Your Idols Will Not Save Us 

By Micah Rensunberg [Blunt Scholar 2021]

“Should I stay or should I go?” is a choice for some but not for others. To leave Point Loma Nazarene University and the Church of the Nazarene was not a choice for me. This whole last year people flocked to the defense of those who had a decision available to them in the matters of justice, identity and affirmation – but this is not radical. Sure, professional, financial and spiritual obligations were risked when straight, cisgender white men came to the defense of LGBTQ+ folks, but all of that and more is what queer people risk in deciding to live as themselves in any context remotely attached to the Church. 

I graduated from PLNU in 2021 and married my best friend (whom I met while going to school there) in 2023. While at the university, I transitioned from female to male and co-led Voices of Love (the school’s unofficial group for LGBTQ+ individuals) with my now-spouse, Claire. Many students, staff and faculty were supportive — that is, expecting or encouraging me to act as an educator and martyr so others would (maybe) be moved to help things change — but again, this is not radical.  

During the trial that removed Pastor Dee Kelley from San Diego First Church of the Nazarene and the firing of PLNU’s former Dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry Mark Maddix shortly before that, my spouse and I (from our place on the East Coast) received harassing messages and near-constant updates about all of this as it unfolded. The attention paid to these individuals preserved idyllic legacies for those who profited while my queer friends who were unhoused, in dire mental health straits or dropping out of college, were in need of radical intervention. 

I know too many people whose parents, tied to the Church of the Nazarene, would choose not to be included in wedding photos or attend celebrations of other life events for fear of losing their jobs. When people show up to the venue or officiate a marriage, we applaud their bravery and commend the risk to their reputation. It is fair to say that this is a deeply traumatizing reality to lose or risk losing a part of one’s security or identity, but the focus is grievously misplaced. This is not radical. More is required. 

Those who decide to take the risk and are stripped of jobs, titles or denominational affiliations are not martyrs. They are still here, living in the glory of those who uplift the choice they had to participate in something adjacent to justice. The queer people who are embracing their full reality (when and where they are able) without the same attention and support are the focus of the real miracle here. 

I want those who have lost their careers in the Church to be tenderly supported through that grief. They deserve to be held and find healing in whatever capacity is meaningful to them. Still, I am more concerned with those who have limited networks of care in their life, with those who help them survive the isolation that can arise when one is queer and connected in some way to the Church. 

The small legal ceremony where my spouse and I got married had a series of repercussions that closely mimicked what it was like to be a student at PLNU. Months after we were married, we found out that my father-in-law, who officiated our wedding, was losing his ordination credentials because someone had informed the District Superintendent that he performed clergy services at a queer wedding. In the year that followed, sympathies abounded for the loss of that license and the title of “pastor.” Not once, however, has anyone asked me or my spouse how we felt about the deeply unnerving reality that someone had enough context and vested interest in our lives to peer into and report negatively on what was the most joyful moment of my existence so far. 

As a student, there were limits to coming out. When I changed my name and presented fully as myself, there was no other option but to live out loud in all of the difficulties that brought with it. Staff and faculty were able to quietly support me, just as they have been distantly supporting Voices of Love over the years. Those underground allies are celebrated by the community attached to the university for their bravery, in showing up when they could because of the personal risks attached to their allyship. When one professor harms a queer student they are often reminded that there are plenty of good ones out there, you just have to know where to look for them and a “safe space.” 

The onus remains with queer students to process their hurts and fears gracefully, learn how to recognize hidden allies and try to help the school do better when they are able. These tasks alongside the effort to help the school’s culture change while navigating tangible unsafety almost destroyed me. This capacity-building effort for others superseded my humanity over time, and I am not the first to strive unceasingly to be seen for who I am – working for change until I was on the brink of martyrdom from which one does not come back. 

It became clear that this cause was not mine to carry the moment I saw those who couldn’t be loved out loud in life sink into silent graves. 

My affiliation with the Nazarene Church and this university now is an exhausting, complicated reality. My spouse and I met in this difficult crossfire. There are people we love connected to the Nazarene orbit, but this attachment means that a misplaced fury continues to follow us as well. People ask why distant in-laws I have never met did not intervene to try to prevent these pastors and professors from being fired. I appear as some grievous villain when I inform individuals that it is not my job to know why these things are happening on campus and in churches, and that their livelihoods are not what I am most concerned about. A more radical and just cause now demands my attention. 

My current concentration in my master’s program at Harvard is considering how we help people survive the “end of the world” — by this, I mean moments that lead to ruptures in a person’s life creating grief of apocalyptic proportions.

 I worked as a crisis counselor for the Trevor Project for several years during my time as an undergrad at PLNU and there was a common, overwhelming theme of individuals feeling unmoored in systems that would not put them first, could not even acknowledge their humanity and refused to prioritize their survival (the organization provides a lifeline to LGBTQ+ youth who need someone to talk to when they are experiencing suicidal ideation). It is by no means the whole story but it is a critical aspect of queer life that there can be an inability to imagine the future as something available to someone under conditions of judgment, persecution and near-constant misunderstanding. I am tired of burying friends or calling law enforcement to keep children safe from themselves when there are no other supports available. 

I never thought I would get married, let alone live long enough to think about adopting children one day with someone I love this much. Being in a divinity program without the support of mentors, institutions or ideological frameworks is not easy — but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Between my partner and I, we have five part-time jobs, eight classes this spring and a slew of health problems; but I have never felt more alive and well than when we are slow dancing on a Friday night before a homemade dinner and a horror movie we might fall asleep watching on the couch. 

When we focus on the risk of rejection and possible suffering of those who simply offer support and understanding as allies of the LGBTQ+ community according to their capacity and cautious choice, we make queer futures and happiness seem scarce if not impossible. Instead, more radical efforts should be made to affirm the reality of queer survival, that people can choose to set boundaries or leave spaces where they are not welcomed out loud — and if they find someone (who has the right priorities) maybe they can be held when it feels impossible to imagine things ever getting better. 

Your idols cannot save us and this self-righteous anger at the denomination leaves those at the crossroads of this conflict still uncared for. Maybe instead of trying to change that which remains immovable, it might be time to imagine new possibilities for queer thriving outside of conventional church contexts by tangibly supporting whatever that means for the LGBTQ+ people in your lives.