A journey of faith rarely follows a linear path. Eric Elnes’ path took him from a fishing boat in Alaska, through a cross-country walk across the United States, and eventuallyplaced him at Omaha’s Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific St., where he’s been senior pastor since 2008.
On Sundays at 5 p.m., the church hosts a free, interactive discussion on biblical-related topics. The latest series, titled “For the Love of God: A Conversation About the Bible and Homosexuality,” was designed to raise the level of discourse about the issue of homosexuality and the church, Elnes said.
“We are not the kind of church that says ‘let’s just throw out the Bible to embrace some new thing in society,’” Elnes said. His ministry, as well as his secular experiences, led him to vocally addressing Christian misperceptions.
Elnes studied economics at Whitman college in Walla Walla, Wash., pledging to the Sigma Chi fraternity. “Sigma Chi’s at Whitman were kind of the nerdy, scholarly fraternity. Some of the campuses (Sigma Chi’s) were like the jocks – and we weren’t like that,” Elnes said with a laugh.
Elnes got to know Eric Noel, who was then vice president of the fraternity, someone he described as smart, funny, and strongly ethical. “He had a joy to life about him,” Elnes said.
Noel was also gay, and he chose to come out to the entire fraternity during a chapter meeting. Elnes said Noel’s revelation shocked the fraternity. Elnes joked that jaws where hanging on the floor when Noel came out.
“He didn’t know how his friends would react,” he said.
Though Elnes said he was supportive of his fraternity brother, Noel’s revelation challenged his faith.
“According to my belief system, his homosexuality should have made him into this really sad, miserable person,” Elnes said.
“I saw him, and there’s no way I can point to him and say he’s any less happy or moral, or ethical than any of the rest of us.”
In his junior year, while studying in France, Elnes decided that regardless of his degree, he would enroll in the seminary.
“The further I pulled away from going into the ministry, the more I felt from my understanding, God pulling me back,” he said.
Noel’s coming out wasn’t the only thing that caused Elnes to question his beliefs. To save money for seminary, Elnes worked on a fishing boat as quality assurance manager for Peter Pan Seafoods in Alaska. To pass the time, Elnes tried reading the Bible cover-to-cover. He made it through the first nine chapters of Genesis when he began reading about how Noah cursed his grandson Canaan because his father (Noah’s son) saw him drunk and naked.
“This is absolutely immoral, I don’t believe this kind of God, and I slammed the book shut,” Elnes said. “I didn’t pick it up again until seminary.”
After graduating with a masters in divinity and a doctorate in biblical studies from Princeton Theological Seminary, Elnes moved to Scottsdale, Ariz. While there, Elnes wrote Asphalt Jesus, which documented his 2,500 mile walk across America to spread awareness about progressive Christianity.
In 2003, Elnes worked with Arizona clergy to produce “The Phoenix Declaration;” a set of declarations focusing on religious discrimination toward the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) community. Some of the tenants of the declaration included an apology to those who have been mistreated by the church, and a general denouncement of violence toward gays.
Soon after The Phoenix Declaration was circulated, Elnes said he started to receive hate mail. Eventually, he adopted a doberman pinscher for his family’s safety.
After Elnes moved to Omaha, he followed the first attempt at passing an employment ordinance that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. During the city council meetings, Elnes said he saw more support for the ordinance than against from the Christian clergy. The city council didn’t pass the ordinance in 2010.
In response, Elnes worked with local clergy in drafting The Heartland Proclamation, which was similar to The Phoenix Declaration. The declaration, proposed in 2011, stated that homosexuality was not a sin and welcomed members of the LGBT community in the church, including leadership positions. The declaration was signed by more than 250 church leaders.
Elnes, Countryside Community Church, and other church leaders were praised by supports of the equal employment ordinance after its passage in March 2012. Elnes was present in the city council meeting, but in a twist of irony, had to leave the hearing to tend to his nine-year-old doberman, Keta, who during the day of the ordinance’s passage, had to be put to sleep after battling cancer.
While Omaha’s equal employment ordinance is in the books, it still faces opposition, most notably in a campaign by the Nebraska Heritage Coalition. The organization has created the Omaha Liberty Project Petition, an initiative designed to eliminate sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class within Omaha.
The move to repeal the equal employment ordinance led Elnes to create a six-part series for Darkwood Brew, an interactive webcast (www.darkwoodbrew.org) based out of Countryside Community Church.
The six-part series was partially funded from a grant by the Sherwood Foundation. Each episode begins at 5 p.m. Sundays at Countryside Community Church, and is free to the public.
Upcoming speakers include Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, and author Jack Levison. The series concludes Feb. 3 with an appearance by Gene Robinson, the first openly-gay bishop of the Episcopal church. Robinson retired this month, almost ten years after his election in 2003.