Over his eclectic journalistic career, Jeff Chu has interviewed presidents and paupers, corporate execs and preachers, Britney Spears and Ben Kingsley. As a writer and editor for Time, Conde Nast Portfolio, and Fast Company, he has compiled a portfolio that includes stories on megahit-making Swedish songwriters (a piece for which he went clubbing in Stockholm); James Bond (for which he stood on a Spanish beach and watched Halle Berry emerge from the waves over and over and over); undercover missionaries in the Arab world (he traveled to North Africa and went to church); and the decline of Christianity in Europe (he prayed). On the wall of his New York office, you’ll find a quote from former Senator John Warner, who once told Jeff: “You’re a good little interviewer!”
A California native, Jeff went to high school at Miami’s Westminster Christian, where he sat behind Alex Rodriguez in Mr. Warner’s world history class. A graduate of Princeton and the London School of Economics, Jeff has received fellowships from the Phillips Foundation and the French-American Foundation, and in 2012, was part of the Seminar on Debates in Religion and Sexuality at Harvard Divinity School. The nephew and grandson of Baptist preachers, he is an elder at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York. He loves the San Francisco 49ers, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and clementines. And he detests marzipan more than he can explain in words (Amazon).
Tell us about your recent memoir Does Jesus Really Love Me. Why did you decide to write it? What have been some of the responses to it?
First, I have to ask for a little adjustment—it’s not a memoir. It’s primarily a work of journalism—other people’s stories, not my own—but there is some of my story woven in, so that people understand where I’m coming from and why I wrote this. I get a little defensive about this because a) I’m a journalist; and b) I don’t think my life has been interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention for 300 pages, and writing a memoir would feel totally self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent.
I wrote the book for one of the most cliched reasons—I wrote the book I wanted to read. I couldn’t find a book like it when I was going through the difficult process of acknowledging my sexuality to myself and to the rest of the world. I didn’t want to be told what to do, as I was by so many people.
I wanted to hear others’ stories, and to have the room to process all that for myself. I wanted to understand the ways in which other people had tried (or failed) to reconcile their faith with their sexuality. I wanted to get a glimpse of the choices they made, the struggles they had, and the lessons they learned, so that I could try to figure things out for myself.
Anytime you write about issues like faith and sexuality, you’re bound to get into trouble with someone. I’ve been heartened by the kind letters and grateful emails that I’ve gotten from many readers. I’ve been saddened by the dogmatic and judgmental ones that I’ve gotten from two distinct poles—a lot of them have come from conservative Christians (for lack of a better term), which I expected, but a lot of them have also come from liberals and atheists, which I did not. Maybe I was naive. But it turns out that many atheists think it is a sign of my lower intelligence that I am still trying to hang onto my faith, and a lot of liberals didn’t like my decision to write about conservatives as if their beliefs and choices have been valid.
What surprised you most about this journey?
I’m surprised that so many people ask me what has surprised me about the journey. I think we’re always looking for surprise, when, in fact, some of the most profound lessons come from those
who are not surprising at all. We are so often looking for the extraordinary that we miss the testimonies of people who seem to be ordinary. I didn’t meet a single family or encounter a single congregation that was, beneath the surface, ordinary. Maybe it’s a sign of the way our culture has moved, that we’re always looking for the spectacular, but I’m far more interested in the “average”—which is to say, not at all average—mom who is doing the hard work of trying to love her child, the pastor who is struggling with his hermeneutic and striving to meet his congregation where they are, the bridge-builder who is hoping to live in a place where she can talk to people on both sides of these huge chasms in relationship that we have today.
You interviewed quite a few people for this book. Who was your favorite, and why?
I think it would be rude to pick my “favorite” subject. I will say that I was struck by the thoughtfulness of Pete Wilson, an evangelical megachurch pastor I met in Nashville. Pete looked the stereotypical part—funky hair, distressed jeans, semitight shirt, and all that—but he was so gracious and so candid about his efforts to grow and to learn. I wish more pastors showed their vulnerability in that way. I fell in love with the expansive vision of Mary Glasspool, the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles, who has been deemed by some conservatives to be a militant. Maybe she is, but as she told me, the only thing she is militant about is the love of God, and she reflects that love in a wonderful way. Finally, Gideon Eads, a young man in Arizona who has been through so much turmoil with his community and family as they have learned about his sexuality. He is perhaps the bravest person I met during my journey, largely because of his refusal to walk away and his commitment to being part of the place where he has been planted.
What advice would you give to a Christian who has or is discovering that he/she is attracted to the same sex?
The main thing I would say, and I don’t know if this is advice so much as it is begging, is not to let ANYONE tell you that God is off-limits to you, that your sexuality somehow puts you beyond the boundaries of Jesus’ love, that there is no place for you in the church. There may not be a spot in THAT church, but THE church is a different matter. For a long time, I made the mistake of mixing up God with those who claim to be the people of God. They are different. Nobody has the power to write you out of God’s story. Nobody has the right to tell you that you don’t belong to the one who created you in the first place.
Any future projects?
I loved spending so much time gathering people’s stories, at a depth and length that is atypical for a magazine journalist. Usually, we’re jumping from one topic to another, and I got to spend years with this one. To be honest, I don’t think I’m going to write about homosexuality again, at least not at book length. The experience of putting this book out into the world has left me at times a bit discouraged about the tone of the discourse. My goal has been and continues to be to put stories out there so that we—or at least some of us—can try to have a more gracious conversation. I believe that we can disagree in kindness, that we can be in community even with those of us who see differently and interpret Scripture differently. I’m going to keep sharing stories and keep talking about this experience. But sometimes it feels like I’m one of the moles in a big game of Whack-a-Mole, and that gets boring. Some days, my head hurts. Some days, my heart hurts. But we have to walk forward in hope. And we have to cling to a God whose grace is big enough to handle even our mistakes.