By Bob Allen
Any honest conversation about homosexuality in the Southern Baptist Convention must acknowledge a “family secret” of clergy who hide their sexual orientation because of stigma associated with same-sex attraction, a gay-rights activist and SBC seminary graduate said Oct. 27.
Jeff Hood, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and 2009 graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said at a press conference prior to the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s Oct. 27-29 conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage” that despite the denomination’s official view that homosexuality is a sin, many “closets” exist in Baptist life.
“While a student at Southern Seminary, I am haunted to this day by the conversations of people coming out and deciding to stay within the Southern Baptist Convention,” Hood said at a press conference in Nashville, Tenn., sponsored by the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.
“I feel like I am at a point in my life where I know more closeted Southern Baptist pastors than I do straight Southern Baptist pastors,” said Hood, minister of social justice at Cathedral of Hope United Church of Christ in Dallas.
Hood said one story stands out in particular: “A dear, dear friend who continues to serve the Southern Baptist Convention, who told me that he sat in dormitories at Southern Seminary and had to decide whether he wanted to end his life or whether he wanted to live in a closet and serve Southern Baptist churches.”
“Thankfully he chose to continue to live,” Hood said.
“We’re still in constant communication, and sometimes I wonder if that’s the kind of life I would want to wish on anybody,” he added.
Hood said he spent his time at Southern Seminary thinking about his sexuality, and every time he felt even remotely attracted to another man, he thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to hell.”
“Not only was I going to hell, I thought I was going with my private parts going first,” he said.
“I consistently thought there were pieces of me that God hated, and it’s hard to serve Jesus when you think that God hates you,” Hood said. “It’s hard to believe people when they tell you that Jesus loves you.”
Hood now ministers at what is billed as the largest gay and lesbian church at the world, with more than 4,000 members and a primary outreach to the LGBT community.
“This past Sunday, we talked about me coming to this conference and engaging in these conversations, and we asked, ‘Who in this congregation feels like you are a direct recipient of physical or verbal or emotional abuse at the hands of Southern Baptist pastors, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptist Convention churches?’” Hood said.
“Over 800 people stood,” he said. “And person after person came to me as they walked out of the sanctuary, and they said: ‘Jeff, take my stories with you. Jeff, please don’t neglect to tell my story. I graduated from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; please don’t neglect to tell my story. I graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; please don’t neglect to tell my story. Jeff, I was at Southeastern and I didn’t know if I was going to make it through; please tell my story.’”
Hood said he began to pray “that Baptists will begin to have an honest conversation, where we begin to tell some of those family secrets.”
Hood said he believes seminary administrators are aware of the conversation, because of the new emphasis on biblical counseling and personal experience with fellow students who were engaged in such talk while he was in seminary. “As long as the conversation was very quiet, it was OK,” he said. The muted nature, he said, “is one of the most destructive parts” of the discussion.
“I think that even if we have a situation where a student was willing to kind of come out with a same-sex attraction and be very vocal about that, I think that is an incredibly difficult place to even do that, because there’s such a stigma around same-sex attraction,” Hood said.
“Within the SBC now I feel like you have to maintain an utter silence, which has hurt us so badly, because now we’re to a place where people are, I believe, literally dying, because we can’t have these conversations, and we can’t be open.”
“We see rest of the evangelical world accepting people who have even come out and said, ‘Well, I have same-sex attractions, but I will remain celibate,’ and those folks are welcome to the conversation,” he said. “It seems like we have been so slow to welcome those conversation partners, and it has really hurt us. Now we are to a place where I think people think they have no other choice but to not say anything.”
Despite that, Hood said he believes Southern Baptists are more open to dialogue about homosexuality than in the past.
“The culture has changed so rapidly and so drastically that I think most evangelicals are coming to the table and saying: ‘OK, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to have some kind of conversation,’” he said.
“I think that’s one thing that makes the situation a little bit different now. A lot of people I’ve contacted in the past to have these conversations are open to these conversations now.”
Jason Crosby, pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., shared a similar impression in light of a motion coming up next month at the Kentucky Baptist Convention annual meeting to withdraw fellowship over the congregation’s vote to welcome and affirm members regardless of sexual orientation.
“It’s opened up a channel of communication with a lot of folks that find themselves in KBC churches — SBC churches — that either have a personal connection with me, someone in our congregation or Crescent Hill in general, who have reached out and said: ‘I am not where your church has made it. However, I’m curious. I want to talk about how it is that you all interpret the Bible. How did you all go about having that conversation?’”
“So I think that’s one indicator that there are a lot of folks out there that identify as Southern Baptists that are yearning and very interested in having conversations about this issue in the pews,” Crosby said.
Robin Lunn, executive director of the 97-church Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, said curiosity is a necessary step in the right direction.
“You can only begin dialogue from a place of curiosity,” she said. “Our action here today is in response to a curiosity and to say, ‘Let us be curiosity partners.’”
“I think the estrangement within the Baptist family has been going on for so long that we don’t know one another,” Lunn said. “It has to start with relationship-building. If you don’t know one another, you just become issues.”