The phone rang. The pastor of the Neil Avenue Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio was calling. Ohio University Campus pastors were planning an ‘exposure’ weekend for pastors. The object was to introduce pastors to the drug and urban culture of the University campus. He was not sure what pastor could handle this. ‘Jake, you are the only person I would invite. Are you open to this?’
At the time I was Director of Admissions at Bluffton College. I had been pastor of the First Mennonite Church of Bluffton for the previous eleven years. Two years later I accepted the position of Conference Minister of the Central District.
During the first evening and on into the night, we visited with university students in several places where drugs were present. The experience was interesting, revealing, and disturbing, to say the least. The second evening offered further exposure. Another pastor and I were invited to dinner by male gay partners who had fixed a delicious chicken dinner with all the trimmings and dessert. We used first names only.
After dinner, we visited informally and began to share. The purpose of the invitation was to talk with a pastor who would listen to the men’s story. In the course of the evening, Cal told of early memories of growing up in a loyal Lutheran Church family. At no time could he remember being interested in or attracted to the opposite sex. He remembers vivid feelings of attraction to and desire for other males. This sensation confused and disturbed him. Since no one seemed to understand, he feared talking to anyone about his puzzled feeling.
Now a university student, Cal had learned to understand himself; he accepts his gay orientation. He had shared this reality with his sister. Cal wanted to know how he might share his truth with his parents and other siblings. Entering into Cal’s story and pain pushed me into a new world of questions and relationships that I had never before encountered. That lack of experience may seem strange, but it is true. I grew up on the farm with animals of various types that mated and gave birth-activity as natural and routine as the sunrise. My ‘book’ was all heterosexually oriented. You may call me sheltered, naïve, or just stupid, but no one ever told me of broader realities.
Gay orientation was something new and very different. Cal’s bearing his soul was heart-rending and mind-boggling for me. I could not escape the fact that this was real. Cal’s honesty and integrity was moving and overwhelming. That evening became a spiritual event in my life that called for much study, prayer, and obedience. That evening launched me onto a trajectory of discovery and spiritual transformation. When I returned home, I told Lisbeth, ‘I will never be the same.’ At that moment, I did not have a clue to what I was really saying.
Ten years later I was taking a walk with my son, Jake. He had graduated from Bethel College in music, majoring in voice. He shared with me that he was gay. The fact came to me as a complete surprise. Looking back, I could have been more aware, but I am not sure how awareness would have changed things. I do not know how I would have responded if I had not had that invitation to dinner in Columbus, Ohio. I did not feel anger! Jake has always been mature and responsible in his decisions and actions. My instinctive response was, ‘That is okay.’ I am not sure that I spoke those words, but acceptance was my deepest response. I felt, ‘You are my son. My love is unchanged.’
The heaviness that Jake carried at that time was not the fact that he was gay. He had come to terms with that certainty. Rather, he felt that he was hurting me. We have on-going lore in our family about the generations of Jacob Friesens. My dad is number four, I am the fifth, and Jake is the sixth generation Jacob Friesen. The message had come to him loud and clear through the years: his son would be Jacob Friesen number seven. His tears expressed: ‘I will never present you with a grandson.’
Readers may think that this account is a little strange. But when family memories and strong connections are wrapped through generations, the family ‘quilt,’ to which every generation adds its design, matters very much. To disrupt the pattern or break the continuity is to fail your family and to fail your heritage. I add the following to assist understanding, not to claim to know all that Jake was bringing to our conversation. From his earliest memories, Jake had felt that he is different. How sad that I as his father had not entered into his feelings at that early age-that I did not walk more fully with him through his childhood and adolescent years. He had to walk alone. But he did have a special relationship with his mother, who then succumbed to cancer when he was a junior in high school. The strength of their bond may have given him the support and stability needed during those formative years.
Music, drama, and performance have been a long-standing interest of Jake’s. After college, he would have pursued a music career, but he was not interested in the hassle of performance competition. With a long-standing interest in architecture, he entered Kansas State and completed an architecture degree with a special interest in acoustics. He is now a registered architect. His first love is music.
During the last five years in Atlanta, Jake has been a regular soloist and song leader in a local church. Attendance has nearly doubled. Some of the leadership credits Jake’s music for the growth in interest. He has had a significant and fulfilling ministry with the church. As the father of a gay man, I praise God and celebrate the gifts of ministry that God has entrusted to my son. At one point my father had nudged Jake to consider the ministry. He did not feel drawn in that direction. When he was at Faith Mennonite Church in Newton in December, and we were discussing his singing, he said, ‘Dad, what you try to do in your sermons, I try to do in my singing.’ I think that his grandfather is nodding in approval; he too loved music.
My encounter with Cal shaped my study and my reading. It shaped my thinking and my obedience. This is as it should be. Theology follows experience, not the other way around. First, we have the resurrection and then the theology (teaching) of a risen Christ. First came the road to Emmaus, and then the theology of ‘open eyes’ and ‘burning hearts.’ First, we fall in love, and then we tell of what all has changed.
Readers may know or have heard of a person who others say is gay. You may have already made up your mind that whoever that person is, he or she is ‘mixed up’ and needs to change. You may not have met the person whose name remains unknown to you. If you have not stopped to listen and to enter into that person’s inner struggle and spiritual journey, you have nevertheless written your theology.
Therefore, there is little or no value for us to talk at church or conference gatherings about gay and lesbian people, about what they should or should not be doing. As a letter to the editor of The Mennonite recently stated, ‘The Bible is clear. We have a conference statement. The matter is decided. Let’s go on to more important things.’ Whoever so concludes is numbered with those who have written their theology, who need only to repeat it to themselves.
To others, let me suggest that you open yourselves to an invitation to dinner.