By Scott Gronholz, Former Director of Youth and Family Ministries
OriginallY Published August 2015
On the morning of July 4th our High School youth group along with the ECBF youth group gathered near the Alaska Airlines kiosks and Pastor Doug prayed a prayer that I thought set an intriguing agenda for our trip. Doug asked for protection and safety and he asked God to give us patience with each other. Then he prayed for something that I can’t remember anyone praying for a mission trip group before. He said, “as these students go to learn from Dr. John Perkins, please teach them something about reconciliation that they can bring back to us here in Seattle.” I thought this was a rather lofty thing to pray for. I liked the idea, but at the time I kind of thought that it made our group feel more important than it was. It turns out I could not have been more wrong. God did show us and teach us something through John Perkins about reconciliation that we will be sharing with Bethany and Emerald City Bible Fellowship for years to come.
On the third morning of our mission trip, Dr. Perkins arrived at 7:30 am for our first of 5 scheduled morning Bible studies with him. This first morning together turned out to be…complicated. He talked in general about reconciliation and what it means to discriminate against people by labeling them in one way or another. It seemed like he was laying a strong foundation for the rest of his talks and giving us a taste of themes he would later build on. In the middle of all of this he made reference to the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage and said that the decision had made him “depressed.” He went on to talk about gay marriage in a way that was full of conviction, but also mildly offensive to people in the room who were either torn or who outrightly celebrated the Supreme Court decision. As we left that morning, I could tell that something was being stirred up amongst our kids. We, as a group, were obviously divided on the issue of gay marriage (just as Bethany is) and disagreements began bubbling to the surface.
The next morning during his talk Dr. Perkins again referenced same-sex-marriage in a similar tone as the day before and by the end of that second day it felt like the wheels were starting to fall off the trip. We had traveled to Jackson to talk about racial reconciliation and were presented with something that, for our group, was much more challenging and complex. Even our leadership team was divided on the issue and were engaging in small side debates.
On Wednesday we made a decision that changed the course of the week. Pastor Lynne Blessing and I were already planning on filming an interview with Dr. Perkins that day, so instead of having him address the students we decided to go right into our interview. After filming, Lynne and I were able to talk to him about what was going on in our group. He was visibly disturbed that our kids were having a hard time. Our goal was just to clue him into what was happening and encourage him to avoid the topic of gay marriage for the rest of the week, but I think he had other plans.
On Thursday morning Dr. Perkins’ words altered the entire trip for the better and probably altered the lives of everyone in the room. Dr. Perkins sat down and read from 1 Timothy 1:15 which says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” He then slowly lifted his gaze to us and gently yet deliberately said, “I have sinned this week.” There was an audible gasp from the audience and the energy in the room instantly transformed. I don’t know how to describe what it felt like. I can only say that the room suddenly felt Holy; like the presence of the Holy Spirit was instantly palpable and something special and important was happening. Dr. Perkins proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes apologizing to our group. He said that he had vowed early in his life to be an instrument of love and that he had not done that on this trip. He said that he was sorry and that he needed our forgiveness. To be clear, throughout his entire talk he never once said that he was changing his opinion on gay marriage or that he felt sorry about his convictions and interpretation of scripture. He did humbly admit that the Supreme Court decision was a paradigm shift and that he has inadequate language to talk about it. Finally, he got on his knees in front of us and again asked for forgiveness. He then said that he was going to broaden his ministry to emphasize reconciliation for all people and not just different races. He said that this next phase of his ministry was going to take a lot of work and asked us all to pray for him. At that point he laid flat on the ground and asked us to to lay hands on him, which of course we did.
There is so much more to say about what happened after that experience and the multitude of lessons and insights that kids and leaders had. We will all be telling versions of this story around Bethany and ECBF for years to come. At the airport before we left, Doug prayed that we would learn something about reconciliation that we could bring back to our communities. Through Dr. Perkins we learned and saw firsthand that reconciliation requires profound humility, authentic compassion, and proactive patience. As a mission trip group we’re still processing what we have to teach our congregations. I have a hunch it might have something to do with what it looks like to stay in relationship despite our disagreements. After our time with Dr. Perkins we were able to have more conversations about the topic of gay marriage in ways that were less anxious and more grace-filled. We did this without preparation. We didn’t attend any seminars or read any books. We did not have that luxury. We were presented with this challenge and John Perkins showed us a path towards real and authentic community where, while there may be disagreement, division and disunity don’t have to be the end of the story. What might God have to teach us through this story in the months ahead?