Growing up in Blount County, Mark Wagner most likely had a few friends who were gay, but 15 years ago, it wasn’t socially acceptable for them to be out.
Times have changed since he graduated from Maryville High School in 2003, a year after playing the Foothills Fall Festival with his band, Beckley. The son of Ben and Betty Wagner of Maryville, his eyes and his mind were opened throughout a music career that lasted several years, taking him to churches and stages across the United States and Canada. But the biggest turning point was when he opted to pursue ministry instead of life as a singer-songwriter.
“I was in a writing session in Nashville in 2009 or 2010, and I had just written a song with the No. 1 songwriter in Christian music at the time, a guy who had 10 No. 1 hits, and I left that feeling physically sick to my stomach,” he told me this week. “Here I was, finally within grasp of my dream, and I knew it was the wrong path for me. I couldn’t explain it, but six months later, I applied to seminary, because I just sensed God was saying, ‘There’s a different path I want you to walk down.’”
After several years of juggling music and his pastoral studies, he and his wife, Kalle, moved to Boston, where he pursued his doctorate at Boston University. It was in a class on transformational leadership concepts with a guest lecturer, David Weekley, whose personal story touched Wagner’s heart. And then a simple revelation blew the fledgling minister’s mind: Weekley revealed that he’s transgender.
And so began a path of personal transformation that led Wagner out of the strict boundaries of evangelical Christianity and to a leadership role at Ellensburg United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, Washington, where he assumed the role of senior pastor on July 1. He’s been documenting his journey, which involved a deep dive into Scripture and Biblical interpretation and a whole lot of heartfelt conversations with individuals who have studied theology for years, on his personal blog — https://justicegeneration2019.wordpress.com/ — and it hasn’t been without its challenges, he said.
“We’ve lost some friends because of this journey,” he said. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve gotten 5,000-plus people reading this blog — every post, because people are dying to talk about it, even in the evangelical world. And I would say that 90% of my emails and messages that I get are extraordinarily positive: ‘I’ve been wrestling with this, I’m not sure what to do or how to talk about it, I’ve always been gay,’ things along those lines.
“But then about 10 or maybe even 15% of people will say things like, ‘Obviously you’ve never read the Bible,’ or, ‘Wow, it sounds like you’re trying to start a new version of Mormonism’ … just all kinds of things. And these people aren’t looking to engage in a dialog; they just want to be right. I’ve had to swallow my pride a little bit and just say, ‘I’m trying to be faithful and share our journey because I want to help some people,’ because I knew I was going to take some hits along the way. Fortunately, Kalle has been my No. 1 partner, and she’s helped me to kind of sift through those things and deal with some of those things.”
Because, he pointed out, Kalle has been there from the beginning. The transformation from condemnation to inclusion has been a dual journey for the couple, who chose to leave a church earlier this year that was “welcoming but not affirming” — meaning that members of the LGBTQ community could attend but were not allowed to serve in any capacity. That, the Wagners have come to believe, isn’t what God intended. And yes, Wagner is keenly aware that Biblical passages long have been used to promote homosexuality as a sin, but over time, through study and prayer, he’s come to believe that God is bigger than he, or anyone really, could have ever imagined.
“There are a lot of well-respected scholars in the world of theological education that are convinced that when Paul makes reference to this subject in the Bible, that he made up a couple of words in Greek that we’ve since translated into meaning homosexuality, but that he’s actually talking about sexual perversion and idolatry,” Wagner said. “That was so prevalent in Roman culture — older men using younger boys for sexual favors — and because of that, there’s always been a prejudice towards (homosexuality), because that’s how it’s always been framed. It’s only been in the last 30 years that the American Psychological Association has acknowledged that being gay is not a mental disease, that it’s actually a real thing we can’t choose or control.”
And using the Bible as a cudgel, he believes, is not what the God he believes in intended. He’s faced pushback — last month, during a return visit to Blount County, he spoke about his journey at Monte Vista Baptist Church in Maryville, in which he grew up, and there were some grumblings of discontent on the part of staunch believers who believe differently. It’s a sensitive issue, Wagner pointed out, but it’s also one that can’t be swept under the rug, and as a man of the cloth, he can’t embrace that tired old saw of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” because he now believes that sexual orientation is no more a sin than being born left-handed or blue-eyed.
“These are real people, deserving of dignity and respect,” he said. “My dad made this connection, and he and I are pretty much aligned on this: He said, ‘You know what I think the problem is? A lot of people hear the word gay and think sexual promiscuity.’ And that’s not the case. It’s just about companionship. People can be gay and be in committed, faithful relationships with one another, and who are we to condemn that kind of love?”
As a Christian … as a singer-songwriter who still performs occasionally and leaps enthusiastically to take part in his church’s music ministry … as a son of the South and, more specifically, Blount County … he can’t. And all of his prayers to God to show him if such beliefs don’t align with God’s word have only pushed him to further embrace this sea change of the spirit.
“I have always felt like there would be some type of advocacy in my future vocation; I just never imagined it would be for the LGBTQ community,” he said. “This (blog) is not just a one-time, ‘hey here’s this blog, check it out, hope you enjoy it!’ kind of thing. It’s going to be a lifelong journey, because I’m utterly convinced that the calling of a Christ follower is to speak out for those who don’t have a voice in society, whether it’s LGBTQ individuals or immigrants or people of color.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about the Methodist tradition, is that it’s always been committed to justice. And I’m praying and hoping for more opportunities to speak out for the LGBTQ people who have been largely misunderstood and oppressed. As someone who is a privileged white male individual in America, I think it’s my responsibility to use my voice to help others.”