On Sun., June 8, 30 members of LGBT families attended Willow Creek Church in suburban South Barrington and met afterwards with Rev. Bill Hybels as part of the 'American Family Outing' sponsored by Soulforce and three other organizations.
Jay Bakker, son of Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Messner and pastor of Revolution Church in New York, led the group, which included Soulforce Executive Director Jeff Lutes.
'The [ post-worship ] meeting was quite successful in a number of ways,' Lutes said, who attended with his partner and their three adopted children. 'This was about making connections—person-to-person and family-to-family—and I think we did that. I respect Willow Creek for having the courage and the willingness to really have a meaningful conversation about this.'
'You can't really have honest, healthy conversation with somebody that you don't know or trust or you might fear just because they're unknown,' Lutes said. 'Now, we're not unknown. They're known to us, and we're known to them, and we hope in some yet-to-be-defined way that we can keep the conversation going with them.'
Paige Schilt, Soulforce's media director, characterized the meeting as 'very productive, very intense, ' and 'one of the deepest' of the series of church meetings the organization is sponsoring over the course of six weeks.
Mary Lou Wallner, who believes the homophobic teachings she received from Willow Creek and that she passed on to her lesbian daughter to be partly responsible for her suicide in 1997, said that in addition to Hybels, Willow Creek staff attending the meeting included Ron Ercoli, one of the church's community care leaders, Justin Poling, a member for 30 years, and Betty Schmidt, a church elder whom Wallner knew and she spoke with privately after the meeting.
Schilt said at the end of their meal, Lutes asked Hybels if he 'would take up the challenge of speaking more clearly on behalf of our community when he can—certainly as someone who believes that reparative therapy doesn't work and that sexual orientation of itself is not sinful. Even though there's still distance between that position and our totally gay-affirming position, there's still a lot he could do in terms of leadership on things that would create a lot more safety and protection for our community. And he responded really positively to Jeff's offering that challenge to him.'
According to Lutes, Hybels 'has no trouble with people being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and he does not believe it's a choice, so he seemed appalled when we shared with him that many churches force LGBT people to get married in order to deal with their sexual orientation. He couldn't believe that. But we were surprised that he didn't seem to know about that. But that did not seem to make any sense to him whatsoever. Essentially what he advocates or what Willow Creek advocates, is celibacy. And that's where we differ.'
Bakker also highlighted Willow Creek's acknowledgement that 'a lot of the things that have been very hurtful of people in the past—as far as reparative therapy and that type of thing—that they agreed was dangerous, and thought that people can't change their sexuality.' The issue 'boiled down to, 'We accept all people, gay and lesbian people, but they have to be celibate. And I felt like, you know, that's a little unrealistic.'
Bakker said that of the seven Bible verses typically cited as condemning homosexuality, Willow Creek agreed that six of the seven do not refer to modern-day same-sex relationships. While he viewed this as progress, the church holds that the creation story in Genesis in which 'God created male and female' is sufficient to justify requiring celibacy of homosexuals. 'I wonder if the same thing was expected of them, if they'd be able to do that,' Bakker said, referring to the Willow Creek team who hosted the meeting.
Wallner said, 'It boils down to the fact that if we're saying that God made homosexuals homosexual, would a God of love and grace and mercy relegate them to a life of solitude, with no companionship and no ability to have a partner for life, and all of that? That's where everything gets hung up.' She remains hopeful that the church will look eventually at 'marriage equality, which is what we need to be fighting for.'
On its Web site, however, Willow Creek has a link on homosexuality under its 'Ministry Quick Links,' referring inquirers to 'A Safe Place' as 'a Support Community providing a redemptive community of grace, biblical truth and relational support to those struggling with same-sex attractions.' Stating that 'this workshop is currently 'under construction' and is in the process of developing the leadership required for a new curriculum' to be introduced in the fall of 2008, the Web site provides links to organizations that promote reparative therapy for homosexuality, including Exodus International, Desert Stream, NARTH and Leanne Payne's Pastoral Care Ministries.
'I think that they're at the very beginning,' Bakker said, 'and that they're saying, 'We're going to try and not carry books like this, we're going to try to make it clear that we don't agree with certain things [ that may have been said in the past ] .' But that was just [ Sunday ] , and I don't know … I don't think it was empty rhetoric. They seemed like they were going to respond in some ways and in positive ways. But, honestly, as usual, the proof is in the pudding.'
Peterson Toscano, a theatrical performance artist who said he 'spent 17 years and more than $30,000 on three continents trying to change his sexual orientation,' is currently involved in a movement of ex-gay survivors helping those who have been damaged by reparative therapy to accept their orientation.
He said he described for the Willow Creek team the 'harm that comes from reparative therapy that I've seen in myself and over a thousand other ex-gay survivors—psychological, emotional, spiritual harm, harm to one's career, finances, relationships, physical harm that often comes to people, sexual harm, developmental harm,' so that 'well-meaning Christians who think that they're doing good trying to encourage gay persons to change will hear that [ it ] causes more harm than good. And I think they definitely heard that message.'
Willow Creek media relations manager Susan Delay said that because the church and Soulforce had agreed on a closed meeting, she did not attend and could not comment on what transpired or whether Willow Creek might change its ministry, theology or classes relating to homosexuality based on the meeting: 'We evaluate all our classes over the summer—and there are many of them—and we take into consideration feedback from pervious participants. As to whether that particular class will be changed, I couldn't say at this time.'
Willow Creek, begun in 1975, moved to South Barrington in 1981 and is located on a 155-acre campus housing facilities costing nearly $117 million. The church has been voted 'the most influential congregation in America' in a national poll of pastors.
Soulforce is a national civil-rights and social-justice organization seeking freedom for LGBT people from religious and political oppression. The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Church, National Black Justice Coalition and COLAGE ( an organization for children, youth and adults with one or more LGBT parents ) collaborated on the event.