“A blessing to others.” That’s what John Unger, who retired last year as pastor of Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, Man., decided he wanted to be after wrestling with the issue of homosexuality.
For Unger, the journey started in 2011, when his daughter came out as lesbian.
One of the first decisions he and his wife made after being told was to tell the church council and leaders of the denomination. All affirmed his ministry.
He also informed the congregation.
“After I told them, I had five other couples come to me from the congregation and say, ‘That’s our story, too,’ ” he says.
In 2012, he faced another decision when his daughter decided to marry her partner — and asked him to give a blessing at their wedding.
Since the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith calls “homosexual practices” immoral, this was a problem for Unger. He resolved it by asking himself what Jesus would do.
Jesus, he decided, was not afraid to “be a blessing for everyone,” including those considered sinners by the people of that day.
“Jesus made himself available to all sort of people,” he says. “Jesus always seemed safe. People seemed free to approach and engage him.”
Like Jesus, Unger decided he wanted to be “a person who was a blessing to others, a person who is available and safe.”
He went to the wedding and gave his blessing, imagining their family to be like a shade tree “under which people gather for protection, a place of welcome and inclusion.”
Some have criticized him for being “soft on sin,” especially after he shared his story at a denominational conference last fall. He’s OK with that.
“I’m in good company,” he says.
That said, he still lives in the tension between the weight of traditional biblical interpretation about homosexuality and the evidence of grace, love and “the sense of God’s spirit” in his daughter’s home.
One thing he has decided is not to shut down a conversation about the topic by saying “the Bible says.”
That approach is a “naïve biblicism” that “refuses to take responsibility for our role in discerning the word of God” in this time, he says.
He’s careful to note that this is his experience. “This is our journey,” he states, adding that they are “making our way one step at a time, learning to love one another and welcome each other. We’re still only beginning that process.”
Looking ahead, he hopes Mennonite Brethren will become more open to talking with people who are gay.
“There is a gulf of suspicion, anger and hurt that exists between many evangelical churches and the LGBTQ community,” he says.
If churches are going to be able to “be helpful to our LGBTQ children, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors in any way, we will have to find conversation spaces that aren’t so far apart, spaces that are safe for honest talk for both sides and where care and compassion are tangible.”
As for himself, Unger draws inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount.
“Jesus said that God blesses everyone, showering them with sunshine and with rain,” he says. “God wants us to do the same. So I have committed myself to blessing others without hesitation and without reservation.”
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.