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Faith of his

Faith of his


After rural gay activist Nathan Christoffersen's sudden death, a fundamentalist funeral erased his sexuality. But his passing is having an unexpected effect: bridging the gap between gay and antigay--beginning with Nathan's own father. Part 1 of a two-part special report on religion and homophobia

The North Tower Circle sits on a short connecting road between two one-way streets on the edge of Fresno's predominantly gay Tower District. Surrounded by small businesses and old bungalow homes, it's one of only four gay nightclubs in this conservative central California city--a circular wood building with peeling white paint that locals affectionately call "the Circle."

It was here seven years ago, then as a 21-year-old, that Nathan Christoffersen first found comfort in being gay. Having just moved out of his parents' house in the small farming community of Madera, north of the city, he made new friends and danced all night to the beat of techno music.

Then in September 2005, when the nightclub was destroyed by fire, it was here that Nathan's newfound passion for gay rights activism really shone. Now just a charred wreck--still covered months later in blue plastic tarps behind a jumble of hastily assembled chain-link fencing--the Circle had fallen victim to a string of arson attacks on gay and nongay homes and businesses in the area. Police had suspects but couldn't say whether it was a hate crime. And once the ashes cooled, it might well have faded quickly from the local consciousness.

Christoffersen, who had recently found his footing as a local gay rights leader after moving back in with his parents due to a number of personal setbacks, wouldn't let that happen. He organized press conferences, pressured the fire department for answers and progress reports, and wrote articles for in an effort to get at the truth.

"Nathan had a lot of energy," says Chris Jarvis, who was a DJ at the club. "He was very forceful in his involvement. He was on the phone all day long some days. He really inspired me."

In a very short time Christoffersen inspired a lot of new people in and around the rural community where he grew up. He had signed up to volunteer for the statewide gay rights group Equality California the previous summer, and he quickly took the lead in organizing protests and circulating petitions. He put together a National Coming Out Day event in October and solicited support for California's same-sex-marriage law, which was passed by the legislature in early September before it was vetoed later in the month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He seemed fearless in a place where antigay evangelical Christians far outnumber gay allies.

"Without him I wouldn't have been out by myself trying to get people to sign [petitions]," admits Jason Scott, the Fresno County chapter leader for Equality California and editor of "He really enjoyed doing it."

Then Christoffersen was gone. At dawn on December 16, he was found dead on the stoop of his parents' house. While police reported an absence of foul play, the cause of his sudden death remains murky.

But the story of what has happened since Nathan's death offers lessons for communities of faith nationwide. It's a story of conversations waiting to be had; of the uncomfortable space people share in the middle of a bridge between mere acceptance and a full place in society. It's a bridge that Nathan was helping his family cross. And the fact that he's gone doesn't necessarily mean they won't reach the other side.

Four days after Nathan's death, his father, Al Christoffersen, handed out a letter describing the "reverent" position in which he found his son on the front stoop of their home around 5:30 a.m., just nine days before Christmas. Nathan had gone out the night before with a friend who dropped him off at his house around 11 p.m. But Nathan never made it inside. On Friday morning Al checked his son's bedroom and found it empty. When he opened the front door he discovered Nathan kneeling almost as if in prayer, facing away from the house. His body was in a collapsed Z, knees and shins on the ground, his butt against his heels, his torso bent all the way forward, his hands limp at his sides. "His forehead was actually touching the ground," Al says in an interview with The Advocate a few weeks after Nathan's death. "I just thought he was passed out. I shook him and he rolled over and I heard this air come out of him. Then I freaked out."

Al called 911 and administered CPR, but it was too late. For the next day or so, Al says, "I spent a lot of time in prayer just asking a lot of questions of the Lord. I had a flashbulb vision. I saw Nathan come home the night before. He went to put the key in the door and he heard someone call his name. I don't know if it was the Lord or an angel, but there was something holy there, and Nathan immediately went down in reverence. And they said, 'You've gone through enough.' "

The coroner couldn't immediately specify the cause of Nathan's death, other than to say there appeared to be an alarming combination of four different types of prescription drugs in his system. An official report was due at press time. In the meantime, Nathan's body was cremated.

Nathan was a healthy young man, Al Christoffersen says. So in the absence of a clear cause of death, the only reasonable explanation was that it was "God calling him home."

Nathan's funeral was held on December 21 at University Vineyard Christian Fellowship church--his parents' evangelical congregation--housed in an uncomplicated tan stucco building, surrounded by large apartment complexes in a nondescript residential part of Fresno. During the service a parade of speakers came to the microphone on the brightly lit stage of the Vineyard's austere sanctuary. They talked about Nathan's life, including his many "struggles" and "conflicts."

No one mentioned that he was gay. The work for Equality California that had given shape and direction to his life in the past several months was unacknowledged. "There was nothing about Nathan that I recognized in the service," says an angry Molly McKay, field director for Equality California. "It felt like people were mourning a life that had been led the wrong way."

McKay, Scott, and several other of Christoffersen's gay friends had decided to wade into seemingly unfriendly waters and go to his funeral after reading his obituary. The family had requested that donations be made in Christoffersen's name to New Creation Ministries, a local group that counsels gays to turn straight. When they got there they were deeply hurt by what they saw. "They had this table of things they thought he liked," says Scott, who first met Christoffersen while organizing a rally opposing an "ex-gay" conference in Fresno two years ago. "There was nothing on it from after he was, like, 15. Margaret Cho was something that he always talked about. I was so crushed to see that that wasn't, like, a big thing there. They had to have known it. He had a poster in his room."

When pastor Eddie Morgan rose to speak, he talked about a dream he had--a vision not unlike Nathan's father's. Nathan was sensitive and talented, Morgan said, which made Satan jealous. Nathan's sudden, inexplicable death was "God calling Nathan home" from the "demons" that had plagued him.

"It was just so clear exactly what the demons were that they were taking about," McKay says. "It was very clear they were talking about Nathan being gay."

Sitting behind a small wooden desk at the tiny strip mall offices of the mortgage company he opened in Madera, Al Christoffersen stops himself mid-sentence. "Look," he says, "I don't have a problem with gay people. I believe in my heart that God loves everybody. We were all made in his image. That includes gay people."

A tall man with thinning gray hair, Al bristles at the suggestion that Nathan wasn't accurately represented at his funeral. He had only recently gotten into gay activism, Al says, and the people who spoke knew him for a long time before that. Most of them knew he was gay, and some--including Al himself--had long accepted it. It was Nathan's choice not to be out to everyone in his family, Al insists, including to his two grandmothers. As for the ex-gay ministry New Creation, well, it's a group that once helped Nathan, and it's not all about conversion therapy, Al says. They help all kinds of "sexually broken people," including straight men.

Christoffersen fumbles with the mouse on his computer, queuing up a music file. "This was the real Nathan," he says, as an acoustic guitar leads into a soft vocal about the power of God's grace. Nathan was talented, Christoffersen says. He once led the church band on Sunday mornings.

"I'm sorry that people were upset by the funeral," Al continues, pausing for a moment, then struggling to hold back tears. "There was no agenda on our part. It's really easy for people to say things, but nobody knows the pain that we feel. We wanted to honor our son for whom we knew him to be."

Al Christoffersen is now exploring new ways to honor his son's life--in all respects. He's talking about helping young gay people overcome stigma. He's hoping to meet with Nathan's gay friends. Al has become part of what some gay religious advocates call "the movable middle": Christians who are somewhere along the bridge to full acceptance.

"What this father has obviously felt teaches him one thing. And he's a fundamentalist Christian, which teaches him another," says Candace Chellew-Hodge, assistant pastor at Garden of Grace United Church in Columbia, S.C. "No matter what his religion is telling him, he has seen God's grace in his son pursuing something that made him happy."

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