Every once in a while a book comes along that forces you to rethink some important stuff. Who can come to Christ; what you’ve done in the way of establishing principles and guarding and protecting your children against evil and falsehoods; how you practice the commands of Christ and how crucial some of the seemingly inconsequential commands are to the fabric and fiber of the life of the church – and more personally, in the lives of believers. You realize you’ve backed strongholds, given no thought at all to whether they are compatible with Scripture or merely reflect adherence to talking points, and a bullet train has come barreling down the tracks, leaving splintered presuppositions in its wake.
What this book has done to me is drive me to make a confession.
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, by Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, begins with the story of the author’s conversion while she was “living a very good life”. The back cover copy reads: “She had a tenured position at a large university in a field for which she cared deeply. She owned two homes with her partner, in which they provided hospitality to students and activists that were looking to make a difference in the world. In the community, Rosaria was involved in volunteer work. At the university, she was a respected advisor of students and her department’s curriculum.” A lesbian in a committed relationship, Rosaria was a reliable and solid fixture in the LGBT activist community. That she could be trusted to slay any unruly dragons erupting from the carefully contained conservative and Christian sphere was a given, simply understood by all who knew her. She was in the midst of compiling information for a book about the religious right when she encountered a man of God who defied labeling and stormed the gates of hell in a very… un-stormtrooper-like manner.
The problem with many conversion stories is that the narrative is so sensational that often the reader ends up wishing he had the same dramatic account as the author – or at least something that made for equally stirring reading! “Why can’t my born-again experience be like ___’s!?” You can almost hear the “no fair” muttered under the breath. It becomes all about the convert; Christ the converting Messiah is minimized. This conversion story, however, though full of sensational elements and drama, makes the reader wish she were more like the one who shared the Good News with the convert than the convert herself.
Enter the hero of the story, Ken Smith, pastor of Syracuse (NY) Reformed Presbyterian Church. He read Rosaria’s scathing editorial in the local paper decrying the presence of a Christian, pro-family group on campus and replied directly to her with some simple questions, a summary of which would be, “How do you know you are right?” This set the English professor back on her heels and commenced a dialogue which then led to a friendship between the specialist in Queer Theory and a rather ordinary-sounding older pastor and his wife. Over shared meals seasoned with discussions about poetry, music and knitting, Ken and Floy Smith demonstrated Christian hospitality, and in the process, caused much confusion for Rosaria. They never denied Christ, praying to and speaking about Him as if they knew Him personally, intimately. They introduced Him to Rosaria as if they believed she really could come to know Him, not seeing her as if her sins were such a stain that nothing could cover them.
She writes later, “I learned the first rule of repentance: that repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin. … Repentance requires that we draw near to Jesus no matter what. And sometimes we all have to crawl there on our hands and knees. Repentance is an intimate affair. And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect.”
The Unlikely Convert part of the story is articulated gracefully and eloquently – without salacious details. (I just handed the book to my 14-year old daughter, who has been begging to read it.) Rosaria is an exquisite storyteller, employing direct and simple progression in her thinking about this transformation in her life.
“This word – conversion – is simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreck that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God,” she writes in her Acknowledgements, subtitled, “God, Why Pick Me?”. “I know of only one word to describe this time-released encounter: impact. Impact is, I believe, the space between the multiple car crash and the body count.”
While Ken and Floy were careful never to identify with Rosaria, the lesbian, “they listened to me and identified with Christ”. What defined the essence of the hospitality she experienced with them was that they were sensitive to Rosaria in her self-awareness. “My past was my shrine and any person or worldview that entered into my little world had to genuflect to this. I wondered about these Christians. Surely some of them had pasts… How did they let go of their pasts without losing their identity? Who would I be without my lesbian identity?” Never, she says, did she feel as though her identity was a stain in their lives.
No, this conversion story doesn’t make me want to be like Rosaria. What I want is to be like Ken Smith. No, strike that. I want to imitate Christ the way he imitates Him.
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert reveals sweet and bittersweet accounts of Rosaria’s walk with Christ through her “coming out” as a Christian to the LGBT and academic communities, her maneuvering through the sometimes explosive and complicated church-y landscape that endeavors to “fix” the single person, and her maturing into marriage and learning to spread her own wings of Christian hospitality to bring under their shelter multiple foster and adoptive children. I cried at some point in every one of her chapters and all the way through some of them. Not for sentimentality’s sake but because Rosaria’s true Hero is the same as mine. The same who makes a train wreck out of our false identities so that we have nothing or no one left to identify with but the One who makes all things new. As she says, “Faith that endures is heroic, not sentimental.” Enduring faith, standing firm on the other side of the wreck, firmly in Christ.
So now my confession.
For years I have avoided shopping at the Super WalMart, not because the place is so huge that shopping there counts for 2 workouts in a week or because it’s irritating that they only open 5 of their 45 checkout lanes, despite how long the lines are.
The reason I pulled off my little boycott of WalMart, and particularly when my children were young and in tow, is because of the presence of a cashier who, over several months, was undergoing gender change treatments. My kids were young, but they could tell when a man was underneath that dress, and I didn’t want them to … well….be tainted, stained. To have their young eyes polluted by the sight.
This very “heroic” stand against immorality came back to haunt me as I read Rosaria’s book. She said, “I had been the beneficiary of real Christian evangelism. Ken Smith had spent time with me – and not just spare time. He spent pricey time – real time. He didn’t hide behind bumper stickers or slogans. He never let pride masquerade for principle.”
Every single person I meet deserves real time. Every single soul created in the image of God deserves a demonstration of real Christian evangelism, of heroic faith, not sentimental moralism. Hospitality that turns strangers into Christian friends: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby, some have entertained angels unaware” (Hebrews 13:2).
“Real Christian friends are like that,” Rosaria writes. “We fail one another and in repentance and restoration, we are made stronger and more humble. It is nice to have friends like that. Comforting. Restorative.”