An Unexpected Advocate

One Pastor’s Calling To Love Openly Gay Christians

Finally Loving and Protecting All of God’s Sheep

Part of 4 of 4 in An Unexpected Advocate
By Ken Uyeda Fong
Illustrations by Marian Sunabe
Aug 01, 2015 | 14 min read
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The original idea for the documentary film had just been scuttled and I returned home, dreading what my wife would say after hearing that my newly-formed project crew and I had agreed that the real movie should be about my personal journey to find a way for the church I led to love and include LGBTQ Christians more. Ever since waking up one morning in early January 2007 and telling her that God had called me to spend a sizable chunk of my reputability in becoming an advocate for a yet-unnamed disparaged group of people, she had supported me. A few months later, when I shared that I would be risking my standing on behalf of Christians who were LGBTQ, she did flinch, but she never removed her backing. However, she was honestly relieved when our three-person documentary appeared to have died due to neglect and disinterest.

Now that it had been brought back to life with me as the sole protagonist, she appeared a bit shaken. “Won’t this mean that people will know how your views are morphing to be more loving and inclusive?” she asked. “That’s going to mean more questions, more criticism, and more serious hits to your reputation — and not just to yours, but also to mine, our daughter’s, and our church’s.”

All of these same concerns had hit me at the coffee shop when the idea of making the film about me was first pitched. My trust in God had helped me surmount those fears, but hearing them now from my wife was like a being hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. I was sure that God’s Spirit would help me weather the coming storms, but was it fair to subject my family and our church to the same scrutiny?

She let out a long, involuntary sigh before speaking again. “But being married to you all these years has taught me that, once you’re convinced that something really matters to God, you’re going to go forward, regardless. And it sounds like this is just the latest development in your quest to keep your promise to God.” She sighed again, and then finished with, “Why not?”

Finally Loving and Protecting All of God’s Sheep

Emboldened by my wife’s consent, I told my staff at Evergreen Baptist Church of LA about the new project, making it clear that this would now involve them and our church more directly. I explained, “Since this is now focused solely on my journey to lead this church to be more loving and inclusive of Christians who are LGBTQ, my film crew will initially want to capture some scenes where I’m discussing this with my staff. So I was thinking: as we’re already reading the chapter by Tony Campolo about homosexuality in “Adventures in Missing the Point”, why not just have them videotape our discussing it next week?”

Dead silence. I kept waiting for a response. One of them finally said, “We’re with you on this journey, Ken. We just don’t want to be videotaped talking about this issue.” Everyone else agreed, the meeting was adjourned, and I was left to wonder what was behind their refusal.

When I returned home later that same day, I still was flummoxed by my staff’s response. But I was determined to put them in front of the cameras on this issue, if only to coax them to step out of the shadows and into the crosshairs with me. It turned out though, that while they didn’t feel comfortable discussing the matter on camera with me, they were open to having the cameras there while they explained to me why they weren’t comfortable talking about homosexuality for the film. If you ask me, this turned out to be even more compelling than my original request.

The following week the crew of four arrived early and set up their equipment. So when my staff filed in at 9 a.m., I thanked them for their willingness to tell me why they didn’t want to be seen in the film discussing homosexuality. “Okay, so who wants to get this started?” I asked hopefully. Again, dead silence. As some shifted nervously in their chairs, none of them seemed eager to look at me or into the glassy “eyeball” of either camera. Finally the two youngest pastors found enough courage to tell me what they were all thinking. “You’ve been a pastor for decades,” one of them stated, “and you’ve accumulated a big stack of ‘chips’. The fact that you’re feeling led to cash them in on this issue is your prerogative. More power to you.”

The other young pastor finished the point. “Some of us are just starting out in our careers as pastors. Regardless of what our actual position is on homosexuality, we really don’t think it’s wise to be closely identified with such a controversial subject at this point. We just think it’s more prudent to keep our heads down, build up our pastoral credibility, and then when we get to your stage, we can choose to spend our ‘chips’ on things that matter to us.”

While the rest of the staff seemed to be nodding in agreement, I formulated my response. When I finally spoke, I had everyone’s attention. “I never would have guessed that that would be the primary reason for all of your reluctance. Thanks for being so forthright with me. I understand why you are so skittish on this and I will respect your wishes. However, I think you might want to reconsider something. In my experience, God doesn’t give you ‘chips’ because you manage to last a long time in the pastorate by avoiding controversies or situations that require risk. I started sticking my neck out on other pressing issues — I was a pioneer for English-only Asian American churches and an outspoken advocate for ordaining women and affirming them as church leaders, to cite just two — even before I graduated from seminary. In my experience, one of the main reasons that I have ‘chips’ to spend now is because of my willingness to go out limbs right from the start. You might last in the pastorate, but there’s no guarantee you’ll end up having any ‘chips’ to spend on a conviction.” Even if that encounter doesn’t end up being part of the film, I was glad that I had that opportunity to plant the seeds of bold faith in them. Time will tell if any of those seeds will germinate.

Documentary films, by definition, don’t follow a script. Making one is truly an act of faith by the director and donors because a) no one has any control over the direction the story is going to take, b) the crew won’t always be present when something significant is happening, and c) there’s no guarantee that the story that eventually emerges will be compelling enough to attract a sizable audience. Starting at the end of 2012 and extending past Easter of 2015, my new film crew videotaped a mind-boggling number of conversations and encounters as EBCLA and I tried carving out a middle path of redemptive coexistence as a viable alternative to the two predominating positions that only seemed to reinforce polarization and split churches. Here are some of the major highlights we encountered on the way to making this movie:

Finally Loving and Protecting All of God’s Sheep

Urbana Student Missions Conference, December 2012

I’m still intrigued that whoever was in charge of the workshops for this massive triennial missions conference for evangelical college students chose two Chinese American men to lead the only two that addressed homosexuality. Christopher Yuan packed them in twice, but I spoke to around a thousand students in both of mine. While Yuan was centered more on his own journey as an HIV-positive gay man who then became a Christian, I was asked to take a more theological approach. So I did my best to summarize the late Dr. Ray Anderson’s essay, “Homosexuality and the Meditation on the Tragic”. What I found remarkable was how many students came out on camera to me after both sessions. Many were gay and struggling to align this orientation with their commitment to Christ. I even spoke with one very devout young gay man who had been dating a straight woman, but was starting to see that he wasn’t being honest with her or himself. I left St. Louis wondering if this was the first Urbana where so many missions-minded students were comfortable identifying openly as LGBTQ.

Indiegogo Campaign, January 2013

Movies can’t be made without money. The trailer for the original documentary was supposed to go on Kickstarter but that died with the birth of the new idea for a film. The project’s team met and decided to run a 30-day campaign on this popular alternative crowdfunding site. We shot a brief video, explaining the purpose of our short film and that we needed $50,000 to complete all the shooting over the next several years. At the risk of some people thinking I was a huge egotist, we decided that “The Ken Fong Project” was the best working title as we were hoping to tap into my extensive network of friends. The campaign went live late on January 16, 2013 and immediately modest sums of money were being pledged. I awoke the next morning to find that someone had promised to give $5,000 at 3 AM (PST). What night owl had done this? Shortly before noon that same day I got an email that solved the mystery. Living now in Asia, a former EBCLA missionary with a Christian transgender sibling revealed that this generous gift was from her entire family as a way of thanking me for pastoring them from afar as they learned to navigate this unexpected change in their family picture. A few days later, a pledge of $2,000 came from a straight college sophomore in the Pacific Northwest. Before we hit the halfway point, another promise of $5,000 came from a Christian couple in the South Bay. As the end of the campaign approached, I reached out to a former church member who had gotten married and moved to Amsterdam. She told me that she’d been quietly watching the campaign’s progress and was planning to pledge whatever was needed to get us to our goal. She ended up giving $10,000, which helped us exceed our goal by $2,000. Clearly, there were Christians around the world who wanted to see The Ken Fong Project made.

Six-week Adult Sunday School Class, January – February 2013

Following my experience at Urbana 2012, my executive pastor at EBCLA strongly recommended that I teach Anderson’s theological perspective to homosexuality as part of our adult school curriculum that Winter 2013 quarter. We’d first met when, as an InterVarsity Chrisitan Fellowship staff member, he was working at Urbana ’90. He joined the staff nearly 20 years earlier and had been “leading from the second chair” for close to a decade. Whereas I primarily shaped the overall “destination” of the church, he was accustomed to coming up with many of the details of how we would get there in one piece. He reasoned that since the church knew that I had done that workshop in St. Louis, they’d be curious to hear what their senior pastor had taught there. I figured that this would draw a larger than usual crowd, but was still surprised to see it mushroom from fifty the first class to close to one hundred the last one. Looking back now, I think Anderson’s approach — while much needed — was too esoteric. Most just wanted to know how to resolve the tension between the traditional view of the six biblical passages that seem plainly to condemn homosexuality and the fact most knew and cared about relatives and friends who identified as LGBTQ. I believe everyone found it helpful that a few openly LGBTQ Christians felt safe enough to attend and to share in my class.

Congregational Discernment Process (CDP), June 2013 - January 2014

That class ended before March 2013, and I was gearing up to celebrate Easter when my executive pastor suggested that I lead the entire congregation through a thorough and thoughtful discernment process. “Even though your class was extremely well attended,” he remarked, “that’s still only about one-sixth of our entire constituency. We can’t possibly move ahead unless we’ve done a church-wide effort.” Some of our most progressive members had been seeking the blessing of the staff and deacons for a safe support group for LGBTQ Christians, their family members, and allies. They knew that they could start something like this without that blessing, but to them it was crucial that this be on Sunday mornings, on campus, and announced in the bulletin. “Otherwise,” they kept telling us, “people in this new group are still going to feel marginalized.” I’d been telling them, under those conditions, that they’d have to wait until we’d examined the issue with the entire church. And then, only if one of the outcomes was to launch a group like this.

We designed a six-week series of messages linked to live interviews. I delivered the messages and conducted the interviews that began with John, a friend and pastor who was conservative but compassionate, then led to two openly gay adults, Elisa and Gio, whose fathers are conservative, non-affirming pastors. Next in line was Melvin, a much-beloved former member of my pastoral team, who’d just recently come out of the closet. Finally, we ended with Marv and Julia, theologically conservative Asian American parents of an openly gay son. In retrospect, I believe it was the right call to shorten my messages in order to have time to put flesh and blood on the bullet points.

Each of those weeks we set aside time after each service for folks to be guided by different members of my staff into a prayer-based discernment process. As they meditated on different parts of the Bible that described God and the gospel, they were given time to listen for what God’s Spirit might be saying to our church about loving and including Christians who identified as LGBTQ. They were encouraged to write down what they were ‘hearing’ and turn those notes in for the deacons and staff to ponder. Two weeks after we completed this series, I took my three-month sabbatical leave. Numerous people that I respected told me that this was ludicrous timing, that I would disappear just after I’d “upset the apple cart”, leaving the mess for everyone else to clean up. In my gut, though, I believed that my absence would serve to make the church’s deacons and my staff step up and take greater ownership of the issue and the CDP itself.

And that’s essentially what happened. The moderator convinced the deacon board that, for those three months, they should meet twice a month, not once, because they needed to maximize the time I’d be away. They even invited various people on the spectrum of the LGBTQ experience to come and share at their meetings. As part of that process the board began to draft a statement regarding EBCLA’s official position on this matter, believing with me that the same Spirit would be guiding my thinking, too. When I returned in January 2014, we first compared the two different drafts, then worked together to create one coherent statement. None of this would have been possible without the deft leadership of then-moderator Dr. Debbie Hearn Gin and the deacons who labored to craft the final version for the board’s, and then the members’ approval. We knew that it wasn’t possible to come up with a statement that satisfied everyone’s expectations. We merely hoped to craft something that was faithful to Scripture and also allowed us finally to take some concrete steps towards being more loving and inclusive of Christians who identify as LGBTQ.

The Three Outcomes of the CDP

Due to our taking the entire church through this spiritually-taxing process, it was finally possible to move forward on multiple fronts. The first step was relaunching the Biblical Reconciliation Committee as a subcommittee of the Deacon Board. This would raise the importance of pursuing biblical reconciliation with many overlooked or oppressed groups in our church and community, not just the LGBTQ one. It would mean assigning one of the pastors to oversee it along with one of the deacons. The next approved step was to begin offering more adult Sunday School classes on how to interpret and apply the Bible (“hermeneutics”), without necessarily focusing on the six passages that historically have been understood to condemn homosexual acts. For example, how did the Church resolve the issues of circumcision, slavery, or even divorce and remarriage? How might the hermeneutical principles used in those instances bring clarity and even resolution to this pressing issue? It has taken awhile to get the first of these classes on the calendar, but we will offer one in Fall 2015 to explore what the Bible teaches about marriage. The third and final step was to launch The Open Door, an official biweekly safe support group for Christians who are LGBTQ, their family members, and allies that would meet during the Sunday School hour. This launched almost immediately and has been a haven and home for between 15 and 25 folks, with well over half who are LGBTQ Christians. A few are out completely, while many are only out to a few close family members or friends. About 10-15% came from outside EBCLA. As The Open Door nears its one-year anniversary, we are discussing the desire for them to be less sequestered. A number of EBCLA’s members would like to hear how things are going and would love get to know some of them personally.

A Stirring 2015 Conference

In March 2015, I helped organize a conference hosted by Newsong, Irvine. The main draw was Dr. David Gushee, a prominent evangelical ethicist who made headlines in 2014 when he announced that he now supported same-sex marriage. However, this occasion offered me the opportunity to present an approach that I believe most reasonable Christians could agree was both biblically sound and could help move churches past the hermeneutical stalemate that was perpetuating the status quo. I was able to convince The Ken Fong Project’s (TKFP) film crew to be there to videotape that presentation. They were reluctant at first, having heard me give presentations numerous times before. But I told them that the approach I’d recently arrived at had the most potential to get people on either side of this issue to change their minds and realize that the Body of Christ needs to be a redemptive community of empathy and grace for all imperfect children of God, where the Spirit is free to do the convincing and convicting. I would be focused on Luke 15, on how those two siblings had mischaracterized their father and caused them both to sin against him. Yet it was only because of how extravagant their father was with his forgiveness and redemptive love for both of them that either of them had any reason to hope to be part of their family again.

It was to be expected that the crew for TKFP would become a bit jaded after following me around for nearly two and a half years. They’d heard me teach and debate and seen me build fragile new bridges and momentarily mourn the burning of some long-standing ones. So it meant that much more for the ones who recorded what I presented at “A Stirring” when they told me that this was the clearest and the most nuanced stance from me yet. For I had ended my message that morning by insisting that the God of the Bible, the one whom we worship, wants our churches to be a home for every lost sheep and a place where every lamb is kept safe from harm, especially from the wolves of despair and self-destruction that are waiting outside our doors. Only recently had I come to appreciate that, as a pastor, God had called me to shepherd the entire flock and to guard every lamb with my life, even the ones who are LGBTQ. That doesn’t answer all the questions, and it certainly doesn’t solve all the new problems that are popping up in churches today related to homosexuality. But we pastors have never had the luxury of waiting to have all the answers before feeding and safeguarding all of Jesus’ sheep. This journey that began with a dream in 2007 has been long and discouraging at times. We’ve seen about a 30% drop in worship attendance and a subsequent drop in the giving. But I’ve also come to know precious Christians who have suffered harder and longer than I have or ever will, whom God has used to teach me so much about being a believer, let alone being a pastor.

At the end of that 6-week series of messages and interviews that were at the front end of EBCLA’s CDP, a slightly-built Asian American gay Christian approached me with tears rimming his eyes. In a halting voice, he said, “Pastor Ken, I can’t begin to thank you enough for what you’ve been doing for us gays. And what’s so remarkable is that you don’t even have a gay family member as a source of motivation.” I almost agreed with him, but then caught myself before replying, “You’re wrong. I do have a family member who’s gay. You. You’re my brother in Christ.” When we hugged, he no longer was the only one crying.

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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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