Kate Bowler: Not all of us, but many of us were raised in faith traditions that have shaped us. Whether we like it or not. The sensory memories, scratchy Easter outfits, the smell of incense, vacation bible school games, singing Silent Night with candle wax drips on your fingers of Christmas Eve. The taste of that one lady’s casserole or the liturgy you can still recite from memory. And I will never forget how absolutely diligently I played the sheep at the Christmas pageant. I was just unbelievably good at grazing and shifting in place. But faith is a living thing. Sometimes it grows with us, and sometimes there comes a time in our lives where our faith does not. We might outgrow it, or sometimes it might leave us behind. We might find ourselves for one reason or another, feeling a bit lost, unable to find a community that can replace what’s gone. Or our bodies or families or problems become unacceptable for one reason or another. We might experience a feeling of unbelonging in the very places that once felt like home. I’m Kate Bowler. And this is Everything Happens.
Kate: Today I’m speaking with one of my real life friends, Jeff Chu. Jeff is a writer, preacher and editor. And along with one of my other favorite people, Sarah Bessey, Jeff Co-leads the Evolving Faith Conference, which facilitates conversation and community for spiritual misfits. He is the author of “Does Jesus Really Love Me a Gay Christians Pilgrimage in the Search for God in America”. And he offered us the beautiful gift of shepherding the late Rachel Held Evan’s final book into the world, “Wholehearted Faith” which was a New York Times best seller. Jeff and his husband Tristan, live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with their beloved pup, Fozzie. And Jeff, as the child of Chinese immigrants and as a gay man, has experienced the beauty and sometimes pain of belonging and unbelonging in communities of faith. Jeff, my friend. Hi. Thanks for doing this.
Jeff Chu: Hey, Kate. Thanks for inviting me. I’m always happy to talk with you, but there’s a little more pressure when other people are listening in. I can’t say anything that will get us canceled.
Kate: Oh, absolutely. I have so many questions about tiny Jeff, but I actually wondered if we could start before you were born. Tell me about the faith of your parents. You have a shocking number of preachers and church pianists in your family.
Jeff: It’s true. I think I’m going to go back, farther, and start with my great grandfather. He was the first convert to Christianity in our family that I know of. And he became a missionary. He helped to start a Baptist church in Hong Kong that is now one of the biggest in town. His daughter, the first of nine children, the only girl, with eight younger brothers. She became a Bible teacher. And she married my grandfather, who was a Bible college professor. My uncle became a Baptist minister, still is, taught at Hong Kong Baptist University for many years. My dad was for many years a deacon in our Baptist church in California. So was my uncle. This is just how it went. And I was reared to be a good Chinese Baptist kid.
Kate: When I first started teaching, one of the very first classes I ever tried to teach was about immigrant churches, and I think that was one of the biggest lessons for me, just trying to understand the ways that these congregations shape faith. Tell me what it’s like growing up inside of an immigrant faith.
Jeff: So for Asian Christian families in the US, the church is one of the main community centers. It’s where you go for your mid-day meal on Sunday. It’s where you share in the rice and the vegetables and the stir fry. And often worship isn’t just about the bread and the cup, always grape juice, on the first Sunday of the month. Worship is also about smelling the steamed rice cooking, as you’re in the sanctuary. And especially for those of us who were not living in big centers of Chinese or Korean or Japanese community. I went to high school in Miami. For my parents, our Chinese Baptist church there was the place where they could speak their native language. It was the place where they could feel a sense of cultural belonging. The problem for those of us who came along after was that we were torn. Because we went to the Chinese Baptist Church, that means I didn’t see my friends. I went to a Christian school and they had their own youth group. And so there was this sense of alienation, this sense of living in two worlds. And that is an experience that’s, I think, pretty widespread, whether you’re Christian or not, for immigrant kids. Being torn between not just two cultural settings, but also potentially sets of cultural values.
Kate: Yeah. When you look back, was there, a particular moment or perhaps a series of moments in which you began to feel like the faith you were raised in, the faith of your family might not be compatible with the person that you were becoming.
Jeff: It’s interesting for you to ask the question that way, because in Chinese culture. Who a kid is is defined by who you’re in relationship with. It’s about your place in the collective. And I just wanted to be a good Chinese Baptist kid. Part of that was to honor my parents and my grandparents. And part of that was because I was deathly afraid of burning in hell. And my fear of fire, especially of the eternally tormenting kind, was kind of a motivating factor in my life.
Kate: Yes. And Baptist in particular, very vivid. I remember having Baptist friends down the road, and that was the first time I’d gotten like a visual depictions of hell that was handed to me. Well, to be honest, it was given to me by my friend’s parents when I tried to play fortune teller as a just as like a we had these really great outfits. And I was not, that was not a spiritually kosher move. And so then I was given a book with, like actual black like line drawings. And I was like, oh my gosh, hell seems like really specific and like, pretty terrible.
Jeff: My grandparents had a poster on their apartment wall.
Kate: What did it say?
Jeff: Good people go to heaven.
Jeff: It was it was a visual of good people on this narrow path, ascending to heaven, leaping into these pure white gowns. And it’s all light and sunshine and singing. And then folks descending on this wide, steep path and then falling full bodied into the pit of fire. And the hard thing for me growing up was the folks on that wide road seem to be having a lot of fun.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah.
Jeff: They were playing cards, they were playing games. They were dancing, they were talking, they were drinking, they were partying. And I was like, wow, the folks who are going to heaven seem really boring. But for the most part, until puberty, I managed pretty well. Chinese culture, as I said, shapes a kid to understand their place mainly not as an individual, but as a family member. Right. What can you do for the collective? What should you do? And my role as a Chinese Baptist boy was to grow up to be a Chinese Baptist man who married a Chinese Baptist woman and made Chinese Baptist children and became a Chinese Baptist deacon and then earned a significant enough income to give money to my Chinese Baptist parents and grandparents. So I have failed on a lot of counts. Because I couldn’t get my sexuality to comply with that.
Kate: I’m so glad you pointed out like the individualism, I guess at the heart of the question I imagined, just like how did your personal experience, how is that challenged by the set of assumptions that were around you? But it sounds like you were torn between competing deep accounts of belonging, belonging to a church community, belonging to a set of smells and foods and places to belong. And then also a sense that like that, your sexuality would how would you picture it? Jeff. Just like a dividing line, like a like an anchor dropped somewhere else. Like, how did it kind of pull those worlds apart?
Jeff: It almost feels like I’m trying to swim against these currents that I can’t really make sense of because they’re shifting all the time. And part of it is that when immigrant kids go to school, right, we’re often exposed to a different set of priorities than we are at home. What I encountered at school was all this talk of self-esteem. And that wasn’t something I heard about at home. I would go over to a friend’s house on the rare occasion when I got invited over, and we can unpack that if you wish. And I would hear my friend’s parents say things to them like, you can be whatever you want to be in this world if you just work hard enough. Dream big. You can do whatever you want. And I went home and I said to my mom, Why don’t you ever say those things to me? And she said, because they’re not true. It’s a lie. And I said, What? And she said, you can’t be whatever you want to be. It doesn’t matter how hard you work. And I grew up in a family of San Francisco, 49er’s fans. And she said, you can’t be Jerry Rice. You can’t be a wide receiver, you’re not that fast. And at that point I was good. She hadn’t made her point, but she kept going. She said, You can’t be a supermodel. You’re not that good looking. It doesn’t matter how hard you work. So why would I lie to you?
Jeff: And it was a fascinating lesson that took me, I will say, some years to appreciate. It didn’t have an immediate payoff?
Kate: No. Which which parts of it feel true now? And which parts were a burden?
Jeff: There are some things that I will never be capable of doing to a professional degree. I will never become a singer with, I can’t even be a one hit wonder. I don’t think I’m ever going to be an actor. I don’t have those gifts, and that’s okay. And I think that’s what she was trying to tell me is you’re you and you need to be realistic about what that means and where your work will have a payoff and where it won’t. She’s right, I’m not fast enough to be a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49er’s and she wasn’t even going to let me entertain the fantasy long enough. To have even a tiny bit of disappointment about it. So I think there was a gift in my parents realism.
Kate: When you were describing her lesson. I guess one of the first things that popped into my head was whether that would, whether the unchange-ability of who you are would offer you a framework for being able to accept being gay.
Jeff: So for years into college, I faithfully went to Bible study. I prayed so hard. So many nights, that God would take these feelings away from me. Partly so that I could honor my parents. But also remember fear of fire. Fear of big fire. And I worried that this was the disqualifying thing. All through my teen years. I worried that this was the one thing that would mark me as unlovable to God.
Kate: When was the turning point for you? And how did you I mean, you’re, you’re very cerebral person and you’re big hearted. I imagine it was going to involve a lot of categories and maybe also people who could, love you into a feeling of acceptance.
Jeff: So, you know, the funny thing about the human body is sometimes your gut does things to tell you a story. That your brain can’t really process yet. And I think my body revolted. My body started to break down when I was living in London in my twenties. And you can almost think of it maybe as like Jonah trying to escape his calling, right? I fled the US because I couldn’t face my friends from college, my family, everyone here. I wanted to go some place where I didn’t really know anyone, except I had an aunt and uncle, who were the aunt and uncle to whom I was closest when I was a kid. And so London was this safe place for me. I thought. Where I could just get on with my life. But that didn’t really work because I still wasn’t being honest about my sexuality. And that was taking a toll on my body. And I got sick.
Jeff: And I also felt really depressed. So after, my physical problems and some time away from church. I came back to the U.S.. And I took some time away from journalism. I had been working at Time magazine in London as a reporter, throwing myself into other stories because I couldn’t deal with my own. I came out. And there wasn’t really one turning point so much as pressure coming from all directions as well as from within. I couldn’t lie any more. And that was the fundamental thing. I couldn’t lie anymore.
Kate: It’s also maybe, umm you’re not a boaster, Jeff. And so, like in the middle of that is that you really should have felt like a cultural winner. I mean, you’re unbelievably smart and elite. Jeff Chu. Like you should have, you’re, like, working for Time magazine. You should have been, like, on a wreathes of, I’m just trying to picture right now, I have terrible Roman imagery in my head. But like, it shouldn’t you should have been like a moment of like early to mid twenties triumph. So the fact that you felt so conflicted and depressed and sick and overwhelmed. Meant it must have just been unbearable.
Jeff: Sometimes a great resume masks a ton of pain. And what matters more ultimately to the human? What’s going on in the heart or what’s on LinkedIn?
Kate: Yeah, LinkedIn I think is where most people would have went on that one.
Kate: You went on a journey where you did incredibly personal and autobiographical reporting around the country with church leaders and parent churches and so many others about their views on being gay and being Christian. What did you hope to discover on that journey and what did you find?
Jeff: So I think folks who have struggled with their belonging. Really, their unbelonging, right. Can actually turn into decent reporters because we have all been trained to read a room, to study by body language, to navigate hostile situations, and to ask questions that aren’t about us. And as I was trying to figure out whether it was possible both to be gay and to be a good Christian. As I said earlier, I didn’t know how to examine my own story. The only skill I had was to ask other people about their stories. And so that’s what I did. I wanted to understand how all these folks who claimed to be Christian ended up in such different places on the question of homosexuality.
Jeff: And to be clear, I did this reporting in 2010 and 2011, for the most part, and the conversation in society has shifted quite a bit in the subsequent years. And this project really was about sexuality. It wasn’t about gender. I was puzzling through how is it that Mary Glass Pool, for instance, the first out lesbian bishop in the Episcopal Church, fiercely claims and holds to Jesus. And so do the members of Westboro Baptist Church. And really what I found was that we use this word Christian. A word that gets tossed around a lot and casually. But when we’re using this word, we don’t really mean the same thing. So many of us have remade God in our own image. We have projected our hopes and our desires and our dreams onto Jesus and on the Christian theology. And there’s no longer a single thing called Christianity that holds together with any integrity. It would be more accurate to say Christianities than Christianity. What I found, what I found were beautiful and deeply challenging stories of people who have tried to stay faithful in their own particular ways. And I find that incredibly inspiring and encouraging, even if I disagree with the theology. I want to be able to honor those folks humanity as well as their version of faithfulness, as long as it contributes to their life, flourishing. And I think it’s possible to do that these days, to hold that kind of tension, to disagree deeply about convictions, but honor who they are and the choices they’ve made. As long as you express that on or off of Twitter or otherwise, you’ll be slaughtered.
Kate: All this observation really has made you so attuned to other people’s experience of alienation. And more willing than others to want to make space for other people. Alongside co-founders the late Rachel Held Evans and our lovely friend, Sara Bessey. You were invited to lead evolving faith. We wondered if you could describe what that is and who it’s for.
Jeff: As you mentioned, Rachel and Sarah founded it, and their hope was just to create a space back in 2018 for folks who had probably grown up in the church but no longer found themselves comfortably on the in the pews. A space in which those oddballs and misfits could come and just take a deep breath. Maybe listen to Rachel and Sarah and a few of their friends talk through their own doubts and their own desires. And just be. We all need a place to just be. And what they were shocked by is that it turns out there were a lot of people who wanted a space like that. One thing that Sarah and I do like to say to is there are a lot of folks out there who have been hurt by religion. Hurt by the church in particular. Both of us have, I know you have in your own ways.
Kate: What? No. Everything’s great. Everything’s been great. Thanks.
Jeff: Everything’s been fine. Totally fine.
Kate: That’s what this podcast is about. It’s about everything being great.
Jeff: For those of us for whom everything has not been great in the church. Some of us are looking for something beyond anger. We want our anger to feel something. We want our hurt not to just sit there, so that we can wallow in it.
Kate: Mm hmm.
Jeff: And so Sarah and I often ask, what are we for? Not just what are we against? What can we be hopeful about? How can we participate in creating belonging? Especially those of us who haven’t felt belonging? And I think the oddballs and the misfits are uniquely equipped to do that and maybe even called to do that. And wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?
Kate: People do seem to need special permission, though, to do what you’re describing, because I just I’ve watched people respond to what you’re doing, and feel permission to doubt, permission to kind of question the usefulness of certainty before returning to things that they they might hold more dear.
Jeff: Certainty is neat and tidy, and the ambiguity can be exhausting, right? Not knowing is draining.
Kate: It’s just horrible. Yeah.
Jeff: The problem is certainty only gives us the illusion of control. It doesn’t actually give us control.
Kate: Yeah. Jeff, what do you, what do you like when you think right now about, let’s say, doubt in moments of assurance, instead of certainty. Because I would say I’m not, I am I’m a lot less certain about things than I was before. But I feel a lot more, oh, but the things I know, I really know. Like I know, I know God loves the broken hearted like I know that. Whereas before I thought I was part of God’s special plan just to make us really good people, you know, like a just an endless professional development program. What are the things you feel like you like you’re more sure of now than you were before?
Jeff: I am more sure than ever that my childhood was infused with love. Sometimes when I’ve talked about growing up in a really conservative Christian family. I almost think folks want some kind of trauma porn. They want to hear about my suffering. They want to hear about my gaysian angst. And we can talk about the gaysian angst if we really want to. But what I remember most about my childhood and what keeps coming back to me now in this cyclical way. In that way, in which memories take on new meaning because you’re in a different stage of your life with different perspective, and you can return to something and it grows. What I know is that in my early childhood, our grandparents loved my sister and me so, so, so much. And we got to spend so much time with them. Starting early in the morning, when my parents dropped us off before they went to work. We got to spend time with three of our four grandparents. And they weren’t particularly lavish in their spoken praise because that’s not what my people do. But they made their love clear through piano lessons and trips to the pizza parlor after school and my grandmother’s fried rice and summertime excursions and prayer a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of prayer, and morning devotions. And it’s only as an adul, it’s only recently that I’ve realized how much their love for us wasn’t just about us, even though they loved us. But it was also about what we represented, which was their survival. They survived poverty. My maternal grandmother was sent to work in a knitting factory when she was 12.
Jeff: She didn’t get to go to school. My paternal grandparents made it through World War two when they were refugees fleeing the Japanese army. And then my grandfather escaped from mainland China because he’d been there preaching and teaching Bible after the Communists took over in 1949. And my grandmother and the kids were in safety in Hong Kong, but he was determined to stay. And then there was a crazy crackdown in the early 1950s, and he managed to escape. But some of his colleagues ended up in prison for many years. I am more certain than ever that my ancestors stories matter and they live on in me. Partly because of the love that they poured into me. And I’m a beneficiary of their strength and their resilience. And I think this isn’t unique to me. I think this is true in so many of us. If we would just try to dig up some of those stories, try to access that inheritance. Yeah. Try to receive that as a gift.
Kate: When I was sick, I started thinking about my grandma a lot more. She had a strong personality and I uhhh.
Jeff: Your being very respectful right now.
Kate: And, I think it was difficult at times to access like the softer parts of her love. But when I was sick, I started digging up the story of her being shuttered in a sanatorium with tuberculosis and who could never go to college and make good on a life she thought she’d had. And how it meant that her kids were put in foster care and that that would explain so much of her deep desire for her gratitude for the life that she got back when she was let out. And then these moments of deep sorrow. And I, I don’t think I would have nearly appreciated the fierceness of her love and desire to survive if I hadn’t suddenly thought man I, my grandma, would be the perfect person to talk to right now about being scared to lose it all. And yet and and being so changed after that, it can’t all just be gratitude, that it can also be sorrow. And so I, I love the full circle feeling that you bring to your life, Jeff. It’s also one of the really lovely things about you, is you have this kind of like you, it’s like you want to hold everything in your arms. You want to like you want to hold the sorrow and then you want to hold the joy. You have a very low tolerance for totalizing explanations, for things. You’re like, you have a big, long patience. Even for things that are not easy.
Jeff: But everything happens for a reason.
Kate: You’re like, and that’s why I came on this podcast today is to tell you this Kate. Comma.
Jeff: How often do people come on and say that?
Kate: Actually, you know, but sometimes like people honestly, they misread the, they misread the title and then they’re like, but as you always say, and I am like, Oh no, oh no this has gone terribly wrong.
Jeff: Don’t do it. It’s a trap.
Kate: From the very first, you gave me a place to belong. And I know you do that for other people. So thank you. Thank you for giving us a better, deeper, lovelier account of hospitality and being surprised by love. I’m so glad we could do this today.
Kate: Hello, my loves. I always feel so fortunate that we can have these kinds of conversations together about the deepest kind of belonging. There is, at least for me, always a need to feel that deep pull of acceptable-ness. The do I fit in? Is this how I’m supposed to behave? Will God love me if? Sometimes we find ourselves chasing that feeling of being acceptable. And it might have a stronger claim on us than feeling anchored in a bigger truth. So here are some bigger truths to end our time together. And it’s a simple one. That you at your very core are worth cherishing the crap out of. So here goes. Blessed are you playing the stories of who you are through your mind, like a filmstrip. Where you got your laugh or love of music or those terrible navigation skills. You who can pinpoint yourself on a family tree. You who know exactly whose you are. And blessed are you when you don’t belong. When you can’t explain exactly how you ended up here, outside of what was acceptable but longing to fit in nonetheless. Blessed are you in the alienation and the fear. The where will I find my people? The confusion or anger or the still woundedness from unbelonging. May you feel your own worthiness. May you feel your own belovedness. May you find yourself wrapped in a story larger than the one you can trace. A story of love and hope and courage. A story truer than the one you’ve been told. Blessed are all of us here in this family of God.
Rebecca from Richmond, VA: Hi, my name is Rebecca from Richmond, Virginia. When I was growing up in church and somehow it was easier for us to all agree on what we believe and feel more certain about those, those different things that it also was just our place, right? Like outside of our home. For everybody who went to my church, church was just with home and school and church. And when we weren’t at those other two places, church where we were and church is where all the adults were, who knew you and you knew your parents well enough that they could that fuss at you, if you were misbehaving in the back row or taking communion when you shouldn’t be. And so, I mean, it wasn’t just about the faith, but it was about the community. And I think it’s just not that way anymore. At least that’s what I keep trying to tell myself, is that that church experience doesn’t exist now with people so busy and kids and so many activities. And, you know, we’ve looked and looked and are looking and looking for a faith community for our children. And I really just want the one I grew up in and I don’t know that it’s possible to find it. Which makes me really sad and it makes it hard for me to know what I’m supposed to let go and what I’m supposed to hold on to, because I don’t know that I’m going to find that anymore.
Meg from Chicago: Hi, my name is Meg. I’m calling from the Chicago suburbs. I totally miss high church, the liturgy, the hymns, even all of the up and down kneeling, the incense and like just the overall familiarity of the Catholic Church. It’s where I would stand next to my grandma with her warbling voice, and she would sing not so great desiccants you know, where my friends and I would line up outside of the confessional and kind of like make up what we were going to say to confess to. That’s where I was an acolyte, where I would go with my friends and get ashes in high school. And it’s where I attended my mom’s funeral when I was only 13. So there’s just so much about the Catholic Church that feels like a part of the fabric of me, and yet I’m also a lesbian. And so a part of that fabric is, you know, really also rooted in pain and shame from the messaging that I got from the church. And so, you know, as a grown ass person now, I go to weddings and funerals and confirmations. And when I find myself in that space, like, I have a tug still to be a part of that community again. It’s heartbreaking that something that’s so formative and familiar has so many complicated layers to it. I have to hold on to hope that the church is moving in a more loving, like moving into a more loving and accepting theology. And I try to let go of the ways that the church has caused harm to me and to people like me. So that’s what I have to say about it. Thanks so much.
Henry from Cleveland: Hi. Since this pandemic and the death of my dad, I haven’t gone back to church yet. I miss the music and the donuts and the fellowship and the occasional sermon that really got me in the heart. But I don’t miss the misogyny or the judgment or the idea that we were somehow better than the families who didn’t go to church on Sundays. The folks we used to chreaster the Christmas and Easter families. I miss the moms I used to gather with for prayer groups and Bible studies and simple soup suppers. But I don’t miss the homophobia or the racism of belonging to a group of people who all look the same and are from the same place. Most of all, I guess I’d miss the belief I’m a lifelong church goer. As a kid, I attended Sunday school and as an adult sang in choirs. I was married in the church. I’m a godmother. How could I not believe? But when my dad passed away and we were with him through the hospital stays and the radiation. It was just all so much worse than I ever imagined it would be. To see this larger than life Dad he raised me diminished. And the medications and the, All of it. And I guess I was waiting for God and looking for God and wanting to feel God. And without a church community, people dropping off casseroles and all the things they used to do. I guess I miss I miss belief. My name is Henry, and I’m calling from Cleveland. Thank you.
Kate: Okay. If today’s episode resonated with you, maybe you’re the person asking these questions about faith and doubt and wondering if you belong. I wondered if maybe you wanted to join us for the Evolving Faith Conference this year. The Everything Happens Project is a sponsor, so I’ll be speaking there alongside some friends of the podcast that you’ve heard here before, and it’s all virtual, so you can come in your pajamas or with, say, a glass of wine, or maybe coffee in the morning. And it’s happening October 14th and 15th, 2022. So, October 14th or 15th. And if you want to know more, come visit evolvingfaith.com/conference to buy your ticket. I’ll see you there.
Kate: A really special thank you to our generous partners who make this work possible. Lilly Endowment. The Duke Endowment. Duke Divinity School and Leadership. Education. And to my wonderful team. Jessica Richie. Harriet Putman, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Keith Weston, Jeb, and Sammi. Thank you. And I would love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you do me a favor and leave a review on Apple Podcasts? It really, really means a lot to us when we get to hear what we do well and also might even do better. You can also leave us a voicemail and who knows? We might even be able to use your voice on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online at Kate C Bowler. This is everything happens with me, Kate Bowler.