the Human Empathy Project
Justin’s Lee’s Torn in my opinion is nothing short of brilliant. It combines autobiography, history, culture, and faith to address the schism between the gay community and the Christian community in a very personable way.
The book begins by following self-proclaimed “God Boy” Justin through his teen years as he slowly discovers he is a gay man. As a faithful, prayer Christian and a gay man, Justine is in a “unique position to bring peace and change minds”. This book is an insightful read for Christian readers, gay readers, and especially gay Christian readers struggling with their “torn” identities.
Lee provides a welcoming space where all viewpoints (even ones that differ from his own) can be heard, respected, and even celebrated. The book addresses several topics, including the following:
The first thought that crossed my mind when I entered the auditorium at the Gay Christian Network’s opening night was “I can’t believe how many people are here.” For years I have been saying to myself that I was the only one of my kind; a Christian who is also a gay man. One of the nights of the Gay Christian Network Conference is spent with people who attended the conference getting the chance to express how the conference has affected them.
Here’s a true confession: my faith is pretty pragmatic: I believe in God, the spirit. the stories in the Old and New Testament, Jesus’s resurrection. My faith is a huge social and spiritual support for me. At the same time, I’m also a social scientist, an academic, a researcher; I like things I can study and observe, things that match my understanding of how the physical world including our brains and bodies function. That doesn’t always leave much room for the unexplainable.
Then one day in 2012 the unexplainable happened to me.
I was raised Southern Baptist and taught that same-sex attraction was like an addiction - harmful to someone’s health yet treatable with support. I was taught that prayer, therapy, and support could help a gay person resist the urge to “act on one’s impulses”, by embracing one of three options:
How we came to be...
The Human Empathy Project was born one day when a group of us came together to learn more about the crossroads of Christian faith and LGBT affirmation. We began with monthly dinner conversations in our home, coming around the table, sharing food and stories from our lives and experiences. And we were a diverse group of folks!
Some were people of faith and some were people who did not identify with any particular religion, or who’d had really hurtful experiences in church. Some folks identified as LGBT and/or gay Christians... and some were heterosexual folks who’d never even sat int the same room as a married gay couple before!
“When the ground is uneven...
And we experimented with mutual empathy. And when we did that, we slowly came to discover two important things.
First, if we think of empathy as a stream of water, then when the ground is even and level, ideally empathy will flow both ways. However, when the ground is uneven, due to inequality or marginalization or judgement, then empathy must always flow downhill. Call it the “law of empathy” if you will. So if empathy ever flows uphill, then we can say it’s being extremely generous. That. I think, needs to be understood really well from the start.
The second important thing we discovered is this. Empathy naturally flourishes when there is no other agenda. This was actually pretty surprising to learn because we often do have agendas we may not always recognize. As an evangelical Christian, I’m often inclined to think God wants me to say or do a particular thing, to try to influence someone else’s view of faith, etc. But that’s not how empathy works.
“Empathy flourishes when there is no other agenda.”
And so I think actually I’ve come to learn something about God from this process. For instance, one of the gay married Christian couples at our dinners actually got really frustrated with the celibate gay Christians who were coming. They were like, why are you so committed to celibacy? Aren’t you just repressing yourself? And so we talked about it as an empathy practice. And what we found was that’s actually really powerful! These really diverse folks came to trust one another. They saw that everyone here is being extremely thoughtful about their lives, their relationships, their spiritual health and wellness… I’ve come to think God can help each of us discern what’s good and right when we drop our agendas for one another, and simply try to understand each other.
Here’s another example. We had LGBT folks who found it extremely difficult to sit in the room and share a meal with pastors and ministers because of how deeply they’d been hurt by the church. And once they got to know better the ministers who were coming, they saw they’re just people, like them, with feelings and loyalties and complex lives, and that seemed really helpful and perhaps healing. Another example is this. We had heterosexual couples who came to our dinners and admitted they felt baffled by bisexuality. They thought, “If someone’s bi, does that mean they need to seek out both genders to feel satisfied in life?” And of course this is a misconception.
“For Christians, this idea called the priesthood of all believers
Slowly through practicing mutual empathy and getting to know one another’s stories, these misunderstandings were able to be corrected. And that seemed to be really helpful. People came back to church. People came out to themselves. People got engaged to be married. People invested in their spiritual life… it was really deeply moving and inspiring… it seemed to me God was present in our midst.
Click here to listen to Gena sharing the story of how the vision for the Human Empathy Project came with a startling revelation.
It’s not about everyone agreeing. For Christians, this idea called the priesthood of all believers is so important to our faith. It means we’re each responsible before God to discern what the scripture means for us and our lives. So we can stay in open conversation--empathetic relationship--with those who believe differently, and avoid the pressure we often feel to try to change each other’s minds.
That to me has been the most powerful message of the Human Empathy Project. And I’ve seen firsthand the way it’s fostered health and wellness for those whose paths have crossed that of our organization.
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In 2012, Dr. Minnix began doctoral research on how Christians reconcile LGBT affirmation with their faith. Since 2013, the Human Empathy Project has consulted with numerous pastors, leadership teams, and congregations seeking ways of reconciling LGBT affirmation with Christian beliefs, supporting gay and transgender Christians, and their parents and families.To volunteer or support the Human Empathy Project, check out our Get Involved page.