In his first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, journalist Jeff Chu asks difficult questions about love, faith, and sexuality.
Your book focuses on the day-to-day life of gay Christians. Was that intentional?
When I first came out, I couldn’t find a book with stories across a theological and experiential spectrum. Many books argued a particular point of view, or told one particular story, but nothing allowed me to explore and make my own decision.
What person or group has stuck in your mind the most since your travels?
[Members of] the Westboro Baptist Church were much nicer than I expected them to be! Once you’re not talking about God and gays, they seem almost normal. Living in New York, we can fall into a trap where we think, “this is such a great time of freedom and liberation and equality.” But what’s happening in the courts or legislature doesn’t always have much effect in the context of a family. Courts can’t say anything about that.
There’s a rarity of the finger-pointing, “you’re going to hell” stereotypes here.
It’s very difficult for a human being to tell another: “You’re going to burn for eternity.” It’s easy to say it to a reporter, or at a press conference, or from a pulpit. But to sit down with someone and say it to their face... I don’t think most preachers that I met have that kind of courage.
Parts of the book that felt different to me: one was Charlotte at the Salem Covenant, when she talks about a transgender church member in a condescending, derogatory way. There was an opportunity for further inquiry.
I think gay and transgender often get lumped together, but the experience and the stories are different. There was a deliberate choice not to open that can of worms. Obviously, given your reaction, I could’ve done a more elegant job of not commenting.
I was struck by your end remarks [saying] that you found the most cowardice in pastors, but individual church members seemed more genial.
I grew up in a family of many pastors, and what surprised me was how unwilling pastors were to tell me what they believed. On the other hand, I encountered almost no laypeople who were unwilling to talk with me and unwilling to struggle with these issues. This is an area of spiritual life that people around the world are struggling with right now. And the fact that their pastors will occasionally hide behind the pulpit but decline to have a more thoughtful conversation is really troubling. I don’t think younger Americans are going to want anything to do with the church that can’t have conversations. Most of us are mature enough to be able to live in complexity.