Speaking Truth

Mural of John the Baptist, Antim Monastery, Bucharest, Romania, from Flickr Creative Commons

In yesterday’s entry in A Storied Career, blogger Kathy Johnson put a link to Jonathan Odell’s article in Commonweal, “Coming Home: A Gay Christian Speaks to Fundamentalists“. It is the story of Odell’s invitation to speak to “a Midwestern seminary with a reputation for its ‘take no prisoners’ conservative theology. It is an example of both first-rate story writing and the power of stories.

Although Odell told the caller he would consider the invitation, he had no desire to be paraded as the “for” side in a debate about homosexuality. He writes, “I saw absolutely nothing redemptive in it for me. I’ve been involved in public debates about gay rights and gay marriage in which I actually got the better of my opponent. But once the exchange was over, I came to realize few minds had been changed, and that some hearts had actually hardened.”

He reluctantly agreed to speak when a Google search turned up a despairing gay student at that same seminary, a young man who felt terrifyingly alone and vulnerable. So Odell gave the talk, anticipating the worst.

Instead, as he spoke about the scared young man, who might very well have been in the audience, and of his own journey as a gay Christian, he felt the students open to him. Fifty minutes later, they gave him a standing ovation.

Questions afterward were respectful and intelligent. Then students began telling their own stories, of brothers and sisters and friends, of their confusion about doctrine that conflicted with their own experience.

He writes, “I understood the dynamic—how story elicits story—but I had not anticipated the commonality of the stories told that evening. They were sharing with me how they had also been wounded by their religion’s intolerance toward homosexuals. Caring and idealistic, these young people still believed that love has the power to remake the world. It hurt them to be asked to mistrust their deepest instincts, the ones that had led them to ministry.”

There were repercussions, of course. Some professors complained. When a group of students decided to push for a support group for friends of the GLBT community, the dean ordered a committee to draw up a list of faculty and students who questioned the seminary’s stand on homosexuality.

Still, Odell feels he made the right decision, speaking truth to the seminarians. He writes, “But it was worth it for me as a Christian. In the most unlikely of places, I had experienced a coming home. Such a coming home is not a matter of conquest or retribution, of finally getting the love, respect, or apologies that are your due. Rather, simply by telling your story, your truth, without the expectation of gain or the dread of loss, a person is set free. I came away with a new understanding of the very old saying that while facts can help explain us, only stories can save us—and, I hope, others.”

Set us free…yes, that’s what telling our stories can do. Odell’s story illustrates this far more powerfully than this brief summary. You can read it on Commonweal’s Web site.

©2010 Cathryn Wellner

[The photograph is part of a set from the Antim Monastery.]

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