Inspiring People

Author, Shari Johnson

Shari Johnson

Shari Johnson's book, Above All Things, was written as a result of her struggle as an evangelical Christian to come to terms with her daughter's homosexuality. Through this sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes humorous, but always honest account of her journey, her desire is to help reconcile families torn apart over this issue. From her example, she hopes that readers will "have more sense than I did." Shari learned that grudging acceptance was not the same as embracing her daughter Cholene for who she is. She went from devastation to full-on joy when she finally grasped that the most important thing to God is love. It truly is above all things.

After ending a long career as a dental hygienist, Shari Johnson is pursuing her dream as a book editor and writer.

Shari Johnson currently lives in Odessa, Texas.

DR: Tell me, where do you think your story begins?

SJ: Well actually the story begins when my daughter called me to tell me that she is Gay.

She was thirty-seven years old. I did not have a clue and pretty much, I fell apart at that point, thinking that it was probably the worst news that I could have had. At that time I thought that. Things have changed drastically since then but, that is where it started.

DR: I read in your background summary about the day that the call came and how that changed your life. What was that moment like?

SJ: It was as if the air had been knocked out of me. I just could not grasp it. We have been evangelical Christians and Cholene was raised that way and this was never on the radar. I had friends who had Gay children but never once did I think...and I loved their children and supported their parents and it's a little different when it becomes your child.

DR: I can imagine. There are so many times that I thought of myself as being one way and then actually finding myself in the middle of a circumstance in which I thought that I would be one way and I finding out that I had to make adjustment that I never thought that I would need to make.

Tell me about your daughter.

SJ: She is wonderful, for one thing. She went to the Air Force Academy. She was a U-2 pilot in the Air Force after graduating, after being an instructor pilot. She was only the second woman to fly the U-2 plane. She then was a Captain for United Airlines. She was an embedded reporter when the Iraq war started. She went in at the very beginning of the war with the 1st Marine battalion. She sent me an email about that. Most of the drastic things that happen in Cholene's life, I get an email about it...

When she told me that she was going to Iraq and that she was going to be an embedded reporter, that was just right at the cusp of the war. Things weren't that definite yet. She said she had seen war from 70,000 feet from the plane and she said that she wanted to see it from 5'4 and a 1/2", which is her height. I was not amused. But anyway, that is the type of person she is.

Now she is in medical school at the age of forty-seven. She is in her second year. She has seen suffering all over the world and met people who have not had access to medical care and that is where her heart is.

DR: Isn't that amazing? That's amazing.

SJ: Another thing I didn't see coming...

DR: That's another one of those things for me. I would like to think that I am the kind of person that would take on such an endeavor at this point in my life and I'm not sure that I would so it's very inspiring to know about someone else who is doing one of those things that I would like to think that I'd do.

SJ: Well all of those things about Cholene, I mean you can imagine, the hero of the family. She gave me bragging rights. I have done a lot of bragging on her and I still do. But at that particular time when she told me that she was Gay, I was so afraid of what people would think of her. I remembered so clearly the incident of the woman in San Francisco who was mauled by the dogs and how everyone was up in arms until someone reported that she was a Lesbian and then it was as though she wasn't human. I could not get that out of my mind that that is what people were going to think of my daughter and I couldn't stand that they would think that about her.

DR: Yes. I can understand that, as a mother myself.

Can you talk about the specific hurdles that you had to clear or what you had to overcome as a result of your evangelical background, in terms of reconciling the fact that your daughter is a Lesbian?

SJ: Well the hurdles came one at a time. If I had had to surmount everything at once, I couldn't have. But Dana, I will say very bluntly that it was not my seeking any other way other than to get her out of it. That was the only happy ending I could see. It was God, actually, who just "rang my chimes", so to speak, and let me know that it was my lack of love that was more of a problem to him than she was.

One day I called a friend of mine whose daughter is Gay and I was crying and I asked, "How do you reconcile the scriptures with your daughter being Gay" and she said, "Well I'll tell you, I can't so I just let God sort it out." And I thought, "That's probably the best advice that any one has given me yet." When I stopped banging my fist at heaven's door and let God have it...

I will have to say that this is the first time in my life that I have ever turned anything over to God and didn't grab it back. I let him have it. I let him have her and little by little things just - God revealed things to me a little bit at a time. That was over a period of years. I received a call in 2002. She and Ellen Rattner, her partner, were married in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2004 and it was still years beyond that before things just fell off of me gradually. One being that, to realize that it is not a choice. Could we possibly be wrong about that? I had never before considered that I could possibly be wrong. I was very much like "My mind is made up so don't confuse me with facts". I wouldn't even entertain anyone else's suggestions about it because I had all of the answers.

It was a process. God knows how to deal with me and He did deal with me, that is for sure. But I'll tell you what - I have gone from devastation to absolute joy. Not only with Cholene and my love in that area, but through all of that, I am a better person. I am a better person than I was. I, before, didn't want to - now, I won't say that I was some kind of a witch but I was more comfortable with people who thought like I did and if you didn't (think like I did) I just really didn't want to hang out with you. You know how that goes?

Author Shari Johnson with her daughter, Cholene

DR: Yes!

SJ: I mean, gosh. Liberals were the enemy. Homosexuals were the enemy. In other words I totally discounted what Jesus Christ came to earth for. He was sent because of love. I don't think that I am the only Christian that has done that. All of a sudden it's all about our rights and what we deserve and I have yet to read anything in the scriptures about our rights. Persecution? Yes. Other things? Yes. But rights? No.

DR: I mean Shari, I have to tell you that I just find what you are saying so moving to me personally. As someone who believes in God, I am a woman who prays and I have, over the years refused to call myself a Christian because when I have seen some of the things -

I would consider myself a Liberal with a very strong heart toward humanity. I have a lot of friends who are Lesbian and Gay. I always have and when I would ask myself "What would Jesus do" regarding how Christians talk about Gays and Lesbians, I rarely saw people in "the church" behaving in a way that I thought was consistent with who Christ is. So I became very turned off to "Christianity" because I didn't see love there. I saw judgment. I am very inspired by what you are saying.

I don't think that I am unique with that part of being in relationship with other people who believe in God.

SJ: No. I don't think that you are unique in that.

Now that I have a whole different attitude about everything, I see that so clearly. Because I have been on both sides of this issue, I can understand where they are coming from and I want so badly to help them.

The only thing I can explain is that I felt like an unruly child who was asking for a whipping. You know how your kids will just act up and you just know they want to be corrected, whether it's a whipping or a time out? Whatever it is, it's just "Somebody discipline me!" I compare it with that because I was out of control. My thinking was out of control. And love was not to be found.

I came across a quote from Gandhi when I was writing the book. He said,

"I like your Christ. I don't like your Christians".

That just absolutely was an arrow to my heart. I thought "Oh my. That is it! That is it in one sentence! That is the story.

Above All Things: The Journey of an Evangelical Christian Mother & Her Gay Daughter

Shari Johnson's world turned upside down the night her 37-year-old daughter called and told her that she was gay. This just couldn't be possible. Cholene had always been the hero-Air Force Academy graduate, second woman to fly the U-2 spy plane, captain for United Airlines - she cried, begged, pleaded with God to change Cholene, but he changed Shari instead. It seems that he was much more concerned about Shari's lack of love than he was about Cholene's homosexuality. This book is Shari's personal story.

Click here to learn more about Above All Things and to buy a copy.

DR: Oh my God! I am not kidding Shari, I could cry right now. I feel really emotional. I am sorry...

SJ: Well go ahead.

DR: I mean, I have been, I just...excuse me. I have never done this on an interview before... ever...

SJ: Well, I have done my share of crying...

DR: You will forgive my lack of professionalism here. I feel...My God...I have...I have just had such resentment for what I will just call "the church people" for the ways that I have seen, particularly Gays and Lesbians, being targeted for, I don't think it can be characterized as anything less than hatred. It has bothered me so much...

SJ: You know an author that has helped me so much - he doesn't know it - but Philip Yancey. Dana, if you have any opportunity to read any of his books, you should. He has been a Christian writer for years but he is always probably in trouble with the Christian community because he just tells it like it is. I had called the message "the hate message", the one you are talking about - from the church and the pulpit. He calls it "un-grace".

The first book I read of his was called What is so Amazing About Grace. It was just eye opening that somebody gets it. Grace Notes is a devotional of his that I read and every single {devotional} I read just hit me were I was. He helped me immensely. I was ready to just hang it up with the churches, to tell you the truth. I was very willing to walk away and never go in again and once I hear "that hate message" from the pulpit, I do leave...

DR: My husband I did leave, about twelve or thirteen years ago. We did exactly that.

SJ: I feel that if no one had told me, if this hadn't happened to me - I am so thankful for my daughter's homosexuality because it brought me to my senses.

I just think that if we don't tell people, if we don't show people there can be a better way...I am very open and I am very honest about what it is and I will tell them if you have a problem with it I will have to leave and then I hear this message from the pulpit that is totally different than what I was told and in that case, I leave because I feel, "You are not listening and you don't want to change". I suppose they think that keeping me on the pew is going to change me. Well I have got news for them. It is not! I have a joy in The Lord now that I have never had in my life and I have been a Christian for over thirty years. I thought I was one of the happy ones. But I wasn't.

We cannot be everything that God intends for us to be if we are holding hate and resentment. We can't.

DR: What is it that you want your story to contribute to people?

SJ: First and foremost I want it to reconcile families because they are torn apart needlessly. That is my first goal. The second is reconcile anyone who is Gay and who has been told they cannot have a relationship with God, with Christ. That they realize they can and that He loves them and He is waiting for them. And for the Christian community at large to cause them to question their motives, their actions, their words.

One of the problems that I have faced and felt all this guilt about is that Cholene heard these things from our mouths. We didn't know she was Gay but that shouldn't make a difference. These things should not be talked about in a Christian home - that {homosexuality} is a terrible thing and that it is awful. Well she thought from a very young age that she was an abomination. That is a message I want to send:

You don't know who you are teaching, who is in your home, who may be Gay and you might be sentencing them to a life of misery or of taking their own life.

DR: That is such an important point.

My husband and I have been together for twenty-six years and we lived together for six years before we got married. I remember being told by a church that I found and really liked that I could join because I was living with my boyfriend. I can't tell you how devastated I was by that. I just stopped praying because I thought that God hated me. It's a weird thing because, on an intellectual level you know that that is not true but on a more relevant level - emotionally - you feel it's true. Shame on them.

Of course, for someone who is Lesbian or Gay, to have people talk about them in relationship to God they way we tend to in this society, it has to be much more devastating.

SJ: I can't even imagine.

We started out in a church that doesn't believe in divorce. We held every job in the church but of course my husband couldn't be a deacon and all of this sort of thing. Where does man get off deciding what is right and what is wrong?

My big issue is, my goodness, we sin daily so who are we to tell anyone else that their sin is bigger and badder than ours is. One of the crisis of faith that I came to with this is once I realized that homosexuality is not a choice and God is condemning them to hell, then that is not a God I would want to serve. He is not that god. That is where I had to come and make that decision.

I am of the belief that {homosexuality} is not a sin. Things have just been kind of taken out of context and translated. I am not at all saying that the Bible is not true or the Word of God is not true or anything like that but man has been dabbling in this for a long time.

I have come to the point where I go to God with these things. I don't ask anyone else. I just go to him. I have been to Him about what I am doing. Writing the book was very hard. I would pace and cry and pace and cry. I just knew it had to be honest. I started to write it as a fiction mystery and I was walking one day and God spoke to me - when I say He speaks to me I don't mean this sky writing thing but in a thought that I've not had before. And, His Word to me was "You are hiding behind fiction and that is not helping anyone" . I knew that this has to be my story and I've got to tell it like that or no one is going to be helped by it.

DR: Wow. Wow...

I am so glad that you have done this. Personally I am just very grateful that you have.

Shari, a hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

SJ: I would like to be remembered for making a difference - I am sorry, now it's my turn to cry - for making a difference for people. God loves all of us and I want to make a difference that people can feel that love from Him and feel that love from their families.

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