An Unexpected Advocate

One Pastor’s Calling To Love Openly Gay Christians

Caught Off Guard

Part of 3 of 4 in An Unexpected Advocate
By Ken Uyeda Fong
Illustrations by Marian Sunabe
Jul 01, 2015 | 8 min read
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Plans fall through, but a new opportunity arises — one that may mean exposing Ken to even greater criticism and misunderstanding.

For all of the energy and effort that had gone into building sufficient trust for Gary, Marian, and me to engage in an honest dialogue about Christianity and homosexuality for one night in May 2008, I’m sure many of those who saw this as a hopeful sign of more healthy interactions on this vexing issue were disappointed with what happened next: nothing. 

Gary and Marian continued their jobs as therapists, but this in no way meant that they were letting go of this issue. Because he’d already made a firm decision to embrace being gay and Christian, for Gary it was life as usual. He continued to attend All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and perform with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. Marian, meanwhile, kept delving deeper into the humanity of LGBTQ people, becoming an even stronger Christian advocate and ally. Unlike them, however, I’m pretty sure it looked like I was being drawn away from this issue, either by the practical demands of being a pastor and a dad, or because my instinct for self-preservation had finally surfaced. While my personal and professional life did continue to place demands on me, I knew in my heart that I couldn’t just walk away from the divine call I’d affirmed in 2007 to spend down my reputation on trying to find a way for evangelical churches to love and include Christians who were dealing with being LGBTQ.

Before we could officially dissolve our tenuous partnership, Gary, Marian, and I came together a week after the event to evaluate the experience. We’d innocuously picked May 15 to get together, which turned out to be the day when the California Supreme Court voted 4-3 to give gay couples access to marriage as a fundamental right under Article 1, Section 7 of the California Constitution. They had determined that two statutes barring same-sex marriage in California were unconstitutional. So when Gary showed up wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “First Class” across his chest, I knew exactly what was behind his “Do you know why I’m wearing this?”

I quickly replied, “Of course I do. I’m really happy for you. You deserve equal protection under the law, same as me.” Based on how I might have come across during both our private and public discourses, I don’t think he was expecting me to say that. After a pause, he posed a second question to me: “So if I were to invite you and your wife to my wedding one day, would you come?” Again, I didn’t hesitate to respond. “Of course we would. You’re our friend. We would want to love and support you, even if it might make us uncomfortable.” He seemed satisfied with both the speed and the content of my response. But I was secretly wondering if I’d been too quick to speak for my wife, even though she had been a good friend with him long before I met him. And how much ire and fire would I attract even if just I went to his hypothetical wedding?

Christopher Wong, a documentary filmmaker, was there to capture this unforgettable moment on videotape. Personally, he and I were pretty much in the same place regarding LGBTQ Christians and the church: relatively conservative and cautiously compassionate. But as a documentary filmmaker, he was trained to be objective. He and his family had been coming to Evergreen LA for a bit, so he was in the worship service when I explained that our church would be hosting the “We Need to Talk” event. Even though he was already in the throes of finishing and marketing his first documentary film, he told me that the run up to this event and the evening itself should be captured on videotape. As a fellow Asian American evangelical, he was intrigued by the fact that it was three Asian American Christians who were going to talk honestly and publicly about such a taboo subject. I was all for it, but Gary and Marian took some convincing. Once we gave him our blessing, Chris started recording much of what was taking place with us as we prepared for the May event.

So he was beyond ecstatic to be there with his camera and microphones as we spontaneously shared about the California Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision the day it made headlines. Chris felt that the justices had given us the perfect ending for our film, so we decided to stop meeting. None of us then could have known how much this issue would continue to pick up steam across the country and in growing numbers of evangelical churches and institutions. That November, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 8, which took away what the court had given to gay couples just months earlier. But Chris wasn’t there to capture each of our reactions. We were no longer a group. And he had moved on.

A handful of people had donated a modest amount to help get this documentary film made, but circumstances ended up thwarting this. Chris’ first film “Whatever It Takes”, began winning awards at many of the Asian Pacific Islander Film festivals, requiring him to travel to all of the premiers. And because he lived on the Westside, he and his family also started attending a church closer to home, so we lost regular contact with each other. Now without a clear ending and without a director, the vision for making “We Need to Talk” slowly began to fade out.

The months of inactivity on the film eventually became years. Every so often, one of our donors would ask for a progress report on the project. Their inquiries not only reminded me of what we’d promised, but they also made me feel increasingly guilty. I felt that we not only owed our backers a film, but we had also promised many Christians — especially LGBTQ ones — that we were going to make a documentary that would foster much-needed conversations. And then there was that pesky call from God that I had answered in January 2007. I felt like the Lord used the demise of our film to remind me from time to time that I had agreed to spend down my reputation on behalf of LGBTQ Christians. However, whenever I’d feel God’s prod, I’d shoot back, “Hey, what am I supposed to do? I can’t direct or edit all this footage into a coherent narrative. And do I need to remind you that we don’t have enough money to make this film?”

Finally, in the fall of 2011, I made the decision to use the remaining funds to hire a friend, who was a filmmaker and a seminary student, to make a three-minute trailer from some of the footage. Chris seemed only too happy to hand over his tapes so that my friend could digitize them (recording technology had shifted from analog to digital since 2008) before finding short snippets to use. I’d recently learned about something called “crowd-funding” and was planning to use this clip to mount an online campaign on the site. If we were able to raise at least $75K, then perhaps Chris would be willing to come back and make this documentary.

Caught Off Guard

I composed what I believed to be a compelling narrative thread about the journey the three of us had taken together that had climaxed on our church’s stage, and then my friend wove together short snippets to help tell that story. I thought he did a great job, but when I showed it to Gary he thought it was pretty useless and Marian’s response wasn’t much better. Then I asked my friend Marsha to watch it, since she’d been an enthusiastic supporter of both my journey and the film. She too was quite unimpressed and then asked if she could show it to two Asian American Christian friends, one a lesbian and the other a filmmaker, to substantiate her opinion. They too were less than enthralled. It wasn’t just that the converted analog footage lacked the crispness that people had come to expect of films. Or that the quality of the sound was inconsistent. In the wake of the passage of Proposition 8, the story of how three old Asian American Christian friends rebuilt enough trust to have an honest, civil dialogue in front of hundreds of people on one night in a sanctuary simply wasn’t that interesting anymore.

When in doubt, call a meeting. Marian and Gary weren’t interested, but I invited Chris Wong, Marsha, and her two friends Chris and Elisa to meet with me at a local coffee shop so I could hear their misgivings firsthand. Essentially it really came down to this: it no longer was noteworthy for an openly gay Christian man, his straight Christian ally, and a moderately conservative evangelical pastor with conflicting convictions to build enough trust to have a civil conversation in public. As one of them remarked that evening, “So what? How does this ‘move the chains’ on this pressing issue?” I shot back with, “Okay, so is there any reason still to make a movie? If not, I’m willing to call it quits. I’ll just need to contact the donors with this news.”

The foursome quietly stared at the table for a moment. Then one of them finally spoke up, saying, “You know what? I do think there’s still a movie to be made here. But three protagonists are too many. There needs to be a movie simply about you, about your journey to lead your evangelical Asian American church to be more loving towards LGBTQ Christians.” The others quickly chimed in with a level of excitement that had been absent just minutes before. They all agreed that we should forget what’s already been recorded. Instead, tell the story of how Ken learns to navigate this perilous path going forward! I’m pretty sure none of them could detect that my mind then started racing at about a million miles per hour. My thoughts began careening into all the anticipated obstacles and lane markers that had, thus far, kept me feeling somewhat safe on this perilous journey.

An Unexpected AdvocateCaught Off Guard

“If we make this movie,” I stated cautiously, “then I’m going to have to ‘come out of the closet’ as a straight Christian pastor who has privately begun to change some of my views. If this film is about me and my journey, then I’ll be exposing myself to an even greater boatload of criticism and misunderstanding. I’ll no longer be able to hide behind the facade of being a caring but still fairly conservative pastor and Christian leader. Even just the idea of doing this is starting to freak me out.”

My confession only seemed to fuel their growing enthusiasm. Chris Wong was eager to direct this new documentary, while the other Chris agreed to be the director of photography, with Marsha serving as the producer and Elisa as associate producer. It literally felt like God’s Spirit had just birthed a whole new story-project, with me as the reluctant protagonist about to embark on the hero’s journey. Even though it wasn’t my idea, they had all convinced me that this was the story that needed to be told.

As we all left the coffee shop a few minutes later, I got in my SUV and just sat there. What had just happened? Was I going to regret this decision? I’d just met Chris and Elisa, and on top of that Elisa was a lesbian. And now they were part of this new crew that was going to follow me around? And what were my church staff and leaders going to say? They’d grown cautiously accustomed to playing a minor role in our first film. Would they even be open to having cameras around to record our interactions on this contentious issue? What kind of flak was I going to get from my denomination, which had recently decided to disengage from this divisive issue?

I took a deep breath, turned the key in the ignition, and headed home. My wife ‘Snoopy’ never was happy when something I was saying or doing publicly cast her in the same light, even if she didn’t agree with me. On this subject, even though Gary was her old friend, she was definitely much more leery of all the potential negative outcomes to us and our church. I knew that she was definitely not going to be happy with this new wrinkle.

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Ken Uyeda Fong

Ken Uyeda Fong grew up in Sacramento, CA and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley. He completed his M.Div. degree in 1981 at Fuller Seminary, the same year he was called as the associate pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles. He is also now the executive director of Fuller’s Asian American Initiative and assistant professor of Asian American church studies.

Marian Sunabe

Marian Sunabe is a lifelong American Baptist and has served as a therapist and school psychologist for over 25 years. She has been married for 26 years and has three kids, ages 23, 20 and 15. Frustrated artist, classical music lover, and cat person.

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