What would Jesus say?

Jean Holsten

Photo by Larry Dalton

Davis attorney Jean Holsten, 43, wants to exorcise the homophobia out of religion. She’s one of the leaders of Soulforce, a national group that uses nonviolent resistance to oppose discrimination against gays by religious organizations. Using nonviolent protest techniques patterned after Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Soulforce organizes demonstrations around the country. In Lynchburg, Va., Jerry Falwell’s home base, Soulforce recently organized the town’s first pride festival and rented out a house across the street from the televangelist’s church. Holsten says it’s all about spreading the message of love.

Do churches discriminate?

We believe that churches are the core of most of the problems that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) [people] face because businesses, government, a lot of individuals are moving to a place where they’re understanding that GLBT folks are no different. We’re not sick. We’re not perverted. We’re very similar to everybody else. The holdouts … are the churches and the faith communities that are saying no. That’s why we’re specifically channeling our energy and resources at the faith community.

What do churches say?

Depends on the church. They all say it a little bit differently. For the Catholics, we’re objectively disordered. Words commonly used are “abomination,” “perverted,” “unnatural.” Almost always, there are certain scriptures in the Bible that are held up to say this shows how unnatural it is, or this shows how God frowns on you.

Is Soulforce focused only on Christian religions?

At this point, all of our direct actions and negotiations have been with Christian organizations. But the people in Soulforce are of all different faiths.

What religion are you?

Christian. I grew up Roman Catholic, including Catholic school. I’ve spent the last 10 years in the Presbyterian Church. I do read the Bible. I do find tremendous spiritual understanding, support and challenge in there. I try to model my life on Jesus, but my understanding of Jesus is this incredibly radical lover of humanity who said God is about love and about connection and about inclusion.

Why be a part of a group that’s not supportive of who you are?

It’s down deep inside you. It’s not something I can easily turn away from. There’s so much about Catholicism that it’s a part of me. I believe in the sacraments. I find the saints and the mystics to be profound examples and models in my life. There’s a spiritual element to all of us. And when we deny it, [that’s] where we hit that fear place, and we start abusing each other and destroying each other. I’m more interested in finding ways to connect to that spirituality.

What is a typical action?

Often, the leadership of a church will make some statement about how abominable—how terrible—homosexuals are. What most of the churches say is, “We accept you, we want you in our pews, and we certainly want you to tithe. But you’re not good enough for leadership. We don’t want you teaching in our schools. You can’t be ministers or priests or elders or deacons.” So, we challenge that. We write letters, we send faxes, we make phone calls, we send e-mails, and we ask to meet with whoever’s offering these doctrines, to say this is not right. This is not what the Bible says. Then, the next step is some sort of gathering, which is usually a protest of some sort at a conference of the national church. We’ll have a very visual presence. Rarely do we chant. Sometimes we sing. We always ask to speak.

Some are pushing sainthood for Father Mychael Judge, the gay New York Fire Department chaplain killed by falling rubble while giving last rites at the World Trade Center on September 11. Can his story help spread your message?

Any time we can put a human face on GLBT issues, people realize our stories aren’t any different than anyone else’s story.

Is the climate changing in the country?

Yes and no. I think we’re in a huge backlash. Conservatives are in power, so we’re going to see some changes. So, I think that GLBT people are in trouble. I would not be surprised to see a legislative erosion of rights, and I think a lot of it will be done covertly. But, at the same time, more folks are becoming open to the idea that we as human beings are more similar than we are different.

Do you get frustrated?

Yes, especially by people who call themselves religious leaders, who don’t follow the core pieces of their faith. … That is the perversion.

What’s the most important thing to know about Soulforce?

Homosexuality is not a sickness, and it’s not a sin. We are God’s beloved—all of us.