Connecting in Our Differences
A Gay Journalist and Evangelical Pastor Correct Their Mutual Misperceptions.
by Wendy Murray Zoba
CT senior writer Wendy Murray Zoba and Salon.com journalist Dave Cullen were both covering the Columbine story when they went head to head over Cassie Bernall. Cullen broke the story that introduced doubt about whether Cassie’s killer asked her if she believed in God (“Behind the Littleton Investigation,” Salon.com, Sept 23, 1999). Zoba challenged Cullen’s reporting, citing multiple witnesses who heard the exchange and stood behind their account (“Cassie Said Yes, They Say No,” CT, Dec. 6, 1999). In the story’s aftermath, they began a dialogue that has resulted in camaraderie united by the intensity and complexity of covering Columbine.
While Zoba and Cullen intersected over Cassie Bernall, Cullen and pastor Bill Oudemolen of Foothills Bible Church outside Littleton intersected over the role of the Devil. In another Salon.com article, “I Smell the Presence of Satan” (May 15, 1999), Cullen expressed his surprise at the emphasis evangelicals placed on the role of Satan in the Columbine shootings (the article’s title came from one of Oudemolen’s sermons).
Cullen, who is gay and a former Catholic, segued into the world of evangelicals with reticence. He was prepared to despise them. Instead, he was surprised; he liked them, and they liked him.
Cullen, Oudemolen, and Zoba have all been challenged by what they discovered about each other and their differing worlds. The three met in Littleton in April and talked about how evangelicals and gays perceive one another-and how they can move toward greater understanding.
Zoba: Dave, as a member of the gay community and-as you put it-a lapsed Catholic, what were your thoughts as you began covering evangelicals for Salon?
Cullen: I didn’t know how to approach this because I didn’t know who these people were. People outside that world, like me, tend to view them all as Tammy Faye Bakker types. In the religious world I come from, the Catholic tradition, they’re all singing from the same sheet of music. So when I see a couple of evangelicals on TV, I’m thinking, OK, that’s who evangelicals are. It never occurred to me that they’re coming from different places and that you-Bill or Wendy are not responsible, for example, for what Jim Bakker said or did.
Isn’t that a form of stereotyping-the type of thing gays criticize evangelicals for doing to them?
Cullen: You’re right. I’ve come to see that.
Oudemolen: When you wrote your article for Salon, I thought it was critical. But for some reason, I wasn’t offended. As you know, there were six or seven things I thought weren’t right. But you laid out a challenge, saying something like, “If the evangelicals who accepted me so warmly during my Columbine research knew who I really was [gay], I’m not sure I would have had the same response from them.” I remember thinking, He’s got to give us a chance.
Cullen: I would write it a bit differently now, by the way.
Do you think, Bill, the image projected to those outside the evangelical subculture, rightly or wrongly, is that of an exclusive club with certain rules, and if you want to join the club you have to obey the rules?
Oudemolen: The challenge in Dave’s piece was clear: Can evangelicals love someone they disagree with? Jesus said the way the world will know we are his disciples is to love each other. That’s the number-one thing that’s supposed to mark us. My perspective on the gay lifestyle and my theology on homosexuality have not changed since Dave and I met. But now I can look at him and say that I love him and value him as a human being.
Did Jerry Falwell’s attempt to reach out to gays seem encouraging to people in the gay community?
Cullen: By and large, very much so. Some people wondered about his sincerity, though I think that’s a pretty weak response. He had nothing to gain. Plus, the way he talked about it seemed sincere. I’ve always had a real problem with evangelicals who have said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” because they would then say horrible things about gays. I was only seeing the “Hate the sin” part. Falwell used that quote too, but he added, “We’ve been saying love the sinner,’ but we need to really mean that.” He was saying that he had to live it. To the degree there was negativity about Falwell’s gesture, it was either by people who didn’t believe his sincerity or who thought, Well, that’s one guy. What about the rest? If we can get that kind of gesture from other evangelicals, we’ll be getting somewhere.
What do you think we could do to communicate, “Love the sinner” more effectively?
Cullen: In an op-ed piece about Matthew Shepard, I said that if pastors don’t say anything positive about gays, that sends a message to their communities that it’s OK to hate gays. If some people have hateful feelings toward gays and the pulpit fails to challenge that, it’s easy to think, My preacher feels the same way.
I was moved by a pastor here who made statements at Bible studies and at church against Fred Phelps, stating that what he stands for isn’t right (see “Called to Hate?” CT, Oct. 25, 1999). Life is precious and it is inexcusable to beat someone to death. We each have our own mission that God, our Creator-or whoever made us-put us here to do. We have no right to take that from someone else by killing him. A congregation hearing the minister saying that it’s not OK to beat up or mistreat gay people will bring more balance.
Oudemolen: I’d say it’s wrong because there’s an objective standard outside of me, God’s law, that says this is wrong. It is the same objective standard that compels me to conclude that homosexuality is wrong and to talk about faith in exclusive terms that might offend. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me.” In this culture, that message can come across as threatening. I don’t want to threaten you. I want to accept and love and touch you with the love of Christ. But you have to understand that while you may disagree with my message, you can still be OK with me.
We also need to ask, what compelled Matthew Shepard’s killers to do what they did? Maybe evangelicals could lend something to the cultural conversation that asks haunting questions about the nature of evil.
Oudemolen: I hope this doesn’t sound whiny, but this culture is not going to turn to theologians or pastors for answers. You read the print coverage on Columbine and look at the things in the national media, and it’s all about peripheral issues-gun control, where the memorial is going to be built, and so on. These are legitimate things. But a year later, I’m still asking, Why wasn’t this a wake-up call? We’ve got to face the fact that there’s a spiritual reality out here.
Cullen: I wish we had more open discussion about theological issues in this culture. But the public isn’t doing that because it’s afraid of the theological community. This helped me see why a lot of evangelicals are afraid of the so-called “gay agenda.” I roll my eyes at that phrase because I don’t have any agenda except not wanting to get beaten up. But I am able to see more and more that what most evangelicals think about gays is “OK, if we give these people an inch they’re going to want to go all the way.” Some probably think, “It’s reasonable to let gay partners have health insurance, but then what will they ask for next?”
The perception is the same when gays view evangelicals. Some people might have the inkling to go to church but are afraid they will feel under siege if they do. Or they imagine Christians want to set up a theocracy like the Puritan colonies in Massachusetts.
The larger question for evangelical churches is, how do they get their message out without coming across as threatening?
Still, when bad things happen, people want to know how to interpret spiritual activity in this world. It is especially disorienting for those who don’t have the vocabulary or a category for these matters. I know that has been true about Columbine.
Oudemolen: Few people are clear about the seminal issues that bring about episodes like we saw with Matthew Shepard, at Columbine, and at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth.
When I was standing at the corner of Pierce and Bowies near Columbine High School right after the shooting, I was searching for a way to explain what was going on here. I’ve had all these years of theological training, my dad was a pastor, and I grew up in the church. Yet there was only one way I could explain it: I truly believe I smelled the presence of evil. My theological category for this evil is Satan–a personal spirit, a fallen angel, a being of light who falls in an act of rebellion and devises all kinds of evil.
Cullen: I reacted negatively to that statement because it seemed so ironic. I’m used to ministers saying we need to take responsibility for our actions. I felt you were taking responsibility away from the kids. I thought we should be blaming the kids more, and here was this minister blaming them less. What if there were horrible problems in this community or this school? If you put blamed an external force, then maybe nothing will be done in the community to address problems. That was how it struck me and, I think, a lot of other non-evangelicals.
Oudemoled: I think those two boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, spurred by hate and evil in their hearts, gave the devil a launching pad. They acted on what they were demonically inspired to do. That does not take away the blame I would place on them, because they made choices. Are they at fault? Yes. Is there a spiritual explanation for this? Yes. Is anybody in our culture paying attention to that? Not many.
How can the gay and evangelical communities take steps to understand each other better?
Oudemoled: Jesus moved in and out of people’s lives, went to their homes, went to their parties, observed them, and spent time with them, not because he wanted to do what they were doing but because he wanted to be where they were. He spent time with people on the street, not the religious people. He didn’t mince words about their forsaking sin, but at the same time I believe they felt his acceptance and warmth and love.
That’s how I want people to experience me as pastor. We have a guy, Dave, who goes to church on Sunday mornings and sees me in the visitor room. People look at him because he has piercings and wears a neck thing that looks like a dog collar with spikes. My goal is to give him a hug and tell him it’s good to see him.
Culled: Even more than symbolic gestures, like what Falwell did, would be for a pastor to interact with those people in some way, maybe just taking someone out for coffee.
Oudemoled: The gay community could look at evangelicals and say, “This is the enemy,” while evangelicals can look over there and say, “They are the enemy.” But instead we have each walked across the bridge. We’ve met each other in the middle, and we have established a dialogue and a relationship that I value.