June 19 marked the beginning of Toronto’s annual Pride Week. Now in its 28th year, this is a week-long celebration of diverse sexual and gender identities. Here is how the organizers describe it: “Pride Week celebrates our diverse sexual and gender identities, histories, cultures, creativities, families, friends and lives. It includes a three-day street festival with over eight stages of live entertainment, an extensive street fair (including community booths, vendors, food stalls), a special Family Pride program, a politically charged Dyke March and the infamous Pride Parade.”
My friend John Bell pastors New City Baptist Church right in the heart of Toronto and has an active evangelistic ministry within Toronto’s gay village. I asked him if he would write an article reflecting on some of the joys and challenges in this unique ministry.
It is Gay Pride week here in Toronto and Tim has asked me to write a guest post detailing my evangelistic efforts in Toronto’s LGBT-oriented community [LGBT stands for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender). I would appreciate any helpful insights or criticisms the readers of this blog can offer me, as well as your prayers.
I began this ministry two years ago while working as an intern in a downtown Toronto church. I was told that part of my internship duties would involve three hours of evangelism every week in a coffee shop or pub. This was not happy news. To be honest, I find this kind of evangelism very intimidating. “Cold call” is not my style; I’m too polite! As the pastor explained what he expected of me, a likely scenario played itself out in my mind: I approach somebody at Starbucks who is reading a book and drinking a latte. I introduce myself and ask if I may sit with them and talk. Naturally, they want to know my business, so I straightaway introduce the topic of religion or Jesus, probably sounding like the Mormons who came to their door the previous week while they were eating dinner.
Personally (and God uses all types, so I’m not making an absolute statement) I find this kind of evangelistic tactic less than ideal. I don’t know anything about this person, yet I have just interrupted their morning coffee to talk about what I want to discuss. I wanted my evangelism to get off on a better foot, to be more natural; I wanted to initiate the discussion in a way that was neither “rude” nor by way of a specious pretext (conducting a poll on spirituality, etc). Moreover, if I asked to sit and speak with a woman, she might think I was hitting on her. Of course living where I do, a man might think the same thing. Better to take the bull by the horns, I thought. I had never been to a gay coffee shop before but I thought (correctly) that gay men would want a complete stranger to sit with them and chit-chat, so that’s what I decided to do.
Toronto’s gay village is just a ten minute walk from where I live. The first time I ventured out, I prayed to the Lord that he would show me where to go and what to do and what to say. I was very nervous. I had no plan. I was certain I was going to see all manner of disgusting things and that I was going to be thrown bodily out of the establishment for disseminating fundamentalist hate. But I had to tell my pastor that I had evangelized for three hours that week, so I was stuck.
The Lord went ahead of me. I stepped into the first coffee shop I saw, a Timothy’s at Church and Alexander. I found out later that this is the gay coffee shop in all of the Greater Toronto Area. (See the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_and_Wellesley). Its clientele is mostly middle-aged men. I bought my coffee and looked around for a place to sit. The tables are very small and the seats are close together—perfect for evangelism, though I’m sure that was not the original intent!
The gay community in Toronto is very close-knit. Most of the men have known each other for years and everyone is on a first name basis. Many men are fixtures at this coffee shop. I have become friends with four of these fixtures: A– , who has severe cerebral palsy that confines him to a wheel chair (that does not impede his sex life, however; he told me he’s had hundreds of partners); D– , an HIV infected drag queen who was molested by a Catholic priest; J– , a civil servant, recently relocated from Ottawa; and C– , who works in the credit department of a national bank. These men have accepted me as their friend and have introduced me to other gay men, although they know I’m a straight, born again conservative Christian who does not condone their lifestyle.
I have talked to quite a number of gay men now—almost all of them white and middle aged. Many of them came out of the closet after having been married with kids. For whatever reason, 85% have come from Catholic backgrounds. That means that much of my evangelistic groundwork has already been covered. There is no need to explain that the bible has two testaments, or who Moses or Abraham were, or convince them of the historic factuality of the resurrection; for the most part, they believe it. I’m finding it’s the authority of scripture that I need to deal with the most.
When I first meet someone at the coffee shop and they ask me what I do (which is a natural “in” to introducing the gospel) they assume that I must be a liberal gay Baptist minister, because otherwise what would I be doing in their coffee shop? (The first man I talked to had only just broken up with his boyfriend, a Methodist pastor.) I begin by asking them questions. I get them to do all the talking for the next 45 minutes. I ask them about their job, their background, their family life, their personal life and what they believe and why so I can get a picture of their epistemology and worldview. Needless to say, I frame my questions in an inquisitive, slightly naive, polite fashion, not in an interrogative, formal way. Gay men love to talk (at least the ones in this coffee shop seem to) and people in general today enjoy discussing “spirituality”. Then, out of politeness, they will inevitably ask me what I believe. So I tell them the gospel, starting with Genesis 1, laying out for them the biblical storyline and worldview.
I have been able to share the gospel with many men over the past two years, even though I am saying things highly offensive to the gay lifestyle—which is actually their identity. I base everything I say on the authority of the word; that is, I make it clear to them that that is what I am doing, that I believe the bible is authoritative for all peoples in all cultures and times because it is God’s authoritative revelation to human beings. I stress this emphatically. And I tell them that the Bible condemns me, it condemns everyone. It condemns me as an idolater, someone who is selfish and sinful, who has de-godded God and installed himself in the position of “The Ruler of John’s Life.” I have done things in my life that I am ashamed of and oftentimes what I am ashamed of the bible calls my “sin” (I have found that gay men can relate very well to shame). I do not zero in on their homosexuality (which is what they expect me to do) but rather the fact that they are sinners. Now, more often than not, they will push me and ask if practicing homosexuality is a particular expression of their sinful disposition and I will not hesitate to tell them “yes.” When asked, I tell gay men that, personally, I have a “live and let live” approach to everyone’s sex life, but my personal opinion doesn’t count for anything if God, our creator, has declared otherwise. I tell them I know that I am sounding very intolerant and bigoted when I tell them that they are sinners and that their lifestyle is not pleasing to God. Who am I to tell another human being such a thing on my own authority? But then I explain that it is not on my own authority that I am saying these things. Rightly or wrongly, I am utterly convinced that the bible is the revelation of God. I am banking my eternal soul on it being so. It condemns me, but I have found salvation in Christ. It condemns you. I am here to tell you about the salvation that I have found in Jesus, that I believe you need, that the bible says he needs.
By presenting the gospel in this fashion (which is the same way I present it to heterosexuals) I have yet to have someone become outraged over my perceived intolerance—though I am sure that day is coming! In fact, being straight and conservative has worked in my favor because they see that I must really care about them to come into an environment where I’m a fish out of water to tell them a message that I know they will find offensive. And I do really care for them. Many of them come from backgrounds where they would have believed something similar to what I believe about the authority of God’s word, from a Catholic perspective, but have since “moved on.” Perhaps I am young and deluded in their opinion, but I’m a nice guy and they put up with it, because they can see that I love them, and often times they will say, “We will hear you again on this matter”. They like the fact that I am willing to be their friend, even if I don’t condone their beliefs. I think that shows an integrity and respect; they respond to it and are willing to reciprocate.
I do all this because I love the LGBT community. They are a community comprised of individual eternal souls. Sadly, they are culture that has almost no contact with biblical Christianity in any form. How many drag queens can count a born again Christian amongst their friends? Very few, to our shame.
I’m the pastor of a new church plant in downtown Toronto and it is my earnest prayer that God would use our people to impact this spiritually needy community. I pray for the day when transvestites can walk through our church doors and be greeted with genuinely warm smiles and Christian love. But before that day is likely to happen, they will need a Christian friend whom they have grown to trust; a person they know would never invite them to a place where they are going to be hurt or embarrassed publicly; a place where everyone is on level ground before the cross of Christ because all are sinners; a place where no one person’s sin is made out to be more repugnant than another’s; a place where all sinners can sit under the uncompromised preaching of holy Scripture and hear of the world’s only Savior and salvation in his name alone.
I pray that we would be more deliberate in this regard; that as God’s sovereign grace works through his faithful witness, the church, we would see more gay men and women come to Christ.