Generous Spaciousness: Wendy Gritter

Interview by Josh MacIvor-Andersen

 

New Direction of Canada exists to nurture “safe and spacious places for those outside the heterosexual mainstream to explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ.” The ministry began in 1985 as a small Bible study for people of faith addressing personal questions of sexuality and has grown to be an international presence in the conversation about sexual diversity. Wendy Gritter has brought New Direction through various seasons to where they are today, committed to seeing “sexual minorities encounter and grow in Christ-centered discipleship marked by radical trust, robust hope, and fearless love.”

 

What draws you to work with sexual minorities?

I hope that anyone who is a follower of Jesus, regardless of whether they have experienced marginalization themselves, will see as an intrinsic part of the gospel that we are to go to the margins—whatever those margins may be.  Unfortunately, particularly in the evangelical church, those who do not fit neatly into the heterosexual majority continue to find themselves on the edges.  But I don’t want to ghettoize this one area of engagement as some unique special area for ministry. We are to go, not with a patronizing attitude of “helping,” but to identify with and become friends with all those who find themselves on the margins.

When we do this, we are fundamentally changed. It is spiritually formational for us, because we’re often so impoverished in the luxury of our dominant majority status. In going to those margins, we discover that instead of bringing God to that place, we meet God in that place, and he changes us. He changes who we are and how we engage the world. I’ve learned more than I’ve offered in the years that I’ve served in this area.

 

Can you give an example of something you have learned?

I’ve learned that the conversation around sexual diversity is incredibly complex. We need humility, discernment, and grace to do it well.

I’ve learned that we need to listen to one another’s context. There are things that can be learned from every part of the body of Christ, and there are things that need to be learned by every part of the body of Christ. My hope is that the global conversation within the church can have that kind of honorable tenor to it—a willingness to both learn from and offer to—because we need each other. For example, there are things that we in the West need to rediscover in our interaction with followers of Jesus from the global South, and there are things that we can offer. For me, it’s all about posture and language and tone and ethos in how we have the conversation together.

 

You talk about nurturing “generous spaciousness.” What does that mean, and why do you believe it’s so important?

After a number of years working for the ministry, I increasingly felt the tensions that come from Christians presenting you with their orthodoxy test, which you must pass before they will engage in any kind of conversation with you.  I needed to prove that I believed the exact same things they did about gay marriage before they would trust me enough to have a conversation with me. I knew this was a similar experience that many sexual-minority persons experienced in the church.  It seemed the expectation was that you had to give the right answers, with a degree of certainty, before you could really engage your questions and wrestle with different perspectives.  This expectation simply shuts down real conversation and can alienate those who genuinely want to wrestle with the implications of the Christian faith.

So I’ve developed the concept of generous spaciousness from the belief that the Holy Spirit can be trusted to work in people’s lives and to lead them where they need to be.  That means that we, as human beings, can offer the gift of space to those who are wrestling with deep questions, uncertainty, and doubt.  On the question of how the Christian faith is worked out in the life of a gay person, this space is essential.  When people are expected to conform to a standard of orthodoxy without having the freedom to really question, wrestle with, and own their beliefs and convictions, the typical result is a shallow, works-based faith that cannot sustain the storms of life.  So many gay people who do have an open heart to Jesus have walked away from the Christian faith because there was no room for them to really wrestle with God, Scripture, and the tradition of the church.  Additionally, many Christians with gay friends are also struggling to clarify what they believe and why—and they need a safe place to continue to process and work through these questions.  Generous spaciousness challenges the church to offer that kind of room, with the conviction that God is pleased with a fully engaged mind and heart, that God will lead and guide people.  We don’t need to try to control what people believe, because when spiritual exploration and discernment are encouraged a much more robust and owned faith emerges.

Generous spaciousness seeks to dismantle a sense of polarity that creates winners and losers, those who are “in” and those who are “out.”  In the culture wars around homosexuality, inevitably someone feels marginalized and that their voice is not being heard.  Today it is often conservative Christians who feel their voice is drowned out in an increasingly gay-positive culture.  Generous spaciousness chooses to live in the tension of our differences—and prioritizes that all the voices in the conversation need to be heard, honored, and respected—even if we disagree with some people’s conclusions.  Rather than assuming the worst of people and judging their hearts and their motives, generous spaciousness expects the best by encouraging everyone in the conversation to be centered on Christ, willing to lay down our privilege and status, willing to listen for the Spirit in the other, willing to wait for God to bring clarity and understanding.  Generous spaciousness understands that different theological starting points may result in different conclusions—despite both parties sharing a deep commitment to Christ and a high regard for the Scriptures.  This understanding allows us to be generous with one another, take the risk to listen to one another, and trust that the Holy Spirit will continue to lead us into all truth.

 

How has your ministry—and your heart—grown or changed since you started working within this posture of generous spaciousness?

I am so very grateful to have grown as I’ve learned to embody the posture of generous spaciousness.  I serve a much bigger God than I once believed in.  This means that I have a more fearless and confident faith.  I’ve been enlarged in my own capacity for generosity, humility, and extending grace to those with whom I disagree.  I feel I’ve been given the freedom to grow in the fruit of the Spirit where previously there was a sense of tension and vigilance to protect myself from ideas and beliefs that were too liberal.  This protective mode kept me in a place of control and anxiety rather than the freedom to trust the Holy Spirit and be open to listen and learn.

In terms of the ministry, I believe God has honored our taking the risk to be more generous.  Today, we have people across a very diverse spectrum of belief and practice who connect with us for conversation.  Prior to generous spaciousness, many of these individuals would have been cynical or distrustful of a Christian ministry like ours.  These conversations are priceless to us.  We get to see the fingerprints of Jesus all over so many different people.  We have new eyes.  And we get to gently stir up faith in these conversations.  We get to be ambassadors of reconciliation.  While there are many caricatures of the gay community, and certainly you can see a variety of reactionary excesses on display in events like Gay Pride parades, we get to connect with one heart at a time.  And each heart is created to be in relationship with its Creator.  Sensitivity, capacity for faith, and a longing for worship—when we encounter this in a person, it is profoundly beautiful.  So we are very grateful that the posture of generosity allows us to glimpse and encourage connection with God, where the evangelical church at large essentially has no voice.

 

A few years back, you changed your focus from trying to help gay people find freedom from their orientation to encouraging them to explore and grow in relationship with Christ. What led to that shift?

This shift was primarily energized by our missional passion.  We became increasingly concerned with how our messaging, language, attitudes, and postures were perceived by those who were outside the Christian community. We recognized that we are called to be incarnationally present in the world, but if we’re constantly alienating our neighbors, it is hard to become a vital part of the neighborhood.

In relating to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people, the most alienating part of the old message was the issue of orientation change. As long as we were associated with the idea of promoting orientation change—which was perceived as a validation for being against civil rights for LGBTQ people, it created barriers with sexual minorities. We needed to be very clear that we were NOT emphasizing orientation change, because (1) the research is not bearing out the claims that orientation can be changed, and (2) because it is being perceived as a message that insists on people living inauthentic lives.  It became an issue of our own integrity because we did not see a focus on orientation change as being consistent with the good news of the gospel.

The evangelical church says to sexual minorities, “Don’t define yourselves by your sexuality identity.” But nearly every evangelical ministry initiative or program has been completely focused on sexuality.

I am deeply concerned with deconstructing a reductionistic sense of sexuality by helping the broader church understand that same-sex sexuality is an aspect of the personhood of sexual minorities. It isn’t only or primarily about what people might want to do in terms of sexual activity, but is a way of being in the world, of viewing relationships, expressing creativity, humor, all those aspects of who we are as a human.

We need to find new ways, new wineskins, to relate to people across the spectrum of sexual orientation simply as human beings. If we can find points of connection that are meaningful—not just talking about the weather but actually having conversations about things that matter—we can focus on seeing one another through the lens of our shared humanity.

 

How have sexual minorities outside the church—whether they left the church at some point or were never a part of it—responded to your outreach efforts?

We have a lot of credibility-building to do. We have trust to earn. We have people watching us and testing us all across the spectrum.  But I’ve found that when we posture ourselves relationally, generously, and humbly, people respond to that.

Sometimes I shake my head and wonder: Why do they trust me? Why do they share their lives with me? But I’m grateful that they do. I think it says something to the power of language and posture and attitude.

 

You take a creative approach to engaging people in conversation. Tell us about some of the ways you do this.

At New Direction we are committed to finding mutually respectful and innovative opportunities for engagement.  Two of our initiatives particularly embody this commitment.  The first is an online conversation forum around the arts, where we invite a team of contributors to submit their reflections on a piece of art and invite others to respond.  Often, this is a piece the contributor has created.

The second is an online community focused on matters of social justice.  We invite our connections to share about projects they are involved with and invite others to catch the vision.  I went to Cambodia in 2011 to develop relationship with a few agencies that we especially wanted to highlight for our networks.  In Southeast Asia there is a group of prostitutes called LadyBoys who are transgender.  These are very vulnerable individuals who endure sexual assault and beatings and extreme social isolation. But there are some wonderful Christian groups who are offering a safe place, job training, and a new start to those who want to leave the sex trade.  In raising awareness and support for the groups that work with this population, we can join in mobilizing the compassion and resources of gay Christians to bring justice and shalom.

 

Josh MacIvor-Andersen is a freelance writer and assistant professor of English at Northern Michigan University, Marquette, Mich.

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