8 Questions for Ken Fong of “The Ken Fong Project”

photo (1)I was fortunate enough to meet Ken Fong of the Ken Fong Project this year during the V3con digital media conference in Los Angeles on June 20-21, 2014. Ken was part of the panel titled “Secrets Online: Topics that are Taboo in Real Life”, where the panelists tackled the issue of writing about things one would not normally talk about in general conversation. Ken passed along an interesting piece of advice, to beware, that if you’re willing to talk about a taboo topic online, you may become the go to person and spokesperson for that issue.

Ken Fong is a moderate Baptist pastor and subject of the documentary “The Ken Fong Project”. The documentary covers his journey as he reconciles his beliefs with the way gays and lesbians are being treated by his community. He has compared the way gays and lesbians are treated with the way Jesus was treated by the hyper-religious Jews in biblical times.

Additional information about the documentary is relayed in the video below:

The initial round of funding for the documentary was completed through Indiegogo, but the documentary team will be looking for additional funding in the near future to help with costs of completing the film.

Ken was gracious enough to agree to an 8Questions interview on 8Asians, and the result is after the jump.

Q1: According to the information about the documentary you started this journey back in 2007. Was there a particular event that caused you to specifically on how gays and lesbians are treated by religious conservatives?

A1: This is going to sound very mystical, but I was asleep in January 2007 one night, and I had this profound heightened awareness. I sensed that God was talking to me in a dream. The message I received [from God] was,
[God]: “Now I’m going to explain to you why I have given you the reputation that you have.”

[Fong]: I said, “OK, I’m listening.”
[God]: “It’s time to spend your reputation on a group of people that can’t add to your it, but only take away from it.”

I remember pushing back and thinking “Well, who’s that?” but I believe God said that it didn’t matter.

[Ken]: “What do you mean that’s not relevant? If this is going to cost me my reputation, I should know whom we’re talking about.”

I wrestled God all night saying “You have to tell me”, but God just kept saying, “No, what’s relevant is that you believe this is actually coming from God.”

As morning was approaching I felt that I never got an answer, so I said, “Ok, I do believe this is God talking to me.” This has happened one other time in my life {not in a dream} where i thought God was telling me something really outrageous and I believed it and it happened, so “I’m just going to trust you.” So I said yes to [helping] this unnamed group and using my reputation and status on their behalf.

For the next three months I went about my life, then a friend that I have known for a long time, a Christian, a respected Asian American community activist in Los Angeles approached me and asked if our church would serve as a site for a public “debate” between an Asian American gay Christian and an Asian American straight pastor. And as soon as he asked me that, I felt in my spirit “Oh, it’s the LGBT people.” Great. Not only did I agree to host that debate, but I also ended up being the pastor on that stage.

Q2: How far have you taken your message and have you had different reactions in different parts of the country? Of the world?

A2: I don’t know about the world, but definitely I’ve been given a growing number of opportunities. We had that event in 2008 and five days later the California Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal in California. That was really interesting, because I think if we had the event after the ruling there would have been a very different feeling in the room. There were about 600+ people that showed up that night and we didn’t do a lot of advertising about the event, and there were people from a pretty wide spectrum of Christianity. A lot of Asian Americans, probably the majority. A number of really ultra conservative people were there and I knew that they weren’t going to happy with how I handled things.

I ended up feeling led to not make it a debate so I made it a civil conversation where I let a former member of the church staff who had been closeted but is now out to tell his story without me butting in and interrupting. So that was pretty impactful. I know I had a lot of really conservative people mad at me because they felt underrepresented on that stage. But I said we need to learn to talk about the issue in a non-debate forum, so I’m willing to actually be quiet. I’m not here to win the argument.

What happened after that is I was contacted by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which is a nationally recognized campus ministry group. I had been on their board of trustees years ago, and they’re wrestling with the issue too, so they contacted me for their triennial missions conference in St. Louis, MO, back in 2012. I’d been asked to speak on panels at Fuller seminary before that. I did two workshops at Urbana 2012 that had about 1000 students in total attend. I tried to lay out a theological framework for understanding human sexuality, but then talked about the pastoral aspects of loving all kinds of people in our churches.

My film crew came and they were taping me, and what was interesting was after both workshops, large numbers of students who were coming to this missions conference were coming out to me. It was hard to imagine that could have happened 3 years ago. Later, I was walking through the missions exhibit hall and word was spreading about me and the tone I was using in my workshop. I’d walk by displays of mission groups and some missionaries would grab me and say “my son is gay”, so I became the safe guy to talk to.

When we started having to raise money to shoot the bulk of the film, we made it an indiegogo campaign and that’s when I think there was a lot more awareness of what I was doing and it kind of woke up the middle.

There are many Evangelical Christians who don’t identify with the extreme, hateful disrespectful tone or language that comes out with the more vocal, extremely conservative Evangelicals and they also don’t identify or feel represented by the liberals.

So they started supporting us financially and verbally. At the same I started becoming kryptonite to the more conservative Christians, especially the Asian American ones, just like God told me was going to happen in my dream. They started knocking my reputation and what our church was doing.

Ultimately there was a group of more progressive gay allies at our church who had been asking me for three years if they could have a safe support group at our church, and requesting that we could have it on Sundays and announce it in the bulletin. I said we can’t simply do that without examining this issue as an entire church. Some people would hear or read the announcement for this group and understandably jump to all kinds of conclusions. So they waited for three years until we finally tackled this issue church-wide.

We took an entire year, starting in 2013 when I first led a 6-week class where I presented a modified version of the workshops that I’d done at Urbana in 2012. After Easter, I opened up this issue from the pulpit. Following each of my message, I interviewed straight people who were conservative, gay people who were Christian, parents of gay people who were Christian. In between the two weekly worship services, my staff and board members invited people to come and begin to discern what outcomes God wanted us to pursue once this lengthy process was over.

When September arrived, the deacon board met twice a month to examine what people submitted, in an effort to discern how God wanted our church to proceed on this issue. They ended up inviting Christians who were gay and even one who claimed no longer to be gay to share their experiences and hopes with them. During this time, I went on my 3-month sabbatical, trusting that my absence would stimulate the deacons to take ownership of this issue. And that happened. When I returned in December, we co-wrote a document that outlined our discernment process and, more importantly, spelled out three concrete outcomes.

Because of that the word started spreading nationally that there was this church that was trying to figure this out and trying to do this in a respectful, compassionate way. So I started getting calls from executives whose denominations are being ripped to shreds by this and all this kind of stuff. They’re all waiting for our movie to come out. They were very heartened.

I got a call two months ago from a producer at 60 minutes and he told me “We’re going to do this segment on why Evangelicals are leaving the church and a lot of it has to do with this gay issue. The Evangelical leaders we’re talking to are worried about losing the next generation, so they’re softening their tone, but not changing their stance. So I was wondering if there is anyone out there that’s an Evangelical that’s actually doing something more than just softening their tone, and well your name keeps coming up. So what are you doing?”

I explained it to him and he asks “Why is that evangelical? That sounds liberal to me.” I said, “Well. we start with the Bible we end with the Bible, but we’re not just talking about those six contentious passages. We’re talking about major themes in the Bible.” So, he wanted to know if he could actually send a film crew out and possibly include me in the segment, I said yes, but they ended up not sending a film crew.

All that is to say, I think I’m on the radar of a growing number of groups and people as someone who’s trying to figure this out. And of course, I’m also being targeted by very conservative Christians as one who can’t be trusted now.

Q3: Have you had to deal with skeptics from the gay community?

A3: Yes, because of what I’m shooting for at this stage, which is I’m trying to keep straight people who are not allies from just bolting and running. I mean obviously I don’t have the power to make people stay. Here’s how I explain what we’re doing:

I’ve come to know some gay Asian Pacific activists like those at “Faith for Equality“, they’re trying to build the bridge from the gay side across the chasm to the faith community side, especially among Asian Pacific Islanders. I said, “You can spend all the time and effort to build the bridge and you finally get to the other side, but there’s no guarantee the other side is going to use the bridge since they never planned to use it to begin with.” You can spend all that time building the bridge and its not going to be used. I said, “I’m called to start the bridge from the faith side and I have to use building materials that they know and trust like the Bible and even talking about my dream and my call and all that stuff. You may not need to use these materials starting on your side, but I definitely need to use them on my side or they’re not even going to put their big toe on that bridge.” Hopefully it will take less time to build a bridge if we’re building from both sides of the chasm.

So yes, there are gays that are saying I’m not going far enough. I’m not endorsing and celebrating the entire LGBT agenda. My response was that’s not necessarily the Christian agenda in whole or in part, so even if you were straight I couldn’t sign off on an entire secular agenda, but here’s my commitment: I’m starting off by looking at gay people as people of equal worth and value as straight people and that they too are made in the image of God. That’s my starting point, that’s what I’m trying to get Christians to at least minimally begin with in their minds. Slowly my gay friends and activists begin to get that and some say now I’m one of their heroes, telling me, “You don’t have to endorse the whole agenda, you’re trying to get Christians to look at us with equal value and respect and that’s huge.”

California Faith for Equality actually won a grant from a gay friendly foundation and they came to me and said, “Reverend Fong, we’ll give you the money we just got, if you would invite 8 to 9 of your Asian American Evangelical pastor-friends from Northern and Southern California and we’ll put them up for two days. As long as you talk about this issue we won’t tell how to talk about it and we won’t tell you what conclusion to come to since we’ve come to know you and trust you and to know it will be an important and good conversation.”

And that’s what we did and I still marvel at that. I asked the pastors, “Do you think if the shoe were on the other foot, that we would do the same thing?” They said “No”, so I said, “Then let’s make sure that we are worthy of their trust.” We actually invited a representative from California Faith for Equality to be part of the experience and to take notes. It was kind of like having a race conversation and actually having people of color in the room. One of the pastors that I invited was someone who used to be on my staff and who always denied he was gay until about 3 years ago, and now he’s out of the closet, and again it was helpful to have him at the same table. He was able to tell us, “I know you don’t think you’re being offensive, but when you say it that way it really is.” So it was really important for him to say those things.

I think I’ve won over some gay skeptics but obviously not all. We’re not at a place in our church where we can celebrate even gay marriage, but at the same time I’m working to accommodate it.

Q4: What advice would you have to other religious leaders who want to tackle the gay issue with their own congregations?

A4: I’d say at least two pieces of advice 1) get to know and love gay people and earn their trust. If you don’t do that you’re still just talking about this as bullet points, and [treating it as] kind of a sterile issue. You really need to see how this affects real human beings. And I would take this one step further. I would say find out if you don’t know already how many gay people have grown up in your Sunday school and your youth program. Whether they are there or not now, what was their experience like being gay at your church?

That leads to my second piece of advice: don’t forget the pastoral side to this issue. As pastors, we feel that God has called us to minister to people who make all kinds of choices, tragic or not. How have we pastored the gay people in our midst? Until recently I really sucked at it and I didn’t care that I sucked, and now I care, and I want to get better, and I want to be a better pastor to their family and I want to walk with them as they figure out how this all looks. I’m really pushing the pastors in particular to think about the pastoral side to this issue. Even when I talk to really conservative pastors on this issue, most of them are really responsive on this issue because they’ve walked with straight people through tough times in their life. They haven’t just abandoned them and tossed them out. I think they start to see how this [treating gays differently] is being unjust and uneven.

Q5: What message do you have for those gays and lesbians who feel that they are outcasts from their religious institutions because of who they are?

A5: This certainly wouldn’t apply to every gay and lesbian person, but I know for our church I’ve been asking for God to bring us, I call them the “Jackie Robinson” gay and lesbians. That where they happen to be is in a kind of comfortable place in being out. They’re the kind of gay and lesbians that the straight people (who don’t know any gay and lesbians) would come to know, love, and appreciate them as human beings and fellow Christians first, and then as they come to realize or find out that this person that they respect or love is gay or lesbian, I think that’s what’s going to challenge their hard and fast categories. And again that’s not going to apply to every gay and lesbian. There’s some that are going to say “I just can’t be in a place that can’t fully celebrate who I am, the way I need to be celebrated,” and I get that. We have some gay and lesbians who come to our church, some are in relationships, some come with their partners, but they are not putting it in everyone’s face and I think that’s what our church needs. I think that’s what many churches need to warm up to the human side of this.

Q6: What stage are you at with the documentary?

A6: We are almost done shooting it and we’re looking to raise an additional $25,000 to make a 20 minute sample reel of high quality to take to some big donors, since we need to probably raise another $75,000 to $100,000 to finish the documentary and make it really quality. If anyone reading this can point us to any group or individual that might be interested in helping us make this movie, who can help us that would really help us along.

Q7: When can we expect to see the documentary, “The Ken Fong Project”?

A7: Summer of 2015, but a lot of things have to happen between now and then. I highly recommend you go to the Facebook page, “The Ken Fong Project” to keep up to date on the documentary.

Q8: Finally, Where can people go if they want to help out with funding and finishing “The Ken Fong Project”?

A8: Facebook, “The Ken Fong Project” for more information and to contact us.

Thanks Ken!

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About Tim

I'm a Chinese/Taiwanese-American, born in Taiwan, raised on Long Island, went to college in Philadelphia, tried Wall Street and then moved to the California Bay Area to work in high tech in 1990. I'm a recent dad and husband. Other adjectives that describe me include: son, brother, geek, DIYer, manager, teacher, tinkerer, amateur horologist, gay, and occasional couch potato. I write for about 5 different blogs including 8Asians. When not doing anything else, I like to challenge people's preconceived notions of who I should be.
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