Alicia Johnston knew what she was doing when she informed Seventh-day Adventist leadership in Arizona about her bisexuality; she knew she would lose leadership of her congregation.
Still, she made the choice to pursue an authentic life grounded in theology that identified her as a child of God. Now, Johnston hopes that coming out and accepting the consequences will help other queer Christians in denominations with conservative theologies about LGBTQ people.
“I thought, if I’m going to blow up my life I’m at least going to use that as an opportunity to give hope to people and help them see that they’re not alone, and hopefully also let it be a wake up call to people in the church that this is a big deal and they have to stop ignoring us,” Johnston said in an interview with Autostraddle.
Johnston grew up in the Adventist church, and she loves the church’s values and traditions, such as a commitment to the environment and weekly observance of the sabbath. She attended Adventist schools for most of her life (Adventists are known for having high-quality educational institutions) and eventually went to seminary. It was a tough road as a woman pursuing pastoral ministry in the denomination, so she was overjoyed to receive a call to Foothills Community Church, a small church near Phoenix Arizona — and near her family. At one time, she thought she would live out her career in ministry serving that congregation. It was “a dream come true kind of church,” she said.
At the same time, she was living in conflict. She had always known she was not straight but had long decided she would live her life as if she were heterosexual and never pursue dating or relationships with women. After last summer’s shooting at Pulse Nightclub, a switch flipped.
“it was the first time I realized I was part of the LGBT community, because the way that LGBT people were responding is the way I felt. It felt like something happening to my community.”
She took to intensive study of theology to learn about understandings and viewpoints in favor of affirmation and welcome as well as condemnation and exclusion. She found herself living in constant tension that made her feel she wasn’t living with integrity. After a lifetime of certainty that the Bible provided a clear case against same-sex marriage and relationships, she was shocked to find things weren’t so simple. Eventually, she embraced an affirming theology and began to understand what that would mean for her. After much prayer and conversations with friends and family, she decided to come out.
She wrote a letter to her congregation’s leadership and to the conference (the Adventist governing body that includes her former church) explaining two things: One, that through study and prayer she had embraced a theology that affirms and includes LGBT people, and two, she herself was bisexual. Given the gravity of the decision and what it would mean for her career, she decided to also come out publicly and created a video which she publicly shared that describes her journey and her decision to come out.
For her, coming out isn’t particularly about being able to act on her attraction to women (when the conference asked if she was involved with anyone she answered no). It’s about living as her authentic self and being in solidarity and relationship with other LGBTQ Christians. She was tired of hiding under a heterosexual privilege that didn’t belong to her and, as she put it: “You can’t say ‘this part of how I love is good and this part of how I love is bad’ because it doesn’t work like that.”
To her surprise, she received a lot of positive responses from her congregation and even from the conference, who affirmed her as a “gifted theologian and pastor.” Of course, they still asked her to resign, citing church doctrine.
“While the Seventh-day Adventist Church deeply believes it’s our responsibility to minister to all people, we also have a mandate to adhere to all Bible teachings,” the conference said. “Fundamental Belief #23 states: ‘Marriage was divinely established in Eden and affirmed by Jesus to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman in loving companionship.'”
Of course, some really nasty online articles from Adventist writers which I won’t link to here describe Johnston’s work as that of the anti-Christ. But Johnston is far from discouraged. Instead, she believes now is the time in her life that she can begin her authentic journey as a minister with integrity. Her goal, she said, is to provide ministry to LGBTQ Christians, especially other Adventists, and to people who might be good allies if they only had the knowledge to embrace affirming theology.
“There are 17 million adventists in the world now, and how many of them are queer? If I have the opportunity to speak to them when no one else is going to, I have to take that opportunity,” Johnston told me.
Although she can no longer serve in the role of pastor, Johnston is still a minister. Life is pretty up in the air, but she’s making connections with other bisexuals and with LGBT Adventists, including through Kinship International, which has been working on behalf of LGBT Adventists for 40 years. She’ll never be employed by the church again, but she is willing to work from the outside in.
“God is love, and this is a beautiful gift. Queer perspectives on faith and on relationships, sexuality and gender is something the church desperately needs. For non-affirming churches, they’re making love and relationships all about gender and people’s roles, when they are supposed to be about commitment and sacrifice and uniting your life with someone else’s. The church needs queer people to remind them what marriage is. This has clarified my ministry, it has clarified my understanding of who God is and what God is trying to accomplish in the world, in the church, in marriage. It’s clarified my life and my ministry, even if it’s made some other things less clear.”
Somebody please write “The church needs queer people to remind them what marriage is” in the sky with a jet plane. You can follow Alicia Johnston’s work through her website.
This is the story of a very brave woman. Good Luck to her in all that she does from here.
“For non-affirming churches, they’re making love and relationships all about gender and people’s roles, when they are supposed to be about commitment and sacrifice and uniting your life with someone else’s.”
Oh hey, it’s the self-described fundamentalist Baptist church I attended in college.
I was excited to find a new Audrey article on AS today. Thanks for sharing this interview.
I feel so affirmed in my life when I read stories like hers. I chose a few years ago to come out to safe people like my friends after world vision went back on their policy to employ out gay people in marriages where states recognized it as legal. So tired of being seen as OK in the church because I have a cis husband as my cloak to make me appear straight.
Just finally came out to my family and was disowned by my dad. But her talk about living in integrity was so beautiful.
Thanks for this interview.
God bless Alicia Johnston.
Wow, what an amazing woman.
This reminds me of my own journey. Last August, I came out as transgender. While many trans women come from fields typically dominated by men, I had worked nearly a decade as what others perceived to be “the only male early childhood teacher in my state”. As such, I knew the fragile precariousness of my position. I was tolerated, but not embraced no matter how educated I became, or how hard I worked.
The main reason I waited 7 years to come out and begin transition was because I knew the outcome. I knew I would have to sacrifice my reason for being. Teaching was my joy, my reason for waking, my passion.
Retaliation came quickly as I knew it would. I was fired on the spot. Rumors spread. I was voted off all professional boards I was a member of. The teacher training conference I planned to present at was canceled. Directors that had once praised my work suddenly turned their backs. I was a “danger to children”, “a disgrace to the profession”. One parent spit on me. I was finished.
Since that time, I have gone through all the phases. Anger. Denial. Hopelessness. And then now, determination. These kids need me. So I continue to fight for them. And it has paid off. Next week I start part-time as admin for a local daycare. It’s not much, but it’s a way back in. And a seat at the table where no one wants me.
Oh, Saga. I’m so sorry that happened. I’m glad you’re fighting.
That is so fucked up, I’m sorry. I’m glad you are not giving up! As an early childhood educator myself, I think being honest and real with children, even little ones, is really important. It’s important for child development to learn that there are lots of different kind of people in the world. It’s sad that many parents don’t see this.
You’re really amazing, and the dedication you show to the kiddos is inspiring <3 Please keep us posted on your new job and your journey!
Thank you both for this. Alicia, thank you for your blog & your strength in answering all those questions & taking all those comments. I confess it was exhausting to read them, so I admire your strength so much. The gospel is so clear that Jesus invited/s every single person to the table, especcccially whoever is cast out by those with money & political power.
This is so great. Thanks be to God for allowing Alicia to live in her truth!! Thank you Audrey for bringing us this <3
I know I’m really late to the game, but as a former Adventist, I have a lot of feelings about this.
So this was a very interesting read. It reminded me of my only experience with a seventh day adventist. I was in a research trip and I was passing a lot of time with these two women, one of which was an adventist. She was talking about her children and did mention having a daughter that they do not speak to due to “family issues.” I later found out by someone else that it was because she was gay. It was one of my first experiences being with someone that I felt that I needed to actively hide my sexuality to (luckily, I was at that moment dating a man so mentioning my partner at the time was not an issue).