Episode 52: Neil Cazares Thomas

Neil Cazares Thomas is the pastor of Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, a mostly LGBTQ faith community. He and George talk about the theology behind affirming LGBTQ identifying people and their faith. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:

Neil: It's incumbent on us if we really want to follow the way, the truth, the life, then we have to take up that place of discipline or discipleship and to understand that personally. I don't think the role of the church is to tell people how to live. I think the role of the church is to point people to their better selves.

George: Good.

Neil: Especially in a community of oppressed peoples who have always been countercultural, who have always been on the margins, who have always been told they're not good enough, they're not acceptable, they may as well go eat worms for the rest of their lives, because they're going to go to hell in a handbasket anyway. It is easy for a group of people, a marginalized people, to not want to buy-in to a system that calls them to behavior.

So we've learned, or I've learned, that in my conversations with people, is to actually find a way to help people build a better self-esteem, because if you start to love yourself, there are certain things you won't do to yourself. My job, I constantly believe as a pastor, is to help people to find their self-esteem, to find a place within them that says "I'm worth more than what I've been doing."

Listen and read the transcript here, or click here to watch the full video.

George: In every church in America, and in every home, people are wrestling with same-sex orientation and gender identity, and it's challenging all of our relationships. There's great opportunity for us all to learn and grow, and who better to help us than the senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope? That's Neil Cazares-Thomas. He'll be with us on Good God. Stay tuned.

George: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'm pleased to welcome to the program today my colleague and friend, Neil Cazares-Thomas, who is the senior pastor of the Cathedral of Hope Church here in Dallas. Neil, welcome to the program.

Neil: Good to see you. Good to see you.

George: Well, Neil, we have some common experiences in recent years that's happened. You've only been in Dallas for three years, I've been nearly 30, but 2015 was a really pivotal year in so many ways. For one thing, of course, we've had the historic decision of the Supreme Court when they ruled for marriage equality, and you arrived in Dallas three weeks before that as this new senior pastor of what had once been known, and still informally I think, been known as the largest gay church in town. The truth of the matter is as we've explored, it is a much more diverse congregation now, and you've told me that the fastest-growing demographic in your church are actually traditional families, heterosexual families, which is I think something people would be interested in, as well.

George: Then in the fall of 2015, our church, Wilshire Baptist, made the decision that we would treat all confessing Christians in Jesus Christ who are members of our church equally in every matter. That meant people of same-sex orientation and gender identity questions, that they had an equal place in life in the church with no exceptions and no buts about it. That became a historic decision for our church, also a very difficult and challenging one because of the way that fell out with many of our members and people that we loved and cared for.

George: During that time, I would say the first person I remember really reaching out to me and saying, "We're here for you, and thank you for what you've done," was the pastor of Cathedral of Hope. That was Neil Cazares-Thomas. I thank you for that outreach. It was an extraordinary moment, and it meant a lot to me during that period that was so painful in some ways, the loss of friends, and here we've gained a new friendship, too.

Neil: We have. It was interesting, arriving three weeks prior to the decision out of the Supreme Court. I was the new kid on the block. I really knew nothing about the landscape of Dallas. I'd had some little orientations, and then this decision came down, and almost within 30 minutes, I received a phone call from WFAA and said, "We'd like you to come down and be interviewed with Robert Jeffress." I had no idea who ...

George: The pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Neil: First Baptist Dallas. I had no idea who Robert Jeffress was, but I'm the 'yes' person, so I just said, "Yes, sure." So I was whisked off with my director of communications at that time, and we drove down to the WFAA and sat in a very similar configuration that we sat in now, and was interviewed for about 30 minutes for the marriage equality decision, only later to really understand Robert Jeffress, Pastor Jeffress, and his position, and his sometimes theology that I find very difficult to embrace, but it was an extraordinary conversation with him, and set me actually really in the center stage in preparation for the ministry at Cathedral.

Neil: The decision your church made was historic and brave and courageous and should never be taken lightly, and I know you went through a tremendous amount of time of study and reflection and prayer and spiritual discernment. Those are things in common with many LGBT people who also have to go through that journey of the soul as they discover both who they are, but how they stand with God.

George: I will say that I'm very cautious about comparing my journey with someone of same-sex orientation and how they've had to do that, because I don't think that there's enough existential similarity about just really who you are before God in your very basic nature, so I don't want to overstate that comparison.

George: What I will say is that when I've listened to gay and lesbian Christians talk about how they have come out and come to grips with that, the process of wrestling spiritually, theologically, and all of that, with this felt somewhat familiar to me as I was moving from a position of originally as a younger person and pastor who could not see or accept that this was plausible within the context of the Christian faith, to a period of uncertainty, recognizing that maybe there was a way for God to be gracious, but still holding onto a kind of heteronormative understanding of creation and the like, and maybe there were exceptions, but there couldn't be an affirmation, you might say, to a time when I really came to recognize that my pastoral care was falling on deaf ears. It was not healing. It was not bringing the power of Christ to bear in making people whole.

George: I had to go back and really wrestle with texts and tradition and those sorts of things. So I had really come to that view before I was able to kind of come openly to come to an affirming position with the church and put my own ministry in the crosshairs, in a sense, about that. So it did feel to me like a kind of coming out, and that's a scary place to be, in a sense. You really don't know the future; you've only known the security of one way of being. So to have people to find, like yourselves, to welcome me and our church, was an extraordinary thing. You did, and you almost immediately said, "Let's do some things together."

George: I had to say, "Can you give us a year?" We need to do some healing first on our own, but then we had this extraordinary time last year where we shared Holy Week together. Your church came and joined us for our Maundy Thursday service, and we joined you for Good Friday. I must tell you, Neil, that when you introduced me at Cathedral of Hope on Good Friday, the reception of your church dumbfounded me. I really was literally speechless. It must've been three minutes of gratitude expressed for us and our leadership in the church. I couldn't be more touched by that or more grateful for what that meant. So thank you.

Neil: Thank you. As you know, it was a genuine experience. It was a genuine response. Perhaps, I would say inappropriate for Good Friday, but we got back to the programs. There was an outpouring. I think there were many, many pieces to that. I think one of the pieces for those who were raised in the Baptist church, in the Southern Baptist church, was a sense of reconciliation. There was some symbolism. I also believe genuinely that your leadership in Dallas over the last 30 years, that many of them have watched, was affirmed and given thanks for.

George: Thank you.

Neil: I think it was a wonderful experience of living together. For many people, I remember on Maundy Thursday when we came, many of my congregants said, "My god, I've not walked into a Baptist church in 20 years, and the roof didn't cave in. Lightning didn't strike." It was a very healing experience.

George: That night, and what followed, I would say, was extraordinary, because the number of people from each of our congregations who met each other and shared their stories with tears in their eyes and hugs, and words of blessing and affirmation, the notes that were written, the emails sent. I actually got an email recently from a member of your congregation I think just two weeks ago following up on last year and saying, "It's taken me this long to be able to express what I really want to say," and I know you've received other such notes from our congregation, as well. It is an extraordinary grace the churches showed to each other during this period, and a real gesture of both hospitality and generosity.

Neil: Absolutely. If that's not the message of Easter, then I don't know what it is.

George: Well, isn't that right? Yes. The new life that comes after a sense of loss and death and suffering and those sorts of things, and that's the heart of our faith, isn't it?

Neil: Absolutely it's the heart of our faith.

George: No matter what your life experience is, there is a sense that God is not finished with you when you think everything might be gone.

Neil: Yeah, and the motto of the United Church of Christ is, God is still speaking.

George: Which is actually a remarkable statement, and I know that it comes from John Robinson's words that sent the pilgrims off on their journey, and in a sense said to keep open to what God's Word might say to you next. That's part of the UCC's historic theological tradition, but God is still speaking.

Neil: God's still speaking, and it's remarkable in what God will reveal.

George: There is yet more light to come from the holy scriptures, whereas, I think some in our traditions think that ... They have the idea that the Word is somehow frozen in time, but even the scripture itself speaks about how it is living, the Word of God is living and active and able to judge us and to call us to new life. It's a beautiful thing to watch how we continue to learn.

Neil: Well, Jesus said even you'll do greater things than I.

George: Yes. When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, which is his own spirit. So what would those greater things be? What kinds of new experiences and new truth? He said the Spirit will lead you into all truth, truth that you could not yet bear. Something that has been working on me for a long time about that is that phrase about bearing. That until you've suffered enough, until you've borne the truth, you're not ready to receive it and accept it. The disciples themselves had not been yet in that position. Your community certainly has.

Neil: We certainly have, and still even through to today, the damage that has been done to lesbian and gay people specifically, bisexual and transgender folk, of course, but the damage that has been done in this kind of divorce between God and gays, the suicides that I officiate at, the low self-esteem that continues to prevail the lesbian and gay community, bisexual and transgender, as we've embraced more in the LGBT community, the lives that the homeless kids who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.

George: And some 40% of the homeless population of youth are LGBTQ young people.

Neil: And say that they're homeless because of religious bias.

George: Exactly.

Neil: And the church doesn't take much responsibility for what it's done, and still does. There are great congregations like yours and ours and other affirming churches, but the loudest voice out there is not always ours.

George: Yes. Well, we're going to take a break, but when we come back from the break, I want us to talk about how we have come to understand our Christian theology in a way that can be affirming of LGBTQ identified persons, and how that leads us into solidarity with, and to justice work with other marginalized communities, as well. Let's take a break and we'll be right back.

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George: We're back with Neil Cazares-Thomas. Neil, we were just talking about how the church has not always been, and usually has not been, throughout history, a place of welcome to persons of same-sex orientation, transgender persons, persons of gender dysphoria, and it's been uncomfortable to be in it. We see some change in that now happily as more and more churches are wrestling with this and are undergoing an evaluation of how their theology has previously been unwelcoming and how it can be welcoming. What are some of the keys? If you were talking to someone who said, "But the Bible says," "But all of Christian history, it has been one way, and all of a sudden you want to say something else." Are there a few markers that you would say, "Pay attention to this and this and this?" What would you say?

Neil: If we're just going strictly on the lesbian/gay stuff, bisexual/transgender stuff, I would certainly point to David and Jonathan in the Hebrew scriptures and, of course, David is the line ... Jesus is the line of David. I would certainly refer to Ruth and Naomi. That's not to say that they were gay or lesbian, but there were certainly some same-sex attraction, definitely when David says to Jonathan, he says, "Greater love have I had for you than I've had for any of my women." We know that David had a lot of women in his life.

Neil: Then Ruth and Naomi, "Where you die, I die. May your God be my God. May God deal with me be it ever so severely if anything but death separates you and I." Those are the vows of the Christian marriage ceremony that we repeat.

George: How many weddings have we done where people have wanted to use that passage, "Whithersoever thou goest, I will go"? Yes.

Neil: Vows between two women. There was no man involved in those vows. Let's pay attention to the scriptures that we say we support. Then also, historically as the church, the scriptures have not changed, but our positions have. In our Civil Rights Movement here in the United States, for instance, the white church defended its position on slavery and its position on unequal status for black folk based on this same scripture that hasn't changed, that somehow black folks were only three-quarters human.

George: Yes.

Neil: So we're not the only group that have been excluded. Women. The scriptures have not changed, but our position, our understanding, our education, our social locations have. I think that the scripture is always about including more, and the times when we exclude or we restrict those inclusions, I believe those are the times when we grieve the Holy Spirit.

George: Well, so I think you mention social location and personal experience as being a part of this. Those are things that so often when I was growing up, I was sort of taught to be suspicious of, because if you paid too much attention to sociology or to personal experience, you're not privileging the Word of God in its judgment over you, and confirming yourself to it. Yet, what we have learned is how easy it is for us to read ourselves into the Bible wherever we are. We have a tendency to want the Bible to suit us, and that includes those of us who are in positions that are privileged and powerful and whatnot, when the scripture itself is born out of an oppressed community that's being liberated.

George: In fact, in our Advent text, we have in the gospel text here at Advent, it says that during all of the years of these religious and political rulers, the Word of the Lord came instead to John the Baptist, who was in the wilderness. I think we have to pay attention to this sense that God seems to get to the powerful through the marginalized, not the other way around. We are always trying to figure out how to acknowledge that God has somehow worked through our political and religious leaders, and it's supposed to trickle down, but it doesn't trickle down. It's supposed to come up.

Neil: Absolutely. Even to have Jesus born in a borrowed room in a lowly stable rather than a palace should speak to us about the marginalized. I think that the whole role of the church is always about the margins. We take the message to the margins, because that's where it's being lived. It may not be accepted, but that's where it's being lived. Then the problem we do as a church then is that we try to bring the margins to the center instead of always finding out where the margins are.

George: Right. Now, on the other hand, there is, I think also, a challenge when you are learning to read the scripture that way and welcoming everyone in, nonetheless, there are things we've learned across time about habits of holiness, about how to live a good life, that I think are also important for us not to neglect. It seems to me to be always a dismissive canard that churches that are progressive have no standards, they have no enduring values, they don't call people to discipline, that sort of thing.

George: Of course, it is a challenge, but for every tradition, it's a challenge to recognize that we are unconditionally loved and welcomed, but we're also being asked to take up our cross and to follow Christ in a very deliberate way, that a good life consists in certain kind of habits of being, right?

Neil: Absolutely. We say in our church, everybody's welcome, but not all behaviors are.

George: Ah. There you go.

Neil: It's incumbent on us if we really want to follow the way, the truth, the life, then we have to take up that place of discipline or discipleship and to understand that personally. I don't think the role of the church is to tell people how to live. I think the role of the church is to point people to their better selves.

George: Good.

Neil: Especially in a community of oppressed peoples who have always been countercultural, who have always been on the margins, who have always been told they're not good enough, they're not acceptable, they may as well go eat worms for the rest of their lives, because they're going to go to hell in a handbasket anyway. It is easy for a group of people, a marginalized people, to not want to buy-in to a system that calls them to behavior.

Neil: So we've learned, or I've learned, that in my conversations with people, is to actually find a way to help people build a better self-esteem, because if you start to love yourself, there are certain things you won't do to yourself. My job, I constantly believe as a pastor, is to help people to find their self-esteem, to find a place within them that says "I'm worth more than what I've been doing."

George: Well, if they're created in the image and likeness of God, there is no greater place to go in terms of recognizing that you matter.

Neil: You matter, yep.

George: Everyone of us is made in the image and likeness of God: gay people, straight people, young people, old people, white people, black people, brown people, come on. We're all made in the image and likeness of God.

Neil: They're all made in the image of God.

George: You did raise an interesting issue of how marginalized people have sometimes internalized their marginalization in a way. The marriage equality decision was actually broadly welcomed by many in your community, but also challenged by ... It challenges some. Tell us more about how, the diverse reaction to that that you've experienced.

Neil: It's interesting, because especially in the lesbian and gay community, I'll narrow that down perhaps even to gay men. That's not to say that this does not apply to lesbian women, but I have more experience in the gay male community. For many in the gay male community, sexual freedom and sexual liberation didn't necessarily equate to monogamy. Let's be also clear. Monogamy is a modern construct. It's not something that's biblical. It's something that we've evolved into as a society around privilege and power.

Neil: What was interesting is that there were, of course, a large percentage of people who'd lived through the AIDS years, who were coupled, and who lost everything when their partners died, that there was some legal protections that couples could now receive by getting married and having all of the rights and privileges of marriage. And there was a whole other section of our community who were like we're selling out to what we have fought for around sexual liberation and sexual freedom, and who were not in monogamous couples, in triads, or family groups.

Neil: That is not something that's only in the lesbian and gay community. I know many straight folks who live in those life groups without any judgment from our side, please hear that. So it was interesting to see how we wrestled with ... I will say that here we are in 2018, and I've now done more marriages than I've done funerals.

George: Wow. That's remarkable.

Neil: That is remarkable. There was a moment I remember just last year when I realized that I'd now done more weddings than funerals, and there was a liberation in that and some hope in all of that.

George: So, for me, rather than challenging the question of monogamy or looking at alternative ways to talk about sexual freedom, in our church's decision in looking at this, it's really a question of shouldn't one standard apply to everyone? If we're going to hold people accountable for their behavior, then we should hold everyone accountable for the same standard. Marriage equality, on a legal basis, actually forced the church, I think, to reckon with what was a double standard that it held.

George: Because I think for a lot of churches, they had come to the place of saying "I do think probably gay people are born that way," or "It's not a conscious choice for someone to be gay," and yet marriage is a bridge too far, because that's too like the normal life of the church. So what is one supposed to do if one is gay Christian living in the church? Well, it seems like for a long time it was about kind of winking and saying, "Yeah, I know. We love you and you're present, but just don't make me think about this."

George: Well, that sort of diminishes a person's sense of full value in the church. What we found is that when we were able to say, "This is possible now for you," it changed everything in terms of people's self-esteem, their feeling of place. Not being special, and not calling for a revolution for everyone, but simply saying, "All right. There are standards, and we want to live together in the same kind of standard."

Neil: Yeah, and I will say, George, in our church, we had done marriages for lesbian and gay couples for decades.

George: Right, just weren't legal.

Neil: They weren't legal. They were religious marriages. That was our religious freedom, just as we talk about religious freedom today. So we had lots and lots of couples who were in marriages, and we did then was, did the legal piece. You're right. I think it does bring about a sense of I'm accepted, especially if your government at the very highest level affirms that, and I do believe that it has transformed. When I got married, coming up on I think six years ago now, I thought, "Nothing's going to change," but it did.

George: Fascinating. Yeah.

Neil: I think the piece that changed for me was there's some permanence to this. I can't just get up and walk away. Whereas, before, it was a consensual agreement that we were going to be together, but there was nothing to bond us together.

George: Right. So there's a kind of covenantal reality. Bonhoeffer said something to the effect of, "Love makes marriages, and forever thereafter, marriage makes love," which I think is really a way to recognize that turn that happens. The sense of covenant and promise that one enters into with those vows creates a level of security and a new sense of confidence going forward that really makes a difference.

George: Well, Neil, this has been a fascinating conversation, and I'm so grateful to be able to explore this with you and for people to overhear what we're up to together in this work. I know it has permutations beyond LGBTQ matters and the way our churches address our mission to the world. I hope that people will have a sense that there is good news emanating from our congregations and many others who are beginning to explore these directions. Thanks for all you do.

Neil: Thank you, George.

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