Reverend Brian Henderson is keeping the faith
You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.
— Leviticus 18:22
And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him.
Reverend Brian Henderson
— Mark 14:51
Reverend Brian Henderson is sitting stiffly in a hospital bed, awaiting another visit from the doctor who will ask if he still wants to kill himself.
Henderson is unshaven, his eyes red. He hardly slept the night before and does not know what he will tell the doctor when the time comes. Typically the picture of clean, confident leadership as the minister of Calvary Baptist Church, Henderson is known as the man with the answers, the cornerstone of support and guidance for both his congregation and his family. But Henderson has a secret, a secret he's held on to for decades, one that threatens the life he knows, one that threatens to make him take his own life. And now, in March 2012, the secret has started to leak out.
Please, God, take these thoughts away from me, Henderson prays, as he's prayed countless times before. But despite Henderson's unfailing belief in a loving creator, God has left his requests unfulfilled.
His muscles clench and his heartbeat soars. He seems caught in a lose-lose situation, with no way out. For years he's repressed this desire, assuring himself that he would grow out of it as he's gone through seminary school, marriage, the birth of three children and twelve years as a Baptist minister. But he has not grown out of it, and the idea of his secret becoming public both exhilarates and terrifies Brian Henderson.
Please God, take this away from me.
Time passes. Snow falls outside the window as cars race home for the evening. A once overwhelming schedule filled with responsibilities has slowed to a crawl. An attractive nurse takes Henderson's blood pressure and temperature, but he hardly notices.
Finally there is a knock at the door. But instead of the doctor who has been checking up on him during his two days on suicide watch, it is the therapist whom Henderson has been seeing for the past few years.
Taking a seat at the foot of the hospital bed, the therapist looks at Henderson firmly, but with care. He knows the secret, as do a few others — a small list that recently grew to include Henderson's wife. That makes Henderson wince whenever he thinks of it. He readjusts himself on the bed, uncomfortable in his own skin.
"You've got two options, Brian," the therapist says, striking the delicate balance between empathy and confrontation required when dealing with a suicidal person. "You're either going to kill yourself through taking your life, or you're simply going to die inside if you don't come to terms with this."
There is almost no data on the number of ministers suffering from depression in this country, for the same reason there is very little data on the number of closeted gays and lesbians: You can't poll people who don't want to talk.
"I conduct a lot of surveys with pastors, and it is extremely difficult getting them to even respond," says Matthew Stanford, a professor of neurology and psychology at Baylor University who studies how Christian societies react to mental illness. "Even if the survey is anonymous, honestly answering questions like 'Have you ever thought of killing yourself?'...they're concerned that their response is going to get out and taint them in some way.
"I hear a lot of pastors say they're alone, that they have no one to talk to," Stanford continues. "It's a very isolating position, because they are held to a different standard. They're expected to be the symbol of the church, have the perfect family, perfect life, and not be tempted in the same way that others are. If they're struggling, they're seen as a failure."
While serious depression is often the result of not expressing grief, the suicide that can follow in extreme cases often communicates a clear message to other people suffering from depression. Having a friend or family member commit suicide dramatically increases the possibility that you will consider it an option. So does having someone in your field of work end his life. A recent outbreak of pastor suicides in the Carolinas (six attempted, four successful) has sparked a debate surrounding the vulnerability of church leaders and the lack of resources they can access.
"If you're depressed and work at Microsoft, they probably have a full-time counselor who works there. But if you work as a pastor and say to the church elders that you're depressed, you could lose your job," says Stanford. "So many pastors are afraid to tell their congregants that they have fears and doubts. There's that stress of being put on a pedestal, putting these unrealistic standards on someone that drives them to never be vulnerable."
Meanwhile, he points out, the average person suffering from mental distress is statistically more likely to reach out to a clergy member than to a medical professional, as church leaders are often more accessible and economical. And people don't like to see their rescuer suffering from the same ailment they're looking to have cured.
"I think a lot of people naively go into the clergy picturing that they'll just teach from the pulpit on Sundays," says Stanford. "But once they get there, they find they're on the front lines of mental-health care, because clergy end up performing the predominant amount of counseling in this country. And they're also all of a sudden the CEO of a company, they have to run the business of the church, and most of them have little to no training on how to plan a budget. So that adds to the stress of this job. It's a position of great honor, but it's also an isolating facade that both you and your family have to put on."
When he was growing up in New Jersey, Brian Henderson did not experience the progressive culture that his home state now boasts, having recently become the fifteenth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Far from being acceptable back then, the "gay lifestyle" was an issue rarely even discussed, leaving young Henderson with little in the way of a road map with which to navigate his sexual maturity. "I was always behind getting in touch with my sexuality than my friends were as a teenager," Henderson admits. "They were all off on dates and making out, and I thought, 'What's wrong with me?'"
Even as a teenager, though, Henderson wasn't completely clueless. Throughout his young life, there had been signs that he was cut from a different cloth than his friends were.
"When I was in fifth grade, my family had some friends over for dinner. And the son of the family was a few years older than I was, and I thought he was amazing, he was just beautiful," Henderson remembers. "We played pool downstairs, and after the family left, I went down to the playroom and sat at the pool table, just because I wanted to take in his scent. Years later, when I told that story at support groups, men would lean in and say, 'Yeah, we remember that.'"
Around this time, a relative Henderson looked up to contracted HIV, and "the family treated him negatively," he remembers. "And that drove home the idea that I should never allow myself to be treated the way he was." Shortly after this relative died of AIDS, Henderson went to a play with his paternal grandmother, a play with a character who was "fairly flamboyant, good-looking, stylish," he recalls. "I made a comment about him, and my grandmother put her hand on my knee and said, 'Don't pay any attention to him. You don't want to be like that man.'"
Attempting to make sense of what was going on within him, Henderson visited the local library and, after scanning the room to be sure that no one was watching, tracked down books on the subject of same-sex attraction. Though the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality as a mental illness in 1972, he was unable to find any literature that viewed the orientation in a positive light. "I knew then that I needed to be very careful about what I said or did, because I didn't want anyone to find out about what was going on inside me," he says.
Although he kept his feelings locked up, Henderson found himself drawn to the communal aspects of church life. He'd been raised in a charismatic church environment with exciting rock music, an extension of the Jesus movement of the 1970s, and mentored by pastors who could inspire large groups of people with the common goal of loving one another. So he decided to go to divinity school. "I'd gotten a surge of energy from bringing people together to do more as a group than they could on their own," he remembers.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in theology from Eastern University in Philadelphia, Henderson enrolled in the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now known as Palmer Seminary) in 1996. It was there that he met the woman he would marry, and with whom he would eventually father three children.
Henderson still maintained the gear-grinding conviction that the sexual impulses he'd dealt with since childhood were sinful, and that he would eventually outgrow them. Still, like so many students entering the world of higher education (even if it was seminary school), he found many of his childhood beliefs challenged there. "I grew up with the Genesis view that procreation was a divine mandate for humanity, and so it didn't make sense to me for two men or two women to be together," he recalls. "When I went to seminary, oddly enough, my doctoral degree was in marriage and family therapy, and we had a course on the theology of marriage. The professor was driving home the idea that humankind has been ordered by God to go forth and multiply. But then a student raised her hand and said, 'My husband and I cannot physically procreate.' The professor was somewhat dumbfounded, and as he tried to delicately dance his way out of the corner, I thought, 'Okay, I can let that idea go.'"
But he did not let himself go.
Opponents of religious acceptance of same-sex relationships often cling to the idea that the word of God is fixed and non-negotiable, but the Christian church has gone through countless changes over the centuries regarding biblical interpretation. Whether it's allowing women to speak in public, lifting a ban on scientists studying human cadavers, or deciding that setting groups of cats on fire because they are satanic is not a good idea, churches have been rolling with the punches of enlightenment since the inception of Christianity. Through intense study of religious texts, Henderson came to the conclusion that passages in the Bible regarding homosexuality were being falsely interpreted. Even so, he was now a family man, the minister of a church in Pennsylvania, with no room for acting on his same-sex fantasies.
After working in Pennsylvania for nine years, Henderson moved his family to Colorado and took the position of head pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in southeast Denver. And it was here that he would ultimately confront his own hidden orientation in a long and ugly battle.
By 2011, with Henderson now ensconced as pastor, Calvary Baptist members were struggling over whether to declare their church "welcoming and affirming" — a term for churches that see no sin in same-sex relationships.
"The congregation had a kind of covert 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy," remembers Henderson. "But what I was witnessing was that the church was losing folk because it wasn't addressing the reality of human sexuality. A lot of the people they were losing were straight, but they wanted to be allies, because some had children or friends or family members that were gay."
But no one at the Calvary Baptist had any inkling that their pastor might be one of them.
"During Brian's pastorate, I didn't hear anyone mention that they thought he might be gay," recalls Reverend Anne Jernberg, who worked with Henderson at the time and today is Calvary's senior pastor. "They knew he was suffering from depression, but not many of them knew why."
After preaching a sermon on the importance of becoming an affirming church, Henderson found himself entangled in a traditional-versus-progressive fight that nearly split the church down the middle. The battle lasted six months, and by the time a majority of the church staff voted on the pro-gay side of affirmation, Henderson's already fragile state had taken an emotional beating that left him with little energy to keep his own identity a secret.
"I had found myself being the support for so many people going through their own coming-out processes," Henderson explains, citing everyone from young women coming out to their parents to a closeted 72-year-old man who had been married for fifty years. "The way I handled the pain of repressing the reality within me was trying to believe that God's plan for me was to be there for others. To somehow live vicariously through others. And never have a same-sex partner."
Both his family and the church had suffered during the affirmation fight, with some members leaving in ugly departures. That added to the mounting pressure Henderson felt to remain closeted. "I didn't want to hurt the woman to whom I was married, my children, my family's image. I didn't want to hurt the family I grew up in," he says. "I was scared as to what it would mean professionally. All of that led to a spiral of depression."
Finally, he reached out to a friend who was a therapist, revealing for the first time that he was a homosexual. The two of them began working on a game plan for how Henderson would come out to the world as a gay man. "I realized that if I didn't start to deal with this, there was going to come a point where I was going to create more hurt for my marriage and my integrity as a clergyperson than if I'd remained closeted," he says now.
But despite meticulous planning, the coming-out process was not easy. The man who'd devoted his life to serving others was not prepared to put his own needs first. He told his wife in a heart-wrenching confession, and then he began telling staff at the church. "There were those who were sympathetic," he remembers, "and there were others who were saying, 'How could you do this to your family?'"
Coming out did not relieve his depression. Henderson was distant in meetings, unmotivated to perform his duties as a minister, constantly tired yet never sleeping. One night in early 2012, after finishing up some last-minute writing at Calvary Baptist, he was driving home when he suddenly decided he would do it: He'd stop at the I-25 overpass, leap into oncoming traffic, and put an end to his misery.
But first, he impulsively reached out to Jernberg — who found him, followed him home and, unbeknownst to Henderson, informed his wife of what he'd told her.
The next morning, Henderson's wife drove him to the hospital, where he was put under suicide watch for 72 hours.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. — Romans 16:17
While American Baptist Churches USA, which oversees Calvary Baptist, is not an affirming organization, it allows churches in individual regions to be open to LGBT congregants and clergy. And since 1993, the Association for Welcoming and Affirming Baptists has worked on behalf of closeted gay clergy, church members and others who fear the Baptist church hierarchy does not endorse their views of same-sex relationships. That makes Baptists somewhat more enlightened than that economic and political behemoth known as the Evangelical church.
Among hard-core evangelicals, the name of Mel White has become infamous for sin and betrayal. Once a key player in the rise of the Christian right in the 1980s — he was a ghostwriter for such heavyweight televangelists as Pat Robertson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell — White eventually abandoned that profession after a failed suicide attempt precipitated by his double life as a gay man and Christian icon. He went on to write several books chronicling his years of "ex-gay therapy" — which included electroshock therapy and exorcisms — while also being a vocal critic of the homophobic message of his former colleagues.
"The church is the last bastion of intolerance," says White, who today remains a Christian pastor while openly married to another man. "Without religious teachings against homosexuality, there would be no homophobia. I trust the Bible on spiritual matters, but not when it comes to the earth being flat, or homosexuality being a sin punishable by death. They take the Bible literally. Jesus says, 'If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.' And I've known two people who have emasculated themselves for this. One of them came to church with his groin dripping with blood."
Since the publication of his coming-out memoir, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, White has received tens of thousands of letters from people seeking guidance on the reconciliation of sexuality and religion. To this day he remains close to his ex-wife — who wrote the foreword for that book and regularly vacations with White and his current husband — a fact that has inspired many couples who've found themselves in a sexually mismatched marriage.
Brian Henderson was back home after his suicide-watch hospitalization when his cell phone rang one night. "Brian, this is Mel White," an unfamiliar voice said. "Tell me what's going on."
Henderson's therapist had been friends with White for several years. Still concerned about Henderson's mental state, he'd asked White to call him. And after Henderson explained the murky details of his situation, White abruptly told him to put his wife on the line.
"Whenever I do these calls, I want to talk to the straight wife or husband, because they're suffering, too," says White, who regularly counsels those in coming-out processes like Henderson's. "They need to understand that they're victims, too — victims of a society that doesn't understand. They have a lot of hard questions to ask. Because when you fall in love with someone, you don't want to acknowledge things like this. Some wives think that they can change him, that it just takes a good woman to turn a gay man around." Henderson's wife took the phone and — ironically — went into the closet for some privacy during her talk with White.
"I don't know the details of their conversation," says Henderson. "But afterward she told me that he had said, 'Brian is going to be selfish for a little while.'" Remembering this, Henderson grimaces slightly. "I'm a people-pleaser. I don't want people to be upset or disappointed in me. I want people to think highly of me. I don't want to let anyone down."
But faced with the reality of his situation, Henderson separated from his wife and moved into a Capitol Hill apartment. That wasn't the only change in his life. When he left the hospital, Henderson had taken a three-month sabbatical from Calvary Baptist. "Throughout his absence, I spoke openly with the congregation about depression and the masks we wear — how pastors are just people, too," recalls Jernberg. "It was an opportunity for our congregation to engage in a vulnerable discussion about depression and the wounds that are on the inside that people cannot see."
And that June, Henderson decided he could not handle both his coming-out process and serving as head pastor. He sent a letter of resignation to Calvary Baptist.
Henderson was not sure if he even wanted to be a minister any longer. As he juggled the lives of a single parent (he shares custody of his three children) and a newly single man who'd never really explored his natural sexuality, he also entertained a variety of possible jobs, from paralegal and executive positions to restaurants and custodial work. That fall, he was discussing his employment status with a friend concerned about how Henderson was dealing with his new roles; the friend told him about First Baptist Church in Capitol Hill, which was not only LGBT-friendly, but had become a touchstone for the local movement of religious gays and lesbians.
"I was tired and thought that I was done with church," Henderson recalls, "partly because I didn't think I could find another church within my denomination that I could be out in. So when I went in to First Baptist for the interview, I thought I'd tell them everything — down to the fact that I was dating someone. And if they're still willing to give me a chance, then maybe I could have a chance at continuing to do what I love."
So Henderson interviewed with the church, which occupies an impressive 75-year-old structure that has hosted sermons by both Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. He told his whole story — including his suicide-watch hospitalization — and described his belief in a ministry of vulnerability in the face of stringent theology. The details were no deal-breaker for First Baptist; in fact, the church found them inspiring. Last November, Henderson was hired as the new head pastor for First Baptist — a move that required the church to change its regional affiliation, since the Baptist group it had been associated with was "welcoming" but not "affirming."
But First Baptist was committed to Henderson, and he made a renewed commitment to the clergy — as a gay man.
"I often say that if you want to build a large church, provide a lot of answers," says Henderson. "But if you want to build a church that genuinely wrestles, thinks, struggles and changes, then let some questions hang in the air. My own faith journey has evolved, and in my own coming-out process, I've encountered questions about faith that I don't have answers for — and may never have answers for."
But of all the unanswered questions Henderson wrestles with regarding faith and sexuality, biblical law is not one of them.
Certain passages about homosexuality in Genesis, Leviticus, Romans and I Timothy, now known as "clobber texts," are "taken out of context," Henderson says. "In the New Testament, you have to understand first-century Greco-Roman culture. It drives me crazy when people cite Romans 1, because that was in reference to the then-acceptable custom of older men using young boys for sex. It's not talking about homosexuality as we know it today.
"And in I Timothy, that was addressing prostitution. The use of the term 'homosexual' didn't even show up in Bibles until the last century. In Leviticus, we get the line 'A man shall not lie with another man.' But talk about cherry-picking! There are so many laws in Levitical code that we don't pay attention to, like the mixing of fabrics such as cotton and polyester."
More than just becoming comfortable with himself, Henderson is now more comfortable with others.
"Since Brian has come out, he is much more open, vulnerable and authentic," says Jernberg. "You have a sense he is living the person God created him to be — in a way that is different than before. When I am with Brian now, I feel like I am with the real Brian. Not that he was not real before, but the mask is gone; there is an openness and vulnerability that feels fresh. Perhaps this is because he is letting his woundedness and humanity show in new ways. And also his passion."
Henderson recognizes that the fight for personal identity within the role of minister will be an ongoing battle — but it's one for which he now feels prepared. "There are different expectations people have of the clergy," he says. "I continue to struggle with how to stay true to my authentic self, while at the same time do what I'm called to do with the church. It's been great getting to know other gay clergy and their struggle with whether to compartmentalize those two sides or integrate them. We're all human beings, and if we have a different set of values or expectations, we're setting them up to fail, and ourselves to be disappointed.
"I've struggled with the idea of it being selfish to live for myself, especially considering my family," he continues. "It's a constant wrestling match. How do I live for myself in a healthy, balanced way that gives my life meaning, and be there for others during their internal wrestling matches? It transcends sexuality. Churches don't do a good job of teaching people to live for themselves. It's not intentional, but they can sometimes put guilt on people to put others first. But sometimes...it's like how when you're on an airplane and they tell you if there's an emergency to put your oxygen mask on first, then your child's. Sometimes you have to take care of yourself first so you can help others."
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. — Philippians 4:8
In a Capitol Hill penthouse, Reverend Brian Henderson is presenting a Champion for Equality award to Mayor Michael Hancock.
The event is sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and the Association for Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and they are honoring the mayor for his public support of LGBT rights. The presentation comes on the same day that the U.S. Senate passed the ENDA bill, to prevent employee discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Accepting the award on Hancock's behalf is Deputy Chief of Staff Stephanie O'Malley, who tells how Hancock's brother died from AIDS, as well as how her own gay brother, son of former mayor Wellington Webb, committed suicide — four years ago to the day. It is a somber yet celebratory night, both honoring years of progress in the LGBT community and acknowledging the struggle ahead.
Dressed in a flawlessly tailored suit and stylish bow tie, sipping white wine, Henderson appears at ease surrounded by the Denver Gay Men's Chorus and dozens of other icons of the local LGBT community. He knows he has come a long way — but there is still a long way to go.
"It was less than two years ago that I myself was standing on that bridge, contemplating taking my own life," Henderson tells the crowd. He speaks with clarity and confidence, his many years as a minister shining through, yet the raw wounds of his own struggle are still painfully evident on his face. "But today I am grateful for the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, for family and friends, and for being part of a faith group that said, 'Brian, you can do it, you can be who you are.' And that is a gay man."
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