LGBTQIA members of University Covenant Church, Catalyst speak about being in these groups
“Five years. I spent five years at University Covenant Church involved on both staff and volunteer levels building relationships, investing in youth, and being a Guinea pig for the staff to figure out how to approach the LGBT community […] In reflection, I wonder if it was all a waste of time.”
These are the opening words of a blog post by Jordon Friend, a former UC Davis student and former member of University Covenant Church (UCC) in Davis.
Friend and two other individuals — both members of the LGBTQIA community — spoke to The California Aggie about their previous and current experiences being out and involved with UCC and Catalyst, a Christian group on campus related to UCC.
UCC’s Lead Pastor John Fanous said that sexual orientation has never been an issue within the UCC, saying that the church doesn’t “really distinguish on sexual orientation,” and that it is “not a factor at all.”
Although UCC leaders have said they want to provide a fully accepting space where LGBTQIA-identifying individuals feel welcome, enforced restrictions barring LGBTQIA individuals access to leadership roles as well as celibacy requirements have affected both Friend and others.
Difference in treatment at UCC
Friend’s account of how he was treated by the leadership of the church as someone who didn’t fit into the heterosexual norm is extensively detailed in his public online post. He alleges he was forced to go through obstacles that a straight member of the church would never have to.
“The elder team and leaders at UCC would like to think the difference in treatment doesn’t really exist,” Friend said, adding, however, that in order for him to be deemed suitable for a staff position he was subject to a four-month process and extensive conversations. “No one who volunteers at my level ever needed a four month process to come to the conclusion that I was, indeed, fit to be on staff.”
Friend said he was also forced to retell his story numerous times — an emotional ordeal for him — “hoping to ensue some sort of empathy.”
Requirements imposed on him by UCC leadership included pursuing a life of celibacy and refraining from dating.
“They also had me agree to check in and give results on how their ‘gay leader’ experiment was going,” he wrote in his post. “Then they said they still weren’t sure if they trusted me. After sticking around for so many years, after serving with all my heart, after being completely vulnerable. They said to build trust I needed to take down my blogs. To make it real official, I signed a contract.”
UCC Lead Pastor John Fanous said that all leaders sign an agreement acknowledging a set of expectations, and denied Friend’s claim that his contract was altered due to his sexuality.
“I don’t think he signed anything that was different than any other leaders,” Fanous said. “That is so against anything we believe. I don’t think that happened.”
Friend provided The California Aggie with an email containing details about a meeting where he and UCC leadership discussed additional clauses to the standard contracts, signed in April of 2017.
The email discussed a volunteer leadership proposal for Friend. In this position, he was subjected to mandatory check-ins to an individual named “Kyle.” Additional clauses pertaining to Friend included: “the volunteer agrees to not undermine the Covenant position on human sexuality. The volunteer signs the Covenant leadership agreements. The volunteer remains accountable to Kyle while in this role.”
An additional clause shows the apparent motivation behind UCC agreeing to have Friend as a leader: “Kyle shares his learning in the coming year on LGBTQ care strategies with the ET so that we can all learn more about how to best uphold truth and love.”
Celibacy requirements at Catalyst
The UCC’s reach extends beyond its building on Mace Boulevard. It has a presence on the UC Davis campus via Catalyst, an Evangelical Christian group associated with the church.
Andy Lee, a fourth-year wildlife, fish and conservation biology major and a former member of Catalyst leadership, recognized a strong connection between the two organizations, stating “whatever UCC believes, Catalyst also has to operate on.”
“Catalyst is definitely more vocal with loving people, but the stance is the same,” Lee said. “I think Catalyst tries to love queer folks, but UCC’s stance is that same sex love is not ordained by God. UCC’s love is a little conditioned. A lot of times, they love you but they don’t celebrate you wholly.”
Lee stopped his involvement with Catalyst at the beginning of this school year due to a combination of family and personal issues along with a sense that he did not feel “loved, accepted and celebrated” by the leadership at Catalyst, especially after the leadership suggested that he should find another church in their emails to each other.
Like Friend, Lee also said that there were specific expectations enforced for members of leadership at UCC and Catalyst who are also members of the LGBTQIA community as well as restrictions on access to these leadership roles for these individuals in the first place. For example, if Lee had wanted access to a high-ranking role, he’d have to remain celibate.
“They have different levels of what you can do as a queer person,” Lee said. “For example, if you were running the slides in the background, they don’t care. You’re not seen. [But] I was a worship leader, I’m kind of up front every other week, so they cared if I was seeing someone. I was able to lead worship, but technically I wasn’t able to pray or preach. If you want to lead or preach or pray at a higher level, as Jordon mentioned, you had to say you would be celibate.”
After Friend’s blog post was publicly posted, Lee sent a letter to UCC’s head pastor and three leaders of Catalyst. He subsequently received a response back which, he said, “didn’t make me feel welcome.”
In the email Lee sent, which was obtained by The California Aggie, he described elements of his experience that had made him feel not fully welcome. Specifically, he said he promised to not make his dating life public, “even though that wasn’t the case for straight couples.”
“I have worked very hard to make Catalyst an inclusive space for queer people during my two years in leadership,” Lee wrote. “It hurt me that I was held to a different standard at the time, but I thought it was worthwhile if it could help gay people in the future of Catalyst. Therefore, this in no way [is] attacking Catalyst or its effort to support queer people. I understand the struggles we have gone through together.”
Lee also mentioned the struggles he faced applying to become a member of Catalyst leadership.
“I was hurt when I applied to be a leader at the end of freshmen year and again sophomore year,” Lee wrote. “I was loved by the community of Catalyst as a whole, but to serve as a leader I was held to different expectations and I had to hide myself. I felt mislead. The community was so loving, and the environment was accepting, however, leadership was not. I felt that the whole topic –– our lives –– was sugar coated and brushed over.”
During his time involved with Catalyst, Lee’s primary goal was to inspire positive change and acceptance of queer people. He said he never saw these goals become a reality.
“Jordon [Friend] put a lot of intentional effort to direct people towards UCC and Catalyst, me included,” Lee wrote. “He genuinely convinced me that it was worthwhile to serve at a church that was not affirming […] I felt that I was called to serve on leadership to fight for queer rights. However, in my time while serving, nothing came to fruition. From my understanding, queer people still felt uncomfortable, no matter what we did or what I did.”
After being made aware that this article about their group was in the works, Catalyst leadership attempted to dissuade individuals from sharing any negative criticism or sentiments.
“Support Staff has built enough trust with each one of you that you will do your absolute best to not spread lies, shut down gossip if you hear it, and only share positive opinions/comments with other people,” a private Facebook post, which was obtained by The California Aggie and authored by Julia Hall, one of Catalyst’s student leaders, stated.
Hall and the Catalyst leadership team clarified the purpose of this post to The Aggie, stating via email that “there is no underlying negative connotation about the queer community in the post.”
“We were solely preparing our leadership team for the possibility that there would be an article written about us, and encouraging them to stay positive if they heard any kind of negativity,” she said. “We received information of comments that others had shared with us during the same time you originally reached out to us that clearly led us to believe the article would not represent us in a positive light.”
“It’s okay to be gay, but you can’t act on it”
Nick Bua, an acquaintance of Friend’s and someone currently attending UCC, sees both sides of this story.
“They’re really trying to be a safe place to the best of their abilities, based on what they know,” Bua said. “The church was extremely silent in [Friend]’s time, so I understand how he feels. Now, they’re at least trying to be mindful.”
According to Bua, there are still “restrictions” today in the roles that people in same-sex relationships can have at UCC.
“[UCC is] restricting teaching roles and upper leadership,” Bua said. “[Friend] couldn’t [be in that role] since he is in a same sex relationship. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be a cut off. Like, ‘Yeah, you’re safe here in this church, but once you get comfortable there’s restrictions.’”
Bua described a three-pronged model for LGBTQIA involvement and theology in churches.
“Side X is historically pray the gay away and seeing being gay as a sin,” Bua said. “Side A is the affirming side: you can be gay and have a same sex marriage, and God will still love you. For Side B, being gay is not a sin. You’re born that way and you can’t control it. It’s the middle. It’s okay to be gay, but you can’t act on it. You can’t have a same sex marriage. They believe in celibacy and heterosexual marriages.”
Despite the restrictions inherent in the upholding of the “Side B” model, Bua saw a positive change when the church’s leadership decided to take a stance and side with this point of view.
“In the past year or so, UCC chose Side B,” Bua said. “They’re trying to be less silent on the issue. It’s like a slow moving vehicle. It’s frustrating, but that’s how any big things are. In the last few months, they have actually said words like ‘gay’ out in the open.”
Similarly, Fanous described UCC as somewhere in the middle of the theological path.
“We tend to have conservative churches who have no [queer] space, or liberal churches with very different theologies,” Fanous said. “I’d like to think we bridge that gap and offer something different. We’re excited to provide that queer space that historically has not been there.”
Bua’s frustration extends to theology — specifically, what fits into the church’s version and what doesn’t.
“It’s been hard [after coming out], but they’ve been learning what to say and what not to say,” Bua said. “They’re pretty receptive. The only thing is the very obvious barrier of the theology. They’re open to it, but they really want to make sure the theology is consistent. There aren’t theology checks at the door for other issues. They watch [sexuality] a lot more closely.”
Despite Bua and Fanous’ optimism and hope that UCC will strengthen its ties and support of the LGBTQIA community, Friend is still hurting from his experiences.
“Finding a church community has been so hard,” Friend said. “I want so badly to find somewhere that holds true to the things I loved about UCC, but that’s been difficult. Straight folks have it a little easier when it comes to Christianity: they search for a church that has the type of music they want, preaching style and community involvement. I have to first find a church where I can feel comfortable holding my boyfriends hand during service, then I can consider other things.”
Written by: Deana Medina — firstname.lastname@example.org