If you haven’t heard of Rosaria Butterfield yet, I imagine you will soon. Her book, “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert,” (Crown & Covenant Publications, 2012) is swiftly sweeping by word of mouth through Christian circles.
To condense a long journey into a brief story, Butterfield was a tenured and successful professor at Syracuse University in New York, and a lesbian in a committed relationship with her partner, when she met a local pastor who wanted to get to know her. Over time, God took hold of her life and turned her world upside down. She’s now a pastor’s wife in North Carolina and a mom to four adopted children. She wrote down her story for her children to have, but never thought that it would ever resonate with others the way it is. I got the chance to talk to my friend Rosaria about what it’s like when Jesus calls you to give up everything and follow him.
Tell us a bit about your background: where you grew up, what your family was like.
I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, in an Italian community. I remember being very moved as a child early on by the gospel message and I enjoyed my time in Catholic school and my time in church. Then I left Chicago to go to college [at Ohio State]. My priest had been almost galvanizing to me in my faith; someone who I felt I could talk to about anything. He was arrested and then convicted of 34 counts of child molestation. I hadn’t been going to church in college. When my mom sent me this article, [where I learned these things,] I closed the book on any notion of a holy or overseeing God.
When and why did you declare yourself a lesbian?
I officially came out when I was 28. I was in a lesbian relationship at the time, but I had been teetering of the edge of the lesbian community for a while. In college, I had a boyfriend for the first time. I liked having a boyfriend because it gave me a lot of cover and social acceptance. But I had always had these very powerful and intense relationships with women. … Some people ask, “What happened to your Catholic training?” And I think what really happened was that the name of Jesus which had gently and sincerely rolled off my tongue in my little girl prayers … he just rolled off my back in college. In 1992, when I left Ohio State for Syracuse, truly the name of Jesus made me recoil with nothing short of pity and anger.
In the book, you say that pride was your main sin. How do you think you started and then continued down that path of pride?
I believe that sexuality is an expression of a set of values and worldview. … Pride was a cornerstone of how I functioned. Talking myself into the zone was how I got my work done. It was how I ran my marathons. How I ran my research program. The reason that in God’s providence I encountered any Christian was because I was writing a book on the religious right from a lesbian feminist perspective, because I abhorred how the Bible had gotten all these people off track. At the time that I had understood pride as my main sin, I had a watershed conversation with one of my very best friends at the time, a transgendered woman. My friend … said, “Rosaria you are changing. I need to know what is happening to you.” I said, “This bible is changing me, and I have to ask you a question, what if it’s true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord, who came first to spread the good news of the gospel, but who will come again to judge?” I had taken note of Romans 1:4, how we exchange the truth for a lie, worship the creation rather than the creator, and I realized that that was a complete and transparent view of my heart. This section of the bible just struck me as the table of contents of my life. I was at a crossroads.
What was your life like after knowing the Lord?
People always are impressed by how once I was a lesbian and now I’m not. I want to tell people that if that’s the only story in this, then that’s a really small story. Jesus did not die a painful and shameful death on the cross so that I could be a lovely wife and mother. That’s not the point. The big point is a hidden landscape in a life of faith. For many of us, anxiety was [before we became Christians] such a slow burning friend that you couldn’t even imagine life without it. But Jesus gives you in a daily way, invisible supplies, practical application of faith, that allow you to bear afflictions that you think you never could bear. You see in your life in Christ a daily way that the puzzles that divine providence unfold. That is an amazingly rich, calm, and steady life. And I want that for everyone I know.
What can we do to make our churches more hospitable to people who are struggling with homosexuality?
One thing we can do is take seriously God’s command to love our neighbors. I mean the people we know only by the disappearing and appearing garage doors and trash cans. You have gay and lesbian neighbors; you will meet them, you will meet their children. It’s hard for people to pray in the spirit of love when you are afraid of them. And don’t think that accepting them means you approve of them.
What advice do you have for parents who don’t know how to answer their childrens’ questions about homosexuality, or questions about those who may practice it who visit our churches?
My children have always known that I used to be a lesbian. In the same way that each of them has always known that they were adopted. … You make it age appropriate. When I talk to my young children about my past, I talk about affinity. When I talk to my older children, I talk about sexual sins.
Why did you write your book?
I wrote the book because I wanted to write about the inner landscape of Christian living. I wanted to write a book that was my story, the story that God gave me, but that resonated with what I believe to be true about conversion from a biblical perspective. I wanted to tell the story with all the warts and the problems and the pain and the joy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.