Denny Moon: “Saved”

Rev. Denny P. Moon

All I could hear was the deep breathing and occasional snore of the students asleep in the back of the van.  As a youth pastor I was taking high school students from New England to visit North Park College.  The young man in the passenger seat next to me, the only other person awake in the vehicle, asked me in level tones just audible over the radio, “Does Jesus really love homosexuals?” I was just glad to have him talking, helping me stay awake until we reached the hard comfort of a floor in the Covenant church in Youngstown, Ohio. I paused to think before responding. “Yes.”  I spoke slowly. “I think he has to, because he loves everybody just as they are, without changing anything.  I mean that’s basic Christian stuff.”

Frankly, I didn’t want to say any more than that, because I was afraid he might take my words home to his parents and I could get in trouble. I ignored the obvious questions: “Then why does our church call homosexuality a sin?” “Why does no one ever talk about homosexuals at church?”  “Why do Christians condemn homosexuals?” I just let it ride. For several moments we heard only the periodic thump of the wheels over the uneven asphalt sections of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  “Oh,” he said, “I just wondered.”

Had I been a better youth pastor, I would have asked him some open ended question that would have helped him understand his wondering, but I didn’t.  He sensed my fear and stopped talking.

Ten years after the van conversation I had moved to a new church and the questioning young man drove two and a half hours to have lunch with me.   I was glad to see him and relive memories of our times together.  But there was an urgency about him and over our greasy pepperoni pie he told me he that he was gay and had come out to his family.  Our eyes were full and his anxiety palpable.  He said, “I came here to thank you for saving my life.”  I said, “I didn’t save your life, you did.”  “No,” he said, “There was more than one time when I really wanted to take my own life, but I remembered what you said ‘Jesus loves homosexuals… just the way they are.’ These words saved me.  So… thanks.”

I had tried, in the van, to get away with a throwaway line and play it safe.  I was overwhelmed to see that God could take my half hearted, anxiety filled attempt at living the gospel and do nothing less than save a young man’s life.  Tears ran down my face.  Then it occurred to me, “How many lives could be saved if the church full-heartedly proclaimed the gospel to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people?”  The acceptance of homosexuals became a central issue for me and I began speaking out.  But after a few years I realized I was simply rattling cages: in my local church, in the ministerium, and sometimes on the floor of the denominational annual meeting.  I felt this was useless and after leaving the Covenant church I was in, I realized there was really no other church in the Covenant to which I could go.

Consequently, I entered the United Church of Christ, with dual ordination, and took a church.  They have a process for a church to become “Open and Affirming,” that is, fully accepting of people who are LGBT.  My present church went through the process last year and decided to become a church that is welcoming to all people at every level of ministry: church friend, member, Sunday School teacher, Youth Group Advisor, Associate Minister, and Senior Minister.  We also agreed that the rites and sacraments of the church, including marriage, are available to LGBT people under the same conditions as heterosexuals.  (Gay marriage is legal in Connecticut.)

This did not come without a price.  We lost several members and, in this season of recession budgeting, we feel the pinch of losing $14,000.00 in pledges and probably a few more thousand in plate offering.  No small thing for a church our size.

Raising this conversation in the church will inevitably bring difficulty, even division.  But this is not to be feared, for it is the nature of the Gospel.  Among other things, Jesus was crucified for accepting those who others thought unclean.    My hope is that by my church becoming Open and Affirming, and through the actions that follow this decision, other lives will be saved and the Table of God’s grace will more closely reflect the richness of God’s creation.

  • Eva

    Thank you Denny for sharing your story in all its richness.
    This is such a pastoral issue, and it speaks deep to my heart. I am learning how many live in silence, tortured by their secret, longing for a safe place, a place that will love and accept them. Thank you for modeling this.

  • Linda Krueger

    I loved your article, Denny. Your conversation with the young man on your car trip resonates with me. I’ve had a very similar conversation with a close relative, and it’s totally changed the way I viewed this whole issue. The video “For the Bible Tells Me So” gave me a new perspective, and I’ve taken to visiting a local United Church of Christ that is open and affirming. I fear that the Covenant is a long way from that currently.

  • Katy

    What a wonderful story. Thank you for being willing to stand up against the status quo and take a risky position. In the end it will be worth the cost if we can get to a point where we realize that we are all loved by God, even those we humans regard as sinners. I wish you all the best as your church moves forward from here.

  • Lorian

    Denny, thanks for this. I, too, have joined an Open and Affirming UCC church (I was on the committee which guided the church through the process). Our church lost a few members a few years back when the process of becoming open to GLBT people was first begun, but in return, we (the only church in a 50-mile radius which openly welcomes GLBT people and their families) have found ourselves drawing in gay and lesbian couples from all over the area, many of us with children.

    The congregation is loving and fully accepting of its GLBT members and the inclusiveness of the church is a rich blessing to the area, which is among the most conservative in the state of California.

    The process of becoming fully inclusive to GLBT members is not generally easy, but it truly exemplifies the love of Christ and brings many blessings. GLBT people are crying out for spiritual homes and for the love of God in their lives. We have been so badly and cruelly rejected by organized religion for so many centuries, and many GLBT people feel intense hopelessness, alienation and shame. We have been told our entire lives that God has no use for us and that we are subhuman, filth, trash, rejected by God and society. We’ve been told that we are immoral, that something intrinsic to our very personality is irredeemably sinful and wretched. We are told that our love for the dearest person in our lives is an abomination, that our families should not exist, that our children should be taken away from us. We are compared to child molesters, murderers, thieves, people who have sex with animals. We are told we are not fit to serve in our country’s military, not fit to teach children. We can still, in many states, be denied housing, employment, and public accommodation in businesses, restaurants and hotels, simply because of our sexual orientation.

    There is a great deal of healing to be done. It is no wonder that so many GLBT people have turned to alcohol and drugs for solace. For decades, gay bars have been the only places we could go for fellowship, acceptance and to find potential spouses.

    How freeing and how affirming and how miraculously amazing to be able to go to a church and be accepted and loved as we are, with our spouses, our children; to socialize with those who look for God in us and show us God through their actions, rather than with drunks at a bar; to meet other gay people who like us have realized that God still loves us, just as we are, just the way we were created to be.

    There is a tremendous need for churches which accept and love GLBT people unconditionally, as full, respected members and leaders. God’s love can heal the rejection and hurt of our past, but God acts through human beings. God’s love is extended to us through our fellow humans. If human beings are unwilling to be that conduit, or, worse yet, mistake God’s intent towards gays as being hatred and rejection, then tragedies happen, like the many young people who have committed suicide over the years because they thought no one could ever love them because they discovered that they were gay. We must serve as the means by which God can reach out in love, compassion and acceptance to God’s beloved GLBT children.

  • Denny,
    I find in your words both challenge and comfort, and I thank you for both. As a pastor deeply committed to sharing the grace and love of God unconditionally, I know that too often my attempts are feeble in practice. To be reminded that “God could take my half hearted, anxiety filled attempt at living the gospel and do nothing less than save a young man’s life” empowers me to seek more and do more and be more.
    Thanks my friend.
    Peace,
    Johnny

  • Christina Tinglof

    During a youth ministry class at North Park, a guest speaker talked about reconnecting with a young man who had been in his youth ministry years before. This young man was gay, but had never told his youth pastor or his youth group, and as a result had suffered shame, guilt, anxiety, loneliness and suicidal thoughts throughout his adolescence. The speaker remembered asking the young man why he never told anyone, why he suffered in silence. The young man said that he never told anyone in his youth group because of the jokes that his youth group told which were derogatory to gay people, and the words they used which were the same. He never told his youth pastor because he saw his youth pastor smile and laugh at the kids telling those jokes and using those words.

    The speaker was deeply ashamed of this. He said if he had known what harm he had caused by his complacency with the culture of his youth group he would have done things differently.

    My context is youth ministry, so that’s the context I speak from when I say that little things matter. The language we use, the jokes we tell, the jokes we don’t squash, the things we smile at, the questions we answer, the tiny moments in a car, all those things matter and can stay with a person for years.

    Denny, I and I’m sure other youth pastors would have been tempted to add to or qualify or explain your brief but excellent answer. It was something small, but it mattered, and it was a moment of grace used by God to keep that young man alive.

    Blessings,
    Christina

    • Anoncov

      You hit it on the head. When we see family, friends, and even strangers, especially anyone with an association of being Christian telling jokes and making other hurtful remarks, we hear it loud and clear. Who in their right minds would want to come out in the midst of this? Who would want to be around the people that tell lies about them, eat up junk science, and debase them as humane beings?

      Every time you open your mouth, we are listening. Every time you smile, we see. Every time you don’t speak up, we notice. The hateful remarks are the worst, but the humor is sometimes very scary. Have we not learned from the not too distant past how the Nazis used humor in their propaganda to debase and mar the image of the Jews. I’m not calling anyone Nazis, lets be clear about that, but trying to point out how it can be a very insidious thing.

      Unfortunately, everything I’ve heard, I can forgive, but I will never be able to forget. I cannot just wipe my mind clear of memories of all the horrible things said and done. It is from that base that the church must earn my trust back. Just as a spouse wounded by an adulterer, trust may never be the same as it once was or could have been.

      Most gay people are terrified by and disgusted in the church. Inaction, just like actions, is more powerful than words. It’s not God who’s terrifying, it’s his people. Jesus wept.

  • Barbara Nordlund

    “Among other things, Jesus was crucified for accepting those who others thought unclean. ”

    I’ve always loved the quote “the spirit rejoices in hearing what it knows to be true.” This was one of those moments for me. Thank you, Denny.

  • Cheryl Larsen Lawing

    Denny, thank you…such grace-filled insights…I wish you well from my place in the ELCA! Cheryl

    • Denny

      Cheryl,
      Glad to hear from you. I hope all is well with you and yours!! Denny

  • Lorian

    Cheryl! Fancy meeting you here! Good to see you, friend.

  • A great story about sharing the Gospel and the letting Jesus do what only He can do. We don’t always have to have the right words; just communicate Christ’s love simply and trust He will work in our hearts for His Kingdom purposes.

  • Sam

    Great, great story! Thank you for sharing. How can it possibly be that the church has forgotten this great truth and instead has turned into a “sin inspection agency”, looking for what its imagines to be the sins of others (but not its own sins)? I would love to hear any of my LGBT friends describe the church as “those people who are so loving” instead of “those hateful people”.

    Just as you did not know the impact of your words, some people have absolutely no idea how harmful the things they say can be. Who would want to discover that shortly after they had spoken thoughtless, unloving words in the presence of someone struggling with their sexual identity that the person had committed suicide?

  • Crboltz

    Denny,
    Thank you for your post. I was raised in a U.C.C. church, and our minister had made similar comments about God loving everyone as they are (and explicitly mentioned homosexuals) durring several youth group events. I’m sure very few others heard the statements, but they spoke volumes to me. Growing up, and figuring out my sexuality was much easier and had far less drama than many of my friends who came from other faith traditions. I realize how blessed I am that suicide was never on my radar as I was coming out. I know so many GLBT folks who had mental anguish, depression and suicidal thoughts because their church’s preaching didn’t align with what they knew to be true, that God loves us as we are. As various religions wrestle with the issue of their stance on homosexuality, I hope they can all remember the homosexual kids in their youth groups, and think before speaking. Suicide not only tragically cuts a life short, but it also send shock waves through the greater community. You may have thought it was a half-hearted response, but I can attest to its power. I believe you saved that young man’s life (and probably others).

    Thank you so much!

    Chris

  • Cindy

    Denny,
    Thanks so much for sharing this story. It breaks my heart to think of all the LGBT people out there that feel rejected by the one place that need to include them.

    I left the Covenant church after my brother came out 18 years ago. I can’t express the disappointment and hurt I felt when he had the integrity to bare his soul and was rejected by the one place he that should feel safe.

    He was asked to step down from his leadership position and was basically asked ” to sit at the back of the bus”, at least that is how it felt to me. He was no longer able to share his talents as a leader and a teacher.

    Thanks for sharing your story . That young man is alive today because of you.

  • Patty Peterson

    Denny,
    This is a beautiful and tender story. Thank you for sharing it. I have long held you in high regard and have great respect for you ~ this just adds to the reasons why!
    May God continue to bless you!
    Patty Peterson