Miner is pastor at Jesus Metropolitan Community Church. The church is a member of the Metropolitan Community Churches, an international group of churches that minister to gays and lesbians. And the Rev. Jeffrey Miner — his parishioners call him Pastor Jeff — is unlike any other minister in Indianapolis. He’s an intellectual, Bible-toting, Bob Jones University-educated, Harvard Law School-educated gay preacher.
Miner’s story is like that of many in his church. Rejected by their religion and society, uncertain of their faith, a long and often tortuous journey took them to Jesus MCC, a place where they feel comfortable being both Christian and gay. Born at Beech Grove Hospital, he never quite fit in. He was an enthusiastic “church kid” who found his passion for God at Burge Terrace Baptist Church. But he knew something was wrong after walking down the aisle to be born again.
“I wasn’t really sure it was taking,” he says, “because I sensed I was different, and I wasn’t sure that I had really believed, because if I really believed, would I be different?”
Miner desperately wanted to fit in, and to his friends, it seemed that he was succeeding. Mark Felber, who knew Miner at Burge Terrace and later at Bob Jones, describes Miner as a normal, involved member of the church, and a “good friend.” Like many of the friends Miner had in his fundamentalist days, he is also somewhat surprised by the direction Miner’s life took.
Miner didn’t find guidance at school. “In the junior high school in Franklin Township I went to, in sex education class, they had this brief segment where they showed a picture of a guy trying to lure kids over to his car, and they said, ‘If anyone ever tries to do this to you don’t walk up to them, they’re a homosexual.’ And so in my mind, a homosexual was a pedophile.”
Miner longed to be with people of similar religious beliefs. He decided to attend Bob Jones University, a fiercely fundamentalist school that banned interracial dating until 2000. When George Bush gave a speech there during the 2000 Republican primary, a storm of controversy erupted over his failure to denounce that policy and the school’s anti-Catholic teachings. Miner’s decision to go to Bob Jones was not forced upon him — in fact, his father would have preferred him to go to a state school.
“One thing I’ll say for Bob Jones, they do take academics seriously. They’ll let you read things they don’t believe in — they of course give their editorial spin — but they do expose you to a lot of ideas. So by the end of four years there, I’d learned how to think. I was really beginning to feel frustrated with the narrow-mindedness and the stupidity.”
But Miner did feel there were some benefits to the extremely conservative atmosphere. “When you’re a gay man and you don’t know what to do with that, it’s a very safe place, because they’re so strict with their dating policies … On campus, you go to what’s called the dating parlor, which is like a furniture showroom. And you can’t get closer than 6 inches to your date.”
Miner likely won’t be visiting campus anytime soon. The school has told openly gay alumni that they’ll be arrested for trespassing if they try to return.
When it came time to pick a law school, Miner’s strategy was to apply to a wide range of schools, from University of South Carolina to University of Colorado to Harvard. “University of Colorado said no way, you went to Bob Jones. Bob Jones isn’t accredited, because they refuse to apply for accreditation. That would give the world some control over them. But then Harvard says yes, which was very surprising. I was the first Bob Jones person to get accepted at Harvard Law School. I’m guessing they saw this application from a fundamentalist, and they’re really into diversity, and they probably thought, ‘This’ll really be interesting. Let’s let him in and see what happens.’”
What happened was something that neither party fully expected. At Harvard, Miner was a “fundamentalist in transition,” dealing with the culture shock of an elite cosmopolitan educational institution. He advocated his beliefs at the same time he was beginning to question them.
“I put a letter in the mailbox of everyone in my dorm hall about Jesus. Stuff like that, that I thought I was being what I was supposed to be, and I’m sure they thought, ‘Who is this guy and where did he come from?’”
When Miner timidly spoke up with an argument against abortion in a constitutional law class, there was “a lot of hissing, which is how you boo at Harvard.” His beliefs were far from popular, although incidents like the hissing were rare.
“One thing I’ll say: Bob Jones University — they’re narrow-minded, they know it, and they’re proud of it. At Harvard, most people were just as dogmatic in the other direction, but considered themselves open-minded. It’s almost more dangerous when you’re ideological and unaware of it than when you’re ideological and proud of it. There was certainly a party line, a political philosophy that 80 percent of the students embraced, and if you were going to speak up in a conservative position you were going to have to take some flak.”
Then Miner found a Christian fellowship group. “They sort of helped me deprogram — they took me to my first theater movie, which was one of the things as a fundamentalist Baptist you didn’t do — you didn’t go to a movie theater. They took me to Fantasia, my first movie. They swore there’d be no nudity. And of course, afterwards I told them that they had lied — because of the naked fairies.”
He was still troubled by his own sexuality. He tried getting help from psychologists, but in the end he was forced to look inward. “At Harvard I kept praying, and decided to try to reprogram myself on my own. I remember hanging a picture of Princess Diana in my dorm room — obviously a beautiful woman — and I’d sort of meditate on her picture. Of course I could see objectively that she was beautiful … It was tempting to think ‘maybe I just missed something.’ I would spend time sitting there thinking, God, open me up to this.”
After Harvard, and still uncomfortable with his sexuality, Miner went into a successful career in corporate law.
“But it was at that point, finally, after law school and in my mid-20s, that I would go to theological libraries and just start reading intensively about how did Jesus decide what was right or wrong, how did he approach ethics … And over the course of several years I came to see that there was a lot more to the Bible than I’d ever been taught.
“The way Jesus approached what was right or wrong was radically different than what my fundamentalist churches had taught me. The fundamentalist churches I was raised in — and there are many good things about them — when I examined how they decided right and wrong, about ethics, it is far closer to the enemies of Jesus, the people he was critiquing, than to Jesus himself. Jesus critiqued the Pharisees for being rigid legalists, and that is exactly how fundamentalism approaches ethics.
“Whereas Jesus was much more holistic in deciding what was right and wrong, and from time to time was perfectly willing to contradict a rule, even a rule in the Bible, when certain overarching principles like love and compassion would lead in the opposite direction ... And so that just opened up a whole new world for me, and gradually I evolved to the place where I was at peace with this. And for me, that was a prerequisite. If I needed as a Christian to live the rest of my life celibate, I would try. I was not optimistic that I would succeed an 80-year life without ‘falling,’ but that was what I was going to try to do. Because Christ is more important, faith is more important than sexuality. But I got to that place of peace and I gradually started looking for safe ways to come out in the gay community.”
This was the transforming decision in Miner’s life. With his faith reaffirmed, he told his parents about his sexual orientation. It was not an easy step to take, but they made it clear their love was unconditional. A gay Bible-study group connected him to a Metropolitan Community Church near Washington, D.C.
“When I started attending for real, I was just very leery of it, because I wanted to know if it was real, and I wanted to know that it wasn’t just — and this is internalized homophobia — that it really wasn’t just a social or dating group that was fronting as a church.”
Miner had a holy union — now called a marriage within the church — with his partner David Zeir in 1990. They have remained together since then. Over a seven-year period, he took classes on his path to ordination.
“I’d always held on to the dream of what we call being in ministry. When I came out I thought, well that’s that, it’s never going to happen … But about a year into this it was, oh wow, not only can I be in ministry, but in a way that will be far more challenging, exciting, cutting-edge than I ever could have imagined. Because here’s a whole tribe of people, GLBT people, that have been written off by the church.”
Miner returned to Indiana in 1997 to become Jesus MCC’s chief pastor. The church is a potent voice for the gay agenda in Indiana. Its members have even debated homosexuality in the Bible with the High School Road Church of Christ, in what that church’s Pastor John Welch calls a “cordial” series of debates (although he does, of course, take exception to Miner’s arguments). Transcripts provided by Welch’s church are available at www.faith-facts.com. Miner also thinks the debates were productive.
“He was expecting we were going to come in there and say, ‘Eh, the Bible, it’s kind of an old book. But we’re nice people.’ Which is not at all our perspective — our perspective is, we love the Bible. It’s an incredible book written over thousands of years that has all kinds of stuff that can guide our lives, and we are as biblical as the High School Road Church of Christ is. We disagree with how they interpret certain passages, but we’re as biblical as they are.
“And that’s a scary thought for conservative churches, that we’re not conceding the Bible to them. They know that if their teen-agers hear an intelligent, biblical presentation about why you can be gay and Christian that the game is over. Because their kids are growing up in a culture that is much more open-minded, they have friends at high school who are gay, who seem like wonderful people.”
The Children Are Free, a book that Miner co-authored with John Tyler Connoley, is an attempt to explain Miner’s view of the biblical case in favor of loving, homosexual relationships. It’s an interesting perspective, one that is radically different from the debate the media usually presents — the religious right against the near-Godless left.
Miner would like to change the way people think about these issues with events like the debate with the High School Road Church of Christ. “That was wonderful, and we would jump at the chance, if there’s any other church in town that has the courage to have an open, honest debate about what the Bible says about homosexuality, we would do it in an instant.”
Miner sees one of the key goals of the church as promoting justice in Indiana — and his view of justice includes equality for gays and lesbians. He chairs the Interfaith Coalition on Non-Discrimination (ICON), which has recruited churches that are “affirming” of gays and lesbians. ICON fought for Indiana’s non-discrimination law to be amended to include sexual orientation, a quest that was unsuccessful this year.
“If you introduce yourself as a Christian or a pastor at the Statehouse, and say you want to talk about gay issues, they immediately assume you’re opposing any rights for gay people … It’s news to our legislators that there are a whole lot of people of faith, not just gay people of faith, who believe that we need to make progress in the state.”
ICON is a member of Indiana Equality, an umbrella coalition of groups promoting gay rights. Miner doesn’t try to hide his ultimate goal: gay marriage. This goal isn’t necessarily shared by some of ICON’s membership, a list that includes quite a few churches from mainstream denominations such as the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. Miner has been frustrated by the distant stance that some “affirming” churches have adopted towards his efforts, but he has great hope for the future.
Mark St. John, a lobbyist for Indiana Equality, says Miner has been a “real leader” — Indiana Equality’s point man for “reaching out to communities of faith.”
Jesus MCC doesn’t operate as a particularly liberal church. When NUVO visited a Sunday service at Jesus MCC, there was nothing inherently radical in the presentation. Communion was given, verses were read, prayers were made. Dress was mostly on the casual side. “You could go through my church and say, ‘Who votes Republican and who votes Democratic?’ and you’d be surprised,” Miner says. The message given to gays and lesbians is where Jesus MCC differs.
This message seems to be reaching receptive ears. Jesus MCC has experienced a rapid growth in membership in the last few years, and now has close to 400 attending every Sunday.
Miner’s hope for change rests on his unusual past. He’s walked more than a few miles in fundamentalist shoes. “It really helps me now to say, I was once there, I can see how they could believe that in good faith. Time will make a difference. Time and interaction will make a difference.”
Author Matt Sledge graduated from North Central High School this year and was an intern at NUVO over the summer. He has begun his freshman year at Brown University.
What do you think when you hear the word “Christian”? A Christian is … Many colorful adjectives might be used to fill in that blank.
I would say that I am a Christian, but saying those words places me in a cultural category that I am not so fond of. I am very fond of the Christianity that I read about in the Bible and that I see displayed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I am not fond of the cultural Christianity that has emerged and morphed into what we see before us today.
To be Christian today seems to be synonymous with many different things. One of those things is that Christians have an agenda — which is most widely defined by what we are against. Those outside of the church look at us and understandably draw conclusions based on our anti-agenda. While the anti-agenda isn’t what Jesus has called us to, it is unfortunately what we most loudly and consistently project. We come out with positions on this and that and against whatever new moral threat we believe is destroying our country.
Right now, we are against gay marriage. In the past we have been against Disney, Ozzy Osborne, R-rated movies, long hair and beer. This is a painful position to be in and it robs me of the joy of living out my faith. I do not want my life to be defined by what issues I am against because as soon as I have a position against an issue I have also immediately established animosity with others who are for that position. With the barriers up, no productive interaction will ever take place as we have now made enemies out of our neighbors who, incidentally, Jesus called us to love.
The first four books of the New Testament are about the life and teaching of Jesus. The term Christian was given to identify those people who choose to follow after the life and teachings of Jesus. They are literally Christ followers. In the first generation following Jesus’ death and resurrection, thousands of people emerged in first century Palestine, Europe and Asia Minor claiming to follow Jesus of Nazareth. In the last 2,000 years that number has continued to increase by the millions throughout the world.
Those early Christians determined to pattern their lives after the life of Jesus. This is significant in that the community or the church that grew out of this life change was radically different from today’s mainstream American church. They considered themselves to be aliens and strangers in this world. They didn’t quite fit in. They were living their lives in their particular time and space, but not as those around them lived. They weren’t out to make a lot of money or to be successful or powerful. They weren’t running for public office.
They were patterning their lives after the life and teaching of Jesus in practical and tangible ways. They were caring for each other and for the needs of those around them both inside and outside of the church. They were loving God and loving each other and loving everyone they met. They were doing what Jesus did, not just asking the question and wearing the bracelet.
A careful read of the first four books of the New Testament will uncover who and what Jesus was for. He was for life. He was for the kind of life that we were created to live from the very beginning. And he was for tearing down the dividing wall of sin that separates us from God and from each other. He was for the poor and the oppressed. He was for those persons that no one else considered valuable. He was for those who had been rejected by the establishment. He was for those who didn’t have a voice or couldn’t find their place. He was for those who needed an advocate. Jesus was for peace and reconciliation. He was for life the way it was meant to be lived from the very beginning. He was for all of those things that we want to be true of this present life but cannot find. Not only was he for those things, he died so that we could have them ourselves. And his being raised from the dead is the proof that God can give us what we all are looking for. His message to the world was to reconsider the course of living that we are currently on and consider a new course of life with Him.
I would contend that many people claim to be Christian without much information about what that means. And I would also contend that many have rejected the same name for the same misinformed reasons. I am not trying to put a new spin on Jesus or to soften the implications of his deity. He is God in the flesh and we have been given the privilege of coming under his authority. Not everyone will like this and history has proven that not everyone will accept Jesus and his teaching.
I am only concerned that we see Jesus for who he really is in the life of those who claim his name. If people are going to accept or reject Christianity, we need to make sure that they have the opportunity to see Jesus. It would be a shame for Christians or our anti-agendas to be the barrier that prevents people from seeing Jesus. It is time for the church to be the holy nation of God in Christ Jesus and to live up to the name.
I am a Christian and I am for Jesus and His kingdom coming to earth as it already is in heaven.