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An affirming hymnal is helping LGBTQ Christians keep the faith

By AJ Willingham, CNN

Ask any Christian, and they’re likely to tell you their earliest experiences of religion are ones of music. The memories of voices swelling with song or a grandmother softly humming a favorite tune can hold a sacred place in one’s heart, deeper than even speech or scripture can reach.

Jeannette Lindholm knows the feeling. The professor and hymn writer based in Salem, Massachusetts was raised in an evangelical Christian church, surrounded by music. “Hymns have a powerful influence on theology and how people understand and experience the divine,” she says.

Except, her early years of faith were marred by a strong dissonance. To her hometown congregation, and even to her family, Lindholm’s sexuality was a sin in need of healing, an aberration to be tolerated at best.

But Lindholm didn’t want to be tolerated. She wanted to be loved.

“I profoundly believe in the healing power of love and grace,” she said. “I didn’t want to abandon my faith.”

Instead, she dedicated her life to studying music, feminism and theology. She absorbed other religious perspectives. She fell in love with her now-wife, Chris, and found a faith community that believed what she had all along: That divine love has no qualifications, and to be different is a blessing.

Two of Lindholm’s works are featured in “Songs for the Holy Other,” a collection of LGBTQ-affirming hymns compiled by the Hymn Society, a 100-year-old institution for religious music. First published in 2019, the collection has proven to be a unique resource for churches who fully celebrate queer believers.

“The title, Songs for the Holy Other, is a self-conscious claiming of otherness as holy and beloved of God,” the project’s mission statement reads.

LGBTQ Christians, faith leaders and allies know how important this perception is — to see otherness celebrated in this powerful form of song, and to be considered necessary in a community instead of just tolerated.

Building a new hymnal tradition

“Songs for the Holy Other” was compiled by a committee of Hymn Society members representing seven denominations and a wide range of sexualities and gender identities. Through submission calls and good old word-of-mouth, the committee chose 45 texts from more than 160 songs and hymns, paying specific attention to works that weren’t already widely available.

The result is an alchemy of tradition. Historically, hymns have been written to fit with different, familiar tunes to make them easier and more enjoyable for people to sing. That practice continues here, with some recently written works like “A Hymn for Self-Acceptance,” “God of Queer, Transgressive Spaces” and “Impartial, Compassionate God” being paired with melodies familiar to many churchgoers.

CJ Redden-Liotta, a long-time church music director and Hymn Society member in Virginia served as the project’s music director. He says small collections of queer hymns and worship songs began to proliferate in the 2000s and 2010s, but it was hard to find an easily available publication that featured the works.

“Even as a choir director [at a large church], we often had to turn to songs and hymns that had a very tenuous connection to the community — mentions of rainbows and wide welcomes and the like,” he says.

For believers trying to find a way forward in a faith that has historically shunned and endangered queer and other marginalized peoples, implicit references are not enough. They aren’t enough in the same way mere tolerance isn’t enough, or “loving the sinner, but hating the sin” — a phrase Lindholm and other LGBTQ Christians report hearing often — isn’t enough.

“It is important for churches to explicitly state who is welcome there. It is important for members of our community to hear their names spoken — and sung — in their houses of worship,” Redden-Liotta says. “So many of us who are members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community have visited a church that proclaims ‘all are welcome’ only to find out that there are a lot of exceptions to who they believe ‘all’ are.”

Why affirmation — not just tolerance — matters

American Christianity is far from homogenous in its acceptance of homosexuality. While many mainline Protestant and Anglican denominations like Episcopalianism, Lutheranism and Presbyterianism ordain LGBTQ clergy, sanction same-sex marriage and claim to be affirming, levels of hospitality for queer members can vary widely from congregation to congregation.

Larger and louder denominations, like Catholicism, Evangelicism, Mormonism and many Baptist faiths, do not generally affirm LGBTQ individuals or ordain them as leaders. Those who grow up in non-affirming traditions often have a complex and painful relationship with their faith that may lead them to leave religion altogether or seek out a different denomination.

Such pain can sting anew every time Christianity is used as a bulwark for anti-LGBTQ legislation, as is the case for the dozens of anti-transgender and censorship bills that have cropped up around the US over the last few years.

Neither statistics nor scripture wholly support the idea that Christianity and LGBTQ identities are mutually exclusive. About 54% of practicing Christians said homosexuality should be accepted, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. (Though, as is discussed here, there can be some key theological and practical differences regarding the extent of that acceptance.) About 47% of LGBTQ people are religious, a 2020 study found, with Christianity being the most-reported faith. For those who leave Christianity altogether, the church’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals ranks as a top factor.

Sarah TevisTownes, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, preaches to about 150 people each week at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Under the name @disorganized.religion on TikTok, she has 151,000 other followers who listen to her thoughts on theology, God, and deconstruction — a term many disillusioned Christians use for describing the process of questioning and rebuilding their faith.

“The first thing I tell people is that affirming queer people in Christianity is not a radical notion,” she tells CNN. “Mainline religions have held these views for a long time.”

She, like other LGBTQ-affirming clergy, dismisses the notion that the Bible condemns queer lifestyles. In fact, she says, the very story of Jesus, the fulcrum of Christianity, can be read through a queer lens.

“He left home, he traveled, he never had kids. He hung out with a bunch of women in a time when that was a socially unacceptable thing to do. He didn’t embrace Roman concepts of power. He modeled a very different way of being masculine,” she says.

TevisTownes identifies as pansexual, and left the Presbyterian Church when she was younger because, at the time, it didn’t ordain LGBTQ clergy. Resources like “Songs for the Holy Other,” she says, are important in not only affirming LGBTQ believers, but acknowledging the pain that religion has caused them.

“Queer people are longing to be heard,” she says “The church was supposed to protect them and love them and teach them about God. It has made a lot of mistakes, and we have a lot to make up for.”

Healing those wounds could look like leaving religion altogether. It could look like finding a different community — a different denomination, a group of likeminded worshipers, or just a supportive group of people on TikTok.

But whatever it looks like, she says, it deserves to be the truth.

“If we are hiding, we are not being authentic. We are practicing lying, and you can’t build a faith on that.”

For LGBTQ Christians, faith in spite of otherness is incomplete. Their truth must be named and affirmed and loved.

It must be sung.

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