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Cover story: Gay Chinese Christian talks about what it's like to not fit in

 

Jeff Chu knows what it is to be different.

He's Chinese, with a white spouse. He's a Bible-quoting Christian living in Brooklyn's hipster Park Slope. He's gay.

Mr. Chu is also an author and a journalist who has called himself "an asker of questions and a collector of stories." That means he's good at conveying his unique experiences and point of view -- and those of the people he interviews -- to others who may have spent much of their lives surrounded by those who look, and think, like they do.

Mr. Chu recently spent 10 days in Portola Valley as part of the Valley Presbyterian Church's Spiritual Catalyst program. He spoke five times during his stay, including preaching at two church services.

That experience, too, was different, he says. "I've never preached before," he says. Preaching, he says, is not like other public speaking or even teaching. "It comes with a different sense of responsibility -- you're in worship," he says, sharing the word of God. "I don't think anyone should take that lightly."

Preaching, however, does run in his family.

In the keynote speech he gave at the Gay Christian Network Conference in January, 2015, Mr. Chu described himself this way: "I grew up in a devout Baptist family. My great-grandfather was a missionary, my grandfather a preacher, my grandmother a Bible teacher at a Christian school. My uncle is a preacher, my dad and uncles and great uncles and aunts mostly deacons." He is an elder in his Brooklyn church, the Old First Reformed Church, although he admits his attendance record could be better.

Mr. Chu says that his career, which includes stints on the staff at Time Magazine and Fast Company, reporting from dozens of countries and six continents, has allowed him to write on many issues in depth. However, he says, "it is difficult to be in a position to get the time and the money to do the type of journalism I want to do."

A few years ago, however, Mr. Chu was able to take a year traveling the country and exploring one topic - - how American churches view homosexuality, and how those views have affected individuals. "Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America" was the result. He looked at the spectrum of Christian churches, from the most conservative to the most liberal.

"My hope was to tell some stories that remind the reader of our complicated humanity," he wrote on the website Medium. "When we talk about homosexuality and the church and society, we're not just (or even primarily) discussing an issue. We're talking about people and their lives."

Among the people and lives he explored were the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who were most recently in the news after picketing funerals of some of those who died in the Orlando mass shooting.

"What they do is hurtful and it's harmful and I wish they didn't do it," he says. However, "they have a right to do it," a right that has been upheld by the Supreme Court. "That's the society we live in. It's fraught with tension," he says.

"One of the beautiful things about the response" to the latest picketing, he says, "is how the community came together to shield the families." People dressed as angels shielded the families of the victims so they didn't have to see the protesters.

"I have immense respect for people who stand up from their sofas and actually do something loving and do something powerful like those volunteers did," he says.

Mr. Chu's book says many of the at least 2,000 Christian denominations in the U.S have splintered over the issue of homosexuality. The most splintering issue seems to be whether scripture allows homosexual behavior or not.

"The conservatives see the liberals' position as heresy and the liberals see the conservatives' as hate," he writes in the book. "People who used to sit next to each other in the pews every Sunday have found themselves in rival congregations and denominations. Families have been split along theological lines."

Many of those he interviewed seem to have been ripped apart by the issue as well. In the book he hangs out with a group of young students at a small religious college in Arkansas who anonymously put out an online publication called "Queer Press."

Only one of the five students tells him she still identifies as a Christian, although they all say they still love their school.

"This bothers me, less because they no longer believe in the god of their childhoods -- I'm not sure I believe in that god either -- than because they didn't lose their faith so much as have it taken from them. In a denomination that believes in free will, they were stripped of it. They were taught that homosexuality was their key choice, a sinful and eternity-changing choice that put God off-limits to them," he writes.

The splintering has affected his own family. His mother did not attend his wedding to Tristan Ashby not quite four years ago, he says. He has never discussed his book with his parents.

He quotes his sole discussion with his father about his sexuality verbatim in his book: "Why is my mother having such a hard time with all this?" He said, "You have to understand: We're not just Christian. We're Baptist."

There is hope, however. In an essay published on the Medium website, Mr. Chu writes about how, not long after the wedding, his mother came to New York to cook a dinner for his birthday.

And while his mother didn't tell him she had accepted Tristan into the family she did show it. "When she arrived in New York, one of the first things she did was to pull a gift out of her bag: an antique pair of ivory chopsticks. Everyone in our family has a pair, inscribed in red with our names. These were for my husband," he writes in the essay.

At his first talk at Valley Presbyterian, one of those in the audience was Redwood City resident Nancy Lewis, who said her mother, a member of the church, had invited her to come.

Ms. Lewis thanked Mr. Chu for "being publicly out and doing ministry."

As a lesbian, she says, "when you're hated by other people, which we are, it's not hard to develop shame that walks with you wherever you are."

She is grateful, she says, that her mother has "worked to understand something that is so hard to understand."

"I only returned to the church two years ago because of the damage that had been done to myself and my friends," she says.

Mr. Chu said that many gays have a problem with "internalized homophobia." "You don't ever forget that you're different," he says. "I don't ever forget that I'm gay and also Chinese."

"I'm not going to pretend I have half this figured out," he says.

"We can not do a good job of extending grace to our neighbors if we have not learned to give it to ourselves," Mr. Chu says.

Parents, however, do need to go through a grieving process when they realize their child is not going to fulfill the dreams they had for them, as his mother did. "She had to grieve that," he says. "She had to come to terms with that."

Mr. Chu says he hopes that his short visit to Valley Presbyterian can encourage church members "to think about some things they might not otherwise have thought about" such as who is not present in their pews. The church, he says, is almost entirely white. "Just saying it's a welcoming place doesn't mean it's a welcoming place," he says.

He hopes his visit, "will make them a little uncomfortable in good ways," and will "push them out of their comfort zone."

It may be easy for the church to be welcoming to a published author who is well-educated, "but what about a stranger? What about someone who is more unlike them?" he asks.

"This is a wealthy church in many, many ways," he says. "They have so much. I hope that I will be able to ask some questions that will make them reconsider what to do with that abundance."

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Artour Akhmadeev
a resident of another community
on Jul 26, 2016 at 12:25 pm

My church (The People's Church) teaches to love and accept homosexuals into the church but not to justify the act (basically to help them out of it).


Like this comment
Posted by Conversion Therapy?
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jul 26, 2016 at 12:39 pm

>> basically to help them out of it

Conversion therapy? Like in the GOP platform? Against every major mental health group and logic?

Doesn't sound like the Jesus with whom I'm familiar.

Pence and the GOP platform:

>> But what’s most disturbing is Pence’s years of advocacy for conversion therapy, the insidious “treatment” that abuses LGBT adults and youth to supposedly eliminate or dramatically reduce their attraction to the same sex or their desire to express a different gender from the gender they were born with.
The American Psychological Association, The American Medical Association, and 11 other major medical organizations reject conversion therapy because they don’t believe that there is a disorder to “fix,” they don’t believe one can actually change orientation or gender identity and that attempting doing so is dangerous and harmful, particularly to LGBT youth.
...
If Pence’s position sounds fringe, remember that the GOP has now adopted conversion therapy into its national platform. This is shocking. As our nation becomes more progressive on LGBT rights, a major political party took a giant leap back.

Worse yet, the amendment to the platform was introduced by the leader of a hate group, Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council. Initially, his amendment was very explicit in mentioning conversion therapy, but after consulting with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus he made the language more innocuous even as the meaning stayed insidious:
“We support the right of parents to determine the proper treatment or therapy, for their minor children,” the amendment said.
After this change, Chairman Priebus told reporters including NBC’s Chuck Todd that he had pulled the conversion amendment—but all he did was remove the word “conversion.”


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