Over 6 years, he loosened the church’s tight fabric — finding weaved within a hypocrisy they were committed to keep hidden: that his church doesn’t deem a gay man equal to others.
I’m talking about Johnny Santiago. He’s an Interior Designer, an aspiring rich Interior Designer…oh and he’s gay…and loves God.
This story is about the last two parts.
It’s the last days of 2019. I’m with Johnny at The Robey Hotel’s second floor lounge in Wicker Park, Chicago. Flecks of snow drift in the Wicker Park air through the surrounding window, overlooking Milwaukee Ave.
It’s coincidental ending the decade with the story that snatched most of Johnny’s 2010s, how the church he loved for 6 years, one he donated hundreds of Sundays, numerous tithes, and countless hours in supporting roles, couldn’t admit they don’t view the LGBTQ community equally. A church that pursued him to be a Coach, offered a position to lead their Youth Ministry, and asked him to help design events and coordinate worship gatherings, avoided straightforward answers for years, entangling Johnny in confusion of whether or not he was truly accepted.
How he ended up here
To Johnny, raised Catholic, religion felt like nothing more than tradition.
Johnny: You get up, you sit down, you get up, you sit down, and then you leave.
He attended mass with his family from a young age, but at 13, some neighbors invited him to a Christian church, and Johnny gave it a try. The moment he walked in a set of Christian church doors; everything changed. His neighbors took him to a room full of people his age hanging out before worship began, and Johnny’s eyes widened. There were people his age, with similar ideals, wanting to be in this room together.
Johnny stopped going to Catholic church with his family and started going to Christian churches. His love for community flourished. He started volunteering in Youth Ministry, gravitating toward the youth’s goodness, investing in their spiritual and social development. Johnny could lead others to self-fulfillment and pay tribute to his own belief in community. Johnny was applauded for his ability to connect to others, his organization skills, and his consistency to serve. He belonged.
But growing up in this world — it became second nature for Johnny to reduce his identity — that he’s gay. He didn’t come out until his mid-20s. And as he began to own it, it became important to find a church that accepted not only him, but anyone who walked through the doors. That’s what he thought he found in Soul City.
Johnny started going to Soul City in 2013 when he saw an ad on Facebook. At the time, Soul City, presiding in Chicago’s affluent West Loop neighborhood, was only in its third year.
But did Soul City Church affirm homosexuality? For those that don’t know — an affirming church is one that doesn’t view homosexuality as a sin. The LGBTQ community is offered the same rights as heterosexual people, treated no differently, in all aspects of the church.
What does Soul City say?
Their website is vague. As I understand it, Soul City believes affirmation is “non-essential,” Meaning, it’s not primary to their mission: to lead people into a transforming relationship with Jesus. It says the “non-essentials” have room for different interpretations and expressions, and that Soul City won’t allow “non-essentials” to cause division within the church. At the top of this “Beliefs” section, is the quote:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. — Rupertus Meldenius
Johnny went to Soul City Church for 6 years, but it wasn’t until Year 3 that he started pressing the church on whether they affirmed homosexuality or not.
[NM]: Why did it take three years?
Johnny: I couldn’t see a church as progressive as Soul City denying inclusivity. They push how everyone is welcome at the table. I knew gay people who went to the church. They even have a female co-pastor (note: it’s the other co-pastor’s wife). And honestly, a part of me didn’t want to know.
I picture it… Week after week, he’d enter the Soul City doors, welcomed by a warm smile of a church greeter, who would usher him in like he’s a necessary piece to this church’s puzzle. Through the front doors: bouncing echoes of like-minded millennials, young beauty dressed in chic boots, sunglasses placed atop well coiffed, full hair. He’d walk through the lobby, stopping for friends that three years attendance gets you. And in this entire experience, an unconscious part of him goes back to 13-years-old, the moment he walked into that room full of people his age. He belongs.
In 2015, Johnny began leading a weekly Small Group. A gay couple attended, and from them Johnny learned that Soul City, since its inception, was “in discernment” on affirmation. “In discernment” means Soul City hadn’t decided whether they viewed homosexuality as a sin, that there wasn’t a firm stance on what liberties should be granted to the LGBTQ community within church walls.
With the help of Small Group, more questions floated. And because of Johnny’s involvement with Youth Ministry and volunteering, he had a relationship with the Co-Pastor, Jarrett Stevens.
With encouragement from his Small Group, Johnny e-mailed Jarrett asking to meet him in person to discuss it. Jarrett obliged.
Johnny: I remember going into Jarrett’s office with [the gay couple from his Small Group, Justin and Chris]. As Jarrett starts to close the door of his office, he turns to us and says “In case anyone starts swearing…”
At best, it was an informational meeting. Jarrett discussed having many gay friends himself, reminded Johnny, Justin, and Chris of all the ways Soul City allows the LGBTQ community to enjoy the same liberties that straight people can, and asked them to give the church time while they discerned the topic in full.
Johnny: That was the meeting. It was pleasant.
It was because of this meeting where Jarrett touted Soul City’s equality, that Justin and Chris, recently engaged, applied for marriage counseling in the church. They were denied.
Johnny: They were livid. They wanted Soul City to mean what they said. But Soul City didn’t want a gay couple seen in the [marriage counseling] group as something they supported.
Eventually, the couple was able to find someone in Soul City to lead them through counseling — separately.
Johnny: That’s not what inclusion is…
I pull up Jarrett’s Instagram. He’s almost a regular person, besides a spattering of celebrity encounters and trips to Chicago Bulls basketball games with courtside photo ops. But mostly, his wife and kids overtake his feed. Soul City reminds me of a beauty influencer — her job is to sell skincare products but she does it through a lens of chic Instagram photos, hip clothes, and a busy life so her audience knows what’s possible if they use the same skincare products.
There were more meetings with Jarrett. Johnny brought more people, including a friend, who Johnny asserts, knows the front to back of Theology and could give Jarrett the logic and reason needed to prove why equality belongs in the church.
Johnny: The same thing happened. The meeting was superficial, and Jarrett found his way out of it.
I listen to Johnny and I’m surprised, as he rattles off the expertise that Mike smothered into one of the meetings with Jarrett, who convincing it sounds. But to be realistic is to remember that logic and reason rarely have a place in matters of inequality.
Eventually, meetings became harder to schedule. The leaders suggested meeting during working hours, or scheduled them weeks ahead of time, until months passed. So Johnny resorted to e-mails instead.
Johnny shows me a long thread of e-mails, the last one being from Mike. It is paragraphs long with twists and turns of biblical evidence to outright scrutiny, questioning, and comparison.
Johnny: Mike pushed for admissions, brought up the contradictions, Bible verses, but Jarrett stopped replying to e-mails altogether. That’s when we realized… it was about the money, and the conservative donors he would lose.
Money and power seem to be behind all things contradictory. But it’s still surprising to hear when it happens. I tried to look up Soul City’s donor information, but the IRS doesn’t require most non-profits to disclose their donation sources. After a bit of research, you can find some heavy hitters in Chicago who support Soul City — but there’s no telling who supports what in terms of equality.
Johnny: If the people funding the church are not affirming, whose voice is louder? I just wonder if one of these donors were gay — would they change their mind. If one of their kids were gay, is it okay then?
Johnny tells another story about a woman who spoke at a Women’s conference that Soul City held. She unexpectedly spoke about the necessary equality for the LGBTQ community. After that, Soul City received threats not to have her speak again or they’d stop donating.
In 2017, Soul City was expanding, and they planned to renovate the building to make room for their growing audience. There was a fundraising push to help.
Johnny: Around this time, I stopped donating to Soul City, and three different church staff members separately reached out to me asking to get coffee.
Johnny didn’t take the offer.
In 2018, when Johnny stopped attending Soul City altogether, nobody contacted him.
Johnny: I contacted the staff myself via e-mail offering to meet about why I stopped going to church services. No response.
How to say goodbye
Like most relationships, they end because you tried everything. Johnny held out until he tried everything.
Justin and Chris married in 2018. One of their friends, who happened to be on church staff, married them. After this, leadership told staff that this wouldn’t be allowed in the future, a staff member marrying a gay couple. Their friend, Ebela, quit her job.
Johnny: I used to think I was going to make a difference. But after Ebela left, I knew I couldn’t do anything. There was no changing Soul City’s mind.
Johnny stopped attending Soul City services in 2018. He still went on Sundays to lead Soul City Students — acquiescing to his innate love — youth ministry. Until a few months later, the youth ministry re-designated to attend the church services Johnny left — so he had to go back. It didn’t take long after this for the Youth Director to notice something was off with Johnny.
Johnny: We were having a meeting, and the Director calls it out. “Something feels off,” he says. And I told him. “I’m struggling with this. It’s hard for me to be invested, if in the backburner, I know I’m not included from the church’s perspective.” We didn’t come to any resolve. Well, we met again soon after, and It was the same vibe. So the Youth Director said something was off again.
Out of nowhere, I started sobbing.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t control myself.
[NM]: Were you feeling not included ? …or… just..rejected?
After this, Johnny told the Youth Director he had to stop volunteering at Soul City.
Johnny: I remember being at my last service — I just cried the entire time — mourning this experience that was no longer available to me.
And never fully was.
Johnny: Outside of death, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced.
Johnny: I had to keep rationalizing, that I’m not the only one going through this stuff, but I felt so alone. People from Small Group kept telling me they were there for me. But it’s not the same.
By this time, Justin and Chris were already gone from the church.
Johnny: I’d been with these students (in Youth Ministry) since they were in grade school — and now I’m going to their graduation parties — sending them off to college…. I can see how people get here — how suicide gets here. Because no one gets how you feel.
Johnny shifts from topic to topic. Umbrella’d under what’s been lost. What he thought he belonged to. What he thought community was for.
Johnny: I can’t go to the Harvests, the Willows, the Parks (other churches around Chicago), …You are accepted, until you’re not. It’s like you’re welcome to the table, but you gotta bring your own food. You’re welcome to the table, but you have to leave before dessert.
Soul City benefits from appearing like the hip, progressive church in the showy neighborhood. More people attend, especially the type of people they want. But with cutting Johnny’s liberties, they get the money, too. We’ve come so far in equality, but for some reason, whether it’s the church, government, or public safety, it pays organizations to restrict access to equality. That’s why gun sense fails. That’s why poor people stay poor. Inequality breeds a status quo.
[NM]: Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
Johnny: Be less patient.
[NM]: You mean left Soul City earlier?
Johnny: No… I mean, be more pushy. People would ask me, ‘how can you be so okay with this?’ But I feel like as a gay person, you can pressure people for acceptance, but you spend so long working to accept yourself, that you become more patient with others. You can’t expect them overnight to say, “ok great! All gays welcome!” But I gave them too much credit because I was allowed to do things other churches wouldn’t let me.
[NM] How do you feel now?
Johnny: Not great.…
..Anger… I think if I would’ve found a new church by now, it’d be different. It’s like you can’t get over your ex until you find someone new… at least, maybe, I don’t know. It’s like I haven’t found a place to go yet, and I don’t have one, because of [Soul City].
[NM] Do you ever think about going back?
Johnny: Absolutely Not. I can’t walk in there. It was when Ebela left that I realized things wouldn’t change. It was the first time they had to admit out loud and couldn’t hide behind their complacency.
Take it from the Pastor, Jarrett, who spoke to Johnny in one of the last in-person meetings they had together, “Equality isn’t always fair. Equality isn’t always in service to everyone.”
Johnny: Equality isn’t always fair? …Isn’t that the entire premise of equality?”