The call came in the middle of the night, its meaning unclear at first. God was calling Ken to spend his reputation on a group of people that none of his immediate family identified with — would he answer?
I was sleeping soundly next to my wife when I “heard” a voice. I can’t tell you how, but I just knew in my spirit that this was the Lord God Almighty. God said, “Ken, I’m now going to tell you why I’ve given you whatever reputation you have. It’s so you can spend it on a people who don’t
have your reputation, a people who have no place at the tables where you are now welcomed.”
Surprised and humbled, I replied with the obvious question: “Whom are you talking about, Lord? It can’t be female pastors and leaders because I’ve been one of their outspoken champions for years. If it’s going to cost me my reputation, I’d appreciate knowing ahead of time whom you’re talking about so I can decide whether I want to risk it on them.”
The Lord God responded with, “Who these people are isn’t important now. What is important is that you truly believe that I am the Lord and that I’m really calling you to use your position and influence among Christians on behalf of these unnamed people that I love. This hero’s journey is as much to save you from dying from an overinflated ego as it is to extend my grace to members of this group. So what’s your answer? Do you trust me enough to accept this costly call, even if you don’t know whom I’m talking about?”
I remember wrestling with God for the remainder of the night. I hoped that the Lord would relent and just tell me who these people were, but to no avail. Finally, as I sensed that morning was about to break, I stopped pestering the Lord and simply said, “Yes, I know that this is you. So you can count on me to risk the reputation you’ve given me. In faith, I will obey.”
As my wife was waking up to go to work, I told her what had happened. “You rarely talk like this,” she replied, “so I believe that this really could have been the Lord.” Her response shocked me, for she had said almost exactly the same thing to me when I came home from the Urbana ’96 Student Missions Conference and disclosed the short, clear message that I believed God’s Spirit had spoken to me there. During several of the stirring worship services, I heard God whisper, “I will place you on the platform at the next Urbana.” My wife told me, “Hey, I believe that God could do that with you,” but I swore her to secrecy, not wanting to influence this outcome in any way by sharing what I had heard with others. A year later, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s speaker-staff invited me to be the Bible expositor for the next conference! The thought of my filling such an auspicious role at this renowned student-missions conference was so frightening to me that every cell in my body was screaming at me to just say no. But because I strongly believed that the Lord God had told me this was going to happen, I knew that I had to say yes in faith and obedience. And when I strode onto the platform in December 2000 in front of 20,000 people, I knew that my wife could be counted on to confirm such mysterious matters.
After our post-dream conversation, we again did not mention what had occurred to anyone else. We believed that God had spoken to me, but we also knew that it still would sound strange to most of those in my church and in our relational circles. Besides, I still had no idea what group of people the Lord had in mind.
Three months later, a respected Christian and community leader from another church came by my church office with a request. He said, “Ken, our Asian American Christian social action group has decided that it’s time for Asian American evangelical churches to start dealing with the issue of homosexuality. They either keep silent or just condemn it. We’d like to host a civil debate between two Asian American Christians — one straight, one gay. And we were wondering if you’d be willing to have your church serve as the site for this.”
As soon as he said “homosexuality,” something clicked in my heart. “It’s gay people,” I thought. “God has called me to spend my reputation learning how Jesus wants the church to love gay people.” Internally, I groaned as my friend stopped talking and waited for my answer. “Why does it have to be gay people, Lord?” I complained. “I’m straight. Nobody in my immediate or extended family is gay. And I’m close enough to finishing my career as a pastor that I could easily coast my way to retirement.”
Immediately upon praying that, it dawned on me why God had picked someone like me to take this on: no one could accuse me of being self-serving! Pursuing this gnarly issue didn’t benefit me or anyone in my family one bit. If anything, I knew it would certainly cost me part of my reputation and potentially tarnish my wife’s and daughter’s. I also knew that easing into retirement would be out of the question. As I realized how I had to reply, I remembered what God had said to me in the dream. I thought to myself, “This is as much about the Lord wanting to keep me from taking my eyes off God as it is about my learning to see an ignored and oft-despised group of people.”
Infused with a newfound enthusiasm, I told my friend, “I’ll need to check with our church board, but I’m all in favor of our church serving as host site for this event in the coming future. And if you haven’t yet nailed down who to ask to fill the ‘straight Christian’ slot, I think God wants me to stick my neck out.” I then told him the quick version of my dream-based call.
My friend seemed taken aback by how open I was being. “You’re a brave person, Ken,” he said, genuinely aware of the risk I was taking. I shook my head in protest. “I’m really not that brave at all,” I replied. “But I believe the Lord God called me to find ways for openly LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Christ to be beloved and involved members of our churches. I’m not brave. I’m just trying to be obedient.”
I left that conversation knowing, as we all know far too well, that obedience — much like the scariest roller coasters at amusement parks — always comes with a “chicken exit”. My next staff meeting was nearly a week away, and the church board meeting another two weeks beyond that. I still could call up my friend and rescind both of my offers. I knew that he’d understand. Even more, he’d probably be hugely sympathetic, knowing that by volunteering to host and to speak, I was exposing myself to slings and arrows from both sides of the issue. At this point, with one short phone call, I could easily sidestep the crosshairs without any of my staff or deacons ever knowing what had nearly transpired. But even as my doubts and fears were starting to get the best of me, the impact of my dream and how clearly God had just shown me what it meant kept me from dialing my friend’s number.
A month or so after volunteering to host the event at my church, I still hadn’t mentioned anything to my church when I received an odd invitation in my church mail folder. It was from a small group of liberal Asian American pastors that I had never heard of. They were inviting me to be part of a small dinner meeting that would discuss the issue of homosexuality. I figured God might be up to something, but I wouldn’t know if I didn’t go, so I called them and said I would be there.
Two weeks later, I tentatively walked into a cramped room in the host-pastor’s church. I’m not sure if the turnout was small because they’d kept the list of invitees small or because most of the Asian American evangelical pastors on their list chose not to come. It turned out that two of us were evangelicals and the other three pastors were from more unashamedly progressive denominations. And then there was Andre.
Before we had finished our boxed dinners, Andre had decided he was done with polite table talk. Reaching into his briefcase, he pulled out the Chinese Yellow Pages and slammed it down on the table. “Rev. Fong,” he bellowed as he looked around the table, “I’m over sixty years old. I’m gay, I’m an activist, and when I was younger I seriously considered becoming a Catholic priest.” He then proceeded to flip vigorously through the yellow-hued pages. “There are over one hundred Chinese Christian churches in this book, and I’ve personally called everyone one of them, hoping to meet with the pastor. And do you know how many of them were willing to meet with me? Zero. Not even one.” Andre then stared right at me, and I was surprised to notice that his eyes conveyed desperation, not anger. “Rev. Fong, what can you tell me that would make these Chinese Christian pastors at least meet with me? I don’t know what to do.”
Sitting there, I was certain that if Andre had called me, I too would have refused to meet with him. But instead of hearing an unknown voice on the other end of a cold call, I was encountering him in the flesh, begging me to help him with his mission. His slightly withered right hand still sat atop the directory, and everyone’s eyes were locked on me. Returning his gaze with a tenderness that surprised me, I began by explaining why he was being ignored by all these Chinese pastors. “To tell you the truth, Andre,” I said, “there’s nothing I could tell you that would make those pastors open to meeting with you. To them, you have three strikes against you. You’re openly gay. You’re a gay activist. And you’re Catholic.”
He slowly began nodding his head. I was surprised that he hadn’t connected those dots before then. When he seemed ready to hear more, I continued. “But right now, Andre, most of them would take my call and be willing to meet with me. That’s because I’m straight, I’m not a gay activist, and I’m a respected evangelical pastor. I can’t give you any details yet, but I promise you that in the coming months I will be contacting them and many other churches to invite them to an unprecedented event at our church. It will focus on Asian American Christians who are gay and Asian American evangelical churches. So long as these pastors trust me to be a legit evangelical pastor — albeit a risk-taking one — there’s every reason to believe that they’ll show up that night. However, if they hear that I regularly attend meetings like tonight’s, their ability to trust me might be seriously damaged.”
Expanding my gaze to include everyone else, and realizing they understood where I was coming from, I said, “So this will have to be the only time I come to this group.” After a short pause, I thanked them all for inviting me, quickly packed up, and headed to my car.
On the drive home that night, I found myself praying, “OK, Lord, I’m starting to see the signs that you’ve officially started me on this journey. I believe that you want me to be part of this upcoming event at our church, so it’s time for me really to trust you and jump in head first. But that’s going to mean talking about this with an ever-widening circle of people — with my church staff, then with the board, and ultimately with our entire church. And of course, once we set a date for this debate at our church, word is going to spread like wildfire, fueling both speculation and expectations among all kinds of Christians and the outside community.”
I settled into my seat and knew I had crossed a threshold at the dinner meeting. I had closed the door behind me and locked it. There was no going back. It was time to ask the church I led to back me up, for us to set a date for the event, and to find and convince an openly gay Asian American Christian to join me on that stage in an uncomfortable, honest conversation.