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Journalist Jeff Chu, a gay Christian who was raised Southern Baptist, recently told a Salt Lake City audience how he came to an understanding of one of America's most notorious evangelical churches: the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.
The church's website is Godhatesfags.com, and the phrase has become a sort of mantra for the congregation's 40 members, who have garnered international media attention.
Chu said he wanted to understand even the extreme answers to a central question confronting many U.S. churches: How to handle gay members? Accept? Reject? Somewhere in between?
So the magazine journalist went on a yearlong trek, interviewing more than 300 people across 28 states, to write his new book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.
In it, he tells the stories of the faithful gay, straight and otherwise struggling to come to terms with a religion that preaches love for all, but, in some cases, locks the church doors if you're gay.
At The King's English Bookshop this week, Chu read excerpts and answered questions. He is on a self-funded book tour and decided to stop by at the invitation of a friend from his Princeton University days who lives in Salt Lake City.
During his research, Chu shadowed some Westboro members as they picketed other churches in Topeka an Evangelical Lutheran church, a Methodist congregation and a Catholic parish.
"When we move on to the Methodist church, I spend a few minutes with one of the youngest picketers, a towheaded, slightly pigeon-toed, unsmiling 6-year-old boy named Ben," Chu read to the audience of 25. "Ben tells me that his favorite thing in the world to do is to jump on the trampoline in his backyard. It's barely summer, yet he's already worried about starting public school in the fall all Westboro members send their kids to public school, in part because they consider their children, well known to everyone as Westboro youngsters, to be walking picket signs.
"He has heard that his school does not have a trampoline. Also, he says, 'home school is more funner.' Tucked under Ben's chin is a child-size sign that says, 'FAGS DOOM NATIONS.'
"I thought: How can I be angry at this child?" Chu said in a gentle tone after looking up at the audience. "Others grew up with this [environment]."
He went on to read his odd interview with Westboro's founder, 82-year-old Fred Phelps.
When Phelps explained his theological position What kind of people would we be if everyone else is going to hell and we did nothing to help? Chu said he got a glimpse into the pastor's motivation.
But not everyone wanted to be interviewed.
Chu tried to get an interview with the religious department of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group, but when he explained that he would be interviewing Phelps, the answer was no the HRC did not want to be in the same book.
"If we oppose [Westboro], we need to oppose them well," Chu told the audience, "not off these cartoon characters in the media."
In the book, Chu lets well-publicized groups such as Westboro and others explain why they do what they do. But he also interviewed individuals struggling with faith and sexuality.
He told the audience about Jake and Elizabeth Buechner (pseudonyms) and how God called the northern-states couple to make their marriage work, even though Jake is gay and a pastor, while Elizabeth is straight and an architect.
Chu read this passage:
" 'Every woman fantasizes about the ideal husband,' Elizabeth tells me one afternoon as we sit in their tidy living room. 'I had my list of 15 things.' She wanted, among other things, a guy with strong faith. She wanted to spend much of her life abroad. And she hoped to work with her husband in some kind of Christian ministry.
"What she definitely did not want: 'To live in the suburbs with a high-paying job. And, in my mind, Jake fit all of those.' She pauses and half-smiles. 'I forgot to put heterosexual on the list.' "
Chu goes on to explain: "The fact that their sex life has been, by both accounts, not just functional but enjoyable and real and who can fact-check that? raises the question of whether Jake has experienced any kind of reorientation. His answer is no.
" 'The temptations have been greatly diminished since we got married,' he says, 'but if you showed me pictures of men and pictures of women, I'd still be drawn to the men. I haven't acquired a taste for all women I have for Elizabeth.' "
Others share less-optimistic stories.
There's 58-year-old Minnesotan Kevin Olson, who is gay and has remained celibate.
"'For me, homosexuality is not God's plan for his creation," Olson explained to Chu. "He made male and female for a reason, in his image. That's his perfect plan, his first choice for creation, even if it's not politically correct."
Chu sums up his research to the audience: "I saw so many people wanting to love … but this little four-letter word means so many different things to different people."
At the end of the reading, an audience member asked Chu: "If you simply dropped religion, wouldn't your life be easier?"
"I can't do that," Chu answered. "It's not either/or … not black and white. The Bible is full of grays. You can't flip a switch and not believe."
For Salt Lake City resident Nathan Spofford, the book resonated. He knew he was gay as a teen, but went on to be married for 20 years while rearing four children. He divorced his wife, and for the past 13 years has lived with a man whom he met at St. James Episcopal Church in Midvale.
"I really enjoyed [Chu's book] and think a lot of people [in Utah] can relate to it," Spofford said. "In the end, none of us really wants to be tolerated; we want to be loved."
Lesbian Book Club