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What the church can learn from sports on LGBT issues

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There are three basic similarities between sports and the Christian church that should help bridge gaps with the LGBT community.

Warren Perry swam for the University of North Carolina.
Warren Perry swam for the University of North Carolina.

Church and sports. Two worlds that historically have been hostile to the LGBT community. But today, we see these worlds going in drastically different directions in how they handle gay and lesbian issues.

Thanks to the hard work of many groups and individuals, scholastic and major league sports organizations are opening their doors to our community. And while Pope Francis and many individual churches and denominations are moving towards acceptance, the majority of religious Americans still see being gay as a "lifestyle choice" and condemns it.

I am gay, I am a Christian, and I am an athlete. I live between these worlds. Similar to the coming out experience most gay men have, I had to "come out" as a Christian to many of my gay friends. But the purpose of this article is to ask the question- in what ways can the sports world remind the Church of its core principles?

Recently, the media has heralded a number of decisions in the wide world of sports. The NFL welcoming Michael Sam and Wade Davis into their midst. Jason Collins being signed as a Brooklyn Net. And most recently Derrick Gordon becoming the first openly gay Division I basketball player. The Christian world was rocked by a decision lately too- then a reversing of that decision- which relates to an organizational policy on same-sex marriages.

World Vision, one of the world's largest humanitarian non-profit organizations, decreed they would no longer practice employment discrimination with gay marriages. Because World Vision is a faith-based organization, there was an immediate and tremendous backlash from the Evangelical right who accused World Vision of being "unChristian" while calling for people to withdraw their financial support from its programs. That's right, these people actually were encouraging their followers to stop giving money to orphaned kids who rely on these systems to eat. Under this financial pressure, it did not take World Vision 36 hours to reverse their decision. Many friends in the Christian community have posted reaction after reaction to this controversial situation.

The athlete in me learned discipline, teamwork, and commitment through rigorous practices and intense competition. The Christian in me learned sacrifice, love, and grace through worship experiences and communities of faith.

It's true that in the furnace of physical activity, character is not only revealed but forged. For the faith sector to emerge from the archaic ways of segregation and exclusion, it must undergo a similar pruning, one that requires the virtues of faith, endurance, and sacrifice to win out the day.

So as we exit Easter and Passover seasons, it's worth asking how can the Church learn from the sports world? Three ways:

1- We are teammates. On this side of heaven, we are all in this life together. It is important that we cooperate and communicate with love, grace, and humility. It is okay for people to have different beliefs; it is what you do with these beliefs that matters. Indeed, there is beauty in diversity; the same way a stain-glassed window is made up of tiny shards of glass- made of different colors, shapes, and sizes- only to form a large picture of God when viewed from a wide perspective.

We must take a step back from scrutinizing certain Scripture passages over others and live from God's perceptive- one that loves truth, hates evil, and leaves the comfort of Heaven to rescue His loved people bound my hatred, corrupted by self-righteousness, and limited by a narrow gaze.

2- We cheer for each other. God gave us each a unique voice to communicate for a reason. The racial civil rights movement had Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. The gay civil rights movement had the drag queens of Stonewall and Harvey Milk. Even the early modern religious civil rights movement had Martin Luther and John Calvin. How are we as contemporary athletes or modern-day Christians using our voices?

Outsports communicates countless stories of athletes who are changing the world around them through honesty, faith in themselves, and strength in community. Fellowship and testimony was once a strong suit in the Church; it's time She return to her roots and repair its foundations.

3- And finally, as athletes, we know we are a part of something bigger. No matter how individual a sport may appear, an athlete gets nowhere without competition, peer training, and inspiration. As members of a greater story, we are being "poured out" like water to be a blessing to others. It is being a part of a larger story, being that shard in a big stained-glass window, which gives meaning to every task we put our hands to. The Church will do well to remember we are all a part of God's larger family.

In school, at the gym, with friends, I asked many questions and sought how I might fit in to the various worlds I walked in. I also found out what I was really made of when faced with obstacles and challenges, trying times and situations where I had no choice but to trust God? So when I experienced emotional whiplash in World Vision's decisions, how would I respond? Well, how did I respond when my lung collapsed during a practice with my Tar Heel teammates? How did I respond when I first told my coworkers I was gay? With disciplined honesty, faithful execution, and a brazen work ethic.

Being an athlete helped me deal with these questions confronting me on a daily basis. And I believe the athletic world reminds the Church a number of crucial principles to live in this world. The Bible states that we must learn to "fight the good fight"- to struggle honorably- as we engage the life around us.

The Church, traditionally a place who has persecuted the LGBT community, has various ways to relate with gay and lesbian athletes. Committing to walk in community, speak truth, and keep God's perspective are three responses we in sports can share with our LGBT brothers and sisters in the Church.

May we all continue to work together to find common ground to love well, lead boldly, and grow graciously.

Warren Perry is a former swimmer for the University of North Carolina. You can find him on Twitter @CoachPerry03 and via email at warrenperry3@gmail.com.