New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.
In my middle school years, someone in my class noticed a funny connection between my name and a certain pain relief cream. It didn’t take long for that student and a small group of others to realize how much of a reaction they could get out of me by teasing with this new nickname.
“But I’m a Christian!”, I would say, “it’s against my religion to be gay!”
I now realize that not only was this defense exactly the kind of thing that made them want to ratchet up the teasing to new levels, it also said something about the kind of religion I was devoted to – one that was exclusionary because of the way it defined who was in and who was out.
I left high school for Eastern Mennonite University because I was naively looking for an institution that could solidify certain values that I assumed made for a good and righteous Christian… things like a literal understanding of the Genesis creation narrative and the belief that the earth was only 6000 years old, an adamant opposition to other faith traditions as a path to the divine, and a clarity that as my middle school self knew without a shadow of a doubt – that a good Christian marriage was only meant to be between a man and a woman.
I have deep gratitude for many of the people at EMU who carefully walked with me and kindly demonstrated that God’s love was far more expansive and inclusive than I could have previously imagined. My life was touched there, and then during my time at Fuller Seminary, by LGBTQ+ people and their allies who boldly shared their coming out stories which went alongside their commitment to a deeper and more peace and justice-filled faith. I think about how much I owe to peers and friends like Matthew, Eddie, and Kimberly, and faculty like Ted, Kathleen, and the late Glen Stassen for their presence in my life.
It was this journey that allowed me to be a better and more inclusive minister in my first pastoral role at Salford Mennonite Church, walking with students and young adults who were navigating their own LGBTQ+ experience. It was this journey that allowed me to say yes when David, Eli, and Logan wanted help to launch Receiving With Thanksgiving at Penn State, and why I am humbled and honored to be one of the few inclusive campus pastors who share space with the Penn State Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity’s Chaplain Chats each month. It is this journey that provides me with such gratitude for my pastor colleagues like Jes, Theda, and Jamie, who live such courageous and prophetically bold lives despite the unfortunate ways that they are still occasionally treated by this world.
Today on National Coming Out Day I am moved by the ways that I have been blessed by the many incredible LGBTQ+ individuals who I have crossed paths with. I wish I could go back in time to offer some wisdom to that kid who felt like his world was falling apart because he was being called Bengay on the playground, but I also know that it can take time to change hearts and minds.
May we continue to walk with each other, working for a better world.