Last week, I had a long and fascinating conversation with Shari Johnson — a retired dental hygienist, conservative voter, and evangelical Christian from Odessa, Texas — about what happened when her daughter announced, at age 37, that she was a lesbian. Johnson’s chain of reactions would sound familiar to many families of gay, lesbian, and transgender kids: shock and sorrow, followed by grudging acceptance, followed by a full embrace. What was striking, though, was the language she used — about prayers, appeals to God, and direct answers.
She talked about a day when she was driving to work, wrestling with the idea of her daughter’s upcoming wedding in Cambridge. “I said out loud in the car to God: ‘What event could a parent be asked to attend that would be worse than this one?’ ” Johnson said. “And his answer was, ‘a funeral.’ That’s how God speaks to me. It’s not a booming voice from Heaven; it’s a thought that I’ve never had before that I would never have myself. And it’s so contrary to my thinking that I know it has to be God.”
On Tuesday, Johnson — who has written a book about her relationship with her daughter — will speak in Waltham at the first conference held by the Greater Boston chapter of PFLAG, the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The 150 participants will largely be priests, rabbis, and ministers, invited to bring the language of faith into the coming-out conversation.
In the realm of PFLAG advocacy, this marks a notable shift. In the past, Boston’s chapter has given speeches to religious and community groups, but has concentrated much of its work on bullying-prevention programs, said Deborah Peeples, the chapter’s president. But PFLAG leaders were moved by recent research out of San Francisco State University, which found that services for gay, lesbian, and transgender people often overlooks family relationships — and that family acceptance, during the coming-out process, is critical to people’s mental health and preventing teen suicide.
Religious beliefs are often a huge, heartfelt barrier to that acceptance. And while Johnson cringes when she hears anti-gay sentiment from the pulpit of her Assembly of God church, she knows that some forms of persuasion won’t change churchgoers’ minds.
“Forcing the issue doesn’t work,” Johnson told me. “Any kind of ‘You have to do this, you’re a Christian and you have to love people,’ that doesn’t work.” It goes without saying that calling people bigots doesn’t work, either — it encourages people to put up walls, even make claims about religious persecution, rather than stop and think.
Rhetoric plays a pivotal role in these hot-button issues that touch on religious beliefs: Both sides tend to go straight to condemnation, without a pause for understanding. This is a problem with the swift reaction to Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Senate candidate who said last week that a child conceived through rape represented “God’s will.” Mourdock’s wording was clumsy and hurtful — and I disagree with him about abortion rights — but I don’t believe he actually meant to condone rape. Do you?
Yet this is where we are. Edward Schiappa, a visiting professor at MIT who has studied changing attitudes toward homosexuality, describes the problem as the difference between changing “empirical beliefs” and “identity beliefs.” If you define yourself through your obedience to God, Schiappa said, then cultural exposure and standard persuasion won’t change your mind. There’s more hope, he said, in using spokespeople like Johnson — whose choice of words could convince people that they can be good Christians and loving parents, at the same time.
Another hopeful sign is that some evangelical leaders understand that they have a problem, too. “We, the church, had utterly failed to reflect Jesus to gay people,” says Bill Henson, founder of the Acton-based Lead Them Home Ministries, which trains evangelical leaders to minister to gay, lesbian, and transgender people.
Henson urges ministers to look closely at stories of Jesus, to assign new meaning to “lepers” and “outcasts” in the Bible, to remember everyone’s need for grace. Johnson, meanwhile, talks to evangelical ministers, works on Christian friends. She gets the best reaction when she’s preaching to the choir. But she has reason to keep going.
Because right now, “the only person who’s winning in this,” she says, “is the enemy of all mankind.”