Here we are in a gay hotel surrounded by a small group of mainly men and a couple of women. One has AIDS, previously a male prostitute and still a drug user. Another man is an alcoholic and a war veteran. Still another regularly dresses as a woman and manages a sex shop. Of the women, one is an ex nun, another is a vocal atheist and gay marriage activist. Whilst most of the people in the group identify as gay, there are a couple who identify as straight. Milling around the small group meeting around a couple of tables is a larger group of people dressed in strange outfits, weird hairstyles and generally adorned with various tattoos and piercings. These people are having their monthly gathering celebrating sexual fetishes.
As the instigator of the first mentioned small group I interrupt the various conversations and ask one, of the group, to read out a small passage from Luke’s Gospel. As the Gospels are passed out the atheist refuses to take one and expresses yet again the fact that she doesn’t believe in all this ‘Christian sh*t’. The story we have read is of the Prodigal Son. The person I ask is the former male prostitute and, having some Christian background from his Catholic schooling, he begins the reading quite formally seeking to imitate what he has heard in church. As he gets to the section in the story where the son spends all his inheritance on dissolute living, he looks up with a glint in his eyes and declares unashamedly for all to hear, “This means he was a f****n bad boy.” As he reads the rest of the passage all formality disappears as he adds his thoughts on what he is reading coloured with language rarely heard in our churches.
After a lively discussion about the passage and what it is saying, including a provocative declaration by the sex shop manager that God is a genocidal bastard, all in the group hold hands and various ones pray asking God for his help in their lives and seeking his assistance for the needs of others they know. As the sex shop manager leaves he thanks me and informs me that he is feeling so much more peaceful after coming to the group. I am surprised, especially after his previous contribution. Later on whilst having some one on one time with the ex male prostitute I ask him why he won’t ask God for help with his drug related issues. He asks me why God would bother, especially when he got himself into the mess he is in. He tells me that already God has answered many of his prayers, but he doesn’t want to be presumptuous and ask for what he doesn’t deserve. I remind him of the story of the Prodigal Son and ask him how the Father responded to the Son who blew his inheritance. He remembers and tells me that the Father threw a party for him despite all that the son had done. He also added, “But the older brother wasn’t very happy.”
Years before when God called me to start hanging out in a gay bar I had many visions of what I imagined would happen there. Early on, however, God told me to “Wait, until they ask!” After three years of regular visits to the bar one of the guys asked, “Andrew, would you start a gay church for us.” Whilst I would not describe what I am doing as a gay church, nonetheless, the invitation had now been given and I began a Bible study/spirituality group in a gay hotel open to all whatever their beliefs, sexual orientation, addictions etc. It didn’t take long before some of the first attendees started inviting their friends and declaring that this group had started to give them a sense of hope and faith that they had never had or had lost through years of heart-ache and pain. For some, they explained that before the group, suicide had appeared to be their only option.
Whilst I would love to report that as a result of my willingness to ‘read the Bible with the damned’ that people are quickly responding to Jesus, turning from sin and becoming committed Christians, all I can say is that slowly but surely I am seeing faith awakened in men and women who had given up on any idea that God might even be concerned for them. I am watching hope grow in hearts that had lost all hope and I am regularly hearing testimonies from group members of prayers being answered and tentative relationship with God being started.
Recently I have been reading a book by Presbyterian Pastor and Theological educator Bob Ekblad called “Reading the Bible With the Damned”. In the book he describes Bible studies with people in gaol and with illegal immigrants from Mexico in the USA. These people like the people in the bar have often given up all faith that the God in the Bible might be at all concerned for people such as themselves with lives full of addiction, oppression, poverty and often on the wrong side of the law. I found myself crying as I read of the Bible studies he described which mirrored so closely the Bible studies I have in the bar.
Ekblad writes, “We often neglect to include the “damned” among our circle of inquirers-like the Pharisees who wanted tax collectors and sinners excluded from the table with Jesus. We carry on our theological discussions with insiders, following the wide path trodden by the successful religious types who run our religious institutions. If our reading community is limited to scholars, fellow Catholics, protestants, or other church ‘insiders,’ we will be out of touch with the street. We need to leave Jerusalem and take our journeys toward Emmaus, opening ourselves to encounters with strangers through whom God can open our eyes.”
For me, not only is it incredibly exciting to be called by God to witness the power of his Word amongst people that many Christians assume would not be interested in the Good News of Jesus, it is also a privilege to hear God speak to me and open up his Word through the insights of such people who identify so much more quickly with the ‘sinners’ described in the Gospels who Jesus spent time with.