In 1998, we moved from San Antonio to Portland. Katy was heading into 3rd grade, Allison was starting kindergarten, and Steve was ready for pre-school. We experienced culture shock as we settled into our home in early September. The days quickly grew shorter and clouds and rain replaced sunny blue skies.
That year, I had many first-time conversations with my kids about their friends with two mommies or two daddies. Katy had an amazing teacher, who happened to be a lesbian. I was coming to know and love those who identified as LGBTQ, but I also carried tightly held beliefs that their lifestyle was sinful and it was my job to “save” them.
Three years later, we returned to San Antonio to do full time ministry on staff at a conservative evangelical church. One of the first young adults to reach out to us was the daughter of church leader, and she was trying to “escape the lifestyle.” We slowly developed a relationship of trust as I bumbled my way along with her. I felt torn between my love for her and a sense of duty to call her out of her sexual preference for women. She was generous, kind, forgiving, and unbelievably loyal to our mentoring friendship.
She was just one of many young adults in that church who trusted us with their secrets and sexual struggles. I remember one night when a church staff member’s child knocked on the door. Seated on the blue sofa in our living room, he told us with tearful eyes, “I’ve heard y’all are a safe place. I don’t know where to go. I’m gay and I can’t imagine telling my parents.”
I’ve held more stories than I can count now. My heart and soul have been changed by courageous kids wrestling with God about whether He loved them, could they belong, or were they an abomination. And, nothing has changed me like the tearful story I heard in November of 2015.
“Hey…are you guys going to be home tonight?”
The text popped onto my phone around 3pm as I was driving to pick up the little girls from school.
“Yes. Why?” I replied.
“I have something I need to tell you. I’ll Facetime around 8pm.”
Mark and I settled the girls into their beds and sat in our bedroom waiting for the Facetime beep signaling the call from our son.
It’s all frozen in my memory. Steve in his blue jeans and white button down shirt, talking to us from a stairwell in his dorm where the signal would remain strong enough for this important conversation.
Given his life story up to that point, this call was not totally shocking. We’d had conversations about his sexuality for years, starting with his sharing that he’d been sexually abused in middle school. Using the phrase “same sex attracted” became a way to talk about some of his feelings during those years.
Mark and I assured him of our love, acceptance, and commitment to walk with him wherever the road was going. We hung up from that call and sat quietly with the weight of it all bearing down on us.
The days forward were some of the hardest I’ve known. At the time, I worked for a Christian non-profit and had listened to several board members share their beliefs about homosexuality. I feared how they would receive the news and what it would mean for my future. My mind sifted back through countless encounters with friends, family, and coworkers regarding this issue:
“Those people need to repent. They need to simply turn from their sin. They need to choose celibacy. They are unfit for leadership. They are an abomination. They are deviant. They are dangerous.”
For years, I’ve quietly held the words “if you only knew…”
When you speak about “the gays” and “those people” you are speaking about my people. You are speaking about my son. My son who loves Jesus, who is part of a new church starting in his city, and has been to hell and back at the hands of “safe, godly men.” My son who still believes Jesus loves him and that the gospel is good news.
I could say so much more, and what I want to say is this: if you only knew the stories of those you judge as “sinful” you might find your heart and soul changed.
You have to earn the right to hear those stories because they are deeply personal and only shared with safe people; and you won’t hear them if you aren’t willing to join Jesus at the tables where He sits—with the sinners and the tax collectors, those deemed unclean by the church in His day.
I am passionate about the table. I know I belong there with the other sinners, and I believe Jesus joins us there now, just as He did then. The invitation to come is yours.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 30 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastors wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.