“JESUS IS QUEER.”
That’s the sign I’m holding up as I walk with an Asian American queer organization that was gracious enough to let my church, HA:N UMC, march with them for the World Pride Parade. Here I am, an Asian face, with a clergy collar, holding a sign celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community with my church, and quite literally displaying all this for all the world to see. Every time I start feeling too tired to keep marching and holding the sign, I get energized by these brief but powerful moments. One moment, I see someone in the crowd with tears of joy. The next moment, I see smirks of amusement and curiosity. And most of the time, there is mutual celebration and affirmation. There are spectators that even ask for hugs and say how much our presence means to them. Occasionally, I find myself thinking how I ended up here. If I could have a conversation with my high school self, I’m sure he would be wondering what I’m doing at a Pride March in New York City, and for that matter, how in the world I became a pastor.
When I was in Junior High, our youth jundosanim (seminarian or student pastor) started preaching about predestination in one of our youth worship services. He began to talk about how some people were destined for hell even before they were born. I immediately interrupted him. This made no sense according to what I read about Jesus. I proceeded to argue with him, and I wouldn’t back down. If the whole point of Jesus coming into the world was to show God’s love, condemning people before they even had a chance was nonsensical. The worship service never actually finished; the senior pastor, who happened to be my dad, found out there was an argument going on. The day ended with the jundosanim being fired.
Two lessons remained with me after that day. First, I learned that I despised Calvinism and predestination. Second, I learned that I never had to simply take what a pastor said as the final truth. Not only was that youth pastor wrong, he also made no room for the possibility that he could be wrong. If it wasn’t for me speaking up, we would have simply swallowed what he taught as truth.
Still, growing up as a pastor’s kid, I respected my dad and respected the job. However, I didn’t want to deal with the headache of the few people who were hypocritical, needy, and power hungry that made both church life and the pastor’s life an ecosystem of stress and disappointment. Besides, when I was a teenager, as much as I thought highly of pastors living into their call, I wondered why we needed pastors at all. If we were all good Christians, should we even need a pastor? Wouldn’t we all just get what Jesus wants us to do and do what’s right?
By the time I was in college and experiencing semi-independence, I was challenged in ways I had not previously encountered. I was part of an Asian American fellowship in a Korean United Methodist Church in which students initiated many of the decisions we made and the way we worshipped and gathered together. This required us to think through our choices and actions as well as how we interacted with one another without an authority figure or leader telling us what to do. In retrospect, I am relieved we had such freedom.
However, there were many occasions we were left to figure things out on our own, which felt very unsettling. There were two occasions when I remember distinctly having queer students in our fellowship. I don’t believe they were out, but it was unspoken and implicit. At the time I was still conservative when it came to LGBTQIA+ issues. I remember my internal conflict. If I truly believed it to be a sin, shouldn’t I say something? Yet, I also felt internally wrong to say such a thing to someone. I felt inherently that I would be harming another with my words, which didn’t feel Christian. I thankfully said nothing and simply treated these friends as I did any other person.
Though in my head I had come to be affirming by the time I had graduated seminary, it was the practical experience in ministry that led me to be unapologetically affirming and inclusive. My years as a pastor in Indiana were some of the most formative in shaping who I am as a pastor today, especially as I relate to my LGBTQIA+ neighbors. Though I pastored in a relatively small blue collar and rural town, within my congregation, I had worked with an organist who was gay. I had formed a leadership covenant group where almost half of a group of six or seven members had gay children and never talked to each other about their shared experiences. By my final year there, these experiences had also paved the way for me to better be a pastor to a newcomer who had experienced the pain of being shunned by friends and their previous church for having an adult transgender daughter.
Through PAAC, I was blessed to be able to connect with a community of Korean American folk who were forming a progressive and LGBTQIA+ affirming congregation who happened to be looking for a pastor to lead this new church. I now find myself in the daunting challenge at HA:N UMC of creating a church culture grounded in the rediscovery and reinterpretation of aspects of our identity and the exploration and creation of a future we desire to embody.
As a pastor of this special community, there has been a flood of support, interest, and people reaching out to me from all over the country, looking for resources, encouragement, or networking. It has also given me awareness of and a front row seat to similar work fomenting across the country among Asian American Christian communities. I have been in touch with people who are in need of community and affirmation near and far. Someone reached out to me just recently looking for Korean resources on Christianity and Trans identity in order to communicate better with their Christian parents. The sense that we are doing something vital, and indeed God’s work, is almost visceral at times.
For all the love we are receiving, I am prepared for the blowback. There already might be whispers here and there in the Korean pastors’ community, and I don’t know exactly what all the implications might be for me and my family. However, that is nothing compared to the rewarding work of sharing the Gospel of Jesus, which is not some formulaic belief in a doctrine to get to heaven, but the life-giving and liberating message of love that Jesus shared with us, which begins in the here and now. I get to witness lives being transformed and people who were once shunned being embraced and loved. I’m humbled and grateful to be participating in this work that is not just my own labor, but also the fruit of the labors of so many who have come before me and who labor next to me. As I navigate how to live into being a pastor for HA:N UMC, I’ve come to realize that there is still a need for spiritual and religious guidance and leadership. But I’m finding a way to do it my own way. And so, here I am, walking with a sign that says, “Jesus is queer.”
About the author: Rev. Daniel Seunghyun Cho (he/him/his), a native of Chicago is spouse to the brilliant Rev. Hyemin Na and father of two amazing children. He is the pastor of HA:N UMC, a new progressive church start up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, formed by a community of Korean Americans. He loves the Bulls and BTS and is glad at least one of the two are having success.