Twenty choir members send their voices to the rafters in praise.
Dwell in the midst of us. Come and dwell in this place ... Not our will, but yours be done. Come sustain us.
Jeanne Assam points out a girl in the aisle off the front pew. She's tiny and blonde, maybe 4 or 5, with a full bright pink skirt twirling about her waist. Her grin matches her enthusiastic dancing — and the former New Life Church security guard's smile matches the child's.
As much as is possible for Assam, in this moment she is in a comfort zone. She's at Highlands Church, the northwest Denver church she loves. Like her, most of the couple hundred congregants sport jeans and casual footwear. With the day's services in full swing, few people are coming in or going out of the cavernous, sparsely decorated room, so her law-enforcement instinct — to look over her shoulder every time the door creaks open — has eased a bit.
And perhaps more to the point, she gets to enjoy someone else happily filling the role of center of attention.
Nearly two weeks ago, Assam drove from her Denver home to deliver the keynote speech at the Pride Center of Colorado Springs' Community Awards Ball. "I didn't want to give that talk," she says, which is corroborated by the event volunteer who originally contacted her. "I just thought if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it right and make it a positive message."
Amid a group of people she called her "peers," she spoke primarily of deserving acceptance as a gay person. Of not buying into labels. Of God loving you "just the way you are."
She also mentioned some of her challenges. And not just the ones that the world learned of when she was paraded across stages, awarded honors, and called a hero for "shooting the shooter" who had opened fire and killed two young girls at New Life Church on Dec. 9, 2007.
Assam told the Pride Center crowd that after the incident, she had been approached by a literary agency to write a book. She said that the agent representing her met with New Life leadership — to get a "blessing for her book," she elaborates in an interview — and accidentally outed her as a gay woman. She said the leadership "freaked out" — likely as a result of all that's happened with New Life founder Ted Haggard, she figures — and made it clear that she was no longer welcome.
When word of this last bit got out, a media storm ensued, with New Life Church senior pastor Brady Boyd denying her allegations and giving a statement he repeated to the Independent this week. It reads, in part: "We welcome everyone at New Life Church and we would never tell someone to leave because of their sexual orientation."
People wanted more details from Assam. She will not give them.
All she will say today is that from the time of the reveal in February 2008, "it was very clear I was not welcome at New Life, but not by the people who attend. Only by the leadership." She finally left New Life in July 2009, and "left very wounded."
She says an Associated Press reporter last week actually asked her why she was "taking the high road" and not going into greater detail. She says there's really not much to the decision.
"I want the message to be, for all the gay people who have been hurt, it's important to forgive and move on," she says. "Because if you get locked in, in bitterness, it's only going to poison you.
"Move forward and let it go. They're just human beings like the rest of us."
Serve and protect
Another result of that recent media craziness included people accusing Assam of just wanting to grab attention, to drive sales of the book she did eventually finish and self-publish. She says that's not her goal.
Writing God, the Gunman & Me, she says, was just a part of her answer to a calling from God to share her story. It naturally delves into her first-person account of her encounter with killer Matthew Murray, notable in part because she writes that she's certain she killed him. The final coroner's office report had Murray shooting himself after Assam's bullets stopped his rampage, but she writes that she watched him die after she shot him 10 times, counting each of her bullets as she had been trained to do, blood from one of her hits to his neck coating her shirt, jeans and boots.
The book also recounts her childhood of sexual abuse, her later attempts at suicide, and her path to the Lord. After a lot of soul-searching, she says, last year she revised the first version, written when she was still struggling with her sexual orientation, to make clear what she now believes to be God's take on sexuality.
"The message from most churches is that you cannot be gay and Christian, and this is simply not the message that Jesus gives. Jesus came to save, not to judge," Assam says. "I don't know that any pastor would tell a person they had to leave church because they were gay. Rather, it is made clear that gays are sinners who will not be allowed into heaven if they are gay and living the lifestyle."
The lead pastor at Highlands, Mark Tidd, agrees. "[Most churches] know that's not right ... to say, 'You're not welcome' ... Of course they're welcome, but it's still a sin issue." In other words, the oft-referenced "Love the sinner, hate the sin" conundrum.
And yet, Tidd says, "People can't repent of things they can't change."
All of this aside, Assam says, she really would be happiest to just move on and find a job with a police department. As she puts it, "Protecting and serving is my passion."
She first became a police officer in 1993, and though she's not with a department currently, she has kept up her professional licensure and remained in the law enforcement arena, working at different times over the years as an investigator for the state and as a parole officer.
Tidd sees Assam's connection to law enforcement as even more than a passion: "Her desire to serve and protect is really core to her."
He continues, "I've told her that at this point in time, when she's not working for a police force like she would want, I've said, 'You know, you're a reluctant witness to the goodness of God because you're a private person, and you keep getting put in public places because you have a story to tell. When you tell that story, it's the way right now that you are able to serve and protect people whose voices aren't being heard and whose lives are being used against them."
Tidd knows a bit about those people. His was a long road, getting to the place he is now. After 26 years as a pastor, 19 of those with the Christian Reformed Church (which he says is similar to the Presbyterian faith, but more evangelical), he was defrocked in March 2010 because of his beliefs and the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community at then-six-month-old Highlands.
It didn't stop him. Supported by his wife, five children and just 75 members, Tidd forged on with the evangelically rooted community of his dreams. A year and a half later, Highlands welcomes 400 members, and is still growing.
While he says his church isn't a "quote-unquote 'gay' church," he is amazed by what its gay members have gone through, including "ex-gay ministry," electro-shock and deprivation therapies, all to try to "not be who they are because they've been told God isn't happy with them the way they are.
"In my experience, I haven't met a half-assed gay Christian yet," he says. "If they are still seriously following Christ and they're gay and they've had to — everything about it has been hard and against them — they're the deep-rooted. They're the ones that have made an 18-month-old church viable. ... They have the deepest roots, because they've suffered the most for what they have."
'A lot of love'
Assam adores her new church, saying, "Highlands represents society with a little bit of everything and a lot of love."
From the back row where she sits on this Sunday morning, her line of sight includes a tall, buff, bald man with his arm comfortably around another man's shoulder. Directly in front of this couple, a woman rubs her husband's neck. Further down the aisle, a few elementary-age children squirm against the wooden pew.
After the service, Assam chats briefly with a select few, including two women who have been driving down to Denver from Cheyenne, Wyo., just to attend.
Her comfort level drops again when she steps back out into the world. At lunch she asks to be moved from one table to a more private one in the rear of the restaurant. Even in Denver, more than 50 miles and three years from the shooting, people on the street, in shops and at the gym still look at her with uncomfortable glances.
But as she might say, God keeps tapping her on the shoulder. And for a duty-bound woman, it's hard to ignore passing on what she fully believes Him to be telling her: "You can be Christian and be gay."
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