Jobs Homes Autos For Sale

Proud to be ordained -- and gay
By James Fuller | Daily Herald Staff

The Rev. Jay Johnson returned to Wheaton College in April 2006 to revisit the place he discovered he was gay and to tell students they shouldn't feel alone if they're questioning their sexuality.


Courtesy of the Soulforce Riders

Jay Johnson is now an ordained and openly gay Episcopal minister.


 1 of 2 
print story
email story
Published: 9/25/2007 12:03 AM | Updated: 9/25/2007 8:08 AM

Send To:





Jay Johnson once lived a secret existence he didn't even have the words to describe.

On the outside in 1980, he was a Wheaton College freshman who represented all the ideals of the Christian community he grew up in, right down to thoughts of wearing a collar himself someday.

On the inside, confusing thoughts and impulses haunted him. He knew he wasn't like his peers, but couldn't figure out why.

Johnson had a loving family. He attended the local schools, dated the local girls. His father was a member of the Wheaton College faculty.

And yet, that freshman year he began living two lives. He even kept two separate journals. One was about his everyday life. He locked the other in a drawer in his dorm room.

"I posed a lot of questions to God in that journal," Johnson recalled. "What's wrong with me? Why is this happening?"

He felt increasingly isolated. Then, sophomore year, he was called into a counselor's office.

Johnson was not getting along with his roommate, so he wasn't surprised when the counselor told him the living arrangement wasn't working.

Then, out of a desk drawer, the counselor pulled out photocopied pages of Johnson's locked-away journal.

"It was akin to finding yourself naked on stage in front of a whole auditorium of people," Johnson said. "I thought my life was over."

Johnson had been outed by his roommate. The journal recorded inquiries about why his relationships with women were unfulfilling.

"I thought it was a phase, and sooner or later the light switch will flip on," Johnson said. "I thought I was just sort of late. No one talked about it."

The counselor sent Johnson to therapy.

"I thought maybe there is a problem that can be identified and fixed," Johnson said.

He dedicated himself to a cure by taking his secret journal and setting it on fire. He would burn his thoughts and, he hoped, his problems with them.

It was too late. His secrets were no longer hidden. Summer plans to backpack through Europe ended when two students said they no longer wanted to travel with him.

"I was not defensive, but I was certainly hurt," Johnson said. "I just completely acquiesced as if it was a natural thing for people to not want to be around me. I was terribly sad. I was isolated and alone."

Six months of therapy did not flip the switch as Johnson had hoped.

"I still walked out of there with the idea that this is a problem that needs to be fixed," Johnson said. "The good news was I was not alone. The bad news was I've got a serious problem that needs to be fixed."

Johnson knew the college had a policy against being a practicing homosexual, but no one ever checked in with him to see the results of his therapy. He decided to pursue answers to his questions on his own.

That's when Johnson was invited to go to church by a resident assistant in his dorm. It wasn't his regular Sunday church outing. This was Mass at St. Barnabas in Glen Ellyn, an Episcopal church.

Johnson found several other Wheaton College students attending the church and was hooked by the active participation and enthusiasm. He had found a new social outlet in these friends.

Johnson didn't come out and say he was gay in those conversations. That didn't happen until spring of his senior year. By then he decided it was time to tell someone about his feelings. He chose a friend he'd known since junior high. Turns out, both were gay.

Still, the conflict between his sexuality and religion was strong. Abandoning his faith was not an option. He was even majoring in theological and biblical studies, where he found a talent for ministry work. At the same time, Johnson believed abandoning his sexuality would be akin to cutting off a leg in an effort to be a better dancer.

"There was no sense that I could get rid of one in favor of the other," he said.

So even though his Wheaton College education gave him all the academic and critical thinking tools and spirituality to examine the texts and traditions of his Christian faith, the key to solving his struggle did not come in his college years. But those tools would come in handy later.

Six months after graduation, Johnson decided to go back to therapy. This time it would be with a therapist of his choosing. By now, he'd decided he wasn't looking for a cure, but a way to put all the facets of his life in harmony.

He believed he'd also found his calling. He entered the process of ordination in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. The process begins at the parish level. That meant interviewing with his local rector and being honest about his sexual thoughts.

It would be a big risk. Coming out at his church meant possibly alienating himself from his spiritual home.

The reaction was better than he'd hoped.

"It was supportive and encouraging," Johnson said. "But the rector did think it was important that I promise to be celibate in order to move forward in the ordination process."

A lifetime of celibacy did not seem unreasonable at that moment.

"I did not recognize that this was a false choice that was put in front of me," Johnson said. "I believe there are some people who are simply called to be celibate, but I think that's a very small number."

Johnson's path to ordination began. In the fall of 1985, he was off to a theological seminary in Wisconsin.

There he met another gay man. Through their conversations, Johnson realized he needed to go to confession.

"I needed to confess my sin of not appreciating God's gift of sexuality," Johnson said. "I realized not accepting and receiving this gift of sexuality was actually sinful."

Johnson had always considered his sexuality a thorn in his side, a birth defect, but now realized he could be wrong. It was a revelation that allowed him to feel happy in his own skin for the first time.

A visitor to Johnson's room at that point would have seen evidence of that revelation in a bumper sticker that he cherished. It read, "What causes heterosexuality?" It was a bizarre twist on the question he asked himself even before he knew he was gay.

"Sexuality is far too complex to reduce to any one cause," Johnson said.

The next step was making sure his beliefs were compatible with his calling by coming out to his bishop. Johnson wanted there to be no questions about him going through the ordination process.

The bishop told him to worry about his sexuality only insofar as necessary to integrate that sexuality into the rest of his life. Concealing his urges from the world would only wreck havoc in Johnson's life, he said.

The bishop behind that advice was Frank Griswold, who went on to become the presiding bishop and chief pastor for the Episcopalian Church. Griswold is now retired.

Johnson was ordained in June 1988 and served as curate at St. Simon's Episcopal Church in Arlington Heights. He made the decision to not make himself known as a gay man while in the parish. He was still afraid.

"While I was not engaging in outright deception, it did start to feel like leading a double life, which eventually takes a heavy toll," Johnson said. "The folks at St. Simon's were great, and I loved working with them, but I made the decision after my three years there never to closet myself again."

And he never did.

In 1991, Johnson began a doctoral program in Berkeley, Calif., and fell in love with the Bay area. He is currently the acting executive director of The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Since achieving that position, he's begun to focus his research on integrating spirituality and sexuality, not only as a gay man, but as a Christian.

"Christian churches don't know what to say about sex except who to do it with and when," Johnson said. "By focusing on a very few biblical passages that supposedly condemn gay and lesbian relationships, Christians are missing the forest for the trees."

Instead, Johnson focuses on biblical sources and historical theological traditions where he said he's found the language of erotic desire and homosexuality to be comparable to the language used to talk about human desires for God, as well as God's desires for us.

This language doesn't relate to literal sexual attraction to God, but rather a deep desire for communion. Such language gets to the root of man not being meant to live alone, Johnson said.

He's taken steps to help ensure other Wheaton College students and alumni aren't alone as he was in his struggles on campus. Johnson is active in the college's gay alumni association. And, he recently returned to the college to take part in a panel discussion where he told current students it's OK to be gay and Christian.

"I'm very happily a gay man, and I'm not grudgingly a Christian," Johnson added. "This is not a thorn in my flesh. In fact, if I were presented with a pill that would 'cure' my sexuality I would pretty likely not take it. This is who I am."

Leaving the gay lifestyle behind