Mel White Letter to Dr. James Merritt, President, Southern Baptist Annual Meeting, April 2, 2001

April 2, 2001

Dr. James Merritt, President of the Southern Baptist Annual Meeting
Senior Pastor, Fellowship of Joy Southern Baptist Church
2400 East Main Street
Snellville, GA 30078

Dear Dr. Merritt,

You are my brother in Christ. I write this letter in the spirit of Jesus who said, "If your brother sin against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone: if he shall hear you, you have gained your brother, (Matt. 18:15)." I am writing, not to criticize or condemn, but to begin a dialogue with you that will lead to understanding and even reconciliation.

As President of the Southern Baptist Annual Meeting, you and your Executive Committee are in no small way responsible for the spiritual health of more than sixteen million Christians. Even the most conservative census data reveal that 500,000 to 1,000,000 of your sister and brother Southern Baptists are counted among God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender children.

I don’t know how many of the tens of thousands of emails, phone calls, faxes, and letters that I receive each year come from closeted lesbian or gay Southern Baptists, clergy and laity alike. However, I can say that hundreds of thousands of sexual minorities serve your denomination faithfully as pastors and teachers, ministers of music, organists and pianists, choir members, deacons, foreign missionaries, seminary professors, and church administrators.

I’m writing on behalf of these hundreds of thousands of gay Southern Baptists who are haunted by their fears that God doesn’t love them and terrified by the prospects of eternal damnation. Their letters would break your heart. These are the people you serve, who look to you for prophetic and compassionate leadership. And yet for decades the Southern Baptist Annual Meeting has condemned them and ignored their cry for understanding without seriously re-examining the Biblical data, let alone considering the new scientific, psychological, medical, historical, and pastoral evidence about homosexuality and homosexuals.

I know that you are sincere when you say that homosexual acts are a "sin" that can be forgiven and/or a "sickness" that can be cured. I know you genuinely believe that those six biblical passages clearly condemn loving, committed same-sex relationships. I know you think sexual orientation can be changed. I know that you are convinced that Southern Baptist anti-homosexual teachings and actions do NOT lead to suffering and death for the very people you serve, but what if you are wrong?

What if more than one hundred thousand members of the American Psychological Association are right when they say, "Homosexuality is not an illness, mental disorder, or emotional problem." What if the American Counseling Association is right when it warns that "reparative therapy" risks leading to "depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviors."

What if a thousand members of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors are right when they say "…Our experience leads us to conclude that an individual’s sexual orientation is present from very early childhood and could not be a matter of choice that represents either disease or sin. We believe that sexual orientation is another example of the multiple blessings of God’s creation."

What if Dr. Robert Garafolo of the Children’s Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is right when he explains why gay youth are seven times more likely to kill themselves than heterosexual youth: " "…there’s nothing intrinsically pathological about gay, lesbian, or bisexual youth," he says. "Nothing about homosexuality itself predisposes to suicide…. But when you consider the isolation, marginalization, hopelessness and depression gay students experience, it’s no surprise they report more suicide attempts. What’s absolutely critical," Garofalo concludes, "is to support these kids in an open and nonjudgmental manner."

The letters and emails I receive from closeted gay Southern Baptists make it clear. Their feelings of "isolation, marginalization, hopelessness and depression" flow directly out of the anti-homosexual teachings, attitudes, and actions of their Southern Baptist churches. And yet there isn’t one Baptist in the world who wants to contribute to the suffering and death of those they serve.

What if Evangelical Bible scholar, author, and Fuller Seminary professor, Dr. Lewis B. Smedes, is right when he says, "The church’s whole biblical reason for its exclusion of gay and lesbian people from its fellowship is wrong. It is biblically wrong, but also cruel, mean, and devastating… It treats God’s children as if they’re not God’s children, and if there’s any heresy in the world, it’s that."

What if Louisville Presbyterian Seminary’s Dr. George R. Edwards is right when he says, "The prophets are as silent on the subject of homosexual acts as is the whole tradition of the New Testament teaching of Jesus. This is," he says, "a significant silence."

What if Bible scholar, author, and Auburn Seminary professor, Dr. Walter Wink, is right when he says, "Approached from the point of view of the Spirit rather than the letter, the question ceases to be ‘What does Scripture command [about homosexuality]?’ and becomes ‘What is the Word that the Spirit speaks to the churches now, in the light of Scripture, tradition, theology, and yes, psychology, genetics, anthropology, and biology?’ We can’t continue to build ethics on the basis of bad science."

Dr. Merritt, I am writing as a gay Christian brother who loves Christ and who is committed to Christ’s church. All I’m hoping for is that you will ask yourself the question, "What if we Southern Baptists are wrong about homosexuality and homosexuals?" Isn’t there something we could do together to help get this issue back on the table? To that end, I respectfully suggest the following:

  1. Meet with us before your Annual Meeting in New Orleans, June 12-13, 2001. Hear the tragic testimonies of gay Southern Baptists, their friends and families. Discuss with us the latest scientific, psychological, historical, pastoral, and biblical evidence about sexual orientation. See if we can’t find a way to end the suffering. Name the time and place. We’ll be there.

  2. Appoint a SBC "Blue Ribbon Committee" to take another look at the SBC assumptions about homosexuality and homosexuals, to examine the new evidence, to seek ways for the SBC to help end the suffering and report back to your SBC meeting in 2002.

  3. In New Orleans, ask SBC Messengers to re-examine their teachings and actions about homosexuality and homosexuals to be sure that they reflect the love of Christ and in no way lead to "isolation, marginalization, hopelessness or depression" for those they serve.

  4. And in a press conference or public announcement in New Orleans, make the public record clear. The Southern Baptist Annual Meeting condemns anyone who incites or commits physical, emotional, or spiritual violence against sexual and gender minorities.

I am the Executive Director of Soulforce, Inc. We are an ecumenical network of people of faith from a rainbow of faith traditions. We are committed to applying the rules of relentless nonviolent resistance (as taught by Jesus, Gandhi, and King) to the liberation of all God’s children.

Hundreds of our Soulforce volunteers stood silent vigil at your Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida, in 2000. Dozens of us were arrested in a respectful protest of your SBC beliefs that homosexuality is a "sickness" and a "sin," that homosexuals can and should be "changed." Currently, we are planning our vigils and direct action for New Orleans, June 12-13, 2001. But if you will meet with us before that time, if you will consider seriously our suggestions, if you will send us a clear signal that you share our concerns and are working on a way to end the suffering of God’s gay children, we will cancel our plans for New Orleans and celebrate even the smallest steps you take towards justice and understanding.

Mel White, M.Div., D.Min., Executive Director, Soulforce, Inc.

PS: I’m enclosing a copy of Dr. Lewis B. Smedes 27 minute video-exegesis of Romans 1, the primary text used to condemn homosexuality and homosexuals. You will be deeply moved by it.

(Copies of this letter and the video were sent to 79 members of the SBC Executive Committee)