I’m Darren, and I’ve often described myself as black, Christian, and gay. I’m also a lot of other things, like a photographer, a worship leader, and an advocate for justice. Each of these descriptors could be used to identify groups that I fit into, but none of them tells the whole story of who Darren is. And while I may fit into different groups, I’m still trying to answer the question Where do I belong? At the end of the day, I want all the ways that I describe myself to paint a vibrant picture of who I am and what I believe, and also to hold space for others along a similar journey who share a common interest.
Belonging is something that many of us desire, but it has often been elusive to find and maintain. Some of my earliest memories are of trying to figure out where I fit in. I grew up in Chicago, where the side of town you live on pretty much determines which baseball team you root for: Cubs fan (North Side) or a Sox fan (South Side). I grew up on the South Side, so when people asked, “Cubs or Sox?” the correct answer was Sox. But in college, I spent time on the North Side and could just as easily answer, “Cubs,” to the celebration of those around me. The secret is that I actually am not invested in baseball—at all. However, I was learning early on that to “belong” meant that you needed to align yourself with the “right” answers to certain questions, and for me, what I really thought came secondary to being accepted or welcomed. We see these kinds of choices presented all the time: pizza with or without pineapple, anyone? We also see it in more sobering questions about political parties and church affiliations. While these choices range from trivial to critical for the functioning of our society, they frequently represent binaries—either/or thinking that determines who’s in and who’s out.
After I came out as gay at 17, I remember being eager to meet other gay people, because the only ones I knew at the time were from an internet chatroom. I hoped that by being out, I would find the other gay people around me and we would share something in common. Maybe they could even teach me things about how to be gay, since all of this felt “new” to me. I didn’t meet many gay friends at the time, but I did meet Christians who insisted that being gay wasn’t God’s plan for my life. These new Christian friendships led to eight years of me trying to renounce homosexuality and become heterosexual. And while there were some profound moments of learning and even spiritual growth during that time, I was also subjected to years of spiritual abuse in a toxic church culture. One of the themes of that time was the constant threat of losing my salvation. Like a carrot being dangled in front of a rabbit, the promise of heaven was always just out of my reach. This dynamic kept me following the instructions of my church leaders—often to the detriment of my sense of self and well-being. I gave up attending university, and I gave up my photography business, friends, and even family for the promise of belonging in God’s Kingdom. Eventually, with the support of a faithful few who wouldn’t give up on me, I realized that this church wasn’t healthy for me, so I left. But I was saddled with years of harmful theology and no church to call home. For some, the idea that one has to become heterosexual (or at least try) is the key to belonging in a church community. And while some continue that pursuit, I found that it wasn’t right for me.
When I left my previous church, some suggested that I go to a gay-affirming church, but that didn’t feel like a match for me either, because the theology and culture were so different from what was familiar and felt safe. I eventually found a church where I felt I could be honest about what I described as a struggle with same-sex attraction, but where my salvation and relationship with God weren’t on the line with endless hoops to prove my commitment. I spent nine years in this community loving God and loving others, while being known and loved exactly as I was. This built up in me the courage to begin publicly sharing my experiences as a gay Christian—including sharing that I was on a journey, figuring out how best to honor God in response to my orientation.
The leaders in that community invited me to consider celibacy as a lifelong calling or response to being gay. I spent many years exploring that idea with leaders whom I’d built a trusting relationship with. In this exploration, I came to realize that none of us in my church had this figured out. So I began spending more time in groups outside of my church, where I discovered faithful Christians who were also LGBTQ+ and living their faith in a range of ways. Some were trying or hoping to become heterosexual, like I’d previously attempted. But I also met people who were committed to celibacy and people who chose to live in intentional community or celibate partnerships. I also met people who were heterosexually married but very clear that they were in a mixed-orientation marriage. Lastly, I met people who were gay, in a same-sex marriage, and had been raising children for 30+ years.
I was encountering the reality that lots of people are responding as faithfully as they can, but that it doesn’t all look the same. I wanted to honor all of these stories, so I began to advocate for the broad range of people I’d built relationships with. But this led to conflict. I saw how the church failed to be a safe or gracious space for all of these people—no matter what their beliefs were or how faithfully they adhered to church policy. I wanted to be part of changing that. I felt called to help make the church better at loving all same-sex attracted, same-gender loving, and LGBTQ+ people.
I didn’t know where in this range of Christians I would find myself practicing my faith for the rest of my life, but I was willing to be vocal and out front to make space for people like me—folks who love Jesus, love the church, and just want to be part of a community that can love them back. Being on the front lines comes with questions about what you believe: Is it a sin? Can you change your orientation? Should same-sex marriage be legal? These are all questions that I wrestled with internally, but was also now being asked publicly. I eventually found myself aligned with an organization that chose not to make a public stance about same-sex marriage, and instead sought to hold the church accountable to loving LGBTQ+ people. In many ways, this became the way I navigated being in a variety of spaces. I knew that if I answered certain questions with the “right” answers, I could be heard and possibly accepted. But I didn’t know exactly where I belonged. Because I knew a lot of perspectives but didn’t have a lot of answers for myself, this ambiguity felt like the best way forward for me.
In 2015, a conservative Christian magazine began investigating me because I was scheduled to speak about racial justice at a conference that affirmed same-sex marriage. Even though my church was on public record as not affirming of same-sex marriage, the article made the accusation that we were “abandoning the Bible” and secretly falling away from its stance on marriage, all because I was present at the event. This criticism came from people who weren’t concerned about my life or the life of my church; they just aimed to prove their assumption that all things associated with being gay are bad. At this point, I was faced with the hard reality that some people will demand you “pick a side” for the sole purpose of disqualifying you or who you’re with. This magazine suggested that the only way to be faithful would be for me to distance myself from all things LGBTQ—even from describing myself that way. Calls poured into the church, and some groups distanced themselves from our community—simply because I existed and they were unsure about my beliefs. This kind of treatment comes at such a cost to LGBTQ+ people. We are often made to feel responsible for church splits, family arguments, and even the eternal damnation of others. This cost is an undue burden to us, and some have already paid with their lives. It was at this point that I decided to stop publicly answering certain questions about my sexuality and instead chose to continue my own journey privately with trusted friends.
Fast-forwarding to today, I’ve moved on to work in a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, and I continue to serve church leaders and communities that have a range of beliefs about sexual ethics. I’m fully committed to Jesus and living in a way that honors him, but I’ve moved away from the tedious effort of choosing who’s in and who’s out. The reconciliation of my faith is a set of values about how I engage myself and others in love-centered community. Part of those values is maintaining space for others—including those whom I may not agree with. The heaven that I envision in scripture has every nation, tribe, and tongue, and won’t be sectioned off by the affiliations we navigate here on earth. In many ways, this is how I’ve always felt, but I’m choosing to be clearer than ever about it. I advocate for people who pursue celibacy, and I will perform a same-sex wedding. I hold space for people who assert that they themselves are no longer gay, and I honor the stories of people who are seeking ethical ways to pursue relational intimacy outside of monogamy. There is a range of beliefs and ways that people exist in the world, but what I hold true is that the image of God should be honored in every person, no matter what their beliefs are.
We’ll all find belonging in different places and to differing degrees. I don’t think the differences that make our faith, denomination, or scriptural understandings of gender and sexuality will go away anytime soon. But for me, I’ll continue to follow Jesus in the best ways that I can as I love God and love my neighbors as myself. I’m investing myself in a value of belonging that doesn’t require that we all believe the same exact things. I’ve found this to be the most life-giving way that I can love everyone—not out of fear of punishment, but instead out of grace and care. My journey reflects significant time spent in various places of theological belief—and all of that continues to be important to my story and how I move forward. Sometimes this means people think I believe exactly as they do, and that’s OK. Other times it means I don’t belong in some spaces, and that will have to be OK, too. I’ll continue to figure out what the future looks like for me relationally, sexually, and spiritually, but I hope you’ll stick around for the journey. May the Holy Spirit teach us all how to live lives led by love and truth.