Reaching the Limit with Pastor Robert Gardner of City of Faith International
A related story appeared in The Tennessean, Yahoo! News, Education Post, Rural Ed Voices, LGBTQ NATION, and The Mighty.
Prior attempts to reach Robert over the past year (updated January 2022):
July 3, 2020––6 Ways the Church Can Address the LGBTQ+ Suicide Epidemic
July 13, 2020––Dear Pastor: Sermons on Queer Folks’ “Delusional”, “Reprobate” Minds Drive LGBTQ+ Suicide
July 31, 2020––20 Affirmations and Readings for Folks Raised in Anti-LGBTQIA+ Church Families
September 13, 2020––Focus Your Repentance Inward, Not on Antichrist Conspiracies Stereotyping LGBTQ+ Family
November 13, 2020––10 Tactics of Anti-LGBTQ+ Pulpit Bullies
To begin, I want to be clear that Robert Gardner has issued no private or public apology to me, or his other relatives, over the past 21 months (updated January 2022). Behind every single attempt to help Robert understand the seriousness of his missteps, there have only been good intentions to expand his exposure without any judgement at all. I was willing to go above and beyond, and to provide whatever guidance or tools to help him grow. In my heart, there was ample commitment, interest, and patience that could have helped prevent arriving at this unfortunate point.
Contrary to what Robert believes, I am neither attacking him, nor plotting against him, nor warring with him. I gave it my all trying to educate Robert on his blindspots, biases, and willful ignorance. The escalation of this fallout has everything to with Robert’s combativeness, pride, resistance, and stubbornness.
The Robert described above isn’t the Robert I grew up with, and probably isn’t a believable version of Robert that others will recognize. But for the sake of congregants who have confronted this version of Robert, I am speaking up, regardless of the consequences. I’m already aware that some closeted LGBTQ+ congregants of City of Faith International, in Springfield, Tennessee, have approached Robert and my aunt, begging for reassurance that God wouldn’t destroy their souls.
Robert pushed us all to this point, and exposed himself, by waging his imaginary war against a non-existent LGBTQ+ enemy of the Church. The lesson here? When receiving feedback, it’s much easier to apologize humbly, listen attentively, and [un]learn––rather than bury your head in the sand, plug your ears with cotton, and choose denial over truth, as you play mind games, stir the pot, and pretend to be victimized. This is the second time Robert has placated my mother with disingenuous excuses and promises to stop his Bible-bashing, then obstinately carried on with his exclusionary, fanatical extremism.
At the very least, Robert could have simply dropped the issue. But for nearly a year now, he has continued driving home misinformed beliefs. How does Robert’s anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric play out beyond church? People have weaponized his same talking points to rationalize bullying me until I quit jobs, flashing weapons to intimidate me, flinging feces and urine my way, spitting on me, threatening to kill me, throwing trash at my head, and trying to run me over as I crossed the street — to name just a few examples of targeted, unprovoked hate crimes I’ve faced as an LGBTQ+ Black person, on top of racism. Yet, Robert hasn’t relentlessly shamed these sinners. His crusade for repentance never targets those with bloody prayer hands.
Robert has never seemed — at least not to me — interested in understanding. To me, Robert has seemed more committed to asserting authority and superiority. There always seems to be an assumption that behind whatever good deed I do, lies blind faith in man-made institutions, faithlessness in the church and God, a selfish fixation on my will instead of God’s will, refusal to give God the glory for what I’ve overcome, a vain desire to take all the credit myself, and malicious plotting against him.
Even when I advocate for policies combatting hunger, homelessness, and disparities in education and healthcare — social problems Robert created an IRS-registered 501(c)3 to combat — he has taken issue with my advocacy, which, on a systemic level, directly supports his own initiatives.
When a queer man like myself engages in the same community action as Greater Faith Community Action Corp., I’m suddenly “carnal”, “double-minded and unstable”, “secular”, and “worldly”, or a “false prophet” who worships idols. Robert knows absolutely nothing about my relationship with God, yet it seems as if he’s distorted my activism to paint me as “unanointed”and “unwilling to give God the glory.” Only someone who truly believes LGBTQ+ people are “demonic” and “heathens” would spin my advocacy as anti-Biblical or vain.
“Suppose a brother is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. You foolish person…”
— James 2: 14–26
It seems that with every accomplishment, Robert is right on my heels to detract from it, to find a flaw, to tear me down, to misconstrue it as being in some way so faulty, he would prefer that I had not helped anyone at all. It seems, to me, that Robert feels compelled to humble and humiliate an unashamed and unintimidated queer man, one he can’t indoctrinate or shame into submission.
I respect elders, but my dignity grants no passes — not even to elders — for repeatedly ridiculing me publicly. I will forgive the past for anybody who is genuinely apologetic, but the past is still the present if you’re still repeating it two services a week, almost a year later. I accept that many have not walked in my shoes, but I will not allow anyone who has never journeyed my path to authoritatively dismiss or oversimplify the oppression I face — or misconstrue it as a choice or identity crisis — simply because they deny mistreatment they have not experienced firsthand.
This video comes after Tweeting about passage of the Equality Act on Thursday morning, and Robert’s Thursday evening Bible study referring to “demonic principles being passed at the White House.” Over the past 9 months, he has exposed his own pattern of checking my social media before writing every Bible study lesson and/or sermon, in search of spiteful motivation to fire him up.
Evangelists weaponizing anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda is all too common, but toxic church culture also negatively impacts more than just LGBTQ+ people.
Hear the tone used to describe other groups and issues: the contempt and superiority, in reference to concerns like addiction, psychological disorders, overdose, divorce and remarriage, premarital pregnancy, medical treatment — even community organizing around elections, and voting out corrupt politicians who brutalize and exploit the vulnerable, in the same manner as Biblical dictators and tyrants like Herod. Circumstances that differ from person to person are altogether dismissed as personal failures, distorted as straying from God, and stripped of complexity.
“Anyone who doesn’t provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
—1 Timothy 5:8
Please stop allowing pastors play God, assume who does not have a relationship with God, preach from an ‘us vs. them’ standpoint, and punish anyone who objects to them cherry-picking scriptures to humiliate marginalized groups. Speak up, together, when they vindictively mischaracterize others’ self-respect as bitterness, defiance, rebelliousness, or sensitivity.
Another thing — with Black communities facing health disparities for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, fibroids, heart disease, sickle cell, suicidality, and more, let’s not overspiritualize healing from illness. In addition to prayer, staying healthy may also necessitate prevention/early intervention. Getting Black folks tested and diagnosed requires at least reasonable acknowledgement of science. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who led development of the COVID vaccine, identified herself as a Black, Southern, and Christian scientist. There are plenty of Christian doctors, nurses, scientists, therapists, etc. Churches fail Black folks with simple-minded, black-or-white, either-or thinking, and by shunning any knowledge/resources beyond the Bible/church/pastor. Neither your pastor, nor anyone else, is an expert on every single subject.
Lastly, we disempower people from fully reaching their potential, by framing their personal initiative as giving themselves the glory more than God, or dismissing critical reflection as them being “booksmart”, “carnal”, “double-minded”, “secular”, or “worldly.” We’re allowed to change, evolve, expand, [un]learn, and rethink things, in light of new experiences or exposure. Churches must stop expecting people to compartmentalize and shrink, until they no longer even recognize their individuality. Church shouldn’t feel like a cult or the military. It’s intrusive and overbearing for a pastor to use exclusionary, fear-mongering, superstitious, and willfully ignorant rhetoric to demand conformity, or stigmatize people’s differences and pasts.
The arrogant behavior depicted here is especially un-Christlike, considering that well-intentioned family members have repeatedly advised how it comes across as unapologetically condescending and degrading, controlling, hypocritical, obstinate, passive aggressive, petty, reckless, self-centered, and short-sighted — not to mention envious and insecure, since I am half Robert’s age.
If Robert truly can’t discern between someone’s critique of church homophobia, and an anti-Christ attack against him and the church, he should crack open the book I gifted his household last year, Love Period: When All Else Fails, by Pastor Rudy Rasmus––the Black Houston pastor who stood up to address the congregants who, the previous Sunday, had abruptly left during the middle of his sermon affirming LGBTQ+ people and LGBTQ+ Christians.
Note: Robert Gardner is now Lead Distribution Engineer at Leidos — -a fact that concerns the public interest/safety of job seekers who may seek employment there, after learning that the Human Rights Campaign lauded Leidos as one of the best places to work for LGBTQ people.
Araya Baker is a counselor educator, suicidologist, and policy analyst, originally from Springfield, Tennessee. Baker holds a M.Phil.Ed. in professional counseling from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an Ed.M. in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more at arayabaker.com.
Mental health and suicide prevention resources, courtesy of The Mighty:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24/7, (English: 800–273–TALK; Spanish: 1–888–628–9454; Veterans: Press 1 or text 838255; Deaf/hard of hearing/hearing loss: 800–799–4889 via TTY).
Crisis Text Line, 24/7, (text “START” to 741–741).
Trevor Project , 24/7, (1–866–488–7386 , 24/7).
Trans Lifeline, 24/7, (U.S.: 877–565–8860, Canada: 877–330–6366).