Today Dr. Rosaria (Champagne) Butterfield is a committed follower of Christ, a pastor’s wife, and mother of four children. But in 1997 her lifestyle was totally different—she was an English professor at Syracuse University, focusing on queer studies and living with her lesbian partner. Recently she told her story on FamilyLife Today®; in this adapted excerpt from that interview she talks about the pastor and his wife who touched her life through their hospitality.
Rosaria: When I first started reading the Bible, I was reading the Bible because I was working on a post-tenure book. It was a lesbian, feminist critique of the Bible. I was concerned about the rise of the religious right. I was threatened by the rise of the religious right, and I wanted to read this book that got all these people into trouble. So, that’s where I started.
Dennis: And you viewed Christians as—
Rosaria: Dangerous, anti-intellectual people.
Dennis Rainey: Yes. They weren’t thinkers, and they weren’t readers.
Rosaria: Right. That’s not very nice; is it? … but that was my perception. My perception was—as a university professor, I met a number of Christians—this is how these people came across. Now, whether they came across this way because I was deep in my sin or whether this is an accurate portrayal, I will let you all decide.
But folks who would tell me that Jesus is the answer—without caring to even hear about what some of my questions might be … You know, questions and answers go together; there is a logical relationship between the two. Or when the Bible was invoked, it was often invoked in the same way that I might invoke a punctuation mark—to end a conversation rather than deepen it.
And then, my biggest concern was the fact many, many people knew what the Bible said, or believed they did, but nobody could tell me why it was true. So it seemed, to me, just a strange mixture of superstition and patriarchy—where God, the Father, and—the god of patriarchy—came together to oppress people like me.
Bob Lepine: Your presupposition in life was: “If we can liberate women and eliminate patriarchy”—
Bob: —“then, we will solve many of the evils that we are facing in our world today.”
Rosaria: Right; absolutely. Back it up, even further—my belief was that people were inherently good and that the right to individual choice-making was an inherent good. There were material structures that stood between good people making good choices. Feminism, combined with Marxism, offered a way of unlocking that potential. That is what I believed.
Bob: Somewhere, in your life, your feminist/Marxist presuppositions and your personal sexuality collided.
Rosaria: That’s right. So the big story for some people—which is not a big story for me, but that’s okay—was that I was in a lesbian relationship. And it wasn’t just my first lesbian relationship. I fully embraced the lesbian community. It sort of snuck up on me. I don’t know how else to say it. I know people who would say when they were nine years old they remember feeling attracted to people of the same sex. I do not remember that.
I loved being in a relationship with somebody who shares my—truly, my world and life view. So, I thought that I was there for life. That’s part of why I wasn’t a closeted lesbian. My research program went from 19th century feminist studies and it moved into queer theory—which is a post-modern, post-structural extension of gay and lesbian studies. So I went on record as a queer theorist and published articles in that vein.
In 1997 Promise Keepers held a men’s rally at Syracuse, and Rosaria wrote an editorial for the newspaper saying the university should have nothing to do with the gathering. As a result she received a lot of negative mail, but she was impressed by a letter from Ken Smith, a pastor.
Rosaria: It was kind, and it was gentle. Yet it was also clearly written from a Christian world and life view. It asked me some basic questions that were genuine questions, and he wasn’t answering those questions for me. I admired that. I really liked that.
I was going to need to read the Bible for my new research project; and I thought, Well, you know, I’ll bet this is somebody who could help me with my research. At the bottom of the letter, Ken asked me to call him back; and so, I did. We had such a lively conversation on the phone—that he invited me to come to his house for dinner.
Sometimes people don’t know this, but the gay and lesbian community is also a community quite given to hospitality. [And now as a pastor’s wife] I believe strongly that hospitality is just the ground zero of the Christian life, and of evangelism, and of everything else that we do, apart from the formal worship of God. So when Ken invited me to have dinner with him—that seemed really like a great idea. He already seemed like my kind of people.
Here’s what I discovered in Ken’s house: That door was always opening and closing. People, from all walks of life—I met them at that table. I did not meet Christians who shared a narrowly-bounded, priggish worldview. I met people who could talk openly about sexuality and politics and did not drop down dead in the process.
Bob: You know what? When I first read your book, one of the things I got most excited about was the model of Ken Smith.
Rosaria: Oh, yes, absolutely. But you have to understand that was normal for Ken. Ken didn’t say: “Oh great! We’re going to have the lesbian over for dinner. Let’s be sure to share the gospel as soon as she walks through the door!” Ken cares about the heart. In fact, I found Ken’s business card in one of the books I was looking at for some writing that I’m doing. The business card said: “When you’re ready to talk about God, give me a call.” That’s how Ken was.[Ken and his wife, Floy] did two startling things the first time I had dinner at their house—two things that were against the rule book that I believed all Christians followed. They did not share the gospel with me, and they did not invite me to church. But, at the end of our dinner, when Ken extended his hands, and closed mine in it, and he said: “We’re neighbors. Neighbors should be friends.” I found myself being in complete agreement with Ken.
Also, Ken had a way of asking questions; and he had an authority—you know, I had been in a queer community. I had been in a feminist community. In my community, women ran the show. I had not encountered a man like Ken in my whole life.
Dennis: Your defenses were down because he had done a good job of loving you.
Rosaria: That’s right. And you know what? It started with the prayer. It was vulnerable and honest. He prayed to a God who is not a god I had ever been introduced to. One of the things Ken asked me that night—and I still cannot believe I actually answered him honestly; it was so out of character for me—“Well, what do you really believe?” I said: “I don’t know what I believe. I was raised Catholic, and I’m now a Unitarian. I don’t really know what I believe,” which was true but not anything I had said out loud.
Dennis: You know, your story is a great reminder, I think, to each of us, who are followers of Jesus Christ—that we need to be using our homes to be more hospitable and to reach out with kindness. And as we do that—maybe, instead of providing the answers to people—ask a few questions to find out where the other person really is and what they do believe and do not believe. Sometimes, we are so zealous on behalf of the truth, and we want to get to the bottom line, and if you’re going to do that in an effective way, you first of all have to find out where you deliver the bottom line. The best way to do that is by asking some great questions.