Expect the Unexpected: Unlikely Converts

In 1997 Rosaria M. Champagne was a lesbian feminist English professor at Syracuse University in New York, specialising in gay and lesbian studies, living with her girlfriend and sporting a butch haircut. Today, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield is a home-schooling mother of four adopted children in Purcellville, West Virginia, married to a pastor of the reformed Presbyterian Church. What happened to bring about this transformation?

Let’s say straight off that it had nothing to do with conversion therapy, or therapy of any sort, useful as those methods may be to some people. Obviously there was a conversion, but one that happened in quite a natural way. Butterfield has written an account of the path she travelled from queer theory to Christ in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith, a frank, confessional story offering many insights into lesbianism and the interface between homosexual activists and the Christian community.

The journey began with a friendship — and what could be more natural than that? It happened like this. In October 1997 Syracuse associate professor Champagne was doing research for a book on the “religious right” when the university allowed the Christian men’s movement, Promise Keepers, to rent its premises for a weekend event. She protested that the university should have nothing to do with a group believing in male leadership of the family and the “oppression” of women generally. She wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper along those lines, provoking a flood of letters. All of them she could file under “pro” or “anti”, except one.

The letter from Presbyterian minister Ken Smith (who, as it turned out, lived in the same neighbourhood) challenged her gently but seriously, asking her questions no-one had asked before. What were her assumptions about the truth of Christianity? Did she believe in God? What did she think God thought about it all? She rang him up. He and his wife invited her to their home for dinner and a chat. Over the next two years friendly interaction with this older couple and discussions with them, together with her own voracious reading of the Bible (in sittings of up to five hours a day), self-questioning and tentative approaches to the church led to a momentous decision. One Sunday “I emerged from the bed of my lesbian lover and an hour later was sitting in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church.”

Rosaria Butterfield is not the only lesbian to re-orient herself. Melinda Selmys has written about the phenomenon and her own experience on MercatorNet. Another and more dramatic example is provided by Linda Jernigan, a black woman who did an about-face after being “involved in homosexuality for nearly 20 years” — mostly as “a man” — and found “peace in Jesus”. Watching her live testimony (below) is a cultural experience not to be missed, as well as an eye-opener on the contemporary gender scene.

It is noteworthy that, when challenged by the Christian faith itself (as distinct from Christians at the barricades of gay rights demonstrations), Butterfield embraced one of its more rigorous forms. A chaplain on campus told her she could keep her girlfriend and still have God, but, she says, “I had been reading and re-reading Scripture, and there are no such marks of postmodern ‘both/and’ in the Bible.” Ken Smith and the Reformed tradition showed her that conversion was a matter of “obedience” to Christ as he spoke through the Scriptures, of giving up sin, including sexual sin, and “dying to myself”. Butterfield comes across as someone who throws herself completely into things, so perhaps it is not so strange that an academic would find this rigour more persuasive than soft-soap Christianity.

In one sense, however, it was not such an enormous step. She was, at the point of conversion, a member of the Unitarian church but had been raised a Catholic, and, once confronted with a robust form of Christian faith, her childhood prayers and beliefs came back to her. She says she broke with the church after a sex scandal involving a priest who was “the best … I ever had” in her childhood, and this fueled her feminist convictions.

In a not unusual development, peace activism and “standing up for the dispossessed” seem to have replaced religious ideals as such, and feminism and gender politics became the main expression of her philosophical leanings. She came out as a lesbian in graduate school at the age of 28 and had achieved a tenured research position at Syracuse by the age of 36. As she says, “my scholarship and my personal life shared a symbiotic relationship”.

Coming out as a committed Christian just shy of her 37th birthday blew all that part. One of the most interesting aspects of this upheaval is that she quickly became emotionally involved with “R”, a member of the church who felt called to the ministry. Before the year was out, and despite some misgivings she and others had, they were engaged, only to have him tell her soon after that he could not go through with the marriage and even doubted his faith. Weathering this crisis and beginning a new academic life as a professor at Geneva (Presbyterian) College in Pittsburgh, she continued her struggle to acculturate to the church and its doctrine, finding an understanding spirit in seminary student Kent Butterfield. They married in 2001 and, unable to have children of their own, began to adopt them.

Like the suddenness with which she took to the Bible and Christian living, the ease with which Butterfield embraced a heterosexual relationship and marriage suggests that her lesbian tendency did not run very deep, but was more a youthful response to a certain social and ideological environment. She does admit at the beginning of her book, however, that looking back is painful: “My former life still lurks in the edges of my heart, shiny and still like a knife.” Given 10 years of marriage to a pastor and raising four children it is difficult to interpret this statement, especially since her account of those years, despite their demands, conveys a sense of deep contentment.

What is very convincing — and it comes through strongly in her video interview with Marvin Olasky — is her grasp of the content and demands of Bibilical faith, above all of the centrality of a personal response to Christ. Not the sort that comes from the hype of the mega-church or its gay outreach — Butterfield is grateful that pastor Ken Smith “did not farm me out to a para-church ministry ‘specialising’ in ‘gay people’” — but from the friendship of someone committed for the long haul.

This is the great lesson of her story: friendship — for those who are different from us and even angry at us for real or imagined injuries. Not everyone will respond like Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, but some will.


This article was originally published at MercatorNet.

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Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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