Why conservative Christians flock to a Chicago gay bar

By Christopher Landau
BBC World Service, Chicago


Can one man build effective bridges between evangelical Christians and Chicago's gay community?

That is the hope of Andrew Marin - who has spent the last decade living in Boystown, Chicago's officially-designated neighbourhood for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) residents.

He works to try to bring Christians and gay people together in open conversation about sexuality and spirituality - and that includes running a large-scale meeting four times a year at Roscoe's, one of America's most famous gay bars.

That is no small achievement in a culture where openly gay people and evangelical Christians have long viewed each other with suspicion.

But Andrew Marin's determination to bring polarised opposites together in dialogue has grown in ways he never imagined.

From small beginnings 10 years ago, he now takes his message around the world and has worked with governments as well as churches.

He is fast becoming a well-known figure in the United States, and has collaborated with one of the country's largest Christian publishers to produce a course for churches wishing to address questions about sexuality.

Cutting ties

His main concern is to build trust between unlikely conversation partners.

image captionMembers of the Marin foundation attend the Boystown Gay Pride parade

He believes that too many Christians don't understand the complexity of the small number of Bible verses that mention homosexuality - he also thinks that gay people are often too quick to dismiss Christianity.

But why did he feel the need to address these concerns by moving into Chicago's gay village, with its sex shops, gay bars and saunas?

The answer lies in a series of conversations Andrew Marin had with his three closest friends over a period of three months.

One by one, each friend told him that they were gay - and he says the news came as a complete surprise.

He had grown up in a conservative Christian household, and says he was "the biggest Bible-banging homophobic kid you ever met".

He was absolutely clear that Christianity and homosexuality were incompatible.

"I didn't know what to do. I thought there was no way my theological belief system could ever line up with my friends' way of life, so I ended up cutting ties with them."

But Andrew Marin says that over the following months, he believed God was asking him to get back in touch with his friends and apologise to them.

A few weeks later, along with two of the three friends, he moved into Boystown.

Christian presence

The early years were extremely difficult, he says, as he struggled to work out whether he could reconcile his friends' sexuality with his Christian convictions.

"When I went to gay bars or events with my friends, I felt bad, because I felt that I should have been saying to people: 'You're wrong and you need to change.'"

But rather than condemning local people, he decided that he should be an open-minded Christian presence.

That decision brought with it some unexpected results - and an unanticipated nickname.

"For the first three years, everybody just called me Straighty Straighterson - because I was literally the only straight male [they met]. People would start talking to me about God and church and the Bible - people would just bring their questions to me."

So chance conversations in bars and clubs spelt the beginnings of what is now an organisation at work throughout the United States.

'Creative tension'

image captionThe Marin Foundation hosts regular meetings in Roscoe's Bar

One of the most unusual aspects of the Foundation's work are its Living in the Tension gatherings, where people from all perspectives gather together to explore questions about Christian faith and sexuality.

I met some participants from a recent meeting - including a married Christian couple who minister to male prostitutes, and a woman who self-defines as "queer" and who left the church because of its attitude towards homosexuality.

Most intriguing were two gay Christian men who had reached dramatically different conclusions about faith and sexuality.

Will is an openly gay man, and a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

He says he has resolved a "creative tension" he initially felt between his calling to ministry and his sexuality.

Sitting opposite him was Brian, who also says he's always known he was gay - but whose traditional theology meant he chose to marry a woman and has since fathered a child.

He says that falling in love with his wife was "an experience that I can only say was through God himself bringing my wife and me together".

'Judgement of God'

The two men's stories could hardly be more different.

But the Marin Foundation believes that polite, honest conversation between people of all perspectives is essential if Christians are to address questions about sexuality more effectively.

Not everyone is convinced that Christians are ready - or able - to have many such discussions.

At Harvard University, a theologian who specialises in Christian understandings of sexuality has convened an international group of scholars to try and get beyond what he calls an "impasse" in current debates about religion and sexuality.

Professor Mark Jordan suggests that it may be time for "a kind of ceasefire - a disengagement, where we stop spending all of our time sniping at each other".

And he says that each Christian faces a personal, spiritual question about how they involve themselves in such discussions.

"My hope is that I would be willing to kneel at a communion table with my bitterest enemy in these debates."

"There comes a moment when you have to shut up - you have to silence your angry conversation and submit yourselves in some way to the judgement of God."

Sexual morality

So does Andrew Marin's work in Boystown genuinely offer a way forward for Christians at war with each other over questions of sexuality?

That may depend on how many Christians are willing to tolerate the Marin Foundation's refusal to define its own position on Christian sexual ethics.

Andrew Marin admits it is a criticism he hears frequently, but he insists that his focus is on enabling gay people who wish to explore Christianity to be able to do so.

He admits that some churches will continue to focus on "healing" gay people of homosexuality - while others will simply welcome and affirm gay people on their own terms.

He says that the Marin Foundation simply wants to get gay people thinking about Christian spirituality in its broadest sense, without a disproportionate emphasis on sexual morality.

"What we try and do is help the person live the most faithful, God-honouring life that they can through their understanding of where God is leading them."

This open-ended approach will frustrate both traditionalist and progressive Christians.

But few can argue with the fact that Andrew Marin's foundation has enabled many conservative churches to begin open discussions about sexuality for the first time.

And there is little doubt that the relationships that he has built between Christians and gay people in Chicago would, for now, be unimaginable in many cities around the world - and may just offer a hopeful model for the future.

Christopher Landau's documentary, God and Gays: Bridging the Gulf, can be heard on the BBC World Service's Heart and Soul programme.

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