Programming note: Learn more about Kelby’s story and see how she and her dad have overcome prejudice and bullying in the AC360° documentary “The Bully Effect” on Thursday, February 28 at 10 p.m. ET and March 3 and 9 at 8 p.m. ET.
Bobby Johnson’s daughter Kelby came out of the closet at age 14. The reaction from their church, he says, was immediate. “The pastor’s response was, ‘you can come here but you can no longer teach, you can no longer hold any position of authority or power within the church because that’s a part of our bylaws,” says Johnson, adding, “since that day … we have not been back.”
It was a defining moment for a man raised in a deeply religious household, and was the beginning of a journey of introspection of his faith.
“As I began to see the hate, the anger, the intolerance that came out in the community with Kelby, that really made me reflect on what I was taught,” he said.
“One of the things that is always driven into your head growing up in Christianity is that God, being the personification of love, there is no greater love than God. So now as a parent, I look at my child and I think of my unconditional love for my child … I could never sentence my child to an eternity to what Christianity calls Hell,” said Johnson, adding, “I no longer believe in the concept of Hell as it’s taught in modern Christianity.”
Johnson and his wife Londa were not just congregation members of their Baptist church but also helped found it. “The church actually started at the local high school … then after we raised enough money to build the building, between the time we were meeting in the high school and the time the new building was ready, Londa and I actually took over the youth group and ran that out of our house. So on Sunday evenings all the youth would gather at our house.”
The treatment from their church was compounded by the reaction to Kelby from their small Oklahoma town, as a whole.
“The gay lifestyle in this area in the country … it’s so frowned upon, and so shunned, and so disliked,” said Johnson, adding, “It’s not an exaggeration to say we lost all of our friends, I mean it’s literal – we have no friends left in the community.”
Kelby says she also faced bullying so relentless at her high school, her father began to fear for her safety. “My dad actually made the decision of ‘something needs to be done. I can’t let you go into that school knowing whether or not you’re going to come home.’ So my junior year we actually decided to take me out of school and I went and got my GED.”
While Kelby anticipated some animosity from the rest of her community, she thought their church would be their sanctuary. “This is where you’re supposed to be accepted. You’re supposed to be loved. This is supposed to be a haven for people to come and that wasn’t the case. And that shocked me,” she said. “Because of all that has happened to me, I am now atheist.”
For her father, watching Kelby struggle with her spirituality has been difficult but because of the lesson he was taught, he gives his children room to find their own path.
“You got to be open to questioning what it is you believe. You know you’re taught one thing growing up, but when you begin to see evidence that leads you down a different path to me you are going against everything that means to be a human being to not question that,” said Bobby.
“I think Western Christianity has really chosen to be selective about what they believe and don’t believe in regards to what the Bible says and what they are going to enforce,” he said. “You can walk into any church around here and how many … sitting in that church are divorced? They all know what the Bible says about divorce, but that’s OK. Gambling, alcohol, sexual addiction, those are all lines that are OK for us to cross. We’re going to draw that line on homosexuality.”
Bobby continues to look for a new church that better fits his much different outlook on religion but so far has been unsuccessful. While his faith in humanity is shaken, his faith in God remains.
“I will never doubt my belief in a creator,” he said. “My understanding of that God has changed completely, however, because of this situation.”
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