Ben Alley spells the beginning of the end of the Southern Baptist Convention’s condemnation of the LGBT community. Ben is 18, a recent high school graduate from Iowa, and is gay. He is bright, gifted and was temporarily homeless when his father, a Southern Baptist minister, kicked him out of their home two years ago when Ben revealed his sexual orientation. Ben now lives with another family who took him in when his own family turned their backs on him.
I met Ben recently in Phoenix. Several groups fighting religion-based bigotry against the LGBT community formed a coalition and went to Phoenix where the Southern Baptists were having their annual meeting. Faith in America, Truth Wins Out, and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists sent representatives to the meeting to present a petition with more than 10,000 signatures asking the SBC to apologize for its treatment of the LGBT community.
Ben joined us for this action. We stood on the sidewalk outside the convention center where we engaged SBC delegates as they entered and left the facility. We sang hymns, held signs and had interesting conversations with delegates. Some were friendly, one even supportive, and several were very angry with our presence.
Then it came time for the press conference. When it was Ben’s turn to speak, he told his story with poise and clarity. He spoke for several minutes without notes. When he was finished, all of our hearts were moved by this young man who had lost his family but not his dignity or courage.
What happened next was the big surprise. We had been told that the Southern Baptist leadership was willing to receive our petition, but we didn’t know what that meant. We expected a member of their leadership team would meet with us for a minute or two, accept the petition with signatures, and that would be it. Instead, we were invited to meet with the President of the SBC, Bryant Wright, and he asked us to sit down with him for thirty minutes. Ben joined us in the room with President Wright.
The first part of that conversation was cordial but predictable. I presented the signatures to President Wright and explained we were asking the SBC to apologize to LGBT people in the same manner the convention apologized to African Americans in 1995. Other members of our coalition also spoke about the damage being done to gay and transgender young people specifically because of what they were hearing from religious groups like the Southern Baptists.
President Wright was polite but firm. He repeatedly stated the Bible gave no room for compromise on this subject and that sexual purity demanded that Southern Baptists continue to condemn homosexuality. He compared homosexuality with the sin of fornication and adultery for straight people. When we pointed out the double standard in that the SBC that very day had voted against marriage equality for same-sex couples, he did not see our point.
Just as the meeting was getting a little more tense, one of the members of our team introduced Ben and shared what had happened to him. President Wright turned to Ben with a softened face. He said that what Ben’s father had done was wrong, that it was not what Southern Baptist families should be doing to their gay kids, and he apologized to Ben.
This was not the apology we went to Phoenix seeking from the SBC. Yet, in some ways, it was better. This was the President of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States apologizing to an 18-year-old because he knew what had been done to Ben was shameful. President Wright was comfortable spouting his unfortunate biblical interpretations at us until he was confronted with the real life story of Ben Alley. The atmosphere in the room shifted dramatically as soon as he had to acknowledge the real suffering of this young man.
Ben Alley is obviously just one of millions of LGBT people in this country who suffer deeply because of religion-based bigotry. But his mere presence and story was powerful enough to turn the President of the Southern Baptist Convention from unapologetic defender of the faith into an apologetic human being. And it took about sixty seconds for that change to happen.
The Southern Baptist Convention and the rest of Christendom have no chance in the face of the Ben Alleys of the world.
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