Interview: John Smid (This Is What Love in Action Looks Like)
Last month saw the DVD release of a marvelous documentary by Morgan Jon Fox called This Is What Love In Action Looks Like, a film that wowed us during the British Film Institute’s 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. The film looks at the experiences of Zack Stark, who caused a global sensation sparking debate and protests by publicising on his blog that his parents were sending him to a residential ministry, Love in Action, specifically aimed at turning gay teenagers straight against their will. The head of the organisation at the time was John Smid, who a lot of the campaigning was directly aimed at. Then, in 2008, Smid resigned as director, came back out as gay, and went through a profound transition that challenged his religious beliefs. In more recent times, Love in Action’s programme has ceased to exist and the organisation itself has changed its name and location. With the pending release of his autobiography, which charts his story over this period, we took the chance to talk to Smid and get a deeper insight into him as a person, and how the documetnary has subsequently affected him.
‘The documentary was very disturbing to watch back,’ admits Smid, ‘because it caused me to really evaluate and reflect on the things brought to the surface that were hard for me to see before. I agree with the content of the documentary because I had already begun to make amends for the things that we did at Love in Action, which I no longer believe, or that we got wrong. But it’s still hard to watch because it brings that stuff to the surface so powerfully. Each time I see it, I do a little bit more evaluating.’
Since leaving Love in Action Smid has set up his own ministry, Grace Rivers, which is, ‘…a ministry with the gay community that reveals the message of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ and genuine community with His followers,’. Its mission is to, ‘…empower every Follower of Jesus Christ to represent God’s salvation and restoration.’
‘It’s relationship building and reconnecting with people that I have known in the past,’ says Smid candidly. But the venture is far more than a cheap penance that some cynics might view it as. For Smid, it’s all about being the Christian he wants to be, and helping others in their own faith. ‘A lot of what I’m doing is just encouraging people in their faith. Gay people that I have known in the past or new people that I’m being introduced to. My primary motive is just to be clear in communicating how much God loves them regardless of whether they’re gay or not. To pursue God, to see him for who he really is, to grab onto his grace and mercy, to find out how loving and desirous he is of them as people. I have a strong conviction to encourage people in their faith regardless of whether they’re gay or not.’
Smid has been through a lot of self-reflection since his departure, sparked by the reaction Stark’s predicament had ignited. Despite some of the uncomfortable truths that the documentary presents, Smid’s attitude is to utilise it as a powerful tool, encouraging people to at least see the changes he’s made from his point of view. ‘I think it’s a good thing for people to watch if they’re willing to evaluate how they come across to people and the things that they believe strongly in, but maybe they’re not quite willing to listen to another viewpoint. I think the documentary is a good thing to watch in order to consider that maybe what you have thought, or maybe the way you have responded to homosexuality through the years, has been wrong. During the years that I was at Love in Action I just followed what I was taught. I never really fully evaluated anything because I didn’t think I needed to – I just presumed it was all correct. So I followed that line of thinking and when I left Love in Action I began to think about it, and I realised I was wrong. But if I had never left Love in Action, I don’t think I would have ever considered that. ‘
Yet Smid is concerned that its only really the younger generation who are fully understanding the debate. When asked whether it was possible to have a civil and level discussion about homosexuality and religion he replied, ‘I think it is for younger people. I’m not so sure that it’s as easy with older people. Younger opinion is very polarised against the older generation. There are a lot of older people that are really repulsed by the thought of homosexuality, and the thought of this documentary is just horrific to them. They just think it’s terrible that people will support homosexuality or protest against a Christian ministry. So I think it depends on the age. I think it is possible to have a discussion, but I have found it’s much easier with younger people.’ His overall view is that the key to reconciling faith and sexuality isn’t necessarily to do with age, but approach. ‘The thing I find is that the perspective Christians have had against homosexuality is primarily based on a cultural interpretation of scripture, rather than a true study of the scriptures. What we’re finding is that as Christians actually study the scripture without an anti-gay bias, we’re finding that their convictions are changing. So they read the scripture and look for certain verses to affirm their predujices against homosexuality, just like I did over 20 years. But once I started to look at the scriptures with an open mind – with the anti-gay bias removed – I studied them and found that what I had believed was a result of being taught wrongly. I realised that it was all wrong when I left the culture that I had been in for so long.’
Many people find it difficult to understand why people who are homosexual still practise Christianity. But this is nothing new and gay Christians are not a new thing here at So So Gay, especially when we had Richard Bramwell’s heartfelt opinion piece a while back, and have also reviewed Darren Main’s Hearts and Minds, a guide for helping the both the LGBT and religious community engage in debate. But as awkward as pairing these together, it doesn’t mean that homosexual Christians shy away from important matters within the LGBT community. For instance, equal marriage, a heated debate that has been happening on both sides of the Atlantic, is something Smid is passionate and opinionated about too.
[pullquote_left]I think it’s arrogant of Christians to try to push all of America into a Christian religion. I think that’s against everything that this country was formed on.[/pullquote_left]’I see marriage from two different angles,’ explains Smid. ‘There are, what I call “civil unions”, meaning people who choose to live together in a relationship that they have their own structures for. Then there are “religious ceremonies”. What’s happened is that marriage became a legal matter – it’s a legal contract – and we’ve never thought of it any other way when it comes to religious marriage. We put it all together. Frankly, I think that was a big mistakes because different religions have different perspectives on marriage, and individual people have different perspectives on marriage. I don’t think that the government contract that two people abide by should be a religious contract. I think it should be a relationship covenant, or a license for relationship. I don’t think it should have anything to do with a religious opinion. Two people of the same sex should absolutely be able to obtain a legal document that they sign up to which says we are going to join together, and if this relationship fails they have a legal structure to divide our property, or joint business ventures, or whatever. The problem in the United States is that we’ve seen marriage as a religious activity, a religious right that also has a legal document, and they put them together. I had one Christian friend who told me, “I never ever thought I would hear you say that,” when talking about my belief in the difference between a legal contract and a religious marriage. She puts it all together and thinks it should remain together. Some of these people also believe that America was created as a Christian country – which I disagree with completely. I believe America was formed on religious freedom, not a specific religion, and I think it’s arrogant of Christians to try to push all of America into a Christian religion. I think that’s against everything that this country was formed on.’
When it comes to accusations that state and society are trying to oppress religion – specifically Christianity – Smid also has strong opinions about this too. ‘I don’t believe that my Christian rights are oppressed. I think the place where it gets into trouble is when Christians try to push their religion onto the society – onto an organisation, for example, such a school or government property. Christians want their religion to be represented as THE religion, and I think that’s where we get into trouble. As a Christian, I am absolutely free to pray to whom ever I wish, and practise whatever faith I want to practise. But if I’m in a public setting then I need to respect that not everyone there has the same religion I do. But it’s too sad that a lot of Christians don’t respect that and that’s where we get into trouble. I think that’s where a lot of Christians get into trouble, and then they get arrogant and say, “Well, they’re stopping me and my religion.” And I’m saying, no, we’re not stopping you. It’s just that you need to keep your religion to yourself, and allow others the freedom to follow whatever religion they have, and not push it on them. But I think most of the trouble occurs when Christians push their Christian faith into a public setting, and I don’t think that’s right.’
Going back to This Is What Love In Action Looks Like, its seems Smid’s drive to reconnect with the gay men and women of his past also extends to those he came to contact with during his ministry. ‘I have been reconnecting with people since I left Love in Action,’ says Smid. ‘With the increasing use of Facebook, Twitter, and other types of social media, I have tried to find people, to reconnect – especially with people who used to be a part of Love in Action. That’s helped tremendously because it’s so much easier to find them. It’s also so much easier to connect with people, especially long distance. But I have not connected with Stark. I’ve asked Fox to try and connect me up to him, but it appears that Stark has not been interested in doing that as yet.’ But when asked whether he’s keen to do so, Smid excitedly replies, ‘Yeah, very much so. I would like to at least sit down and have a conversation with him and talk to him about the documentary.’
My time with Smid was interesting and revealing. To have someone talk so openly about how they’ve humbly gone from one polar of opinion to another is incredibly insightful. His position may not sit comfortably with some, but he shrugs this off as just the way things are. ‘There are people who are very upset with what I’m doing. They believe I am enabling people. They believe I’m not taking sin seriously, and some of them have actually called me a false teacher, because I’m affirming gay people. So, there are definitely people who do not like what I’m doing. But that’s ok, that’s just the way it is, you know.’ Nevertheless, it was a privilege to sit and chat with someone who has such an interesting story, and a resolute faith that even puts fundamentalists to shame in both vigour and intelligence. His reparations are carried out by some inspired and fantastic ministry – even if he has yet to get in contact with Stark, the boy who was an unexpected catalyst and profoundly changed Smid’s life. Whilst Christinaity and homosexuality continue to have a rocky relationship, at least Smid is a beacon of hope that hints at a possible, not impossible, resolution.
This Is What Love In Action Looks Like is available to buy on DVD from Amazon UK. For more information about John Smid’s ministry at Grace Rivers, visit www.gracerivers.com. Also, John Smid also contributes regularly to Facebook group Ex-Ex-Gay.
Featured image: Still from This Is What Love In Action Looks Like. Photograph: Courtesy of Sawed-Off Collaboratory Productions.