Telling and Hearing Stories of God’s Liberating Love
A Review of
Family of Origin, Family of Choice:
Stories of Queer Christians
Katie Hays and Susan Chiasson
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2021
Buy Now: [IndieBound] [Amazon] [Kindle]
Reviewed by Michael Shepherd
It is a common experience for people to begin examining their beliefs about gender and sexual identity after someone close to them shares their experience as part of the LGBTQ+ community. This opportunity for questioning the assumptions of cis-hetero normativity is then, immediately relational and theological. The conversation of inclusion is no longer abstract, but has real-life ramifications. In Family of Origin, Family of Choice: Stories of Queer Christians, Katie Hays and Susan Chiasson succeed in communicating this human dimension that should be at the heart of pastoral ministry and fellowship. The design and development of this book is personal, written as if you are sitting in the room, hearing the words from a trusted friend, as an invitation into the life of queer Christians and their experiences of belonging to family and the church.
Hays describes the process of creating this book on the basis of testimony as a spiritual practice. By hearing the reflection and recounting of someone’s life and spiritual perspective, we’re given an opportunity for identity formation. This grounds individuals within a broader timeline and among a Christian community. These connections prove vital for the survival and flourishing of queer Christians.
Our stories derive from our relationships with our families and faith communities, which present a chance to “listen in” to the types of pastoral conversations that happen in churches that affirm LGBTQ+ individuals. Hays writes,
“Even the most thorough theological education can’t possibly prepare our hearts for all the ways people find to hurt each other, even when (or because) they love each other. The subset of suffering-in-relationship that the LGBTQ+ community brings to the pastor’s office (or back porch, or dinner table, or FaceTime screen) has called forth new understandings from me” (5).
Although this is not a handbook for pastoral ministry, it can be effective as an inductive and relational way to better understand the experiences of another.
The book is an anthology of interviews with queer Christians, each chapter beginning with a few paragraphs of biographical information before turning to a first-person narrative. In these sections, each story is permitted its sole spotlight. There is no summary or reflection from the authors, only the substance of the interviews (Though transcripts were edited for clarity and then confirmed by each individual). Each chapter provides more context and personal detail than is typically included in books addressing LGBTQ+ inclusion which moves the perspectives beyond simple constructions to more nuanced narratives.
In contrast to many other books about gender and sexual diversity, there is a broad range of experiences shared, including stories from multiple age ranges, genders, orientations, and cultural backgrounds. In other material, narratives may be homogenized or, owing to autobiographical limitations, tied to the demographics of the author (which tend to be centered around the experiences of white, gay or bisexual, cisgender, allosexual folks). By expanding the pool of stories shared, there is greater opportunity to understand the breadth of queer Christian experiences and to enter the conversation of how spiritual community is formed.
Even with an expanded roster, the authors do not intend to represent all orientations, expressions, relationships, beliefs about faith, or perspectives on how best to advance LGBTQ+ inclusion and queer liberation. Rather, the focus is on hearing the perspectives of people who have found family of choice within the Galileo Church of Waco, Texas, sharing their stories, and trusting their realities of diverse experiences. By choosing to remain within a single faith community, the authors also paint a picture that the commonality between these diverse lives is that they choose to inhabit together as collaborators.
For those who are discerning an inclusive position, these stories offer examples of the personal and tangible results of exclusionary practices and beliefs. It also re-creates the personal dynamic where empathy and understanding can occur. The authors do not discuss the biblical, theological, or pastoral origins for inclusion, except for as much that would come from the storytellers’ own words. However, in her concluding chapter, Chiasson does describe a “roadmap” that incorporates material from the interviews to demonstrate a potential path for queer Christians to recognize themselves, be honest with their families of origin, and then re-form familial bonds by choice.
For people who are supportive of the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, there is a lot to enjoy. These are stories that aren’t always heard or appreciated. The lives of the subjects extend beyond religious trauma. It might spark curiosity about (or jealousy of) the community life of Galileo Church and how they demonstrate vulnerability and mutual consideration. The collection displays the reality that even if people have found their way to a Christian community, there are still elements of their lives and families that remain unresolved. Yet there is also hope for what is possible in either reconciliation or reimagining what kinship looks like in the future.
To conclude the book, Hays returns to the significance of testimony in spiritual formation, in both giving and receiving. The interviewees were willing to trust the interviewers/authors and how they would handle their stories. There is also trust about how readers will receive those stories. The readers then have a decision about whether to respond to the testimony with belief or skepticism. The testimony of Christians who are queer reiterates the reality that LGBTQ+ people are present and active in Christian communities, not just disembodied others or an issue to debate.
But who is this testimony (and, ultimately, this book) for? It is for those who doubt the possibility of their own experience being seen and validated as well as those who doubt that the spirit of Christ can inhabit certain people or bring healing to certain situations. Testimony is for the entire community of the church, from the margins to the mainstream.
This book captures the testimony of queer Christians in a way that the transformational power of the gospel is demonstrated through someone’s ability to love themselves and then find kinship-community to continue the journey of discipleship. The contributors and authors model vulnerability and invite the reader to consider their own experience and continue the cycles of telling-and-hearing stories of God’s liberating love.
Michael Shepherd is the Minister of Social Action at First Christian Church, Fullerton (California) and an adjunct professor of intercultural studies and political science at Hope International University. He can be found on Twitter at @mchlshepherd and welcomes any questions about discerning and applying an LGBTQ+ affirming position.