As a teenager David Bennett was a gay rights activist. At 19 he encountered the Holy Spirit in a gay bar. David spoke to editor Ruth Jackson about how the Church can support gay young people
Ruth Jackson: When did you first realise you were gay?
David Bennett: I had a strange crush on Aladdin at the age of 9, and it was from that place that I started to have questions. As I grew up and developed into puberty all my desires were toward men and not women. That really freaked me out. I thought: “This is the worst thing ever. I need to get rid of this”.
RJ: Why did you think that?
DB: Because I’d heard my uncles (some of whom were Christian) making homophobic comments. They were just like: “It’s icky. It’s disgusting! Gross!” And I thought “Oh my gosh, that’s me.” I remember running out of the room, bursting into tears and not knowing what to do.
I tried to change it by doing bizarre things like trying to fantasise about the opposite sex, but I knew that wasn’t going to work. I was like that from about 11 to 14. I was with my girlfriend at the time in a cinema and she asked me: “Why don’t you want to be a bit closer with me?” I explained that I just wasn’t into ladies. I also told her that I’d had the first ever suicidal thought of my life and it had really freaked me out about being gay. She said I had to come out.
RJ: You were a gay activist. Why was that so important for you as a teenager?
DB: When I was about 15 I had a boyfriend who was from a traditional Christian background who gave me an amber cross as a present in the park and kissed me. I thought: “Why would you give me a symbol of our oppression as a present?” Then a man pulled up on a motorbike and threw a big rock against my back because he’d seen us kissing. I saw that homophobia was real and wanted to dedicate my life to destroying it and its source, Christianity.
I was going to gay marriage marches and was part of the Queer Collective. I remember seeing the Christian Union posters at university and stapling our gay marriage march posters all over them. I was really anti-Christian and hated this kind of deluded notion of living with a 1st Century Palestinian carpenter for eternity. It just didn’t make any sense to me. Why would God create me with these desires or even allow me to have them, then punish me for having them? It just felt like divine cruelty. I thought the message I had heard from Christians was that gay people are evil or the enemies of God. I didn’t know the gospel of grace. I didn’t know that it’s not your sexual orientation that has anything to do with whether you’re justified by faith. I thought I was disqualified.
RJ: How did you become a Christian?
DB: I saw a girl in a pub in the gay quarter of Sydney. I recognised her as a filmmaker and her work really spoke to me because it was about compassion, representing those with disabilities. She was using her gifts to promote something that wasn’t all about her, so something about her was automatically authentic to me. I asked her: “How did you get your film into the largest short film competition in the world?” And she said: “God.” I was grossed out.
She asked: “Do you think there’s a God?” I said: “Jesus is a good man, but I think it’s an invented religion.” She said: “David, have you experienced the love of God? Because that’s what really matters.” She prayed for me and I had an incredible encounter with God. I felt this tingling sensation, and then it was like someone pouring oil all over my head. The love of God just hit me and I was weeping. But it was healing; it wasn’t emotionalism. It was this deep almost ache of intimacy that had been fulfilled.
I’m not some weird, dried-up celibate person! I have life and life abundantly
RJ: You battled for a long time with what your new-found faith meant for your homosexuality…
DB: It was a really hard journey, but I think because I knew the love of God it didn’t matter that it was hard. I’d had this dream of what flourishing looked like (living in Paris with a boyfriend and adopted child), and it totally changed. I found this other way of the cross and the resurrection, of the Holy Spirit. My life became wrapped around a different goal, a different transcendence. And so that whole gay identity piece became less important. Although it was still important it wasn’t the centre any more. Jesus was the centre.
That happened over a three-year period of worship and a lot of tears; a lot of revelations and visions and experiences of Jesus where he revealed different things to me at the right time.
I asked God for a specific answer and I got it in the form of a birthday present, which was a book called Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill. That book changed my life. I discovered a really deep theology of desire and what to do with our sexuality. I saw another person living out the celibate life I was struggling with.
RJ: How can we support gay young people?
DB: Go against your ‘ick’ feeling. There’s scientific research to show that when we encounter ‘the other’ our brains send a disgust feeling to our stomach. What we need to do is get the Holy Spirit to change that in our hearts.
Don’t say things like: “You shouldn’t call yourself gay”, “Here’s a theory on homosexuality” or “You were probably abused by your father”. Just listen to their story. I would say: “God loves you. He has an incredible plan for your life. God hasn’t compartmentalised you. You are so in his heart and so right at the front of his mind.”
I think the goal, personally, is always to lead people into truth. So I do think we need to have our view ironed out as youth leaders. However, when my aunt talked to me about being gay she pointed me back to God and told me that the Holy Spirit is in me. She said: “If you end up with your boyfriend you’re welcome at the church, and if you weren’t here we would have lost a really important part of the body of Christ. So please stay here, but do know that if you are in a gay relationship leadership’s off-bounds.” She had a position, but the way she administered it to me was in love, and it gave me a safe space to explore. I knew what the standard was, and I knew that I needed to just keep following Jesus and make that number one, and eventually it would work itself out.
If they’re not Christians, your goal isn’t to get them to adopt your ethic. Your goal is to get them to know Jesus, because once they know Jesus they’ll adopt the right behaviour. It shouldn’t be behave, believe, belong. It should be belong, believe and then behave.
RJ: How do we show young people outside the Church that God loves gay people?
DB: I think young people are very sensitive to authenticity. They’re less interested in what language, what label, you use; that’s almost exhausting for this new generation. It’s what your heart is. They’ve had a lot of politics, they’ve had a lot of language. They’ve had a lot of talk and not much action. They want to see the Church extravagantly loving the gay community in crazy ways and for the Church to stop burying its head in the ground in fear, and actually to say, unequivocally: “We love this community. We are different from them. We don’t agree on everything, but we love them and we want to embrace them.” I think if the younger generation can see that they might begin to be able to trust what we preach and teach again.
Young people want to see the church extravagantly loving the gay community in crazy ways
RJ: Why do you think sexual orientation is such a hot topic within the Church?
DB: Society tells us that sex seems to be the thing we need to flourish. So these stories of celibate gay Christians just seems to completely contradict that narrative and produce a lot of heat and friction. People say: “Love is love” or “Love is God”. I would say absolutely not. God is love, and that’s where we have to start all our questions: from identity to sexual ethics, with the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Then we can understand the role of our sexuality and why God gave us that gift. Not as something to repress. It’s like a fire. If you let a fire burn everywhere it’s going to burn everything. But if you give it the right boundaries it warms everyone in the room. Just because you’re celibate doesn’t mean you cease to be a sexual being, in the sense of a relational person who is given this desire to be with other people in love and intimacy. God has given us that desire for intimacy with others so that we can reflect his love to others, and that’s actually one of the most enjoyable things, next to worshipping and knowing him. He wants us to reflect his image in doing that. That’s why we have these deep desires, and I think that’s the best apologetic to explain why we are obsessed with this conversation.
RJ: How do we talk about singleness without it sounding like a second-rate alternative?
DB: I’m not repressed. I’m not some weird, dried-up celibate person! I have life and life abundantly. I think there are really great people like Mike Pilavachi who model that. We need to trust people who are single on the platforms of ministry. We have sometimes implied that you need to be married with two kids before teaching, preaching or speaking. We need to shift how we think about church leadership.
I hear pastors saying that marriage is the most profound form of intimacy you could ever experience with another human. No it’s not! Friendship is, and marriage is a form of friendship. David and Jonathan, Jesus and John – these were the archetypal, deeply intimate human relationships that we, as the Church, should be celebrating. Jesus never got married. He spent his life building friendships of a very profound kind. We also need to be careful not to make friendship an idol. God is the centre and friendship reflects our union with Christ.
David shares more of his story in A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus.