“My conversion, an ex-lesbian and feminist” / “For Life” magazine no. 3 – Fall 2014

Excerpts from “My Train Wreck Conversion”, published in the online edition of Christianity Today, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, American author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

As a professor of English and women’s studies, I cared about morality, justice, and compassion. Fervent for the worldviews of Freud, Hegel, Marx, and Darwin, I strove to stand with the disempowered. I valued morality.

I used my post to advance the understandable allegiances of a leftist lesbian professor. My partner and I shared many vital interests: aids activism, children’s health and literacy, Golden Retriever rescue, our Unitarian Universalist church, to name a few.

I began researching the Religious Right and their politics of hatred against queers like me. o do this, I would need to read the one book that had, in my estimation, gotten so many people off track: the Bible. In the meantime, in 1997, I launched my first attack on the unholy trinity of Jesus, Republican politics, and patriarchy, in the form of an article in the local newspaper about Promise Keepers.

The article generated many rejoinders, so many that I kept a Xerox box on each side of my desk: one for hate mail, one for fan mail. But one letter I received defied my filing system. It was from the pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was a kind and inquiring letter. Ken Smith encouraged me to explore the kind of questions I admire: How did you arrive at your interpretations? How do you know you are right? Ken didn’t argue with my article; rather, he asked me to defend the presuppositions that undergirded it. Ken’s letter punctured the integrity of my research project without him knowing it.

I had seen my share of Bible verses on placards at Gay Pride marches. That Christians who mocked me on Gay Pride Day were happy that I and everyone I loved were going to hell was clear as blue sky. That is not what Ken did. He did not mock. He engaged. So when his letter invited me to get together for dinner, I accepted. My motives at the time were straightforward: Surely this will be good for my research. Something else happened. Ken and his wife, Floy, and I became friends. They entered my world. They met my friends. We did book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics. They did not act as if such conversations were polluting them. When we ate together, Ken prayed in a way I had never heard before. His prayers were intimate. Vulnerable. He repented of his sin in front of me. And because Ken and Floy did not invite me to church, I knew it was safe to be friends.

I started reading the Bible. I read the way a glutton devours. I read it many times that first year in multiple translations. At a dinner gathering my partner and I were hosting, my transgendered friend J cornered me in the kitchen. She put her large hand over mine. “This Bible reading is changing you, Rosaria,” she warned. With tremors, I whispered, “J, what if it is true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?” J exhaled deeply. “Rosaria,” she said, “I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years. I prayed that God would heal me, but he didn’t. If you want, I will pray for you.”

I continued reading the Bible, all the while fighting the idea that it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. Conspicuous with my butch haircut, I reminded myself that I came to meet God, not fit in.

I did not want this. I counted the costs. And I did not like the math on the other side of the equal sign. But God’s promises rolled in like sets of waves into my world. “If anyone wills to do [God’s] will, he shall know concerning the doctrine” (NKJV, John 7:17). I prayed that night that God would give me the willingness to obey before I understood. Did I really want to understand homosexuality from God’s point of view, or did I just want to argue with him? But when I looked into my heart through the lens of the Bible, I wondered, Am I a lesbian, or has this all been a case of mistaken identity? If Jesus could split the world asunder, divide marrow from soul, could he make my true identity prevail? Who am I? Who will God have me to be?

Then, one ordinary day, I came to Jesus, openhanded and naked. In this war of worldviews, Ken was there. Floy was there. The church that had been praying for me for years was there. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I loved. But the voice of God sang a sanguine love song in the rubble of my world. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death, he could make right my world.

I rested in private peace, then community, and today in the shelter of a covenant family, where one calls me “wife” and many call me “mother.”

And my former life lurks in the edges of my heart, shiny and still like a knife.

Photo: Jimmy Williams

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