Called a heretic, God-loving bisexual pastor makes space for LGBTQ believers
Winnipeg pastor shares coming out story online to both praise and condemnation from fellow Christians
It took a many-year journey before Jamie-Arpin Ricci learned to reconcile his faith with his sexuality, largely because of social pressures he says still exist today in many conservative churches that alienate LGBTQ Christians like him.
"There was a lot of very painful experiences, often perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians," the 41-year-old Winnipeg pastor says of his youth.
"And so as I grew into my identity and began to accept that that was the way God created me, I wanted to work hard to make space for other people who might have a similar journey."
Arpin-Ricci is a father of two and married to a woman he loves deeply.
He's also bisexual and leads Little Flowers Community, an Anabaptist- and Franciscan-inspired church in the West End.
It is precisely because of his role in the church that many of Arpin-Ricci's supporters feel what he is doing is especially important and bold, even in 2018 when some mainstream churches have embraced LGBTQ believers and regularly perform same-sex marriages.
In the past two years, he has opened up with his small congregation and the broader Christian community about the fact that he is bisexual.
A variety of factors led him to do it, but the catalyst was the mass shooting at the LGBT Orlando bar Pulse Nightclub in 2016. Forty-nine people were killed and more than 50 others were injured.
"I started seeing the voice of Christians in the wider media and in social media often saying, 'That's what you get.' I just couldn't be silent anymore," Arpin-Ricci recalls.
"I started being more vocal about my story, my beliefs and I wasn't really prepared for what happened afterwards."
What happened afterward is Arpin-Ricci started talking with believers about his sexuality.
He began offering pastoral support tailored for LGBTQ believers, and that took a more formal structure in September 2017.
That's when he and others started a support group for LGBTQ Christians to meet twice a month, check in and be a source of strength for one another. They talk scripture, faith and the challenges they face in their religious circles, their families and friend networks for just existing openly as they are.
'A trigger' brings hate mail
Much of the response to his coming out has been positive.
Christian parents of questioning children have reached out for guidance on how to best support their kids; a pastor in the southern U.S. confided in Arpin-Ricci about being closeted; different denominations have asked for tips on how to make their churches more LGBTQ-friendly; and many friends and family have held him up as an example of what it means to embrace Christ's teachings.
He also has critics.
Hate mail started rolling in last fall when he was recognized as finalist in CBC Manitoba's Future 40 awards, which profile individuals working to make a difference in the community.
"That headline was a trigger for people," Arpin-Ricci says.
"[There are] people who believe that even to suggest that a person can be queer and a Christian is heresy — the word was used, 'heresy,' and that hell was the only location for someone like me."
His church is affiliated with Youth With A Mission Urban Ministries Winnipeg and the Mennonite Church Manitoba. Both organizations got calls from Christians questioning how they could be accepting of an openly bisexual pastor.
Others pulled donations from his church.
Listen to his advice for Christians struggling to be accepting:
Tara Glowacki, 29, knows that feeling of exclusion all too well.
"For LGBTQ Christians, it can be hard to find spaces where we can talk openly about that," says the evangelical Christian, who is also bisexual.
She is studying theology in school and may one day become a pastor herself.
Glowacki has been coming out slowly over the past few years.
It's an ongoing process, but she says she has at times been both happily surprised and disappointed by the reactions of fellow believers, family and friends.
One important source of strength has been connecting with other LGBTQ Christians.
"Jesus told us to judge things by their fruit, so judge things by the effects that we see coming out of them, and I've seen so much fruit, or good things, coming out of LGBTQ Christians and their relationships," she says.
"That impacts me — that shows me that there's something good happening here and that God is at work here.
"I've seen a lot of bad things coming out of conservative theology, and a lot of harm coming out of conservative theology toward LGBTQ people."
Watch Glowacki talk about support in Christian circles:
She also co-facilitates the LGBTQ Christian support group alongside Arpin-Ricci and others.
Prospective members must undergo screening, and the meeting place is kept confidential.
"Because we are concerned about the safety of people in the group," she said. "We're very concerned about keeping it private and confidential so that people won't be outed by being seen going to a meeting."
'A real journey'
Glowacki plans to attend the Pride Winnipeg festival parade this year for the first time since coming out.
Arpin-Ricci will also be there, with his 17-month-old daughter, 10-year-old adopted son from Ethiopia, and his wife of 17 years.
It won't be his son's first Pride.
"He was like, 'Ah, I'm going to invite all of my friends next year!' And I was just like, I had to have that hard conversation with him, be like, 'I know you want to, son, but a lot of your friends' families would not encourage that.' But for him, surrounded by LGBTQ people, and LGBTQ people of faith, it's just normal."
It's normal now, but it wasn't always that way for Arpin-Ricci and his wife.
"That was a real journey for us, for her to understand what does that mean, what does that mean for our marriage and recognizing that I chose her because I love her."
That confusion over what it means to be bisexual abounds in and outside the church — and Arpin-Ricci says even some in the LGBTQ community muddy the waters of acceptance.
Many bisexuals continue to push for a broadening of the definition of bisexuality that essentially boils down to "attraction to same and other genders," an alternative to the dated "attraction to men and women" equation that is considered more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary identities.
"Being in a straight-passing marriage, people just presume it's like, 'Why bother? Like, why not just say you're straight, you're in a straight marriage?'" he says.
"Well, my marriage can't be straight because I'm not straight. And it affects the way I identify, the way I live my life and the way I relate to my family."
24 years a missionary
For those who call him a fake Christian, or say that he doesn't know God, Arpin-Ricci points to his life's work.
His 24 years as a missionary — nine of them as a pastor — and decades of bible study have led him to feel he has a fairly firm grasp on Christ's teachings of acceptance and love.
And recently, he has been posting his coming out story online to show LGBTQ Christians they're not alone. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.
Arpin-Ricci hopes sharing his coming out story will also help critics see the light.
"Take the time to genuinely listen to the stories of people, to look at their lives, and withhold the impulse to formulate counter-arguments and judgments, and just listen and build relationships."