June is Pride Month! We are excited to affirm and embrace everyone in the church, and to amplify the voices of our ELCA siblings in the LGBTQIA+ community. Today we are speaking with college student Chay Rossing (he/him).

How are you connected to the ELCA?

I [joined] the ELCA just over two years ago, after encountering the ministry of Nadia Bolz-Weber, our denomination’s pastor of public witness, and I have found so much joy here in the Lutheran tradition ever since! I have been involved in churchwide events such as the Young Adult Climate Summit, leading a #NoPlasticsforLent young-adult small group, and am serving as a small-group leader at our upcoming youth gathering this July! I have also been involved locally in my home synod, the Southern Ohio Synod, having participated in our synod podcast. [I] attend Ohio State University’s Lutheran campus ministry, Jacob’s Porch, and take classes at Trinity Lutheran Seminary here in Columbus, Ohio.

How does your faith shape and affirm your person/identity?

My faith has been core to my identity for as long as I can remember. Although not affiliated with any specific denomination, my siblings and I grew up in a very Christian household, headed by my mother, a deeply spiritual Christian with some Methodist roots, and she encouraged us to learn, explore and ask questions about our faiths, God, the Scriptures, and to never quit seeking what these meant to us individually and what it meant to be a Christian. Loving God and growing up experiencing the love and affirmation of the Spirit poured onto me over and over again has always animated my hope and desire to know God more deeply. Through making this faith my firm foundation, I have grown in the grace and knowledge of my Savior, Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18), and constantly I find myself coming back to that same process of learning, exploring and asking questions which defined a curious faith in me as a child.

But being gay was not something that was talked about when I was a kid. Although I’ve since come to find that much of my family is affirming of my queerness, the topic was just omitted from discussion—and in this manner it was very difficult for me to articulate my experience. I never knew why I was so effeminate or why I always felt out of place with the other guys. I never knew why so many of my mom’s guy friends had much higher voices than other guys or what was happening on those reruns of Will & Grace that were always playing on the TV. I knew that I had emotions for other guys, and I knew that they were different than the ones I had for friends or for girls. But I didn’t know that was gay. Gay, as far as I knew, was a playground insult. It had no immediate relationship to human sexuality.

It was then that I turned to prayer to seek out what all of these complicated emotions meant. I had known so much about myself, but finding the language to articulate my existence was not a tool I had mastered when these emotions arose in me, let alone was I comfortable to wield them. So much of cultural programming in Christian spaces also teaches that queerness is a sin. It was for these reasons that, when I came to understand that I was gay and that most Christians thought being gay was wrong, I returned to prayer, the Spirit and the Scriptures to get things “straightened out,” if you will.

But instead of the shame and guilt I was told I should feel for my queerness, I found myself, in prayer, overwhelmed in the love and affirmation I had remembered from my childhood. Distressed and teary-eyed, imagine my shock when, wailing on my knees for God to make me straight, I felt an overwhelming sense that my sexuality was no mistake but rather part of who Christ created me to be, whether or not the church was ready to see that truth cultivated in me by the Spirit.

What helped me reconcile what I had been told about gay people with the push from the Holy Spirit to integrate and embrace my faith and sexuality was that cycle of learning, exploring and asking questions that my mom had disciplined into me. I came to understand the Scriptures, for example, in a radically new way. Not as a collection of rules and regulations to cherry-pick and push forward a specific, close-minded cultural narrative but a conduit of Spirit-filled witness of God, through which God comes to us and brings us closer to his holy plan for us. I came to know Jesus not merely as the subject of a Sunday-school book but as God made flesh (John 1:14), a person, come to radically transform society and bring good news to the marginalized, even those oppressed by the religious authorities of their times. It was in this journey that I came to meet the living God, present in my life, working through me and coming to raise me from the spiritual graves I dig myself into, not just a “man in the sky” one prays to so they might appease it or avoid hell but a holy creator, active in our lives and spirits, an el-Roi, a God who sees.

How can the ELCA better support and uplift the LGBTQIA+ community?

I should say that the ELCA has done much in the vein of supporting a flourishing queer Lutheran community, and I find that our tradition, although not having the most outwardly affirming doctrine, has, among the Christian community, one of the largest and most involved queer Christian communities. As queer Christians, we are uniquely positioned to be called into exploring the boundaries of both our faith and the church, as we are always reforming both ourselves and the ELCA, continuing to see ourselves reflected in the image of God. Given this, the church should create spaces for queer expression and make particular effort to that end for [Black, Indigenous and other people of color] queer Lutheran populations. The ELCA has been blessed with a bounty of resources at her disposal to engage and embrace queer Lutherans, and we as a denomination should see that as not only our obligation but an opportunity to know God through the nonbinary and life-giving perspective [of] queerness and nontraditional approaches to embracing discipleship to Jesus.

Since 1974, Reconciling Works: Lutherans for Full Participation has worked toward this goal as well. Offering resources for distinctly Lutheran queer theology, resources and workshops for interested church members and so much more, Reconciling Works is an excellent resource we have as Lutherans in working toward supporting and uplifting the queer Lutheran community.

What advice would you give pastors, deacons, bishops or other leaders in the ELCA who are hoping to see more of the LGBTQIA+ community feel affirmed and accepted in the church?

Famous Black thinker and theologian James Cone said that “any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.” As leaders in the church, we have a responsibility to remember and center ourselves toward the collective liberation of all peoples and integrate the Lutheran community into one [in] which every person can find themselves embraced, affirmed, and rightfully find in themselves the image of God we know that they were created in.

I believe the next step is having a serious conversation about our privileges. The response our denomination had to the news that we are the whitest denomination in the United States was not one of reflection and contemplation but of confusion and the maintenance of the same reductive and unadaptive strategies and practices which got us here. The future of “church” is one we need to seriously contemplate as we enter into an age where cultural dominance is not a given. What does it mean to center liberation as a church? What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ in the 21st century? I think it is in prayer-filled consideration of questions like these we will bring ourselves more so into a church that affirms and accepts all of those in the spectrum of God’s creation.

It is also important to remember that the queer community is neither a “problem” to be debated by the church, nor are we an opportunity to virtue-signal the “progressiveness” of the church. I think this is where so many other traditions have failed the queer community even as they move doctrinally toward queer affirmation. To create space for queer Lutherans to be entirely queer and entirely Lutheran, authentically themselves and continually transformed by God’s grace though faith in Jesus Christ, breeds healthy, affirming, vibrant church communities like the one I partake in at Jacob’s Porch.

In this I am reminded of queer trailblazer Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha, of an Episcopal family, was a Black trans woman who maintained a strong faith in Jesus despite having found herself ostracized from her family and community because of who she was: Black, trans, a trans woman, poor and a sex worker. She shared before her death [that] one of her wildest dreams was to be able to one day return to the church, and when she would enter she would feel “welcomed” and “safe.” Would Marsha feel safe in your local congregation? Would she feel welcomed? Would a Black, trans sex worker feel like they are still made in the image of God from the message of the preacher? Are we making churches for the privileged and affluent, or are we creating communities for the woman at the well, the Samaritan, the Rahabs, the Hagars, and the Marsha P. Johnsons? What kind of community reflects one inspired by Jesus and his ministry?

What gives you hope?

Hope is at the very foundation of my being. Hope is at the core of both my queer and Lutheran identities. Harvey Milk famously campaigned on a message of “hope.” Only the second openly gay man elected to public office in America, after being elected [he] asked three questions on the steps of San Francisco City Hall: “Why are we here? Why are gay people here? And what’s happening?” These questions remain so salient in our current climate and the angst surrounding queer advocacy in an era of “‘bathroom bills” and bans on gender-affirming care. Who we are and what makes us communities is under question more than ever before. The queer community has given me so much, and the Harvey Milks, the Marsha P. Johnsons, the Sylvia Riveras, the Bayard Rustins, the James Baldwins—they have created a society where I get the opportunity to advocate for my community and understand that marginalized existence as I navigate my identities and positions of privilege. In that manner my community gives me hope. That same hope which Harvey reminded us of on those same steps of the city hall he would be later assassinated in: “And you, and you and you,” he said, “you’ve got to give them hope. I know you can’t live on hope alone. But without hope, life is not worth living. So you, and you and you: You got to give them hope. You got to give them hope!”

In Lutheran fashion, my hope is also deeply informed by the gospel and by this process of death and resurrection that I have come to know in my own life as Christ guides me through a repeated process of spiritual death and rebirth, and that is informed by a Lutheran “theology of the cross.” We serve a living God who makes his gospel known as he transforms all of us, bringing us closer to a truer and more complete image of who God has created us to be. In this manner the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection is something we might come to know in our own taking up of our crosses (Matthew 16:24). As we die to our old selves, Christ brings us into new life (Colossians 3:3). This experience, of dying to my old self and constantly being made new through the intercession of the Holy Spirit, this invigorates a sense of hope in me wherein I celebrate my growth, learn from my mistakes and remain optimistic in the future of both myself and society.

Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, in their piece “Activist Theology,” creates an allegory which resounds with me on this point: that there is something holy about living in our scary moment. Change is terrifying. The church is changing. Our nation is changing. We are changing. But in the holy disruption we find ourselves consumed within, we should remember that God is bringing us closer to this resurrection moment. That even though our fear is real, Easter Sunday always comes after Holy Saturday. I have hope that the coming of Jesus will renew both church and society as we continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). That we address the systemic injustices underpinning both of these institutions. That in this turbulence of a reforming church and society we are reminded that in our calling on the Holy Spirit that God confesses he brings to us not peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34) and that there is holiness in the disruption [that] advocating for the historically oppressed is causing. That the current moment is grim, that it is scary, but that God is still moving—that gives me hope.

What do you pray for?

A Prayer for Pride

I pray for the closeted. I pray for those afraid of or unable to share with the world who they are and who God created them to be. I pray for the people who lived in a time or place where embracing their authentic self could have never been realized. God suffers alongside you in your silencing.

 I pray for those who are queer and hurt by the church. For those who heard the fearmongering of the Anita Bryants and the televangelists and those who turned toward their idolatry and reshaping Christian tradition to misuse God’s name in their defense of their bigotry. God is love (1 John 4:8).

I pray for the renewers and the fighters, like those of Stonewall. I pray for the loud and cranky who fight injustice in this world and, like Christ, flip the tables of oppression (Matthew 21) and leave the rich empty (Luke 1:53). God works with you alongside your reforming.

I pray for the sick and the dying, like those in the AIDS crisis. So dehumanized and so stigmatized that their woes of pain fell on deaf ears except for those in the community who decided to suffer alongside them. Those who stood up, fought back, fought AIDS. God saves those who petition for the sick and suffering (Matthew 25).

 I pray for the loud and for those who take up space. For the celebration and the campness of the ballroom era. For the flamboyance of the drag queens and the energy of the house music. I pray for joy and to make space for unapologetic queerness. God loves our joy.

I pray for a society learning to embrace its queer community. For all the little quirks and mistakes and all the attempts to make space for queer people in little ways. God sees you welcoming the stranger.

 I pray for those forgotten along the way. I pray for those still not safe to be themselves. I pray for those who are martyred for being themselves. I pray for the Black trans women and the undocumented and the divorced and the addicted and the sex workers, the disabled and those still trying to figure it all out. God has not forgotten you.

I pray for all of these things because God has never forgotten his queer children. That despite a deliberate attempt to silence and distance the queer community, God has found us, in the margins, in unexpected places, and loved us into taking up our space in the image of God. That we are loved, precious, and deserve our space. May God continue to lead both church and society and reveal to us again and again that Christ is found among the destitute with nothing left to give but their faith in the God Almighty. May they inspire us and reform our ways of thinking so that we might more fully understand creation as God created it to be.

For these things we pray. Amen.

Kelly Wilkerson
Kelly Wilkerson is a content strategist for the ELCA. She is a former worship minister, creative arts director, and youth and family director, and has been working in full-time ministry for her entire professional career. Kelly is using her passion for storytelling, art, design and social media to serve in the Office of the Presiding Bishop on the Strategic Communications team. She is also an ELCA coach and currently resides in Columbus, Ohio, with her fiancee and their 80-pound bernedoodle.

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