A little over a year ago following his colleague's, he became the sole pastor of the Lutheran Church at Carrol Park that hovers near 4th Street and Junipero Avenue.
And Pastor James Proper—what an utterly perfect name for a preacher man—has this calm about him that almost makes one jealous: he's warm, content, thoughtful, and sits with a comfort in his environment that one would associate with a monk. His demeanor brought me back to childhood conceptions of men of God as caring and understanding instead of my usual dismissal of religious authorities as corrupt and power-seeking.
And as with all welcoming, caring men—what men of faith should be—he opened his door to me without question.
There is undoubtedly a tinge of bitterness amongst the LGBTQ community when the word "Christian" is uttered. And rightfully so: most feel that religion, or at least the form it has taken within the United States, has been the main crux in the community's fight for inclusion and rights.
"Zealots, fundamentalists are what get the media attention but I'm proud to be part of a group of churches—the Lutheran, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Presbyterians… We've moved on," Proper said. "Push came to shove and we had hit a point where gays had to be accepted. Reason and goodwill triumphed within these churches."
These flattering words come from Proper's mouth with a simple fluidity and ease—and an intellectual punch. The idea of a person who adheres to his or her belief with fidelity versus those who adhere to their cause with zealotry—and we tend to, almost entirely, attach religious ideals, particularly that of Christianity and Islam, to zealots—is significantly different. I am the first to admit that I once assigned all religious beliefs to those of zealots.
But in a Slavoj Žižek-ian twist, the zealot is someone who ironically deeply distrusts their Cause; someone who remains attached to their Cause with fidelity assume they will oftentimes break the rules of their Cause and believes that mistakes will happen. This is the epicenter of faith: incessant betrayal towards the Cause—not psychotic fundamentalism and terrorism.
Scientists, artists, and the truly faithful belong in the former camp; advertisers, rhetoricians, and terrorists belong in the latter.
"Homophobia is born of chauvinistic men who desire power and the women who buy into it. They for some reason think their power will be usurped by a gay man approaching them," Proper says, who was educated in the midwest. "It is not necessarily the teachers of faith themselves that are homophobic. Oftentimes, it is simply the gut reaction a reverend takes when they face a conservative church… They feed into the homophobia—but this is changing. The Bible is not finite; faith is not finite. People are beginning to see you can't take the seven small quips about homosexuality in the Bible and apply to all of humanity and religion."
It is now audacious to me that I, along with so many others, had so blindly taken the Bible—which, while I can only speak for myself, is not a history book nor a book of facts, but a book of philosophy—and its attached religion(s) as literal.
In fact, it was a French priest in Paris laughing at me who initially proved me wrong: "You think we all actually believe in a white man with a white beard overlooking everyone and watching our every move and being inside our every thought? You actually believe we don't take science and evolution seriously? My child, you are as intelligent as you are stupid."
It took me a while to get where he was coming from and I now get it: God doesn't always refer to some all-knowing and -powerful being. There is God-as-metaphor; many call it Freedom, Love, and The Good.
I stand firmly on the fact that a God-as-being and -as-omnipotent is nothing but a pacifier for adults who have not faced head-on the existential crises that, indeed, we are nothing but a speck on the map. However, God-as-metaphor is utterly powerful—and changes the entire game, ranging from my view of Christianity as a whole to altering my perspective of those who call themselves Christians and actually behave as Christians. A simple translation of this metaphor is the universal—ideas like equality, labels like humanity, and concepts within physics uniting everything.
These are all attempts at universality, at reaching a point of godliness. I am not willing to say these things can be fully achieved; far from it. However, it is the striving for a universal element—whether you are a doctor attempting to cure a disease, a scientist attempting to prove a hypothesis, an artist attempting to alter the mind of a single person, or a reverend trying to make the world a more compassionate place—that makes our condition more empathetic, less confusing, and far more bearable.
"There is certainly an air of arrogance that a finite mind can comprehend the infinite," says Proper. "Faith attempts no such thing but it certainly strives to create a better grasp of it."
Proper hits a solid point: there are many truths outside of objective truths, ones that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no—and these are the truths he attempts to address with his parrish. As Jacques Lacan often stated, "It is only true insomuch as it is truly followed."
And in a sense, Proper and his church are following their truth. "Since the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), our denomination, has voted for 'full inclusion' of people of all sexual orientations, we have seen an increase in the number of same-sex parented families coming to our preschool here at Our Saviour’s," he said. "In addition, we’ve been pleased that several people from the LGBTQ community have sought us out and are visiting regularly on Sunday mornings, or actually have joined."
The LGBTQ community often parades around, speaking of frustration with the powers-that-be and the difficulty with how we struggle against authorities and evilness. It shouldn't be ironic that you might find comfort in St. Paul, who had a "thorn in his side" which he never fully explained (some scholars think Paul's thorn might have been his own homosexuality). His thorn was paired with a definition of struggle in Ephesians 6:12, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
If you believe in any ideal such as equality, in the world being a better place, in reason, in progress, then people like Pastor Proper—people who proffer a genuine and authentic version of Christianity or other faiths that doesn't focus on hate—belong in your gratitude and appreciation. They should no longer be sidelined within our respective communities to the same level of Sarah Palin or Fred Phelps; it is utterly misaligned and downright disrespectful to do so; quite the equivalent of putting queers in the same league as pedophiles.
While we may have differing views on their ideas of creation and origin, transcendence and heaven, they are making this world a better, more understanding place—and that should be revered. They have taken the pain of being outcast from larger factions of their own religious communities to stand up for new interpretations of their faith and, most importantly, attempted to hold onto a belief that has survived thousands of years: love.
Whether you do this through the words of your sermon or the touch of your lips, through the research of your science or the ink of your pen, through the extension of your hand into another or through the drip of your sweat absorbed into your work, it remains these things that should make one proud of humanity.