My name is Christopher Rynberk, I am 72 years old, and I am a gay Christian. My husband and I were married in a church and we are active members of a loving church community. I love God, I experience joy every day, and I know that God loves me.
But it wasn’t always this way. For 64 years I lived as a straight man, something that only changed when I was hospitalized and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. My marriage of 37 years was in tatters, and attending church (Mountainview Christian Reformed Church in Grimsby) made me physically ill. It wasn’t until doctors said they could find no medical reason for the neurological effects I was experiencing that I finally admitted what I had actually known since I was four years old: I am gay, and I can’t do this anymore.
I had to come to grips with the fact that I can’t live that life anymore. I had to be truthful about who I am.
I grew up in a Christian family and I knew how my parents expected me to live. We never talked about it, but when I was a teenager, my parents took me to both a psychiatrist and to a form of conversion therapy. My dad would drive me once a week to see a faith healer and he would stroke my body and pray the gay away, or whatever it was. My parents never used that word and they never asked me or told me I was gay. I was just different enough that they said, “You have to change your ways.” So, between that, and the psychiatrist, and the conversion therapy, and the elders coming to our house, it put me in the closet, and I stayed there for years.
Yet, I had known since the age of four that I was different. There was something about me. At first, I thought I should have been born a girl, but when I hit puberty that did change, and today I can say I am happy to be male, but it was a very confusing time. I had no idea why my parents were taking me to a faith healer, but I just went along with it. I had relatives who told me I was different, but over the years I had learned to carefully cover up all of the feminine ways that I had had since I was a child.
I became a schoolteacher.
In those days, you’d be fired for being gay, and, in the church, you would be ostracized, so I just stayed in the closet and decided I wasn’t gay. From time to time, I used to tell myself that. “I’m not gay. I am married. I have two children.” I was an elder in the church. I was the treasurer. I was a worship leader. I played the piano for years. All of these things just kept me in the closet, because I knew what the church taught and I did not question it.
It was about three years into my marriage with my ex-wife when she decided there was something emotionally missing in our marriage. I was in total denial. I said, “We have to work harder.” She said we should have some counselling, but I said “no, no, no. We just have to work harder at it.” That came up a couple of times in our marriage, but overall, it was a happy marriage. As I have discussed many times since then with my ex-wife, for the first 25 years, we managed quite well. But then my mind started to get affected, and the last 10 years were really quite dismal. We weren’t communicating well and although we didn’t know it, I was getting PTSD.
We were in counselling for three years – three years! – before I realized I was gay. My counsellor – a Christian counsellor – said: “What are you going to do about it?” I said, “Well I have to tell my wife.” My counsellor referred me to Generous Space Ministries, and I had many sessions with Wendy Vanderwal Gritter, and I would be bawling my eyes out, asking “What am I going to do? What are we going to do now?”
I was becoming free, but I also felt a great sadness when I moved out of our marital home and lived alone in an apartment. It was a horrible year, because, while I felt freedom, I also felt guilt, and shame-based trauma, which is part of the PTSD. I was feeling guilty that I was gay. It wasn’t until I could say to myself that is how God made me – and it took a couple of years – that I realized that I didn’t have to be ashamed. There are still moments — I mean I am 72 years old and I lived in the closet for 64 years. But it gets better and better each year.
If you were to ask me if I am glad to be gay, if I would prefer to be gay, the answer is “absolutely not.” I would have preferred to be a straight person. I wish I could have continued to live my life as a straight person, but health-wise, and truth-wise, and authenticity-wise, I am not a straight person. And I have learned to accept that.
My ex-wife is a wonderful person. We are still friends. But I lived my life in the closet and that affected her too. Although she is not angry at me, she is angry at the church. It is her belief that what the church has put me through psychologically – even though they may not have known it – is unforgivable for her.
I don’t know if she is angry at God, but I’m not. I have never been angry at God, not ever. I was confused, but I never said, “God, damn you for doing this to me.” I always prayed that each day would bring me joy, and I still do that. And I thank God for each day I have. And I still thank God, as a gay person – now that God has finally let me come out.
My journey is shaped by my religious upbringing. Other people come out when they are younger, but this was how I was expected to live. So it’s distressing to me to hear that the Christian Reformed Church wants to make its position on homosexuality confessional. My husband and I attend another church, but we still have family in the CRC and I do love my roots, so I can’t disconnect from that completely. I don’t feel animosity toward the church but there are other people who also need to come out and why should they be excluded? I lived as a straight person for 64 years and now I am gay and I am not welcome in the church anymore? That does not seem to be the way we should be understanding and interpreting Scripture. The main thing about Scripture is God is love, and that is how the church should be looking at us. We are working out our lives within the context of God’s love, and that is how we should be included – no questions asked. We should be allowed to be at the table, anytime.
I have always felt that God loves unequivocally. I love God, and I sense God’s presence. I am married to my soulmate now and I share my life, my love, my prayers with Doug. I know that without God in my life, I would be nowhere. Thank goodness I had a faith because there were times when I had suicidal thoughts.
But I feel the most alive and thankful when we are in church and the choir is singing or there is Scripture being read. And the fact the people sitting around us are mostly straight, that doesn’t matter. We’re just part of everybody else. That is the place I feel most alive, because I know God loves us all.