Brian Zonder is a pseudonym
Born and bred in the Christian Reformed Church, Brian ticks all the boxes: baptised as an infant, participated in weekly worship, educated in Christian day schools, joined cadets as a boy, attended youth group as a teen, professed his faith as a young adult, and volunteered in his local CRC in various capacities for twenty years.
When asked what his favourite worship song was, Brian, a millennial, responded without missing a beat: “Anything in the grey hymn book.” A fan of organ music, “When Peace Like a River” tops his list. “I love getting dressed up on Sunday morning and going to church.”
But as young teen he began to struggle with whether or not he was gay–and with being both gay and Christian. Eventually he came out: first just to himself. “I came to a point where I was able to say, ‘This is who I am.’ I stopped hiding it from myself. I was still hiding it from family and friends, but I was opening up to it.”
At the same time, the church he’d grown up in began to feel less safe. Looking back now, he realizes that while the church itself was not affirming, there were many affirming people sitting in its pews. He just didn’t know who they were at the time.
He has since connected with many other members of the CRC who are LGBTQ or allies. He posits that you probably don’t have to look far in your congregation to find someone who is affirming. “It might be someone sitting beside you in the pew, only you don’t know it because you haven’t opened up the conversation.”
As a young adult Brian attended his first Q Christian Fellowship Conference in Chicago. (QCF is an ecumenical Christian ministry focussed on serving lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, and straight ally Christians.) The conference is the largest such gathering in the world. Brian now volunteers his technical and organizational skills to help run the annual event.
Through both QCF and Generous Space (a Canadian Christian organization that supports LGBTQ+ people and their allies), Brian was exposed to a wide range of Christian traditions. It opened him up to new ways of thinking critically about the scriptures and his faith. “There are different ways of doing church. Different ways to do communion. Different ways of reading the Bible. We need to ask, what was going on in society when a particular passage was written. What was the context?”
To those who say, “But the Bible doesn’t change,” Brian responds that our understanding of scripture has indeed changed through the ages. Pastors continue to write new sermons every week, researching, re-thinking and re-interpreting familiar passages. “Christians once believed that women shouldn’t serve in church office, children shouldn’t come to the Lord’s table, and that slavery was just fine. If the church was able to change its mind about these things, maybe it can change its mind about LGBTQ people too.”
Brian left the CRC in 2015 when he couldn’t find a church where he felt safe and which was also within a reasonable, geographical striking distance. He now attends a United Church which he describes as having a good mix of affirming members and still feels very much like a CRC.
However, he continues to connect and work with many CRC members. A born organizer with an analytic mind, he remains involved because he believes change can be made to stem the steady flow of folks exiting the denomination. “There’s a lot of talk about declining membership in the CRC. Ok, so maybe we need to think about the things that are making it decline.” Despite everything, Brian continues to have hope for the denomination.
What are his hopes for the church that baptized him as an infant? Unity for one. “That it won’t split up over this issue. That it can find middle ground as it has on so many other issues.” He wonders if that could perhaps mean the generosity of allowing for a local option in which, as he puts it, “We’re not going to say if it’s good, bad, right, or wrong, but we recognize there is a variety of belief.”
He also hopes the CRC will be both cautious and humble in its pronouncements about the place of the queer folk in the church because, whether the church realizes it or not, they are already among us. “Remember, they could be sitting at your Thanksgiving table or in your pew. Many people don’t think that LGBTQ inclusion is their issue. Until it is. When that imaginary gay person is gone, and instead it is someone you know and love and trust and value.”
He hopes the CRC will be careful in its teachings. “Hearing the message that you’re condemned over and over again is a lie that can become your truth if you tell it to yourself often enough. I care about the future generation. The young people still sitting in the pews unsure of where they fit in and whether they have a safe space to come out.” Recalling his own childhood in the pew of the CRC church he loved and attended as a boy, he quotes Mary Griffith: “Before you echo amen in your home or place of worship, think and remember a child is listening.”