ago that Mark and I were in pretty different places politically and spiritually. We became fast friends, but as sometimes happens, we learned to sidestep the places where our differences might prove perilous to our friendship.
Now I’d been invited back to our alma mater for an author book-signing over homecoming weekend. And, seated at a table behind a display of my books, I’d hoped for something more supportive, more congratulatory. We’re both on the verge of turning fifty—are we not ready for an authentic conversation about this yet?
“Mark, I’ve been an increasingly vocal ally for about a dozen years now, and this book collects the best of my writing during that time.” A pretty lame response, if you ask me. Sad thing is, he did ask me, and he deserved something better.
So if I’m honest as I look back on that October exchange, I’m stung more by my response than by Mark’s question. Granted, the book-signing table in the crowded hallway outside the college bookstore on homecoming weekend was probably not the ideal arena to really answer his question. But I want a chance to do better. Not to persuade or convert Mark, but to tell the story of my journey. So that even if he doesn’t agree with me, he’ll have heard me. Heard the why and the how, not just the when.
So, without imagining that this is more than just a beginning, let’s say I invited Mark to meet me for pizza and beer after the game, at one of our old haunts, “The Other Place,” at the edge of the Wartburg campus in bustling “downtown” Waverly …
When did I become such an … advocate? Well, actually, the word is Ally, Mark. And thanks for asking.
I suppose it began with the empathy that comes from being labeled the “egghead” back in junior high and high school. That experience made me hesitant to jump on anybody else’s bandwagon when it came to excluding others. From the kids I just thought “might” be gay back in high school, to the ones that I “heard” were gay in college, I always thought, “So what? Leave ‘em alone. They’re not hurting you.” I was hardly an Ally back then, but looking back, I was pretty much an Ally-just-waiting-to-happen.
I started to “happen” in seminary. It was there that my faith became political. No, I didn’t decide that Jesus was a democrat (although it just might be noteworthy that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not an elephant!). What I mean is that my faith left my head, where I’d been infatuated with all manner of Lutheran doctrine, and it moved out into my limbs. My faith became invested in “doing,” rather than believing. In living compassion, rather than just knowing theology.
In the midst of this paradigm shift I met both gay and lesbian students at seminary whose lives were a living dilemma. They were there because they felt called by God to be pastors. But they knew the only way they could do that was by being less than truthful about who they were to their professors and eventually to their parishes.
Yet these were the people whose faith seemed most alive to me. They had every reason not to be there. Back then, Lutheran seminaries pretty much put out the “Not Welcome” mat to gays and lesbians (and they couldn’t even imagine bisexual or transgender persons coming their way). But something stronger than that lack of welcome pulled them to seminary.
So here’s what happened. I still loved theology, but no longer for its logical doctrinal beauty (which seemed more like a tower of cards) but for its potential to be a passionate voice for justice and its capacity to engender compassion not as a token response in a given moment but as a whole way of being in the world. And while this shift was going on inside me, I had this new circle of friends around me.
Okay, I’m still hardly an Ally at this point in my journey. Or if I am, I’m a closeted one. I mean, I was very affirming of my friends in private. And I was busily processing my evolving faith—both intellectually and existentially. But in public I was still pretty cautious about what I said.
That was 1983, and it was another decade before I began even tentatively to open my mouth, before I “came out” as an Ally. And even that happened in stages. Ten years is a long time to have something percolating inside you. I’m not proud it took me that long. Maybe I eventually began to speak and write with such urgency to make up for lost time. Anyway, I turned a crucial corner in seminary, and I’ve never looked back.
Mark, my being an “advocate” has everything to do with my being a person of faith. Now, you pick up the next pitcher of beer, and I’ll tell you the next chapter …
“Surprised by God”
So, Mark, these are the three “seeds” to my advocacy. First, I’ve had this strong sense of empathy ever since adolescence, and rather than restraining it, I’ve chosen to “hang glide” with it as far as it will carry me. Second, my faith shifted from being intellectual to political—it became a conviction about how to act in the world. And third, I became friends with some gay and lesbian persons of faith, allowing me to empathize with their struggles, their deep faith, and their basic humanity.
Bottom line: I saw and heard God’s presence in their lives. Listen, Mark, so much of the church is so busy trying to solve the “gay” question by rummaging around in the Bible. Claiming to find verses that clearly condemn homosexuality. Or offering interpretations that can “defuse” those same texts. Or proposing other verses that show a different angle on the whole matter. But this is what happened inside me: I became friends—friends—with Dick and Don and Ruth and Kathi, and I didn’t measure their humanity or their morality by some set of bible verses. I measured it—and found it abundantly full—the same way I encounter the rest of the world: by my experience.
This doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t shape my worldview at all. But it does mean that my lived experience counts for something. And, actually, it counts for a lot. Look, neither of us measures people of other races, nationalities, or genders according to “sound-byte” biblical texts. There are biblical passages that some people use to do this. You and I don’t, not because we tossed the Bible on the trash heap, but because we accepted our lived encounters with persons of other races, nationalities, and genders as sufficient proof that they, too, are persons fully created in and living out the image of God.
Sure it’s possible to make the awkward argument that the Bible was just misread or misused when it “seemed” to call for racism, genocide, slavery, or sexism … but that it’s dead on when it condemns homosexuality. There’s a word for that type of argument. It’s called “bullshit.” And it’s used to preserve the prejudices folks aren’t yet ready to let go of.
It’s not that hard to buy bullshit when it’s about people at a safe distance. But through your work in global missions you got to know people of different cultures so well you wouldn’t buy racism no matter how well it was argued. And you were blessed with a wife who was so gifted at church leadership that you wouldn’t accept sexism no matter which biblical texts got pulled out. Julie made that impossible. And I’m willing to bet that if one of your sons came out, you’d discover that the truth you know so well about the goodness of your own kid is—and ought to be—more trustworthy than a handful of texts penned several thousand years ago, even if those texts have been propped up by tradition ever since.
I know the Bible means a lot to you, Mark, but the classic example of acknowledging the proper weight of our own experience is in the Bible itself. In Acts (chapters 11 and 15) Peter and Paul can’t quote any biblical verses to support their readiness to welcome Gentiles into the church “just the way they are.” Every biblical text leaves little doubt that they “must” become Jewish in their diet and appearance in order to join the people of God. And it’s not just that they can’t quote the Bible. It’s that they don’t even seem interested in trying to. For both of them the question is decided by their experience: they see and hear God’s presence in the lives of the Gentiles—and that matters more to them than any Bible verse that suggested otherwise. They allowed experience to push back against biblical texts. I think that’s because, unlike much of the church today, they believed that God’s best work is done not in the black and white pages of a written text but in the flesh and blood lives of human beings. They trusted God’s ability to do a new thing, even when that new thing surprised them.
That’s what happened to me through my friendships. I found myself surprised by God. I didn’t sort through all the biblical arguments before accepting and affirming them. But neither did Peter and Paul. I simply found myself overwhelmingly persuaded by experience that God was present in places and lives that I’d been told God wouldn’t be found.
And then, like I said, it percolated inside me for about ten years before I opened up my mouth. Looks like we got enough beer in the pitcher for one more glass each. That’ll be just enough for me to tell you how I went from opening my mouth to writing a book …
“Outing Myself as an Ally”
Okay, Mark, you asked when I became “such an advocate.” I’ve explained how and why I became an Ally—because the how and why are really what matter most. But now that you heard me talk about empathy, faith, friendship, and experience—and how they all came together during my years in seminary and then percolated for a decade, let me tell how I found my voice.
Eventually I went back to graduate school to study Christian Ethics. When I had a chance to write a paper on a topic of my choice, I picked “Homosexuality and the Lutheran Church.” That paper was the first time I exercised my voice as an Ally in anything more than a private conversation. It didn’t take much courage to “come out” as an Ally in a graduate school seminar class, but it did give me a valuable opportunity to assemble all the best arguments for welcoming gays and lesbians into the church and to anticipate the strongest counter arguments. We all fall back on what’s most familiar when we’re a little unsure, so it’s only honest to say I came out first up in my head.
A year later my own Lutheran congregation was discussing gays and lesbians in the Lutheran church. By the time I spoke up, I’d heard enough to know I was in a mildly hostile setting. But, bolstered by my academic work and more importantly driven by my friendships, I pushed my words, my simple testimony from experience, into the circle. This was scary for me, but I did it. Afterwards I was astonished by how many others who had been silent thanked me profusely. There are a lot of silent allies out there.
But of my several steps in “coming out,” the one that changed my life forever, the one that offers the clearest answer to WHEN I became such an advocate happened February 20, 1997. That evening, while a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, I read an anonymous piece in a campus publication in which a gay man, now a senior, lamented that he had come to school four years ago knowing he was gay but scared what it would cost him at Notre Dame to come out to anyone at all. Four years later, looking ahead to graduation, he found himself, as he titled his piece, still “living in fear.”
I said earlier I was an “Ally-just-waiting-to-happen.” I was waiting for that moment. As I read his piece something broke wide open inside me. I wrote a response to him. Not a third-person defense of being gay but a second-person letter of comfort and affirmation. I ransacked the Bible for images of inclusion. I wrote long into the night, polishing my words while tears streamed down my face. Who can account for such moments? There is no explanation sufficient except to say I was moved by Grace from near silence into full speech in a single night. A week later my response appeared in print and I was out. Not many people at Notre Dame knew me by sight, but the whole campus now knew that whoever “David Weiss” was, he was clearly an Ally.
All I’ve done since then is keep my mouth open. And, Mark, the words just keep coming. From some place far deeper than just my imagination. Yes, they’re my words, but really my voice is just doing its best to carry a Voice that’s been speaking about welcome far longer than I have.
I’ve written newspaper op-ed pieces, preached sermons, and given classroom lectures. I taught an entire course, “GLBT Voices in Theology,” that took me, along with my students, into a land richer with insight than I could have anticipated. In fact, I courted Margaret while teaching this class and reading the words of persons who must either reconcile their sexuality and spirituality or force one or the other into exile—effectively crippling both. I cannot imagine better company for courtship than GLBT theology; it has blessed our relationship in countless ways. When Margaret and I got married we asked a lesbian pastor to officiate. I spent several years traveling the country helping to lead workshops on welcoming GLBT persons in communities of faith. And by the time a decade had passed, I had produced a book’s worth of writing about the wideness of God’s welcome—the book on the table that prompted your question.
You see, Mark, at virtually every turn in the biblical tale God’s welcome proves wider than God’s people assumed. That’s the God I’ve encountered—a God still busy surprising people today. I work for that God. And I believe in that God the only way I know how: by putting my life behind my conviction. Mark, that’s why I’m an Ally. Thanks for asking.