Over the past year, Adventure Church - part of the Foursquare denomination - has been trying to push forward with their purchase of a theatre building in an area that is known to be a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community in the Fresno area. The Tower Theatre has been used to host the annual LGBTQ+ Reel Pride Film Festival, as well as numerous drag shows and the like, and the insensitivity to this cultural icon that the church has shown as they have fought to move forward with this purchase has further damaged any possibility of a relationship between the LGBTQ+ community. With this acknowledgement, some of the affirming pastors in the Fresno area invited conservative church leaders to listen to the voices of those within the LGBTQ+ community who had been affected by this move. The following is the letter that I submitted to be a part of that conversation. I decided to share it here in hopes that it might spark more conversation beyond the Fresno area.
To the Pastors of Fresno and the Central Valley:
Hello! My name is Ellie Dote, and I am a queer transgender Christian woman. I have also spent almost half of my life in Fresno before moving back to Southern California following my divorce in 2018. I realize that for many of you who are hearing these words, the idea that I would call myself a Christian while also clinging to my identity as a queer and transgender woman is foreign or even downright blasphemous. But I would ask you for a moment to consider the reasons why.
I’ve spent most of my life in Church. Like many of you teach, I believed that I was saved by Grace. That my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior meant that I had received the promise of eternity in Heaven as opposed to eternal separation from God in Hell. I also believed that as a follower of Christ, I was to share that good news — the Gospel — with those who needed to hear the same message of hope that I had.
For years, I poured my life into the idea that if I was just that much holier… if I spent more time in church… if I “saved” just one more person — God would help me to overcome my own sinful desires and even questions. That I’d be able to truly become the man of God that I was supposed to be. Until that all came crumbling down in 2008 after years of abuse from church leadership, resulting in burnout that all but destroyed my ability to trust any sort of Church leadership.
It was in that context that I finally allowed all of the questions surrounding my own identity — questions that I hadn’t allowed myself to ask for most of my life. Of course, those were questions that I couldn’t ask within the Church. Church wasn’t a safe space for me to even admit that I “struggled” with the possibility that I could be gay or even feminine. Church was the place where men were supposed to be men: strong leaders, sports fanatics, and unemotional — everything I wasn’t. So with that, combined with my own understanding of what the Church had taught about homosexuality, I left to find answers in the shadows.
As one thing led to another, I ended up in a moment of indiscretion that would end up with me contracting HIV — a disease that went undetected for many years until it had almost taken my life in 2016. As the reality of everything began to set in and the truth of my actions came to life, I finally was forced to come to terms with the identity that I had been trying to hide for decades: I was transgender.
Now, remember — at this point in time, I was separated from the Church. I didn’t believe that there was a place for me there — not that God didn’t love me, but rather that the Church was just a place where I was going to end up burned again and again. I didn’t think that I’d stay away forever; but coming out seemed like it would mean that I’d be locking the door and throwing away the key.
And so, recognizing that I’d been away from the Church for 10 years already, I came out, understanding that while I believed God loved me, I would no longer have a place where I would find community or acceptance where others would believe that God loved me as I was.
That all changed in 2018 when a friend of mine invited me to a women’s event at Northpointe Church. It was a moment when, even after spending years in ministry and not experiencing it, I honestly felt the presence of God and heard the voice of God calling me to come home. And even with that being said, I didn’t feel that God was calling me to do so by giving up my newfound identity within the LGBTQ+ community.
Since that time, I have done a lot of studying to try and understand where I fit within God’s plan and to try and find a place where I could enjoy that within the context of community and church. During my time within the Evangelical church, it was always taught to me that the goal was to win everyone into the Kingdom of God — and that we were to do so with our love.
Yet so much of what Evangelical culture has become known for now is exclusivity and a lack of tolerance for anyone who doesn’t fit within their box of what “normal” is. Over the past four years, I have worked to counsel several members of the LGBTQ+ community who have felt that God had left them simply because the church — and even their families — had turned their backs on them. One of them had even started living on the streets here in Fresno and selling her body because her parents had kicked her out at the age of 13 for being transgender.
Over the past several months, many of us within the LGBTQ+ community have watched as what we felt was a safe have for us in the Tower District become a battleground over the “rights” of Adventure Church to open their doors in a venue that has historically hosted such events as the Reel Pride Festival and drag shows.
Does Adventure Church have the right to be there, barring any legal ramifications based on the sale of the building? Sure. But I would ask you, if the goal is to love our neighbor, how is it loving for a church whose denomination clearly states that homosexuality is a sin to force their presence into a community where the LGBTQ+ community has found sanctuary?
Equally disturbing is the fact that the leaders of Adventure Church are unwilling to have a conversation with us regarding their desire to move in. In many ways, the witness of the church has become akin to the person on the corner of Blackstone and Shaw holding the cross emblazoned with the word “repent” and shouting through his bullhorn that we’re all doomed to hell. Is it truth? Yes. But is it loving and an effective way to let people know that God loves them? No.
Since coming out, I have sought to have conversations with several pastors throughout both the Fresno and Southern California area where I now live. I may have talked with some of you. In each of those conversations, I expressed my desire to grow deeper in my relationship with God by being a part of the church community. And in nine out of the ten conversations I had, I was told in no uncertain terms that I while I’d be welcome to join in on a Sunday morning, being a part of the community — especially in women’s ministry — was out of the question. Had I not found connection with the people at Woven Community, I don’t know if I would have given up or not.
I am happy to report that I am now growing happily in my relationship with God at an affirming church here in Southern California. Yet what continues to trouble me are the thousands of people within your communities who are hurting because of how the Church has sought to exclude them and disregard their feelings every step of the way. These are people who will never darken the doorway of your church because your actions have spoken loud and clear that you are expendable. That their lives — and eternities — aren’t worth your own rights and comfort. People who truly believe because Christians have told them both through their words and through their actions that they are not worthy of God’s love.
Before he left this earth, Jesus told His disciples to “go out into all the world, making disciples.” Throughout His ministry, those disciples came from all backgrounds — people that the religious wouldn’t even go near. Yet those were the very people that God chose to build His church. It’s very telling then, that every single one of the pastors that I have spoken to has told me that I am the first transgender person that they have ever met. It means that the Church isn’t doing enough to go out into the world. It also means that when they do, they need to do so in a way that leads to the Fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
As it stands right now, the fruits that the Church has been bearing when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community have been death, destruction, pain, sorrow, and homelessness. Is that really the place we should be? I have a hard time believing that this is where God would want the Church to be. But I can’t make that call for you. It’s up to you now to do something with the knowledge you’ve heard today. And that, my friends, is a choice that is completely between you and God.
Thank you for allowing me to speak my mind openly here.
Your ministries are doing good work here in the Valley — but I think it’s time that we start casting a vision for the biggest picture of God, and working to tell that story. It’s a story that’s even bigger than the one that’s currently being told.
Eleanor Anne Dote