Conversation With Rev. Ray Bagnuolo
Rev. Ray Bagnuolo is the Minister Evangelist for That All May Freely Serve, an organization that works pastorally for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBT/Q) Christians in the PC(USA). Ray is also the Stated Supply Pastor at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House, serving our sisters and brothers who experience conditions of homelessness in New York City. Additionally, he serves on the Board of More Light Presbyterians.
How has your personal journey to being a gay Presbyterian pastor strengthened or challenged your faith?
Often we think in terms of destinations: Where am I headed? Where do I need to be? While my personal journey has often been about trying to “get somewhere,” what I have learned through the process of ordination (and life) is that the “path” rather than the destination is more important, especially in terms of call to ministry.
For example, when I was in my third year of seminary, many of my classmates began talking about calls and churches and getting started with their ministry. I began to get caught up in it all, started to feel a bit of anxiety, worried about whether I would ever get a call since I was gay. After all, the PC(USA) was a church in a decades-long contentious struggle over welcoming the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
I had been very open about being gay and in working hard with others for constitutional change to allow ordination of sisters and brothers who were LGBT, while making it clear that I would not abide by G-6.0106b as a matter of conscience. It was 2002 or so, and G-6.0106b (the fidelity and chastity amendment) was still being used to oppose people who identified as gay or lesbian from being ordained. I knew being out (and loud, at times) – that holding such a position greatly diminished my chances for being cleared for ordination.
Most churches were, after all, looking for pastors, not individuals who would bring with them the possibility of charges, investigating committees and all that followed. It did sometimes feel like our community was being hounded in an effort to chase us away (or off the path). One presbytery exec even advised me by telling me to “keep my head low and follow the Book of Order.” Others reminded me differently.
I was blessed with a care community and Committee on Preparation for Ministry who honored the path and helped assure me that – whatever the outcome – it was my call to remain steadfast. And I was not alone. There were folks who had put their careers and lives as pastors on the line by including the LGBT community in the full work and worship of the church, regardless of the charges or claims against them. At some point during those times it comes down to you and God – you and the Spirit having “those” conversations. I knew that I didn’t need to be ordained, but I did need to stay on the path, leaving the rest in God’s hands.
Interestingly, that continues to be true today. The vision of a fully welcoming and affirming church is still there – but the path is still the way for many of us.
And, for me, all this strengthened my faith because the embrace of faith became a very practical matter. It was the only way to get through the day, continue in the work and the struggle, and remain hopeful and trusting. It ingrained in me a sense of reliance upon God much greater than I had known. I am very grateful to the PC(USA) for making it necessary for me to be more “out” than I ever imagined I might be and for the strengthened faith that continues to sustain me today.
Is there a prayer or meditation that helps you make it through trying times?
Well, in the quietest of moments, my prayer and meditations have primarily focused on a simple request: “Thy will not mine be done” followed by handing everything over to God. This is the most foundational element of all my prayers and meditation – to turn my life and my will over to the care of God and then ask to be shown what to do. Often, this is recited in the form of The Serenity Prayer, which has been helpful to me for years: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”.
What is one of the defining moments in your life as a Christian?
One of the most defining moments in my life as a Christian was when I realized that the church was wrong in its position on homosexuality and in its treatment of the LGBT community. I was brought up Roman Catholic and really struggled with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, going from being embraced as a child and young person to being vilified as a gay man unless I were to change or live a life of celibacy. This sudden shift in awareness and position in the church conflated God and Christianity into a very small and brittle vessel that gave me little room to breathe and even less room to know God as anything other than a punishing God.
So, in my late thirties after a long struggle, I left the Roman Catholic Church. Through that early time of upheaval, I had come to know God in a way that did not require me to be in an abusive relationship with a church in order to be faithful to God. Apparently God agreed, leading me to the Presbyterian Church, a church that was itself struggling, but open and able to change in a way that reflected the justice and love I always knew existed in God.
Do you have a story of a person who embodies Christ’s teachings?
Several years before leaving the Roman Catholic Church, I had become a member of a twelve step program. I was one of those people who never should have drank alcohol – and for many years I self-medicated myself, eventually crossing the line and becoming an alcoholic.
In the early 80’s, some folks took me to a meeting of alcoholics to try and help me. At that meeting, the leader was a gay man and talked openly about being gay. It scared me to death, and I left that meeting thinking that I needed to reveal my deepest darkest secrets to get sober – and I was much too scared to do that.
However, as things got worse, I was more and more willing to do whatever it took to get well – this included finally being open and honest with the world that I was gay. At the time I was thirty-two and still closeted. I was desperate. So, I called one of the help-lines and the fellow that called me back said to me, “Look it doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight. If you want to stop drinking, we can help you – and you will meet people just like yourself at meetings. Would you like to meet me and I’ll take you to one of the groups.”
While that may not seem like such a great big deal, to me it was the most powerful example of unconditional love I have ever experienced: No judgment, reprimands, or even a change in the tone of his voice – just help. “Don’t worry, kid. If you want to stop drinking, we can help. Everything else will work out.”
While twelve step programs are not affiliated with any religion, the spiritual power of God in many, many ways is incredibly present – and it got me. The openness, welcoming, and hospitality that was extended to me by Charlie (the man who called me back) will remain for me an example of how Christ fills us all, using us in ways we could never imagine, giving us examples through others of what it is we are to do in welcoming and caring for all.
In your mind, what are the Biblical foundations for LGBT inclusion in the church?
I know first-hand the violence that has befallen people who are LGBT/Q as the result of “biblical” teachings that are used to marginalize others – setting up conditions of exclusion and harm. I believe that every church and church leader that has used the Gospel to exclude or diminish people who identify as LGBT/Q has been complicit in the violence, whether intentional or otherwise. If we accept, which I do, that Jesus was serious when he said that the greatest commandment taken from the shema was to love God with all your heart and soul, followed by loving one another as yourself, then any actions which produce marginalization, exclusion, discrimination and violence are wrong.
We can disagree and stand by one another’s right to disagree, however to the point of doing harm to others? I do not believe that Jesus ever intended his teachings to be extended in this way: heretically used to exclude the LGBT/Q community from membership in the Church of Jesus Christ, with all the privileges and responsibility of being a member. The foundation for inclusion of our LGBT community and non-LGBT Community, biblically and otherwise, is love. Anything else is based on fear and un-biblical from the start.
What would you say to those Christians who have a different view on inclusion?
I would say that we can have our differences of opinion – even on matters of faith – without creating distance between us. I would also say that we have to be willing to model and witness the love we have been given – to share in ways that help to heal the brokenness we have created. This tension we are experiencing is the natural response to “coming closer” with our differences and disagreements – and this spatial shift is not a reason to run from or retaliate toward one another. It is, in fact, the work of the Gospel in seeing God in one another – beyond our limited abilities to understand the greater mysteries of creation.
I would also say that we should find ways to work together, not seeing each other by how we are different but by how we are the same. For me, that is all about the love of God that created and sustains us – to love one another in return.
Finally, we need to work toward healing and acceptance in the PC(USA). The world ahead for us will be more about pastoral care and healing. We are a hurting denomination (and world), and I believe with many others that the time for kindness, forbearance, and taking care of each other from the deep Love of God that is in us all is now.
What can we do to foster dialogue and build bridges with people with different views on inclusion?
My experience is that when we are distracted from our arguments for one reason or another, we seem to get along just fine. I am always struck at our general assemblies when we gather by the thousands and find ourselves a united church in our finer moments of worship and prayer – even in debate and discussion. In the process, we come to know one another and, as always, coming to know one another is what will ultimately break down any remaining barriers to the full inclusion of folks who are LGBT/Q in the PC(USA), as well as setting examples and witness for others to follow.
In summing this up, I have great hope for this church because I have great faith in God. And, I have strong appreciation for the courage and work that members – past, present, and to come – within the PC(USA) have done to make this denomination a welcoming and affirming place for the LGBT/Q community. We are called to pass on to others who will follow us a church that is fully welcoming and affirming. God has called us to this place and time to make this the church we all know it can be – and take care of each other in the process. To me, that is the Gospel, and this is our work.
May God bless us all. All.