Rosaria Champagne Butterfield shares her dramatic testimony of coming to faith in Jesus Christ after living as a lesbian who was vehemently opposed to Christianity and the Bible. (Part 1 of 2)
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Rosaria Champagne Butterfield: I wanted this Bible to be mine. I didn't understand how. I didn't understand how in the world that would be mine. I wanted that yoke that was easy and this burden that was light. I wanted this capacious God. I didn't want my flesh to be screaming about things that God didn't love. I really wanted that and that was shocking to me.
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John: That's Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, sharing a bit of her incredible personal story and she's with us on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly.
Jim Daly: John, Rosaria's story is going to be unbelievable. So often we're thinking, can God reach certain people? You want to hear this story, because God can reach everyone and that's what you're gonna hear today. Rosaria [has] got such an incredible background for the discussion that we're gonna have and I just want to get to it. Rosaria, welcome to "Focus on the Family."
Rosaria: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here.
Jim: I want to start with kind of the beginning--
Jim: --where you're coming from, kind of you as a high school, college student.
Rosaria: Oh, yeah.
Jim: What was your attitude? Where were you at? And this is before you encountered Jesus, obviously.
Jim: So, let's start right there. What kind of person were you?
Rosaria: Well, I was a thoughtful person. I was an intellectual. I had been raised in the Catholic church and had gone to predominantly Catholic schools. I loved the nuns. They taught me to diagram a sentence, before I tried to interpret it and I personally thought that was a great life skill.
Jim: Well, and that set you up for a Ph.D.—
Rosaria: Oh, I—
Jim: --in English literature.
Rosaria: --it really did. You know what? It really, really did. (Laughter) But you know, they also taught me to stand with the disempowered and to seek out the unlovely and the unloved and draw them in. And so, that was very much a life value for me.
I would also say that I had a predominantly heterosexual adolescence. I did not date until college and in college I met my first boyfriend and it was a very heady experience in college. Men started to notice me and that was intriguing, but at the same time, an undercurrent of longing had inserted itself into my heart for women. And it was a confusing time, as well.
So, from my college days through my graduate school days, I continued to date men and at the same time, just experience a[n] overwhelming fascination and desire to be not only in the company of women, but also to be sexually in the company of women. And so, at the age of 28, I came out as a lesbian and I thought I was just simply telling the truth. I didn't have a big agenda. I was just trying to be say like … say it like it was.
Jim: Rosaria, you know, that's shocking. I mean, people, right now are saying, okay, this is goin' somewhere. (Laughter) I gotta listen to this. But help us understand as heterosexuals. It's kind of straightforward how you described it, but to have an undercurrent of longing for someone in the same sex—
Rosaria: Right, well--
Jim: --did you feel when you were a teenager it was there? Or—
Jim: --how did it come about?
Rosaria: No, no.
Jim: How did you feel, okay, I'm not that attracted to men?
Rosaria: Right, yeah, no. You know, I would say and I think that's a good question, but it's only a question that can be answered theologically. So, I simply can't go back to Rosaria at 21 and answer that question.
But I can go to Romans 1 and you can, too and we can see that an unwanted homosexual desire or even a cultivated, wanted homosexual desire comes from original sin. And it is really only the Bible that can help us explain that, that original sin distorts even our most primal original feelings. And as Christians, we know that original sin distorts us. Actual sin distracts us and indwelling sin manipulates us and that's for believers!
Jim: Hm and the thing I want to make sure people are hearing from you and I know that it's probably uncomfortable to talk about those days because you're a different person now—
Jim: --but it's important for them to hear—
Jim: --your heart in this way.
Rosaria: Right, right.
Jim: When you were teaching on the campus—
Jim: --and you were part of kind of the women's movement—
Rosaria: Oh, yeah, very much so.
Jim: --in that regard, just set that setting. There's such angst—
Jim: --toward Christian thought--
Jim: --Christian students—
Jim: --Christian culture.
Jim: And there are some things we need to hear from you about, you know, things that we get wrong, that we turn to tradition rather than the heart of God. And I'd like to dig into that a bit and talk about that angst that is there. Why the hatred? Oftentimes Christians are seen as the haters, yet—
Jim: --it feels like there's a lot coming from the folks who are same-sex attracted.
Jim: That doesn't fit with me.
Jim: It's not the way I think about my faith and my Lord. So, talk about that environment and what you were experiencing as a teacher and as a movement leader.
Rosaria: Right, right, and it's different today. So I was a tenured professor at Syracuse University and I was there from 1992 until, all right, I left campus in 1999 to do a research leave, but I was technically on staff there from '92 until 2002.
Rosaria: And that was before, you know, many of the issues, right. That was during the days of DOMA, of the Defense of Marriage Act and I, other than to say that I was very threatened by Christians. I don't know that I had a really well-thought-out reason, but I did teach in women's studies and in feminist theory and in queer theory and 19th century studies. And what I would say in my classes is that, feminism was the lens through which we were going to engage these ideas.
And I would say, you know, in the same way that in your French class, you would be expected to speak in the language and work in the language. In this class, we are going to interpret the world through the language of feminism. So, that's just a done deal. You don't like it; go take another class.
And really, I personally didn't see that as, you know, an angry point of view. I saw that as me being intellectually honest and you know, setting the standard for things. Now I was also a historical materialist. I did not believe in any kind of supernatural authority. I thought that was simply absurd. I thought that was anti-intellectual. And so, the name of Jesus, which truly had rolled off my tongue in a little girl's prayer, then rolled off my back in college, really made me recoil in anger by the time I was a faculty member.
Jim: What, if you think about it, given that, what caused that anger? What was driving that—
Rosaria: One of the things that caused that anger, that I really did not understand why Christians would not leave consenting adults alone. That did not make sense to me. I perfectly understood why Christians would want to have their own little set of rules for their particular ways of going about their business. But why in the world Christian rules and regulations should have bearing on my life was absolutely an anathema to me. It did not make sense.
I also found when I would try to engage Christians, you know, Christians would tell me that they were people of the Book. Well, I have a Ph.D. in English. I could be the chairperson of "Over-readers Anonymous." I am a person of the book and it really annoyed me when Christians would use the Bible like a punctuation mark, to end a conversation rather than to deepen it.
Rosaria: It seemed--
Jim: --would that sound like?
Rosaria: --well, it seemed like Christians were scared. Here's one of the ways it would sound like. Homosexuality is a sin. You're a sin. Well, you're in sin. How do you know it? Well, the Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Well, what does that mean? Blank, done. We're done.
Rosaria: And so, you know, I was very, very grateful, not initially, but you know, ultimately I did meet a pastor who was a neighbor and a friend, who modeled for me, didn't teach me so much as he modeled for me that, that Christians use the Bible in a scrappy way. You know, it's not a museum piece. It's not under that plastic that your grandma might have put on your couch--
Jim: (Chuckling) Right.
Rosaria: --you know, that you got stuck on in July? Not at all. It's okay to deal with it and to let it penetrate your thinking. But that requires a certain amount of argumentation, which is not necessarily disrespectful.
Jim: Well, and I appreciate that. In fact, the environment in 1999, when you were taking your research leave, it kinda created a perfect storm for you in that, you at the campus there at Syracuse, I think it was Promise Keepers who was coming.
Jim: You wrote an article, very negative about—
Jim: --who they are and the oppression of women at—
Jim: --that organization. In fact, in that article, I read it in preparation for the program, you also mention Focus on the Family as being (Laughter) one of the, you know, undergirding—
Rosaria: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: --supporters of Promise Keepers--
Jim: And you know, that is an amazing transformation where you have come from in terms of your outlook, your view—
Rosaria: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: --to where you are today. Talk about that moment in '99. What began to happen? What opened your heart up--
Jim: --to say, okay, maybe I don't have it straight? Very difficult to do.
Rosaria: Right, absolutely. It was '96 or '97; '99 was when I was converted, but when the Promise Keepers came to town, I was really threatened by that and it wasn't so much that they did anything, but just the fact that the university would allow for these ideas. It felt extremely compromising to me, extremely dangerous to me. I did not like people who talked about "the gay lifestyle." I wasn't living a lifestyle. I had a life. I did not have a gay agenda that I knew of.
You know, if you asked me what my gay agenda [is], I'd say, well today I'm going to feed my dog and I'm going to grade a stack of 50 papers and I'm going to be a good neighbor and it didn't seem like it was so terribly different from the things that Christians told me they valued also.
Rosaria: And so, I was really threatened by that and I wrote what I thought was just, you know, an editorial expressing my concern. And they made it an Op-Ed in the paper and it became a big deal, such a big deal that it generated hate mail. It generated fan mail.
One of the letters came from Pastor Ken Smith, the pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. And it was an interesting letter. Now what you should know is that I had already written my tenure book so I was a little bit of hubris right now--
John: Because tenured—
John: --professors are pretty much untouchable, right?
Rosaria: --because tenured professors are pretty much untouchable and we can get back to that, because there is a way that as a Christian, the Lord used that for me.
So, I was feeling like I needed to write a big book and I wanted to write a book about the religious right from a lesbian feminist point of view. And so, I was watching Focus on the Family. I was probably on your mailing list. And I was certainly watching the Promise Keepers and when this letter from Ken Smith came in and he wanted to help, you know, he wanted to help me understand Christianity, you know, my first thought, because I'm a manipulator and I'm a user, but I'm also a serious scholar, my first thought is, wow! This Bible's a big book. I don't read Greek. I don't read Hebrew. And look, here's a Bible scholar who could be my free research help.
Jim: (Laughing) Okay.
Rosaria: So, I was happy to talk to Ken—
Jim: That's an honest—
Rosaria: --although I will—
Rosaria: --tell you, it was, yeah, but I will tell you that his letter was neither a fan mail nor hate mail. He seemed like somebody who could engage ideas and probably would not drop dead if we sat down and had a conversation.
Jim: And that meant something to you.
Rosaria: It did mean something to me.
Jim: It was sincerity.
Rosaria: It was sincerity and so, he invited me to his home for dinner and I loved that idea and the reason I loved that idea is, the gay and lesbian community is also quite given to hospitality. We would also do the same thing. In the gay and lesbian community, we would have people over for dinner who might disagree with us, so that we can discuss and linger long at the table. So the fact that these Christians wanted to do that, made me think, oh, they're kind of like me in this way.
Rosaria: And so, I was happy to go to their house for dinner and I discovered a number of things once I got there, a number of other similarities.
Jim: Yeah, what happened? I mean, what was the environment like?
Jim: Were you tense? Were you feelin' like, oh, this guy's gonna try to convert me?
Rosaria: Well, I didn't know. I thought it would all go into the book if he did, you know. (Laughter)
Jim: You're on research collection.
Rosaria: I thought I was in charge of this conversation. It didn't occur to me that in fact, there was a holy God, Who before the foundations of the world, was watching and in His providence was going before me and Ken.
I walked in. I was delighted to meet his wife, Floy, who while a submissive wife, was certainly, you know, no dupe. She was smart. She was witty. She was delightful. We could immediately start talking about anything.
Jim: Was that unexpected? Were you thinking—
Rosaria: It completely--
Rosaria: --well, quite frankly I had no idea how Evangelicals lived. I mean, before I left, I told my friends, I'm going to this, you know, this Evangelical Christian pastor's home for dinner and there was a lot of "Ooh!" and "Aah!" And, you know.
Jim: Be careful.
Rosaria: What are they like? Tell us. You know, what do they do? Tell us how this works out. I mean, it was bizarre. We just had no idea how Christians lived and so, it was intriguing to me.
Jim: What happened? I mean, so you have—
Rosaria: Yeah, I walked in.
Jim: -- these encounters. You had these—
Rosaria: I did.
Jim: --meetings, but what did it lead to?
Rosaria: Well, what happened was, we had a lovely meal. Ken prayed before the meal in a way that I had never heard before. It was an honest prayer. It was a transparent prayer. In it he repented of the sin of that day that was the kind of sin I had also committed that day. I mean, it was sort of amazing to me and we could talk about sexuality and politics without them dropping down dead.
Rosaria: It was an amazing night. And what was especially amazing about this night is they omitted two very important features in the rule book of how Christians would engage with a heathen like me. You know, No. 1, they did not share the Gospel. And No. 2, they did not invite me to church, which made me wonder if I was chopped liver, right?
Jim: (Laughing) Right. I'm not good enough.
Rosaria: I'm not good enough. But seriously, what it did make me feel is, that when Ken, you know, shook my hand and Floy shook my hand, I realized I really wasn't a project to these people. Ken asked me some pointed questions. He wanted to know about my research assignment. He was encouraged to hear I was reading the Bible. He wanted to know if he could help me. I let him know that, yes, I needed help. I didn't read the original languages. I needed all kinds of help. And he said, "Great; let's meet next week." And I said, "Wonderful. See you then."
Jim: Well, let's finish that aspect of—
Jim: --your transformation—
Rosaria: Right, so--
Jim: So, you and Ken continued the discussion--
Rosaria: --we did; we did.
Jim: --and the relationship.
Rosaria: And I was, of course, still thinking that I was writing a book on the Religious Right from a lesbian feminist point of view and in order to do that, I had to read the Bible.
I read the Bible. I was on a short research leave at that time, so I was reading. I'm doing what I always do before I write a book. I take the book I'm working on and I read it as many times as I can. So, I sat down and I read the Bible. You know, not having been raised in the Evangelical church, nobody told me that you're supposed to read the Bible a verse a day like a horoscope, you know.
Jim: (Laughing) Right.
Rosaria: Nobody told me that, so I actually read it like a book and I looked at things like textual authority and authorship and hermeneutics and I looked through the three different narratives in the Old Testament, ceremonial law, judicial law and moral law. And so, I worked this thing out and I read it about five hours a day. And I read it through about seven times in this course of what I thought was study. And I will tell you, I mean, of course, your listeners know this, a lot happens to you if you read the Bible five hours a day, that even for a hardened unbeliever, that's a lot of room with the Lord's wisdom.
And I was immediately smitten by a couple of things. I mean, I'm a reader. That's what I do. I'm much more of a reader than a writer. I can go years without writing. I can't go five minutes without reading. I was really taken by a number of things in the Bible and some of my well-worn assumptions just weren't holding up.
Jim: Well, we've got a couple of minutes. Let's end that aspect of the story.
Jim: How did the Lord get ahold of your heart and—
Jim: --and shake it loose—
Jim: --and say, "Listen, I AM, Who I same I AM."
Rosaria: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: "And here's your chance."
Rosaria: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, it was slow and I went kickin' and screaming. Let's be very clear about that and Ken and Floy rode with me through the bumps. It was a two-year bumpy process—
Jim: Wow. They never turned their back.
Rosaria: They never turned their back. They never stopped baking bread. They never stopped, you know, meeting with me. They never stopped neighboring with me and we had a relationship that was important and they very much brought the means of grace to me. They "beared" it out before me, so I could see it and I could see its fruit in their life.
Jim: And in your—
Rosaria: But …
Jim: --in your personal life you're still engaged with--
Jim: --a woman and—
Rosaria: Oh, yeah, yeah, all of my—
Rosaria: --personal life.
Rosaria: And so, the Lord brought two people into my life at the same time, because when I'm writing a book, the whole world, you know, my little world has to know exactly what I'm working on. So, everybody in my LGBT community knew I was reading the Bible and I was writing this book.
And two things, two encounters happened. One was the very liberal Methodist chaplain of the campus chapel came to me and said, "Look, you've got it all wrong. You can have your girlfriend and Jesus. You don't need to have any part of the Old Testament. It is dispensable and with it the moral law."
But at that time, I had been teaching a queer theory class of all things on the danger of creating canons within canons and that's an idea in hermeneutics where you leave away the big picture of a book to only look at a small angle that supports your mission. So, I looked at him and I said, "You know, maybe you should be sitting in on my queer theory class, because we were just going over the illogic of that hermeneutic. You can't create canons within canons. What you're saying doesn't make sense intellectually to me. I mean, I love it in the flesh, but it's not making sense to me.
But the second encounter was even more powerful. At one of my Thursday night dinners, my very, very dear friend who identified as a transgendered woman. That would be someone biologically male who had taken enough female hormones to be chemically castrated. She followed me to the kitchen and she sat me down and she said, "Look Rosaria, before you go back into that room with any more bowls of pasta or bottles of wine, you need to sit down, because I need to tell you that I am scared. This Bible reading is changing you. What is going on?
Rosaria: And I sat down and I said, "Okay, look, what if it's true? What if this Jesus is a real and risen Lord? And what if we are all in trouble?" And she sat down with me and she looked quite defeated and she looked me in the eyes and she said, "Rosaria, I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years. I prayed that the Lord would change me. He didn't. If you want, I will pray that He will heal you."
Rosaria: And so, that left me with a kind of tacit compulsion to keep reading this Bible. My very dear friend, someone I considered wise and kind and good, who'd been there for me in all kinds of things, had been rooting around in its deep crevices for life's purpose and meaning. But the bomb she dropped also really enraged me. I mean, who is this Jesus, who heals some, but not others?
Rosaria: And as I was reading through the Bible, it didn't strike me, at least it didn't strike me that my shtick was about healing. I didn't feel sick. The Bible doesn't really diagnose homosexual sex as an illness. The Bible diagnoses that as a sin.
There's never a point in the Bible where homosexuality is a noun. There's never an example in God's economy where there is a person called a homosexual who is now an abomination because of who he or she is.
The Bible condemns two things that are interrelated about sexual sin. It condemns a sexual practice apart from biblical marriage. That's No. 1. And it declares as sin a sexual identity that is rooted in a sinful practice. And so, it really seemed to me that the Bible was a lot more generous to me than some of the Christians I met at gay pride marches.
Jim: Yeah, now let's get there.
Jim: I mean, that's—
Rosaria: So, you know—
Jim: --really it.
Rosaria: --that's really it. That was really it, that the Bible was dealing with homosexuality as a verb, as a practice that was either about a sense of identity or a sense of what I do in bed, not a sense of personhood. The Bible's definition of "personhood" was so compelling and so attractive to me, even as a lesbian, because it was so deep and rich and capacious and loving.
You know, when Jesus said, "My yoke is easy; My burden is light," I was a very hard-working professor. I worked 80 hours a week. I had no light burden. What that meant for me was intriguing.
Jim: I want to take all of us to that moment though—
Jim: --where you really had the revelation that Jesus—
Jim: --is real.
Rosaria: Yeah, yeah, well, it was very slow and it was very messy. But what really happened was, I started going to church. And you know, and it was really, I didn't put in my calendar that day, "Hey, this Lord's Day you're gonna go to church," but one Sunday morning I woke up in the bed that I shared with my lesbian lover and an hour later I was sitting in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church.
And I was very uncomfortable there. I will tell you that I got there and I just thought this is wacky. This is weird. I'm going to run really fast (Laughing) as soon as this service ends. But I was really disarmed by a number of things about the worship service, about the people there and so, I kept going back.
I wanted that yoke that was easy and this burden that was light. I wanted this capacious God. I didn't want my flesh to be screaming about things that God didn't love. I really wanted that and that was shocking to me. And I don't remember anything that happened after that, except for that I started praying in privacy and I started praying things like this. I could not start with my sexuality. It was simply too hard. It was my identity. It was deep. It was my job.
Rosaria: You know, it was what I did. I was the leader of the LGBT student groups. It was what I did, but I just started praying, "Lord, can I trust You? Do I know You?" And everything started to chip away after that. And one of the things that the Lord impressed upon my heart in one of these prayer sessions was this prayer, "Lord, can You make me a godly woman?" (Emotional)
Jim: I see it in your face.
Jim: --the desire, the tears. Rosaria, we're all sensing that you are proof that no one is beyond the reach of God and there's more to your story. This is the reason I wanted to bring you here to the program, to hear your heart, to hear that someone who was really sold out for the other side, so to speak, and how God has brought you to a different perspective and how it has touched every facet of your life, the deepest parts of your heart. That's a testimony and I want to come back next time and talk more about what God has done in your life. Can we do that?
Rosaria: Yes, absolutely.
John: Well, what a powerful story of the Holy Spirit at work, drawing Rosaria to Himself in such an amazing way. And we really are looking forward to hearing part two of her story next time.
Now during our conversation today, we've referred to her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, which gives her testimony in much greater detail. I highly recommend you get a copy, because she's an excellent writer and she has such good insights for us, as followers of Christ, about how we can better interact with and pray for those who identify with the LGBT community.
Get The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, along with a CD of our entire conversation with Rosaria Butterfield when you call 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459 or stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio to learn more about the book and a download and our mobile app, as well. The CD and download, by the way are really rich with content that we just didn't have time to include in this program.
And when you get in touch with us, I also hope you'll consider a financial gift to Focus on the Family. We're listener supported and we rely on you to help us produce programs like this and to provide resources to individuals and families and develop websites and programs and curriculum and so much more. Can you partner with us in sharing God's hope and love with many, many more people who need to hear about it in the coming year? Please donate generously today. And when you make a contribution of any amount to the ministry, we'll say thank you by sending a complimentary copy of Rosaria's book.
Today's program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time, when we'll hear how Rosaria took those final steps into a trusting, loving relationship with Jesus Christ.
Rosaria: What I realized is that I was standing in a long line of godly women, the Mary Magdalene line and that, that was right where God had me and that my sin was wiped away and if He brought to me a godly husband, He would make me a loving godly wife and the Lord did that.
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John: That's next time, when we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Rosaria Champagne ButterfieldView Bio
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield is a former tenured professor of English and women's studies at Syracuse University. She became a Christian in 1999, describing her life prior to that as a "train wreck." Her memoir, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, describes that difficult journey. Rosaria has taught and ministered at Geneva College and is now a homeschooling mother, a pastor's wife, a part-time author and an occasional public speaker. Learn more about Rosaria by visiting her website, www.rosariabutterfield.com.