Friday night I joined 6 other New Lifers at Emmaus Ministries in Uptown to prepare for an "Immersion Night". (Since you can read their website to understand "Immersion Night", I won't explain it here.)
After a brief orientation at Emmaus' ministry center, the seven of us grabbed a train for Boystown about 8:45pm. My partner Josh and I exited at Addison and headed toward Halsted. Our assignment for the night was to be a learner and observer. After walking around the neighborhood for a bit (a cold experience to say the least) we went into Roscoe's. This was my first experience in a gay bar and I'll admit that I was pretty intimidated.
Once inside Josh and I grabbed some cokes, sat down at a bar table and talked, while at the same time taking in the crowd at this dance bar. The crowd was 90% men, very diverse in every sense of the word and quite sexualized. Video monitors on the walls pulsed along with the music and we avoided them since they were overtly sexual. We stayed for a while--40 minutes? Not finding any significant conversations there, we decided to leave and walk around the neighborhood a bit.
Out on the street we passed by many men walking briskly in pairs between night spots. One bar had a set of search lights to attract people to the grand opening. While walking I also noticed several loner street hustlers darting here and there, looking around for their next "date". They were very incognito and either on the move or standing in dimlit gangways or doorways. I counted 5 or 6 young men who were hustling (prostituting) during our walk.
After a cold walk and some great conversation with Josh, weisheaded into another bar--Sidetrack. The bar was huge and wall to wall with people--again, about 90% men. Josh and I got drinks and sat in the middle of bar. Again I felt very out of place and quite uncomfortable. Josh leaned over to me after a few minutes: "man, we've got to talk with someone." That provoked me, in a good way.
I immediately slid over to the next bar stool and started a conversation with the man leaning next to it, alone. (It was such an internal barrier to start the conversation knowing that he and almost everyone in the bar was there in "pick up" mode. I had to push myself across that emotional barrier to start the conversation but I was very glad I did.) Bruce and I had a good conversation for about 10 minutes. When his boyfriend returned our conversation quickly ended and they left. I turned to reconnect with Josh.
At this point Josh was in a conversation with two men. I joined in. Shortly into the conversation I shared, when asked, that we were at the bar as part of a church group who want to get to know our community better. The men were very receptive to this. Joe asked me, "What kind of church do you go to that they would let you come here?" We all laughed together at that one.
I told him, "our church wants to get to know the people in our community--we want to serve our entire community and that means getting to know people in their own environment." Again, well-received. He asked me what I did for a living--his reaction was priceless. He kind of threw up his arms and said, "Oh well, the pastor, great! Okay, well what do you think of Reverend Phelps." I had no idea who he was talking about. I stared blankly for minute. Then he identified Rev. Phelps as the guy who holds the "God Hates Fags" signs. Gotcha. "Rev. Phelps" is a supposed baptist minister and with his vitriolic approach to communicating, was the most immediately identfiable "Christian pastor" Joe could think of. I was grieved and angry at the same time.
"Joe, Jesus always had his harshest words for religious whack jobs. What Rev. Phelps teaches does not reflect the words of Scripture or the heart of God. We distance ourselves from that kind of speech and attitude." Joe seemed relieved and intrigued that there were other kinds of pastors/christians than Rev. Phelps. He confessed that he was a "recovering Catholic". I told him that we were unapologetic about teaching the Bible, pointing people to Jesus and letting people decided what to do with that.
All told Joe, Mike, Josh and I talked for over a half hour and had a genuine sense of connection and mutual respect throughout the conversation.
For me the entire experience took the terms "boystown", "gay bar" and "gay man" out from the realm of stereotype and into the realm of real humanity, members of my community, people needing authentic relationships with authentic followers of Jesus. I haven't been that far out of my comfort zone in a long time. Frankly, Africa was much more in my comfort zone than my "Immersion Night" experience.
I'm walking away from the experience impressed with the incarnational approach to ministry displayed by Emmaus, feeling more connected to the people group in my community that identifies itself as gay, and asking God for clarity on what to do with it all as a church leader.
I want to say thank you to Mindy and Kiki at Emmaus for facilitating the Immersion Night. And "thank you" also to the New Life team who I ventured out with.