Interviews

Journey to LGBT Affirmation: An interview with Peggy Campolo

When I was 15-years-old and figuring out that I was queer and still deeply closeted, I scoured the internet for anything and everything it had to say about homosexuality. Specifically, anything it had to say about being gay and Christian. I will never forget finding Peggy & Tony Campolo’s conversation about homosexuality. It was one of those defining moments in my own journey. 

Peggy Campolo said clearly and without any conditions that being LGBT was perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, perfectly acceptable, and perfectly compatible with Christianity. Not only that, LGBT Christians were blessed, important, integral members of the Christian community. We had something to offer.

Years later, I found myself working for her husband as his organization, the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, was one of my clients. Our paths crossed again when we found ourselves sitting next to each other on a flight to the Room for All conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As Fr. Shay and I were putting together the JOURNEY (EXILE) issue of Spit & Spirit, I knew I wanted to interview Peggy about her own journey of LGBT affirmation and advocacy. I’m honored to do so here, it’s a divine closing-the-loop of my own journey that started so many years ago.

 

+ When did the journey toward LGBT affirmation start for you?

Whenever I am asked to write an article about when I “changed my mind about homosexual people,” I always have to say that I never had to change my mind about them.  For as far back as I can remember, I knew people who were “different” even if I had no name for what made them different.  I also knew that their lives were made difficult by other people who did not like them, for reasons I never could understand.  As my awareness grew and I learned more about these children of God who happened not to be straight, I felt a great anger toward those who did their best to make them miserable and keep them out.  To me, the fact that the church was most often an unfriendly place for them was horrible.  I have always wanted things to be fair, and life, especially life in the church was anything but fair to the “different” people I knew.  So I was kind to those “different “ people, but I sure didn’t stand up for them.  I didn’t even stand up for myself back in those days.  I was a” people pleaser” with no courage at all.

What changed for me, changed the day I met Jesus  in the hospital room of a friend who was dying.  I’ve told the whole story many times, so will just say here that I left the hospital that day, full of joy.  I felt great joy for my friend Helen who I was sure now knew that she was on her way to a wonderful place to be with the God who loved her.  I also felt great joy for myself because the God I had asked to come to Helen had come to me too.  The Holy Spirit was real and would be part of my life from now on.  I knew that.  But I did wonder what my testimony would be.  How would my life change?  I was already a “good” church lady who visited  people who were old and sick, and all the good testimonies I knew were about things like giving up being a prostitute or not selling drugs any more.

God didn’t take long to let me know how my life would change.  About two weeks after Helen died, I was in the back seat of a car with Tony.  The couple in the front seat had met us at the airport and were taking us to one of my husband’s speaking engagements.  I am sure they would have identified themselves as Evangelical Christians, and they wanted to talk to Tony about what was wrong with the church.  First on their list was “those people – the gays.”  I sat in silent misery and anger, doing what I had always done in such situations – nothing!  I am sure that Tony said some pretty good things to them, but my own silence was so loud in my ears that I cannot remember what he said.  I felt like I had not only failed to stand up for people I loved, but that I hadn’t stood up for Jesus either. That ride seemed interminable, but it ended too soon.  Later, miserable and ashamed of myself, I cried myself to sleep, after promising God that if I ever had another chance to speak up for God’s GLBT children, I would not be silent.

Who have been some of your guides along this journey?

There have been many –  different people at different stages of my journey.

First was Dr. Ralph Blair, founder of Evangelicals Concerned, a gay man from a Christian background similar to my own, who bravely stepped out to tell his truth at a time when few in the faith community were saying anything about homosexuality.  Dr. Blair was the one who helped me to understand what ”the clobber passages” did and did not say.  He was one of the first persons with whom I shared my calling to be an advocate for those children of God who happened not to be straight, and it was Dr. Blair who invited me to speak publicly for the very first time, back in 1993.  That was at the Eastern U.S. gathering of Evangelicals Concerned, which still meets every summer at Kirkridge in Bangor, PA.  I have sent a number of people to Dr. Blair for help.  He is a therapist who does telephone counseling in addition to helping those who come to his office in NYC, and is an invaluable resource for those struggling to find a way to hold together both their love for Jesus and the reality that they are not straight

Dr. Mel White, the author of Stranger at the Gate; To Be Gay and Christian in America, and founder of Soulforce was the one who inspired me to stand in protest lines more times than I can remember, and even once, to spend part of a day in jail.  Mel not only made me believe in what he was saying, but he made me believe in myself enough to stand up for justice ways I never thought possible for me.  Soulforce didn’t change the world – not as much as we, along with Dr. White hoped it would, but now, years after my days on protest lines, I am still meeting people whose hearts were touched by Dr. White’s words, by the brave things he did, and by the message he inspired those of us who followed him to declare with our actions. Today, a group of people much younger than I am are going out in the name of  Soulfoce to college campuses to stand up for justice for GLBT students.  This is only one of the outreaches of Soulforce, and I am so proud to have been a small part of it.

Then there are the many pastors and teachers I have met who have spoken out for justice for God’s GLBT children – some at the cost of their jobs and the loss of those they thought were their friends.  I know pastors who dared to m arch in Pride Parades in their cities, carrying signs that not only apologized for the actions of some of the rest of the church of Jesus Christ, but declared that they themselves were safe people to whom any looking for a haven in the church could come.  I am happy to say that I know too many of these people to name them, but for me, all of them can stand proudly with the United Methodist Church’s Dr. Frank Schaefer, who recently lost his credentials in the church because he dared to officiate at the marriage of his gay son and his partner.

Cynthia Clawson is an inspiration to me.  She is what musicians call, a singer’s singer.  Her voice is in a category all by itself, as any who heard her singing Jesus is Tenderly Calling Thee Home on the soundtrack for the movie Trip to Bountiful can attest.  Years ago, Cynthia sang for a gay group, and was publicly criticized by some Christians I shall call “narrow minded.”  Her reply was to say that she would sing for any group who wanted to hear her sing about Jesus, and she went right on accepting the invitations that she knew meant that other invitation would not be coming her way.  Some very large stages are missing Cynthia’s great talent, but I am only one of those for whom she is an inspiration.  Micah 6:8 describes her well, as she goes through life doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with her God.

I cannot say enough good about the late Dr. Lewis Smedes, one of the 20th century’s finest Christian teachers.  Like me, Dr. Smedes was a straight advocate for those children of God who happen not to be straight.  He and I met when we were speakers at Evangelicals Concerned for the same weekend.  I came home, not only proud to call this man a friend, but wishing the whole world could hear his reasoned and convincing case for why the Church should embrace the GLBT people it is too often  guilty of pushing away.   Dr. Smedes’ message is one the whole world should hear, and I cannot tell you how many copies of his DVD, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, I have given away.

Finally, my dear friend Roberta Kreider has been a guide on my journey.  A Mennonite woman in her mid eighties, Roberta has edited and published three amazing books, each full of the stories of Christians who had a difficult time in the church because they were not straight.  To read any of them is like having your own personal speakers bureau.  Roberta’s books contain stories from the hearts of real people, people who felt safe enough with her to tell to Roberta stories we all need to hear.  In addition to what she has written, Roberta and her retired pastor husband Harold regularly open their home to children of God who do not feel welcome in places that call themselves houses of God.  Roberta has done what God called her to do, despite some significant and very painful losses she suffered because she stood up for God’s GLBT children.

Answering that question was a real joy for me.  I only regret that space makes it impossible for me to list the many, many others who have been my guides, holding up bright lights along the path of my journey.

 

+ What has been the easiest part? The hardest?

The easiest part for me is that I have never doubted that being an ally and advocate for those children of God who happen not to be straight is the Kingdomwork God planned for me to do in this world.  I believe that God has something special for each of the children of God to do, and it was a blessing for me when I found mine.

The hardest thing was when, at the beginning of my public ministry, people who didn’t like what I was saying tried to stop me by making things difficult for my husband.   I had never really done anything publicly, and I had no “kingdom” to lose.  Tony, on the other hand, had spent most of his adult life trying to inspire young people to give a summer, a year or even the rest of their lives to missionary service, while committing himself to do all he could to raise money to make what they did possible.  My heart ached the day Tony came home with a letter from a man who said, “If you don’t stop your wife from saying the church should accept gay people, I am not going to continue to support your orphans in Haiti.”  Today, I wonder if that man cared at all about hungry kids in Haiti, but back then I could only wonder how many letter like that it would take to make me feel I should be silent.

Then, I remember a very special day when Tony came home for lunch with a question for me:  “Peggy,” he said, “what would you do if I asked you to stop standing up for gay people because havingyou doing that is hurting the missionary work I have spent my life building?”  The silence that followed his question was deafening, as it dawned on me that I would not, could not stop standing up for those who were not straight, no matter what anyone, even my beloved husband said. I felt very sick but I couldn’t even cry, and I certainly had no answer for Tony.  Then my husband smiled at me and said, “Peggy, I wouldn’t ever ask you not to say what you believe.  I just wanted to see what you would say when I asked you that question.”  Then, Tony added wryly, “and I think I know now.”

My husband was not in agreement with me then, and he is not in complete agreement with me now on this issue.  But I love the way Tony handles it when confronted by someone who says he should make his wife stop talking.  In a gentle way my husband tells the person who says anything like that, that he needs to discuss with them the place of women in the church before he can discuss the homosexual issue.  Do they think that women hear from God only through their husbands?  Do they think husbands and wives need to agree on everything?  Do they think women must have their husband’s permission to speak?  My husband wants me be the person God has called me to be, even as he wants himself to be, and I am thankful beyond words for that.

 

+ What have you learned from the faith/spiritual journeys of LGBT people?

I used to wonder if GLBT people were better Christians than straight people, and finally I figured out why it seemed that way to me.  The main body of the church here on earth has made it so difficult – so almost impossible for those children of God who happen not to be straight to be part of the church, that pretty much all but the best of them aren’t in the churches anymore.  The GLBT people who are left are certainly “the cream of the crop.”  They are the ones who are willing to suffer indignity and even persecution to be part of the church.  When the church slammed it’s door in their faces, they kept knocking on that door until their knuckles bled.  When the church sang Just As I Am, and meant everybody but them, they didn’t go away  Surely God’s GLBT children have demonstrated GRACE to those who have mistreated them.

Gay people may not be better Christians than straight people, but the gay people who still want to be part of the church are some of  the best Christians I know.   From them, I have learned what it means to stand up for yourself and offer grace at the same time.   In an article from the FAITH (DOUBT) issue of Spit & Spirit, I read, “That is our gift – that is the gift of all oppressed and marginalized people – we don’t have time for anything less than the Truth.”  It has been because the GLBT community of Christ allowed me to be part of them that I found my Truth.  I really don’t know who I would be without them.  They have been God’s gift to me.

 

+ Do you feel like you’ve “arrived” or is there still more ahead of you? (Do you have a sense of what lies ahead?)

Life is a journey, and I am nowhere near ready to “have arrived.”  Not now, when I am absolutely thrilled by all of the good things that are happening for the people I love.  Bad laws are being struck down and justice is being given in ways I never expected to live to see.  As for what lies ahead, because I am an incurable optimist, I believe that the giant wave of justice is gathering and, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “justice will roll down.”  However, none of us, gay or straight, can stop working for the justice too long denied to God’s GLBT children.  There are still kids who are not welcome in their own homes or churches, and too many broken hearts and shattered spirits out there to stop now.

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