Jeff Lutes is a licensed psychotherapist and current executive director of Soulforce, a direct-action, gay-rights nonprofit dedicated to challenging the too-often intolerant language and policies of organized religion in the United States.
While the nine-year organization always launches its campaigns in the hopes of entering open dialogue, rebuffed approaches often morph into public protests and demonstrations in line with the group’s philosophy of “relentless resistance,” inspired by the champions of nonviolence and direct action Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day.
Earlier this year, several Soulforce families — including one from San Antonio — partook in “An American Family Outing,” traveling to some of the country’s most prominent mega-churches in the hopes of visiting with their influential pastors and congregations. Lutes spoke with the Current about some dodges, some hits, and the lessons learned.
It sounds like Soulforce really came out of a period of growing intolerance and hateful language and events. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Many folks who are involved `in Soulforce` have been a part of the church and love the church but at the same time believe that organized religion has become the primary source of not only suffering for LGBT inside the church, but also a threat to the separation of church and state.
We’re an organization that’s really about trying to change hearts and minds of people in America, particularly within faith communities. We try to have conversation with folks … Sometimes we push that conversation and we take that conversation to people, in some cases when they may or may not be ready to have it yet.
Sure. That’s what’s so different about Soulforce, that direct-action element, going out in very public and challenging ways. What are some of your more memorable experiences being out on the line?
In the early days we spent a lot of time at the denominational conferences — the Methodist, Lutheran, Southern Baptists.
Are you talking about being outside the conventions protesting?
Yes. The guidelines of nonviolence tell us to always to try for dialogue first. The problem is that while there are certainly pastors at sort of what I would call the middle-level within the hierarchy of the different denominations who are willing to have the conversation, the folks in power at the top historically have not been willing to have the conversations.
So we would write them, and we would say, “This is the problem as we see it. This is the policy within your denomination, and here’s the impact that it has on the lives of LGBT people, and we would like to talk about that.” Most of the time we were rebuffed. Nonviolence then says you have no recourse but direct action. To stand out in a visible way, in a protest, in a rally. That may not be the ideal conversation that we’d like to have, but we’d hope that it moves things closer to having the other types of conversations.
As you approach these different churches and these church leaders, I know most of these leaders held to their line, saying the homosexual lifestyle is a sinful lifestyle. How have you tried to counter that position?
In many cases `on the American Family Outing` we were managed or handled in a way where it looked like we were going to have a conversation, and then we really didn’t. There was a lot of fear and trepidation about even meeting us to talk. It’s a bit of a bind for them, because if they don’t meet with us that maybe doesn’t fare too well for some of the people who follow them … Then `there’s another` whole group of followers who think you don’t, quote, break bread with sinners. So it’s a bit of a predicament for them.
But when we are able to talk with them, we’re able to talk about a lot of the biblical scholars who now point out that if you read the Bible in context of its original Greek and Hebrew, and you consider what was going on 2,000 years ago, that many of the biblical passages, first of all, are misunderstood. We believe, for instance, that this whole story of Sodom and Gomorrah is really about inhospitality.
We really do a lot of research. We don’t go into these conversations lightly.
I know you went to a number of churches in Texas.
In the case of Joel Osteen, we were not invited to have a conversation.
I thought that was the “feel-good” church?
He refused to meet with us, and in the final hour we put Jay Bakker, Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker’s son, in the reception line where Joel meets new visitors. Because of that he agreed to a 30-minute conversation with Jay, but not with our families. The next weekend we went to T.D. Jakes’ church `in Dallas` and we had about an hour meeting with some of the leaders of the church, then we had a fellowship time with some of the senior pastors and their spouses. I thought that was a productive meeting. T.D. Jakes called in and talked with me, and we had differences on how they wanted to continue to define marriage, but they were open to feedback. That’s how it starts. Just chipping away a little at a time with that kind of conversation.
When we talk about the rhetoric of religious violence, what do you think straight America fails to understand about homophobic or anti-gay teachings in the church and the impact they can have on people?
First of all, I would say it’s important to understand that for LGBT people who love God or love the church or grow up in the church, that exclusion, it’s more than just being excluded from ministry or being excluded from the life of the church. It really creates an emotional crisis, because the church is essentially saying you can have your spirituality or you can have your sexuality, but you can’t have both. That lack of integration creates a crisis in so many LGBT people that often leads to suicide or to severe depression.
It’s important to understand, too, they usually don’t just stop with, “We believe according to our faith that homosexuality is a sin.” They usually try to bolster that argument with a really severe misrepresentation of the social-science research. They will often say, “Well, the research shows,” or “10,000 studies show,” or “30 years of research shows” that children need both a mother and a father. What’s off about that is, the research they’re quoting compares two-parent heterosexual families to single-parent heterosexual families. It doesn’t even have gay and lesbian people as part of the study group. They take that out of context.
The research that has compared parents across sexual orientation finds that sexual orientation doesn’t matter at all in terms of the development of children. What matters is a blend of warmth and firm discipline.
Your partner is a stay-at-home parent, right?
He is. We have three children.
So, when you see policy put forward `attempting to prevent same-sex couples from being foster parents`, it must give you chills.
It does. We’ve just kind of held our breath. Luckily, this year there wasn’t anything put forward. It’s always kind of a roller-coaster ride. •