Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When faith, homosexuality hit home

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It's hard for some people to come out as gay. It can also be hard for some of their parents.

In the Jan. 18 Free Press article about prominent volleyball player Chris Voth coming out, his parents were reported to have reacted to the news with "talks and tears."

For the couple, who attend a church that does not recognize same-sex marriage, their son's news was described as "not an easy fit."

Said his father, Lloyd: "We certainly are supportive of Chris, and we try not to be judgmental, but it's still very new to the both of us.

"We still love him the same. There's no difference in terms of how we treat him," he said. "However, it's still something we're not sure how we're going to handle in the future."

For John Unger, who retired last year as pastor of the Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren Church, the Voths' experience is close to home.

"I can certainly relate to some of their responses," says Unger, whose daughter came out as lesbian in 2011.

Even though it happened three years ago, the situation is "still pretty new, and we're making our way one step at a time, learning to love one another and welcome each other," he says. "We're still only beginning that process."

One of the first decisions he and his wife made when his daughter came out was to be open about it. He told his church council and the leaders of the theologically conservative denomination. All affirmed his ministry.

He also informed his church. "After I told them, I had five other couples come to me from the congregation and say 'that's our story, too,'" he says.

In 2012, he faced another decision when his daughter decided to marry her partner -- and asked him to give a blessing at their wedding.

As a member of a denomination whose confession of faith brands "homosexual practices" as immoral, this was a problem for Unger. But he resolved it by asking himself what Jesus would do.

Jesus, he decided, was not afraid to "be a blessing for everyone," including those who were considered sinners by people of that day.

"Jesus made himself available to all sort of people," he says. "Jesus always seemed safe. People seemed free to approach and engage him."

Like Jesus, Unger wanted to be "a person who was a blessing to others, a person who is available and safe."

He went to the wedding and gave his blessing, imagining their family to be like a shade tree "under which people gather for protection, a place of welcome and inclusion."

There is a risk in taking this stand, he notes; some have been very critical of his decision, accusing him of being "a friend of sinners or soft on sin." He's OK with that. "I'm in good company," he says.

That said, he lives in the tension between the weight of traditional biblical interpretation about homosexuality and the evidence of grace, love and "the sense of God's spirit" in his daughter's home.

One thing he has decided is not to shut down a conversation about the topic by saying "the Bible says."

That approach is a "naive biblicism" that "refuses to take responsibility for our role in discerning the word of God" in this time, he says.

He's careful to note that this is his experience -- "this is our journey," he states. But he hopes his denomination will be more open to talking with people who are gay.

"There is a gulf of suspicion, anger and hurt that exists between many evangelical churches and the LGBTQ community," he says.

If churches are going to be able to "be helpful to our LGBTQ children, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbours in any way, we will have to find conversation spaces that aren't so far apart, spaces that are safe for honest talk for both sides, and where care and compassion are tangible," he adds.

Going forward, he draws inspiration from Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount.

"Jesus said that God blesses everyone, showering them with sunshine and with rain," he says. "God wants us to do the same. So I have committed myself to blessing others without hesitation and without reservation."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 D12

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