What. A. Night.

Yesterday was the first day of Transforming the Conversation, a new program I helped design to try to build bridges of understanding between gays and Christians (and, of course, those of us in the middle), specifically in more conservative areas where it’s most needed.

The program involves going to 20 universities, mostly in the Bible Belt, in one year. At each university, I’m leading a public discussion for the whole campus, designed to bring people from both sides together to share their stories and talk about ways to have productive dialogue in the future. I’m also having separate conversations with the LGBT community and their friends, to give them some of our resources and show them ways they can initiate more loving conversations in their families and churches.

If you know me, you know my passion is building bridges and helping people understand each other, especially on this issue. My goal isn’t to change everyone’s mind about what the Bible says; it’s to change the way we respond to that disagreement. Would I love for everyone to agree with me? Of course! Who wouldn’t? But we Christians have always disagreed on issues. What matters is whether we can continue to love one another.

So yeah… last night was our very first night, at Auburn Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s right: my first attempt to use this program to build dialogue between gays and Christians was taking place in Alabama. Am I nuts?

I was more than a bit nervous, as you might imagine.

As if that weren’t enough, yesterday morning Rachel Held Evans posted my responses to questions from her readers on her blog. The response has been great but overwhelming. For the last 24 hours, my inbox has been filling up with notifications of comments both on Rachel’s blog and on this one, but I haven’t been able to read them all yet because I’ve been busy here in Alabama leading these conversations.

I apologize to all of you that I haven’t had time yet to respond to your comments, but I will as soon as I can!

So I know you’re wondering: How did our first night go?

Things started okay, but they almost went horribly wrong. As I shared about the two opposing viewpoints in the church about homosexuality and the need for those two sides to talk to each other if they want to make change, a young woman in the front row raised her hand.

She couldn’t get behind the idea of dialogue, because in her mind, there was no room for it. If being gay is sinful, she argued, then one side was condemning people to hell. But if the other side was wrong, there were “really no consequences.”

I agreed that the issues were serious, and that we couldn’t just say, “Let’s all just get along.” But I disagreed that there were “no consequences” if her side was wrong. If Christians are wrongly (though sincerely) condemning people’s relationships, and if that false condemnation is breaking up families, pushing people away from God, and destroying the reputation of the church, those are some pretty darn serious consequences!

If either side is wrong, it matters. Let’s not kid ourselves.

After those comments, it was tough to bring everyone back to the planned agenda. People began wanting to bring up Bible disagreements and other issues, and both sides grew frustrated and tense. For a moment, I was worried. So I changed strategies. Instead of continuing with the plan, I put the conversation on hold and asked people to share their own stories and talk about the misconceptions their side might have about the other side. The tension dissipated, and the nature of the conversation changed.

After the event, though, that same young woman and a number of her friends from a campus Christian group approached me to ask about my views on the Bible. My goal had been to moderate a conversation, not to share my own views, but since they asked, I did my best to condense many years of prayer, Bible study, and questions into a brief synopsis of the turmoil I had gone through on the subject and the Bible passages and other things that had ultimately changed my mind.

I wasn’t surprised that this young woman disagreed with my view. What did surprise me was what she said next.

“You, sir,” she said, her eyes burning and her voice hard, “do NOT have a relationship with Jesus. You do NOT have the Holy Spirit. I know what someone with the Holy Spirit looks like, and it’s not you. You will have the blood of many people on your hands, people you led straight to hell. And I cannot stand by and watch you do it.”

I didn’t know what to say. I’ve seen a lot of people get upset about this issue, and I’ve been accused many times of leading people astray (something I hope and pray every day that I never do), but this woman had more anger directed at me than I think I’ve ever seen. I actually wondered if she wanted to physically harm me.

Other people told me they got a lot out of the event, so I think it was a success, but I have to admit that that experience is tough to shake.

I think and pray deeply about the views I hold, but of course I have no way to be sure that I’m right about anything I believe. We’re all human, and we’re all fallible. The one thing I do know is that I am sincere and passionate about wanting to serve God with my life.

So how do you prove that to someone who looks at you with hate in their eyes?