Rev. Donald J. Bruggink

I suspect that those who don’t love gays and lesbians really don’t know the lesbians and gays they know. Or, put another way, they don’t know that some of the nice people they know really are. I didn’t, now I do.

In Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, where I grew up, we did not have gays and lesbians. Of course there were those nice people, members of the community and church, of whom it was occasionally said “Isn’t it too bad that ________ has never found the right girl. He’s such a nice young man.” In fact, the subject of gays and lesbians never entered my consciousness until a comic at the Riverside (vaudeville) Theater in Milwaukee cracked a joke I didn’t understand.

Evidently the closet doors around me (from Cedar Grove to Pella to Holland to Edinburgh) were firmly shut, because I have no memories of gays or lesbians until I became a pastor for the Fordham Manor Reformed Church in the Bronx. In the apartment building next door lived one of our church families, a Hungarian Methodist father and a beautiful Ukranian Uniate mother with two wonderful children. One day they invited my wife and me to come over to meet their friend Richard. “You’ll like him,” they said, “he’s funny.” And indeed he was. Richard had a great sense of humor, could have been a stand up comic, and became our friend as well. Only later did our beautiful Ukranian friend say, “Richard’s gay, you know.” Well, no, we really didn’t. But now it didn’t matter, he was our friend. After we moved back to Holland, Michigan, Richard would occasionally pay us a visit as he traveled on business. He continued to be our friend.

I’m not sure exactly how, but people who have been forced to hide their true orientation seem to be very sensitive to how other people feel. Perhaps it was our friendship with Richard that engendered a comment or attitude on our part which allowed others to open the closet door a bit to reveal more of themselves to us, either by implication or overtly. In any case, over the years my wife and I have become good friends with people in church and in ministry who are gay or lesbian. Within the seminary community, students who were gay or lesbian have been ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament (most within the RCA) and have had productive ministries. We have stood by parents when they discovered their child was gay, and with those who have borne the life-long burden of concealment or have faced rejection by openly standing with sons or daughters who have come out. We have rejoiced when Roman Catholic friends have with pride introduced us to their gay son and his partner. One of my lesbian friends, a theologian and professor, whose leadership and work I greatly admire, for many years tried to deny her orientation – even to the point of sickness and near death. She tells of her recognition and recovery in her book, The Body Knows.

The homosexuals with whom I do have issues and whom I find difficult to love, albeit I don’t know them personally, are the persons who have attempted to meet societal expectations by entering into heterosexual marriages, only to find out sooner, or sometimes very much later after children, that it was a pretense they could no longer sustain. In my sheltered, heterosexual, academic existence, I have personally encountered the children or spouses of seven such failed marriages, with traumatic impact difficult to comprehend.

Interestingly, of the more than a dozen gays and lesbians who I personally know, none have strangely colored (or spiked) hair, none have piercings (although we’ve had a few heterosexual seminarians with such), and none wear outlandish clothing. They pretty much look and act like most of the people we know. Some preach excellent sermons, others have high artistic ability, others are excellent counselors, one has an incredible memory for detail and handles the complexities of dangerous cargo shipments, some are single, and some are in committed relationships. Those with children seem as well adjusted as most. In short, they pretty much seem like everyone else. None are like the fringe people the media photographs in the gay pride parades.

All of this brings me to the point: I suspect that those who don’t love gays and lesbians really don’t know the lesbians and gays they know. Or, put another way, they don’t know that some of the nice people they know really are. I didn’t, now I do.

Reverend Dr. Donald J. Bruggink received his A.B. from Central College, Pella, Iowa, in 1951 and his B.D. from Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, in 1954, and Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in 1956. He was licensed and ordained by the RCA Classis of Wisconsin in 1954 and served as pastor of the Fordham Manor Reformed Church, Bronx, New York, from 1957-1962, after which he joined the faculty of Western Seminary in 1962. He spent most of his professional career as James A. H. Cornell Professor of Historical Theology at Western Seminary from 1966 until his retirement in 1999. He sat on the jury for the prestigious Religious Art and Architecture Design Awards of the American Institute of Architects in 1995. He has been a consultant for many church building projects, both in the Reformed Church in America and beyond. Don’s books and publications include Guilt, Grace and Gratitude: A Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (1963), Christ and Architecture: Building Presbyterian/Reformed Churches (1965), When Faith Takes Form: Contemporary Churches of Architectural Integrity in America (1971) and Worship the Lord (1987).