Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with three people who met at a college-campus ministry. Although they don’t share superficial interests, such as movie tastes, they share a commitment to their faith and to one another. They discuss how they were struggling to make friends when they met, how the churches they’ve gone to have not been welcoming to LGBTQ people, and how their friendship has provided a safe space for them to be their full selves. (They all requested to be identified by their first name only so they could talk openly about their personal lives.)
Ben, 30, a post-production coordinator who lives in Los Angeles
Joshua, 29, a teacher who lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas
Karlene, 29, a teacher who lives in Somerset, New Jersey
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Tell me how you met and became friends.
Karlene: Freshman year, I met Joshua in bio class and Benjamin at campus ministry.
Ben: I never thought I would go to that campus ministry, but the people in it were pretty persistent in following up with you and just treating you like a human being. It made us feel cared for in those first few weeks. So I gave it a shot. Karlene had already met Josh and two of our other friends there, and she immediately plugged me in.
Eventually, I felt called to go somewhere else for my spiritual needs, but Karlene and Josh kept inviting me to meet up. Even though we didn’t have classes together or the common ministry, we kept hanging out with each other.
Beck: Was the ministry a certain denomination?
Joshua: I’d call it nondenominational, charismatic influences. They encourage speaking in tongues, maybe even laying on of hands, faith healing—that kind of stuff.
Ben: I’d always gone to Episcopalian churches. We had scripted worship services with a very rote process every Sunday. Going to this campus ministry, I was discovering a more emotive side to faith that I hadn’t really connected with.
Karlene: My faith history has been everywhere, so I wouldn’t say I belong to any denomination. The core values of belief to me are: I believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose for my personal salvation. I was attracted to the campus ministry because you had a group of young people who were professing the same things and who emphasized fellowship and being with others.
Joshua: I grew up in a more conservative Southern Baptist Convention Church.
Benjamin: The campus ministry was very Korean. I had always gone to churches that were predominantly white. I really enjoyed being in a place where the only thing that mattered was our shared convictions, not so much anything else about us.
Beck: Within that larger group, how did your specific group of friends get close?
Joshua: Ben and I left the ministry after the first year. But sophomore year, I ended up in the same dorm as Karlene and another friend of ours.
Karlene: I was popping around to any and everybody. I probably overstepped my bounds a little bit. I’d knock on doors, check on you; I’d call you. I needed fellowship and friendship. I was having a rough transition from high school to college.
Beck: So your friendship started through this ministry, but it seems like pretty quickly it became independent of that.
Ben: Very much so. Karlene was the glue keeping us together. I remember thinking, I’ve left, but this person’s still hitting me up. Why?
I honestly was also struggling making friends, and I had a particularly rough freshman year. So Josh, Karlene, and two of our other friends, even though they didn’t know it, were helping me just by being present and wanting to be around me when I didn’t think other people did.
Karlene: A lot of things happen at the beginning of college and throughout, with your body, your mind, your spirit, everything. In my heart, it was always, I have this set of people that are wonderful, loving human beings that I just want to always be in contact with.
Ben: I’ll quickly go through the roles everyone has, from my perspective. Karlene is the mama of the group. She’s the warmest person you’ll ever meet. She gets us all together. Josh has a very level head, and if you need some calm advice, Josh is the perfect person to talk to.
Of our other two friends, one is able to cut through our BS like no one’s business. It’s both disconcerting and humbling. And the other is super creative and prods us to grow in the most interesting ways. I’ve no idea what I bring to the group besides leeching off of everyone else’s good qualities.
Karlene: Correct yourself. You’re a joyful presence. You also have a funny side. I can go on for days about any one of you guys. You enrich every part of our being.
Beck: You have been long-distance friends, right, since you left college?
Ben: The majority of our friendship has been remote over these years.
Joshua: It’s been tough. I don’t think we’ve all been together since 2013. But through messaging and phone calls, we’re making it work.
Ben: I imagine a lot of people are able to keep in touch with maybe one other person remotely and have that good friend throughout their entire life. But we’re an entire group, and we’ve managed to stay involved in significant ways in each other’s lives. I can pick up the phone and talk to anyone and they know exactly where I’ve been this month in my career or in my health. They know what I’m going through. It’s the community that you would have in person, but we’re miles apart.
Beck: Have there been big life milestones or transitions that your friendship has played a role in, even if you haven’t been physically together?
Karlene: I have sickle-cell disease; it’s a blood disorder. Every so often, depending on the temperature or stress, I will have pain crises in my body, particularly my wrists, my knees, my back. I try to gloss it over with a smile, but they always ask, “Are you hurting? Are you okay? What do you need?”
Some of them have been to the hospital with me or helped me when I needed support, whether it was a hot meal, or just to talk about it, to be like, “I’m not okay right now.” It allowed me the space to be real.
Joshua: In terms of racial justice, I’d started hearing about Black Lives Matter and I got curious. I was like, I think I have some friends who I could talk to about these things. I was unaware of prejudices that I now know that they faced. They helped me understand their perspectives, and I think I’ve gained a lot from that.
Karlene: We created a safe space to address our ignorances about different communities. When those killings of Black lives happen, I’m coming from the perspective of a Black woman in the United States. I think about why this keeps happening. What are the circumstances under which it could become safer? Or what are the circumstances under which people of different sexual identities could feel safer?
Beck: Josh, you mentioned to me in an email that faith and sexuality are a big part of your friendship. Is that something you want to talk about?
Joshua: There’s a generalization about how Christians should think about the intersection between faith and sexuality, or how they should live their lives. Growing up, that was very complicated for me. I walled myself off and I didn’t let myself have any friends. I didn’t want to put myself out there and maybe part of it was, I don’t deserve anything.
When I got to college, I was like, I don’t know what I’m going to do about that part of my life. It was a big decision to be open with these people who I started trusting so much. I told Karlene first, and eventually I talked to the rest of the group about it. We continue to talk about how I should be as a person with so many identities overlapping in me, how I should keep growing and being fulfilled.
Beck: Have the faith spaces that you’ve been in not been particularly welcoming to LGBTQ people?
Karlene: Not one of the faith spaces that I’ve been in has been affirming of the LGBTQ community.
I personally am just like: Be a loving being. Everyone deserves love. Everyone deserves to have fellowship, to have friendship, to have relationships with others.
Joshua: In the churches I’ve been in, it’s been ignored, almost to the point of “There could never be anyone like that in the church.” It’s all very hush-hush.
Beck: If the faith spaces you have been in have not welcomed different sexualities, do you feel like your friendship has provided a counternarrative to that at all?
Ben: Yeah, I think it has. When you grow up in a faith community where these things aren’t really talked about, it’s taboo. It’s never treated as normal. Meeting Josh and another friend in this group was my first time being close to people who identified similarly to me. Is it alright if I share how I found out about Josh?
Karlene: You can tell that I told.
Ben: Karlene and I were talking, and I made a comment about how Josh was a ladies’ man or something like that. And Karlene, very uncharacteristically, shut down and didn’t say anything. And immediately, I was like, Oh. He’s not.
I was sad that someone else was having to go through what I have to go through, that another friend of mine was having to feel the loneliness that I feel. It’s not what I wanted for him.
Karlene: It was hard for me knowing that you guys were going through separate battles. I can’t say that I’m good at keeping secrets.
Ben: Oh, you’re not. You’re terrible.
Joshua: Just knowing there are other Christians who will be by my side, regardless of the decisions I make—not just people on Twitter who are affirming, but actually people I know and have a connection with—that matters to me. The life I’ve chosen is not the standard lifestyle for someone in the LGBTQ community or in the general faith community. I’m living split, and I’m not really decided on what to do. I’m being vague. I don’t know whether I want to commit to actually following those desires. I haven’t had a relationship of any kind whatsoever.
Beck: I’m hearing from you guys that part of what drew you to these faith communities in the first place was that you wanted to be in really deep relationships with people. But at the same time, outside of this friendship, you’re finding those spaces are not always welcoming, not always loving, maybe not embodying the fellowship that you were wanting.
Joshua: You will hear plenty of stories about people who are like, “I grew up in church and I left church. I’m better off for it because I identify this way and I’m so free now.” I’m an outlier to that. I was born and raised in church, and these things I believe in have a great deal of value to me, but a part of my identity is clashing with the perspectives I was raised with. So how do I bring those into balance? How do I move forward?
Ben: To add to Josh’s story, when I started out working in Hollywood, I wanted to be myself and to follow my convictions of faith. But working in Hollywood as an LGBTQ Christian is challenging, because people look at you funny no matter what. They’ll look at you funny because you’re not straight. And the people who aren’t straight, who would not judge you for that, judge you for being part of this religion that has done them plenty of harm. I had some very pushy and nosy co-workers who got me to talk more about my identity and then pretty much told me to pick a lane. I learned pretty quickly that even in a place that’s supposed to be accepting and tolerant, there were professional consequences to my identity.
Beck: What have you learned from your friendship?
Ben: Our friendship shows that if people have grace and compassion with one another, if that’s your priority in your relationships, then it doesn’t matter what you share. It doesn’t matter where you differ. From dating apps to Facebook, everything is about trying to find something that you have in common with other people. Honestly, I don’t even think we like the same movies. Karlene’s fallen asleep in plenty of the movies I have tried to show everyone, and Josh rolls his eyes at some of my suggestions. But we just want to love others and each other. And I think that’s what makes our relationship work.
Joshua: I’m still very walled off. I’m very defined in my boundaries and how I interact with people. We are so different on so many things, but we share in those base themes that Ben was talking about, like empathy, love, grace, and Christian values.
Karlene: You’re going to have moments where you don’t all agree. There are going to be moments where you don’t share external interests: music tastes, movies, going-out preferences, and things like that. But at the heart of it, you are allowing and creating safe spaces for one another.
If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.