Author Rosaria Butterfield. Photograph by Jimmy Williams

Author Rosaria Butterfield

A Most Unlikely Convert: Rosaria Butterfield

Written by Samantha Baer

It wasn’t that she didn’t like Christians; she despised them.  To her, they were shallow people who quoted verses to fit an occasion, but had no depth in explaining the Bible. She was a lesbian and member of the gay activist movement in the early ‘90s.   But the tides turned when she was befriended by a pastor and his wife.  Rosaria Champagne Butterfield was drawn to read and study the Bible and came to believe it to be the true word of God.  Author of the book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield sat down with Risen to talk about her past lifestyle, how she wrestled with biblical principles, and the importance of how Christians should share their faith.

Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine at San Diego, California

Risen Magazine: What was your family and upbringing like?
Rosaria Butterfield: I was raised in an Italian-Catholic family and went to predominantly Catholic schools. When we lived in the suburbs I think that my parents weren’t thrilled with the potential dangers – and because my mom is very intellectually-minded – I think at one point she didn’t like the science curriculum in the public schools so we then went the Catholic school route. I still like to joke around and say, “I still don’t know how to dress myself because I’m looking for five white blouses and two plaid skirts!” So overall I would say I had a “normal” childhood. I studied ballet, I was a gymnast, a runner, an equestrian and I loved reading, writing and athletics. My grandmother lived with us since I was six and taught me to knit, and I’ve never put my knitting needles down since then.

Author Rosaria Butterfield. Photograph by Jimmy Williams

Author Rosaria Butterfield. Photograph by Jimmy Williams

Risen Magazine: When you say in your book, “I boldly declare myself a Lesbian…” how do you feel the idea or way of a lesbian life started for you?
Rosaria Butterfield: The gay and lesbian community itself is a diverse community – and we always have to remember that when I share my history, I always tell people this is really not diagnostic. I’m sharing with you, “Rosaria’s history” and my history is going to be very much different than the next person who identifies themselves as gay or lesbian.
But in my case, I had a completely heterosexual adolescence. There’s no question about that. One of the things that started to happen was I started noticing that one of the reasons why I loved having a boyfriend was that it kept a particular nagging feeling I had at bay. It’s that feeling where somehow my female friendships were so much more intense, more meaningful, more rich, more vital, and fundamentally more interesting. At the same time, I was a very active participant in feminist organizations and movements. I would say I was raised in a very secular feminist household even though I went to Catholic school.
In some ways, my appreciation for an advocacy of feminist values, and just a deeper resonating interest in my female friendships began. The third prong of this is I started to realize that for heterosexual women, it is a meat market out there, and I hated it! I felt like everyday I just had a billboard on me saying, “Hey stare at my breasts, or stare at my behind.” Or “Please make a comment about my body.” I just absolutely hated it. So in some ways my sort of homo-social life, if that makes sense to you, sort of morphed into homosexuality in a fairly seamless way. It wasn’t a big event.
Maybe part of that was because of my family origin – meaning if secular feminism is the worldview of your family, coming out as a lesbian is really not a big drama. My life, coming-out as a Christian has been a much more challenging issue for my family to bear than me coming out as a lesbian. I just morphed. Once I was in my first lesbian relationship I just thought, “Okay this is it, this is my real self.” Although I did have a heterosexual past and the reason why I’m emphasizing this is because there are some people who would rightly say, “You know Rosaria you misnamed yourself and you really should have declared yourself bisexual.” But in the politics of the LGBT [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender] community in the 90’s, bisexual was just not a happy place to be. I want to be clear on that. I was also not someone who ever said, “I was born this way.” I was a student of [Sigmund] Freud and I believed that sexuality existed on a continuum, and that most people are bisexual and most of us have a fluid sexuality, which could go in either direction. I felt that I was making a more enlightened and a more moral choice.

Risen Magazine: What age would you say this started?
Rosaria Butterfield: Well the morph started in college and was completed in graduate school. By 28 years old I had come out as a lesbian and I was planning on staying in that camp.

Pretty important things that we need to know about sin: it lurks, it desires, it knows my name, it knows where I live, and I’m either going to kill it, or it’s going to come and be in my life.  I cannot domesticate sin and make it a house pet.

Risen Magazine: Would you say that it took a couple years for this mindset change to be completed?
Rosaria Butterfield: Oh, absolutely. In fact I would say it had been percolating for as long as I can remember. But again I want to be sensitive to the fact that there are people in the gay and lesbian community that would say, “You don’t understand, I was nine years old and I remember being at my birthday party praying that God would take these feelings away from me.” That was not my experience at all. I was a late bloomer in every way, including my sexuality.
Risen Magazine: How did those close to you respond to your sexuality? What about friends?
Rosaria Butterfield: Well coming out to your family of origin is a right of passage. It’s important that you do it, and in some degree if your family rejects you – you get lots of kudos. But my family didn’t reject me, so I guess I didn’t get the kudos. It just didn’t rock anybody’s world, my father was deceased at the time, and my mother was a secular feminist so I don’t think she was thrilled, but we had no moral prohibitions against it in the worldview that organized my family life because we were not Christians. I was raised and went to Catholic schools and we went to Catholic Church, but in some ways I was the one in the family who embraced it the most. It was more of a culture. I don’t want to make the case that is how all Catholics are, because it’s not. But in my particular family, Catholicism was more of a culture than a faith. Concerning friends, I was already so deeply in a pro-lesbian feminist community that by no means did I lose any friends. Now when I came out as a Christian I lost a lot of people.

Risen Magazine: Looking back into this time, would you say you were genuinely happy?
Rosaria Butterfield: Oh, yes. And I’m sure evangelical Christians would want me to say that I was miserable, or just kicking myself, or that I hated every minute of it and deep down I knew something was terribly wrong. But nope, that wasn’t the case. Now in order to be more or differently thoughtful about things, I would have to have a different worldview that I thought was valid enough to actually use to look at my life. My worldview, my feminist worldview, gave me more ammunition to defend why I was a lesbian than, in my opinion, what I hear a lot of times from evangelical Christians about the Christian worldview.

I often wonder if we wouldn’t be in a totally different place in our churches if we handled homosexuality differently, not in a gay-affirming way, but in an original sin-affirming way.

Risen Magazine: How do you respond to someone who says that they were born this way and “God wants me to be who I am“?
Rosaria Butterfield: Well those are two separate sentences. First of all when somebody says to me, “I was born this way,” and people say this to me all the time, I say, “Yes, I believe it. We were all born this way and it’s called original sin.” And the way that some people define this way is different than the way that other people define this way. But I believe them, again it’s called original sin, and it takes you by the throat to do its bidding. Sin is predatory; like when God says to Cain sin is lurking at your door and its desire is for you; but thankfully you will have mastery over it. (Found in Genesis 4). In there God has already spoken some pretty important things that we need to know about sin: it lurks, it desires, it knows my name, it knows where I live, and I’m either going to kill it, or it’s going to come and be in my life. I cannot domesticate sin and make it a house pet.
So how do I know then that it’s not God’s will for your life? Well now that is a really good question. God’s will is holiness. God can only do his holy will–and don’t forget there are certain things that God cannot do; he cannot lie, he cannot sin–and so God’s will for all of our lives will always take up some attributes of God. We can think of it in a couple ways. We can think of it in terms of holiness, God wills for you to be holy. But let’s say you do feel that you are fundamentally, fully born this way and the root of this sin does not find its origin in what you yourself did. Let’s just say the root of person X’s homosexual sin is not rooted in pornography or some kind of self-fan-flaming sexuality. What if the root of that sexuality was in the fall of Adam, now what? Is it fair to say to that person, “I’m sorry you just can’t be the way that you were born to be?” Well one way to think about that is to think about who we are in Jesus. Jesus made himself holy for believers; therefore it is reasonable for believers to set themselves apart holy for Christ. Jesus did not refuse the worst and hardest part of his service; he was condemned so that we might be justified, he was put through agony so that we might have victory. A key part was that he was given stripes; the beatings that were left on him were markings, deep markings in his flesh. And because he had stripes, we are allowed healing. He was cursed so that we could be blessed, and those are powerful things!
You know, there are single, celibate Christians in our churches who are powerfully living out in a faithful way, their service to Christ by maintaining celibacy, even though they could tell you in their darkest moments their fantasies, or their lust, moves towards homosexuality. I often wonder if we wouldn’t be in a totally different place in our churches if we handled homosexuality differently, not in a gay-affirming way, but in an original sin-affirming way. What if we all stopped pretending we were cleaned up? What if we went to our prayer meeting and said, “Hey, you know what? I have repented of the sin of internet pornography, let’s see, 5,000 times!” What if we said that, instead of praying for Aunt Tilly’s big toe that is giving her trouble again, because we don’t really want anyone to know what our issue is. I think part of the issue and what I’ve been saying to groups lately–of course I’m usually saying this to large diverse groups where I can offend someone with one sentence, or one punctuation mark–homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia. And there is a particular way that Christians manifest homophobia, we just let’s our squeamishness and discomfort commandeer and set limits around Christ’s ability to sanctify.

Author Rosaria Butterfield. Photograph by Neil Boyd Photography

Author Rosaria Butterfield. Photograph by Neil Boyd Photography

Risen Magazine: Are you ever afraid of bringing up God right away when you are talking to others in the LGBT community in case you push them farther away?
Rosaria Butterfield: Oh, not at all. This is the issue with gay marriage and homosexuality. For example, I’m looking at a door and by God’s grace the door is closed, it is closed because it has hinges, and those hinges work. If someone came and took those hinges off the door that would be a problem, it wouldn’t open. You see the hinge is the Bible, the door swings on the hinge and if you are wondering why we have been so ineffective in witnessing or even just conversing with our gay and lesbian neighbors, it’s because we have been squeamish with the Bible end of the conversation. We’re trying to have it at a perfectly moral level, and every time that we simply argue against homosexuality from a moral level there is a problem; Christians have one statement and gay activists have ten in response.
When I was part of the gay activist movement in 1993 we knew at that point that gay rights was the new civil rights. There was no question that this was a cosmological conversation that we wanted to have. There are many Christians today scratching their heads saying, “Wow, how did this small despised group of sexual minorities become the thumbprint of the new civil rights?” Well it happened because the movement itself did not argue morally; it argued cosmologically, it argued from a worldview position.
There is only one argument against individual rights, God owns you. And the only way that you will be able to find the sense in that argument is if you share the Bible, and you better be able to share the Bible better than my seven-year-old shares phonics. Because that is how many evangelical Christians share. It’s not a sword in my hand if you just give me a verse. You have to give me a verse that is undergirded by a Christian world and life view. You must be able to explain to me how the Old Testament and New Testament fit together. You must be able to explain to me why this book isn’t just an oral history written by a bunch of men who themselves were not exactly scholars. If you want me to believe this, you need to explain to me that there is an organic revelation that goes from Genesis to Revelation, and in this organic revelation, Jesus enters into history and is the full embodiment of every single word in this Bible. In fact he says that he is every jot and tittle, which refers to fairly minor Hebrew pronunciation marks.
If you as a believer cannot explain and really work your way through the Bible and explain the difference between ceremonial laws (those laws that went out with temple worship) and moral laws (those laws for which Jesus himself died and manifests) then simply saying that God made Adam and Eve says nothing. If you don’t tell me that God made Adam and Eve as part of a creation ordinance and that marriage therefore is by God’s design and the purpose of marriage is for each believer to reflect Christ and the Church as image bearers, if you don’t tell me that marriage is a covenant and a covenant is a relationship that God himself establishes with us and guaranteed by his word, than anything goes and I can marry my dog! If it’s all just simply two consenting adults manifesting their privileged access to individual rights then there is just no argument against it…there is the argument saying that homosexuality violates the seventh commandment, Do not commit adultery. But if you have already thrown the Ten Commandments away, you don’t have that argument.

Risen Magazine: How do you respond to someone who says they are gay, but also a believer?
Rosaria Butterfield: This is always a difficult moment in some of my public talks. Two gay men come up [to the microphone and say, “Rosaria, are you saying I cannot be gay and be a Christian? Because I am a deacon in a church and I believe in Jesus.” That’s when you have to back up and say, “First of all thank you for your courage and for coming to this microphone and even coming to this talk. But let us talk about what it means to be a Christian.” And then usually the audience will say, “Well a Christian is what it means to believe in Jesus.” [My answer would be]Well, no, because even the demons believe in Jesus. A Christian is someone for whom salvation was initiated by a holy God, called and set apart before the foundations of the world. The Holy Spirit then works in the heart of that person changing that heart of stone and giving that person a heart of flesh. Then quickly you are justified in the eyes of God, but slowly over time you are then sanctified, and this sanctification is church business. I mean it’s God business, but it’s not just me and Jesus out here it’s church business, hand-on-hand, heart-on-heart, Bible verse-on-experience and experience-on-Bible verse. That is what being a Christian is. For me, I know it may sound strange, but the doctrine of original sin is very powerful and very loving matters of contact with a person’s heart. Because if I am talking to someone that is in a gay or lesbian relationship– and you know what, that’s not the only sin out there–if I’m talking with any unbelieving neighbor, trapped in any life that is dishonoring to God, it’s a wonderful [opportunity] to say, but what if before God made the stars, he had a plan for you? Eternity isn’t what just happens in Heaven, it’s how we imagine our world, our lives, right now.
Now to answer your question, I would say, “Shame on those denominations that are condemning people in their sin at the same time they think that they are being affirming. Shame on them, shame on any person who is untroubled by sin to encourage someone else to fall head-long into it.” When people tell me that the church has been unloving to gay and lesbian people and the church has let them down, they are speaking the truth, but Jesus hasn’t [let them down] and these are his commands and his values and in him there is real liberty.
So all this has to do with why you can’t put the Bible aside and just argue from a sociological, psychological or moral point of view, because you get nothing by doing that; you don’t win your arguments and if any Christian thinks that they can argue with a moral point of view, just look at the Supreme Court today. I do not think that you can argue it morally. But I think that is the way God wants it. The last thing in the heart of the Lord is to simply condemn people for being too small in the face of original sin. God knows that and he wants to empower and equip people, which is only through the Bible.

Risen Magazine: How do you love them, treat them with grace, yet not condone their life and compromise scripture?
Rosaria Butterfield: Hospitality is the ground zero of evangelism. We are not going to evangelize our neighbors with a Bible verse or a bumper sticker telling them where we are going to church; that is just not going to happen. And we are really not going to be a helpful witness if the best we can do is put political placards out in the front of the lawn letting people know where we stand. This is a heart business, and what Pastor Ken Smith [pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church] did for me, is just become my friend. I had dinner at his house, and he and his wife had dinner at my house, he met my community, I met his community, we did book exchanges, we talked about sexuality and politics freely. It was really helpful and we were neighbors, and the gay and lesbian community is a community given to hospitality as well, so not only was he helpful to me, but he allowed me to be helpful to them. When he and his wife were sick he allowed me to bring over a pot of soup and a loaf of bread. There is a book that I’m highly recommending now called, The Art of Neighboring. What would happen if we prayed for every person in every house that lives in our block? Not just by name, but if we knew some of the things they struggled with and we were able to perhaps intervene in some of those struggles. Nobody is going to argue against mercy work.

Risen Magazine: What did your partner think of you reading the Bible?
Rosaria Butterfield: I was working on a book on the religious rights from a lesbian feminists perspective so I had to read the Bible. I’ve always been a person who reads widely, and deeply, and can seem a little off the edge sometimes. So she didn’t think anything of what I did. Also, I was an English professor so I was reading up to five hours a day, plus if you are reading the Bible that much, you will be going through it quite a few times in a year and you will get a full sense of the enormous way that cosmology encounters every human being. So, I would share some of my insights and she would just say, “Oh okay…” Sharing insights like that was just normal too. I think that the person who had the biggest impact on me was one of my transgender friends who was concerned and stopped me at some point and said, “Rosaria, this Bible reading is changing you, tell me what is going on?” And I said, “Well J, what if it’s true?” All good logic questions start with those two words. You know she really surprised me and said, “I know it’s true. I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years and I prayed that God would heal me and he did not. But if you would like I can pray for you.” And that is the moment where this research project got blown open, in so many ways it was like a horror movie right there. I was a good peace activist and was getting warm to this Jesus, but who was this Jesus who heals some and not others? Who wants that guy right?! Then J gave me her whole theological library. One day I came home to find two book crates overflowing with books. As I was sifting through one, which happened to be Calvin’s Exposition of Romans 1, I caught J writing in the column, “Watch Romans 1, this is where you will fall.” The idea that this book was inspired and alive was really starting to scare me and some of those encounters were really troubling to me, much more troubling than the question of my sin, that came later. But before I was dealing with my sin, I was really dealing with this book that was clearly supernatural and clearly inspired. The question is, inspired by who and what, as there are a lot of forces at work out there to watch out for.

Risen Magazine: I know God must have been working on your heart. But what was the process that made you realize that it was inspired?
Rosaria Butterfield: It was a process of chipping over certain Biblical principles. The first was that I had to somehow deal with Jesus not being okay with me having my girlfriend, and him, at the same time. Good liberal Christian friends came into my world and said I didn’t have to become a fundamentalist and that I could have part of the Bible. But that perspective seemed to me that there was a lot lacking. If you really wanted the Bible to be the whole revelation of God, and you wanted God to pour that revelation into your life, it was clear to me that it was all or nothing. So at this point I became a “church stalker.” You know one of those people who sit across the street from the church and say, “Okay I’m going to walk through the doors of the church.” Then I would say, “Oh nope, not today and drive away.” I did that for a while. I was really arguing with God at that point, and I really wanted to know why homosexuality was a sin, but later I realized I really didn’t want the answer from God’s point of view I just wanted to argue with him. I did eventually walk through the doors of the church where my friend Ken was a pastor, only because I trusted him.

Risen Magazine: What would you say were the steps of your conversion?
Rosaria Butterfield: After I walked through the doors of the church, there were many things that were powerful that he [the pastor] was preaching on. So the first step would be when he was preaching through the gospel of John and got to John 7:17 – “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” Pastor Ken said this is the biblical principle that obedience comes before understanding. That set me reeling, because I was a tenured professor in English and people paid me money to understand before I obeyed. That was totally counter-intuitive. I had to really wrestle with that question and what it would mean, because the Bible doesn’t just say to do God’s will, but instead it says, will to do God’s will. It made me really think and pray, “Lord what would it mean to will to do your will?” Because all I ever did was argue with him. I wondered what would happen if I gave him my will, and what he would give me back in return. Then the final moment [of my conversion] was when the congregation was singing a cappella through Psalm 119, line 56, which says, “This has become mine, that I observe your precepts.” I sang that, then I stopped and I realized that I had just sung condemnation onto myself and I was in big trouble.

Risen Magazine: You say that your “former life still lurks in the edges of my heart, shiny and still like a knife,” what do you mean by this statement?
Rosaria Butterfield: What I mean by that is that God saves people, but he doesn’t lobotomize them. It is a great caution. For example, my heart goes out to forgotten children in a car seat on hot days, and I believe parents when they say they truly forgot, and I think about the fact that the mother will never look at a car seat again without seeing the effect of negligence. This is how I feel about my life and Jesus. I can never look at my life again without seeing the cost. I spotted at him, I despised him, and I caused how many people to stumble and fall? Can I even count that? This is a statement of my personal awareness that I persecuted Jesus.

Risen Magazine: Would you have been able to fully change your lifestyle if you didn’t have as much support from the church you were attending?
Rosaria Butterfield: No. And that’s why churches have to get on board here. The big issue of my sin was my pride, and that was the root of my sin. Homosexuality was one of the offshoots of pride. Now do I still struggle with pride? Oh I sure do, but the off- shoots have been cut down because when Jesus died on the cross he gave sin a mortal blow. But unless we cultivate sin it’s not going to come back to life on its own terms. So this is why churches need to get on board, it’s not programs that are going to help people, it’s people, and people are really messy. The point isn’t that our lives are a good example, but that Christ is. We must decrease and he must increase. I can’t imagine why someone would leave ones “tribe” and go to another without heart-on-heart and hand-on-hand.

Risen Magazine: How do you answer someone who asks why a person still struggles against sin even once committed to Christianity?
Rosaria Butterfield: I would not say struggle is a sign that you aren’t living in faith. I think we just need to get really clear and back to Genesis 4, where it says that sin is predatory, and maybe sexual sin more deeply than others. You can absolutely be a solid Bible-believing Christian and struggle with sin all your life. You just have to struggle the right way, and it sure helps to struggle with brothers and sisters who know your vulnerabilities and weaknesses. If it’s homosexuality, it sure helps to be in a church that does not act like the world, and is not trying to get you married off. It needs to not treat you like a second-class citizen and be willing to answer the phone at 2:00 a.m., when you ask, “Why me?

Risen Magazine: What advice or steps can you give youth and those that have/are walking that lifestyle and want to change, but struggle?
Rosaria Butterfield: So many people do! You know we have to realize that it doesn’t feel good to have someone or something run your life, whether it’s sexuality, or any kind of idolatry, or addiction. My website offers a list of counselors and I never recommend trying and doing this apart from the worship and disciplining of a church. But I know, and you know, that not all churches are up to speed on this. So I would say, “Dear brothers and sisters in the church, do not ask people to take risks that you are not willing to take, think long and hard about how you would answer someone who would say ‘I had to give up my girlfriend, tell me what you had to give up?’ Think about that and tell me how you would answer.” God cares about our souls and our souls will last forever, so our churches need to be up to speed and our prayers for the lost need to go all the way up to the throne of grace.

Risen Magazine: How do you answer someone who asks you if homosexuality is a sin?
Rosaria Butterfield: I say, “Yes, yes, it is a sin, and so is homophobia.” I say both and then that leads to a lot of questions. But at least we are saying both and not telling half the story. Because here is the problem, every powerful lie has a good dollop of truth in it, and so we need to take the plank out of our own eye as well, and do that in a way that is simultaneous with maintaining standards of scripture. I think the only difference between a fanatic and a believer is the Holy Spirit, so as we are witnessing to people and as we are befriending our unsaved neighbors, we need to pray and be listening to the still small voice of God about when to speak and when not to speak. Quite frankly, I don’t like talking about sin before talking about who God is, because the category of sin only makes sense within the category of the Holy God. In other ways it’s just an alternative lifestyle. Sin is not a mistake; sin is treason against a holy God. So if we don’t have a Holy God we don’t have a category of sin, at least not a vital one.

If you are waiting for God to speak to you apart from his Bible, you will hear all kinds of things, because Satan is delighted to whisper in your ear at that moment.

Risen Magazine: Before you were a Christian how would you answer the question, “What do you feel is the purpose for your life?
Rosaria Butterfield: That my job in life was to stand with the disempowered and to look out for the people who are lost and hurting, and to find ways to leave this world in a better place than I found it. Those were, and are still are, my life values. I’ve just found that in Jesus I can actually complete those values, not on my own terms of course. So my values are still my values, I have changed, but I still have those values.

Risen Magazine: What is one of the most important aspects of your story in Christ that you would want to make sure resonates with our readers?
Rosaria Butterfield: I would want them to remember that these conversations that we are having socially and globally regarding gay marriage and other issues, make sense within the context of the Bible. The Bible is the table of contents of lives, because God made us in his image, in his holy image. I would say that for Christians, if you are not deeply in the word then it is very hard to have a fluent hold in this Bible and very hard to see it as a loving sword that cuts through the spirit and soul to discern the hearts of men. It’s very hard to see it as anything else but a kind of bulky enormous confusing thing so I think Christians really need to make peace with the Bible and make purpose of it too. I would say that if you were sitting waiting for your dog to meow you would be waiting a long time! And if you are waiting for God to speak to you apart from his Bible, you will hear all kinds of things, because Satan is delighted to whisper in your ear at that moment. So not only do you need to know your Bible, but you need to understand why it is inspired, and why it is inherent and why you can lean heavily on it with everything that you got. Too often Christians are squeamish with the Bible and with God himself and you can’t do that. Big answers come with big struggles. You can lean on him with all the weight of the world, but if you don’t know where that is, you can’t lean there.

Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2013

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