In 2006 John Billings retired after twenty-two years as an appointee minister with the Community of Christ. He served as pastor, administrator, peace and justice activist, and helped lead programs in urban ministry. John now continues his ministry with an emphasis on peace and justice and leadership development. He has taught classes on sexuality and has been active with GALA since 1986. John provided leadership in the development of the International Welcoming Community Network, an organization working for the inclusive involvement of all people in the life of the church.
The following story is a personal and life-changing experience that has given me "new seeing" for social action and justice--a "new seeing" for God's wonderful world.
At the 1986 World Conference Sherry (my partner, friend, and spouse) and I were invited by Larry Windland, a close friend, to attend a social gathering for GALA (Gay and Lesbian Acceptance). My personal reaction was immediate and strong. I had no desire to attend a potluck dinner with a group of gay people. Immediately I was confronted with all my homophobia. I could remember times in high school when friends and I would travel to a gay area of Houston to taunt and ridicule people we assumed were gay. We thought it was fun. Certainly, we thought it was the thing to do for normal red-blooded American boys. Sherry and I said no to the invitation. Yet Larry continued to encourage us to go. Finally, I relented and said, "Okay." Another friend, who conveniently had to leave early, was going to ride with us. This would be my excuse to escape early, too.
I can remember feeling so out of place, so uncomfortable, as if I might catch something by being around a group of gay and lesbian people. I remember standing in line at the food table actually contemplating if I wanted to eat food possibly prepared by a gay person. We spent a brief time eating and meeting a few people, with the time to go coming none too soon. What a relief it was to be away from that place.
Sherry and I dropped our friend off at his destination and headed to a local restaurant for some time to relax over coffee after this tense encounter. Again, just as if it were yesterday, I remember sitting there with Sherry, thinking about the experience, feeling relieved it was over, and suddenly realizing I had done something terribly wrong. I never know for sure how to explain encounters with God, but this was one of those times. A spirit of love and grace overwhelmed me. All of a sudden I was seeing and feeling things with new eyes.
Still caught up in the freshness of full-time ministry with the Community of Christ, I said to Sherry, "This is not right." I had made a commitment not too long before this to share in ministry wherever called, and yet the first time I was confronted with something difficult and new, I had turned my back and walked away. Actually, I had run as fast as possible. Then, as quickly as the Spirit came to us, I knew we must go back. Sherry and I left the restaurant and shortly found our way back to the place where the GALA group had gathered.
By the time we returned, others had left; and perhaps fifteen to twenty people were still there, getting ready to pull their chairs into a circle for a time of sharing. We were graciously invited to join them. The hour or so that followed was an incredible experience. Sherry and I listened to story after story, filled with struggles and pain, with confusion and discouragement, but also with joy and a love of life. Most importantly, those speaking shared a deep compassion for one another.
In these few moments, I came face to face with what I had feared and found only new friends who genuinely cared about Sherry and me--and in a way I had never experienced before. It was a healing experience. I encountered the love of God in a way that changed my life forever. I would never be the same again. This was definitely an experience of "new seeing." The people had not changed. There were no new sights. The sight was there, in a sense, just at it had always been. The difference was in mys eeing. I saw people with joys and struggles just like me. And I saw God actively engaging these people in their joys and struggles. I even saw myself in new ways--as a person accepted in the most unconditional way I had ever experienced. My fear and repulsion were replaced with a wonderful spirit of love and acceptance.
My cup of life has been filled and is overflowing with the relationships that began that night at the GALA gathering. I will never turn away again.
(This story is also in Homosexual Saints.)