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By Carol Tanis
GRAND RAPIDS –
Quick to smile and slow to criticize, Rev. Jim Lucas is one of the last people you’d expect to stir up controversy and encourage what some would term “radical” change. Yet, he’s done just that, making our society more accepting in the process.
This year Jim is celebrating his 20 years of ministry to the LGBT community in West Michigan. But to reach this point he’s traveled worlds of change within himself and at times wondered if life was worth the trip.
Recently, he recounted highlights from these years in a presentation at First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids titled, “From Shame to Shalom.” The word “shalom” means peace in Hebrew.
Since 1992 Jim has provided individual and group pastoral care for hundreds of LGBT persons, as well as their family members and friends. Speaking extensively in churches, college classes, and other community venues, he’s helped audiences understand what it’s like to be a gay Christian in West Michigan.
In 2001, he, together with a team of dedicated volunteers, organized the gay-Christian-affirming Gays in Faith Together, known as GIFT. This spring, GIFT launched the “Gay Christian? Yes!” Campaign, featuring a large billboard along U.S. 131 and signs on city buses proclaiming “Gay Christian? Yes!” Also featuring a website http://www.GayChristianYes.org with videos, essays and photos, the campaign has sparked a new dialogue in West Michigan and beyond.
Based on his experience speaking to classes at Calvin College, Hope College, Kuyper College and Grand Valley State University, Jim has noticed a new trend in attitudes reflected in his presentation-opening question asking, “How many of you know someone who is gay?”
“When I first started speaking to college classes 20 years ago, one or two hands might go up,” he said. “Now, when I ask, nearly every hand goes up. It’s a dramatic reversal, one that demonstrates a very encouraging change in our society right here in conservative West Michigan.”
While he’s now proud and happy to reflect on his years of LGBT ministry, there was a time when he saw no possible way to serve openly as a gay minister in the Christian Reformed Church. For years he battled depression and stomach-churning anxiety because he knew that he, like others who are gay, was not accepted by much of the church and society.
Since then through prayer, reflection, counseling and reading many books about what the Bible says about homosexuality, he’s come to embrace his sexual orientation and discard the notion that LGBT individuals are inferior in God’s eyes.
Growing up as the oldest of four children in a loving home in Wyoming, Michigan, Jim attended Christian schools and felt a call to the ministry while a student at Calvin Christian High. Always the model Christian young man, he received A’s in school, was president of his church high school youth group and active in Bible study and prayer groups. Along with a deepening of his faith, he also recalls he felt drawn to a male high school classmate, but didn’t think much of it at the time.
“I just adored this guy who was in most of my classes, but I didn’t think of the attraction in romantic terms,” he said. “Nobody talked about being gay then, except for the occasional snide remark. There was no context in which to think of the possibility that I might be gay.”
While studying at Calvin College, however, Jim began to acknowledge to himself that he felt attracted to other guys, and after three lonely, tortured years he began to tell supportive friends about his sexual orientation. Upon completion of his Bachelor of Arts degree, he followed his calling and enrolled in Calvin Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 1985 with a Master of Divinity degree. Later that year he was ordained and began to serve as a pastor of a small, struggling inner city church in Grand Rapids.
But after four years that congregation, Christ’s Community CRC, disbanded. Another blow came when Jim interviewed for a job opening for a youth pastor position at a CRC in Ontario, Canada. He wanted the job but also knew that he needed, for the sake of his own integrity and health, to tell church leaders that he was gay. He initially told only the pastors. When the church council received the search committee’s unanimous recommendation to hire Jim, some on the council asked if Jim might be gay since he was unmarried at age 36. In order to avoid a controversy, the pastors asked Jim to withdraw himself from consideration for the job. Jim agreed to do so but wrote a letter to the entire council telling them that he was gay.
Although Jim pointed out in his letter that he was living by the church’s requirement of celibacy for those who are gay in orientation, this revelation did not satisfy the council. They wrote a letter back saying that while some council members were in favor hiring him, others were “sickened” by the prospect. Jim still winces telling the story.
During this time, to pay the bills Jim took a job driving a van for Hope Network in Grand Rapids. While the job provided an income, it wasn’t where he expected to be at that stage in life. “I felt trapped and sick all the time with an upset stomach,” recalls Jim. “It was all I could do to drive the van 40 hours a week. I could barely function.”
Starting in seminary Jim had read many books, examining the Bible and concluding that traditional interpretations that condemn gay people are wrong. “I’d read volumes of books, and within my mind I had come to believe that God honors faithful committed life partnerships for people who are gay, but I still hadn’t totally resolved it,” he says.
During this time Jim returned to the therapist he had begun seeing seven years earlier. He credits his therapist for helping him to realize that he needed to feel good about who he was as a gay man “created in the image of God.”
“Eventually I understood that I was such an emotional wreck because I was still swallowing the poison that people were feeding me, telling me that being gay is wrong in God’s eyes,” he said. “I continued to ‘play the hiding game’ a way of agreeing with the message of society that I was sick and should hide. In order to say to myself and to the world that I no longer believed this message, I needed to come out openly as a gay man who also happened to be a Christian Reformed minister.”
“Also, I decided I had nothing to lose if I came out,” he says. “Because of my internalized homophobia, I was almost non-functional with depression and a stomach that almost always felt upset.”
Jim had been wondering for years if God might call him to a ministry focused on the needs and concerns of those who are gay. Now the time seemed right. In Jim’s typical cautious way, he first talked privately with a number of pastors and other leaders in the CRC. “Their encouragement,” Jim remembers, “really pushed me to pursue my dream to help the church become more welcoming of gay people. I received a lot support from church leaders who said ‘yes, the church has been neglecting this issue for too long.'”
One of those leaders was the director of the counseling center at Calvin College. He invited Jim to give a lecture as part of an annual series on sexuality at Calvin College in February 1992. Advertised on posters around campus, Jim’s presentation was titled, “What Would You Say If You Knew I Was Gay?” While there were only about 70 people in the room, among them were a reporter from the student newspaper and a reporter from a conservative religious news service. Word about Jim’s radical testimony spread, and two months later The Grand Rapids Press and the CRC’s national magazine The Banner ran stories about Jim’s proclamation that he’s gay and believes it’s okay with God.
This publicity helped to launch a new ministry for Jim that included individual pastoral counseling, leadership of groups for LGBT Christians, and education in churches and colleges. A number of volunteers helped Jim create a formal nonprofit organization as a foundation for this emerging ministry, and for a period of time this ministry was Jim’s full-time job.
In 1998 Jim’s public affirmation of gay unions led the Christian Reformed Church to release him from the ordained ministry. Jim still bears the scars of this rejection by the church that he loved and served. That same year he began working part-time as a chaplain at Spectrum Health in addition to his LGBT ministry. He continues to find both ministries immensely fulfilling — and challenging.
In May 2001, the Triangle Foundation granted Jim a Catalyst Award for outstanding service to the LGBT community. Later that year Jim worked with volunteers to form GIFT as a new, improved platform for ministry. In 2005, Plymouth United Church of Christ granted Jim ministerial standing in the UCC, a historic mainline Christian denomination that affirms marriage rights for gay couples. And in 2008, after several years of part-time professional coursework, Jim became a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains.
When asked about one of his most memorable experiences in LGBT ministry, he recalled visiting a suicidal young man in a local psychiatric hospital. Jim addressed his concerns about being a gay Christian, and later the man attended monthly programs led by Jim.
“He became active in GIFT and got to know other devout gay Christians, but eventually moved outside of West Michigan,” Jim said. “A year or so later I received a letter from him in the mail saying, ‘Jim, if it hadn’t been for your ministry I wouldn’t be alive today.’ It’s beautiful to see people become healthy and be at peace with themselves and God.”
Today, 20 years after his LGBT ministry began, Jim is optimistic about society and the church becoming more accepting. “It is becoming increasingly rare to see church study reports with titles such as ‘The Problem of Homosexuality.’ In addition, I was recently invited to speak in a pastors’ conference titled, ‘Dialogue with Gay Christians.’ What an improvement! So with a gradual changing view of LGBT people, there is also a change in the framing of messages.”
Jim feels good about the future and still draws hope from one of his favorite Bible verses that he meditated on in his darkest moments, John 10:10, where Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”
“That was the verse that kept me going through all of my years of depression, and that’s what I hold out to people,” he says. “God has something better for you.”