Rev Apelu Tielu is a minister in the Pacific Islanders’ Presbyterian Church in Papakura. He looks back on the day his 16-year-old daughter told him she wasn’t straight, and how that led him into the ministry.
I can’t remember the exact date when my beloved daughter Amy told her mother and me that she was “not straight”.
I do, however, remember the day, the context, my feelings and reactions, the final resolution, and the impact it’s had on me since then.
My wife and I have two wonderful daughters that we adore, and Amy is the younger. She was born in Canada, while my wife Grace and I were doing postgraduate studies there. I was studying economics and Grace sociology.
Amy’s safe arrival into this world had been a miracle. She would have died during birth but for an unusual set of circumstances that ensured the right people were on hand to save her. Such was the grace of God. For that reason, I often refer to her as The Fighter or The Real Survivor. And I suspect this is also the reason she takes her life and faith very seriously.
From the day she was born, Amy has given her mother and me so much joy that I never stop thanking God for giving her to us.
But her “coming out” momentarily knocked the life out of us.
At the time, we were living in Canberra, and Amy was just starting her undergraduate studies at the Australian National University. She was only 16.
I remember that it was a Saturday morning and Grace and I were in the kitchen making breakfast. The next day, our church, the Uniting Church in Australia, was voting on whether to allow openly gay people to become candidates for ordained ministry. And so we were talking about how we would vote
Grace’s father is a minister in the Philippines, and she was a passionate member of the intervarsity Christian fellowship there, and the Graduate Christian Fellowship that resulted from it. She was certain about how she was going to vote: NO.
It wasn’t as straightforward for me. I’d studied biology and had an honours degree in applied genetics, so I knew that people come in all shapes and forms and that there’s no such thing as normal or abnormal people — and that includes sexuality.
But, as I pondered the question, I was quite surprised to find myself gravitating towards a NO vote like my wife. I was going to vote with my heart and not my mind.
Growing up in Samoa, I was taught that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. That belief was so strong that I was scared to even question it — despite my years in higher education, and despite the fact that I had known that the Bible was written by men.
This belief kept the science I was learning in the laboratory, and now it was going to affect how I was going to vote. My scientific knowledge was still deferring to my religious belief, which was shaped by colonial biblical interpretation.
So my wife and I agreed that openly gay people shouldn’t be in ordained ministry. What’s more, we’d decided to leave our church if the vote came out in favour of gay people.
And then Amy came into the kitchen, still in her pyjamas, crying.
“What happened?” Grace asked as she rushed and hugged our daughter. I joined the two of them and we continued hugging, trying to find the cause of Amy’s discomfort.
And then she opened up, saying she was “not straight” and that “she was attracted to girls and boys”. She told us she didn’t quite understand what was happening to her, that she felt a strong connection to people regardless of gender.
To my shock, all the science I had learned just departed my mind. “This can’t be,” I whispered to myself, despite not fully understanding what exactly was happening to Amy. “Not the child that I carried around in my arms up to the age of nine!”
Grace couldn’t calm herself. Like any mother, she loved Amy even more than me. She was crying as if the world was coming to an end. And then I joined in, and we all cried and huddled together.
I’m not sure how long we wept and hugged. I don’t even know if we ate the breakfast we prepared. But the crying eventually came to an end as we tried to make sense of what was happening.
My wife and I totally forgot about the vote the next day as we focused on our daughter. I was searching my mind, digging deep into what I had studied to provide some solace and insights into the situation we were facing.
Fortunately for me, my biological knowledge returned to my brain, and so did the philosophy I had studied at university and some biblical texts that spoke to my daughter’s condition.
I was quickly reminded that nothing is black and white about human sexuality and that genetics, sexual development, hormones, and the brain all affect our sexual desires. Indeed, our amorous tendencies follow no clear pattern. In the words of Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth-century French scientist and theologian: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”
The philosophy I learned from the Jesuits also came in handy. I remembered the great Islamic scholar Averroes saying, “the created cannot negate the creator”, which is another way of expressing the principle in Genesis 1:27: “God created humankind in his image.”
So my wonderful and lovable Amy was and is beautifully created by God in his own image. Why should she ask her parents or anyone for permission to be the person that God had created her to be? Why? I was now getting angry at the homophobic community and those who hide their heads in the sand.
Since that day, about 16 years ago, my wife and I have done everything we can to support Amy, because we know the world is full of hate and of ignorant people who want to harm her.
A major part of this involves educating families and our local and wider church communities about science, the issue of sexuality, and how to read the Bible.
It hasn’t been easy because even ministers who have had similar training to me tend to go back to their old beliefs — in part, I think, because they’re afraid of offending people. But a few people are opening up their minds.
Before Amy’s “coming out”, I’d been doing a lot of reading on science and religion. I felt there was a conversation to be had between science and Christianity, but I was feeling a little tired of formal learning.
But after Amy told us about her sexuality, I decided to seriously take up this quest to try to know the heart and mind of God and to get a better understanding of the Bible. Four years later, when Amy graduated with degrees in IT, English and philosophy, I took off on this elusive journey — and Amy has been a big part of that.
My study of the Bible and theology has confirmed for me that there’s nothing wrong with Amy and people like her.
It seems preposterous that God would condemn a person she has created in her image, as Averroes has suggested. Whatever way God has created us, our actions are our own and we may be judged on them. But what if our actions have been hardwired into us by God? How should we be judged then?
It’s for this reason that I think we need to rethink the issue of sin and the problem of evil. What really is sin? And when is a sexual act sinful? The writers of the Bible defined these issues from their own understanding, as people who were shaped by the social and cultural contexts of their times.
We can’t divorce those contexts from our consideration of biblical texts. Nor can we ignore our own cultural and social contexts — especially given our knowledge of biology is far superior to that of the biblical writers.
I have done many things in life, but I have never known anything that is more beautiful and more exciting than gaining a deeper knowledge of the Bible and of God, and I have Amy to thank for pushing me on to this path.
Amy continues to be my conversational partner as we pursue our parallel fields of studies — she in indigenous Samoan storytelling and me in theology. She is truly a wonderful soul, and I love her from head to toe.