This brand new year of 2015 had barely time to develop the ability to totter around, when the United States, for better or worse, woke up one morning to discover that yet again the chaos of modern Presidential electioneering was about to descend upon the population. By suggestion, I was recommended Mel White’s 1994 autobiography, and in it I discovered both an incredible life journey of a Christian leader, family man, writer, and activist.
As the winter ended and spring blossomed into summer, I also became aware that even though gay marriage was now legal throughout the nation, 21 years later Independent Catholic Churches, despite a long history of LGBTQ inclusiveness, still could learn many lessons from this book.
Anyone who was Christian and aged13 to 70 in the late 1960’s, 1970’s, or even 1980’s probably knew Mel or at least his work. A cradle Evangelical Christian, he was born July 26, 1940, and even today, approaching 75, has an active Facebook, active tag on Tumblr, and is still speaking and writing on faith, discrimination, and how sexuality, sexual identity, and gender are God given gifts.
White was one of the legions of behind-the-scenes workers in the Evangelical Protestant movement through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He was an active member of Youth For Christ, wrote film and television specials like the 1963-1964 Dream Island, shot in 16mm film, which was also his Master’s thesis. A large portion of his career was spent not just writing and producing films and TV shows, but also ghostwriting auto-biographies, speeches, and other materials for televangelists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham.
Stranger At The Gate recounts his story as a struggling, desperate-to-be-cured homosexual living as best he could with a brutal and forthright honesty that makes the glossy autobiographies of other nationally known clergy pale in comparison. He recounts the prayers, therapy, “ex-gay” movement. Shock treatments, and all the other failed-before-they-began attempts he made to “turn himself straight”.
He details how his ex-wife (worthy of an autobiography in her own right) struggled along with him, and supported his efforts to live with honesty and integrity. The couple had juggled film-making, Lydia’s career, and two small children while at the same time Mel had been “living on blind faith myself, trusting God for my healing from homosexuality” for over 15 years. Lydia, when Mel had finally been able to share his secret struggle with her, had asked “Mel, what do you want to to do about it?” Mel answered “I want to work it out…” to which she had responded “We’ll work it out together.” The couple divorced, but worked hard together, each of them dealing with the reality of their situation day to day.
Mel details what “coming out” meant back in the days of anti-sodomy laws, lies about HIV/Aids being a “gay only” disease. It was a world where there were no Gay-Straight Alliances in schools, a tiny new group called PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and in the Evangelical Christian world, rampant anti-homosexual discrimination. His book also tells of the triumph of becoming whole, honest, living with that integrity he had sought, and how God blessed him with partner Gary Nixon, grandchildren, and new opportunities as a writer and as a pastor.
The personal journey of Rev. Dr. Mel White is inspirational and worthy in it’s own right. What makes Strangers At The Gate even more important, however, is that it details how the Evangelical Christian Movement went from using Communism as a scapegoat to raise millions of dollars and influence our political system to using Gay and Lesbian Men and Women, (along with women of all orientations).
His story, told from the inside, is like a Wiki-leaks surge of information about how Evangelical Christian Churches left behind large parts of the New Testament, purposely shouted particular bible verses while erasing others, and ultimately bred a new generation of people who to this day don’t know what Jesus really said about homosexuality. It will feel eerily familiar with a younger generation who has watched the sad affairs in American politics in particular over the past 12 years.
It lays out with amazing clarity the way homosexuality was intentionally demonized by the Evangelical Christian Churches after the fall of communism for financial, not religious, reasons. Very few of those leaders come out even close to “not guilty” – and some of the “Reverends” he writes about literally made me sick to my stomach in the same way that Himmler and other WWII Nazi leaders do. It catalogs the sinful double standard that existed in the ministries of Falwell, Roberts, Graham, and others that happily used the skills and took the money of GLBTQ closeted members and workers – as long as they stayed that way, in the closet. The smashing of the separation of Church and State that first was seen in the Newt Gingrich etc led “Christian Coalition” that today is raging in the Tea Party and Conservative sides of the GOP is laid bare. Woven into Mel’s life story is this other story of how a few white men, often very rich and powerful, decided to increase not just their coffers, but also to literally take over and direct laws like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that rained misery upon the GLBTQ community.
To humanity and Christianity’s good fortune, Mel’s book also provides a history lesson about those Christian Churches and organizations that remained committed to being consistent with the Bible, welcoming LGBTQ folk who had been cast out, hurt, maligned, and discriminated against by their birth spiritual homes and traditions. Although out of date, the appendix Gay/Lesbian Religious Organizations is worth looking at, and the appendix “Six Letters To The Religious Right” are, even today, great sources of bullet points for conversations with Christian Churches that are still discriminating against LGBTQ people in their pews, still hate mongering against them to raise money, and still trying to violate the constitution by meddling in politics.
For Independent Catholic Churches, now is an ideal time to read (or re-read) Strangers At The Gate. ICC’s and other Independent Sacramental Movement communities and groups are facing – just as Rev. Dr. White did – “Time For Doing Justice!” The lessons from Mel’s book apply to more than just LGBTQ people. Parts of American life enshrined in the Constitution are still under fire. The rights of not just the LGBTQ community and women, but the black, disabled, elderly, poor are being trampled as never before. Both within our parishes and in our communities, across the nation, there still people “in the closet” – as gay, as having a mental illness, or as homeless and more. They are crying out to God for the same thing Mel White was; the ability to live honest, open lives of integrity and to be accepted and welcomed in the churches and the nation they belong to.
A final nugget of gold in the book is the section “A Few Ideas To Help You And Your Community”, a worthy starter kit for ISM communities who may be new to bringing social justice out of the sermons and into the streets (and their own pews). A new generation of Falwell style religious leaders are bent on putting their personal or denominational beliefs about orientation, gender, housing status, disabilities, income levels and more into the laws that govern Americans who may or may not have the same beliefs. Worse, there are Catholic denominations that seem to have developed Multiple Personality Disorder where one week their leaders welcome everyone while the following week the same leaders deliver sermons or tweets that slam shut the doors to LGBTQ being fully integrated in the denomination. Many of the tips in this section are just as relevant today as two decades ago.
While there are still many LGBTQ people seeking the right spiritual home, and members of the ISM who can fill that longing need to be more vocal about where and who they are, there are now some straight people who feel like they have become the new “unwanted.” Even within the ISM, there are communities that have become unwelcoming to the person who needs to be able to pace back and forth, the autistic child who shouts out words, or the elder who can’t kneel, stand, sit well during a service. While every denomination has the right to keep its own dogmas, and many will remain conservative and closed to some groups, even they are called to ensure that humans who are not eligible for membership in that denomination know the truth… “My Father’s has many rooms…” (NIV John 14:2 (c)biblegateway.com), and there are many Catholic Spiritual homes that would welcome them.
In the effort to evangelize, to stand against the political intrigues of denominations more concerned with power than saving souls, Strangers At The Gate makes an excellent textbook to begin the work that must be done over the next year, and beyond.