On a blistering Sunday in mid-July, as the athletes at the Gay Games entered their first full day of competition, several hundred people gathered at the Chicago Cultural Center for Faith and Fairness, a program celebrating gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender equality in the eyes of God. Sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, it began with a panel comprising a Christian minister, a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist monk, who decried the religious right’s assertion that gay people have chosen fallen lifestyles. “We are not ‘behaviors,'” said Joshua Lesser, rabbi of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta. “We are an identity, a spirit, a vitality!” The audience, which ranged from young and pierced to dowdy and gray haired, roared in approval.

The moderator, HRC’s Harry Knox, doled out thanks and praise to many in the crowd. He singled out a young man with cherubic features and fashionably mussed blond hair. “Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation,” he said. “That’s another voice you’re going to be hearing from.” Marin stood and gave a slight nod to the crowd as it politely applauded.

It isn’t often that someone like Marin–a self-described straight, white, evangelical conservative–goes into the heart of a liberal enclave and receives a benediction from the nation’s largest gay rights organization. But reaching out to the opposition is Marin’s modus operandi. His three-year-old Chicago nonprofit, the Marin Foundation, is devoted to fostering dialogue between gay activists and conservative Christians. Through classes, speaking engagements, media outreach, and scientific research, the 25-year-old hopes to diffuse the fear and suspicion on both sides.

Marin regularly speaks to congregations and has the backing of churches like Moody, the First Evangelical Free Church, and Calvary Memorial in Oak Park. He’s a regular guest on local Christian radio stations like WYLL and WMBI, and last month he made his debut on Prime Time America, Moody’s nationally syndicated radio show. What’s more surprising is Marin’s credibility in the gay community. He says about 200 GLBT people have taken his classes on homosexuality and the Bible, which are billed as “education, not condemnation.” The Marin Foundation’s local sponsors include Dignity Chicago, a gay Catholic organization, and gay-affirming churches like Broadway Church and Grace Church. Prominent groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Gay Men’s Health Crisis have offered support, and HRC has thrown its weight behind the foundation’s main project: a study on spirituality and religion in the GLBT community. Knox, who directs HRC’s fledgling Religion and Faith Program, says Marin is “unique, as far as I can tell. I don’t know of anyone else who’s trying to bridge the gap between evangelicals and the gay community the way he does.”

In a time when prominent evangelical leaders see sinister homosexual plots even in children’s cartoons (as James Dobson did with SpongeBob SquarePants last year) and gay activists see the Christian right as their primary enemy, Marin is walking a tightrope. So far he has managed to convince both sides that he’s more interested in fostering dialogue than promoting an agenda. “People can’t believe how I can go back and forth the way I do,” says Marin. “For me it’s just normal.”

Growing up in Aurora, Marin says he hardly gave homosexuality a second thought. If the subject ever came up he deferred to the “conservative Christian tagline: It’s a sin. They’re all going to hell. It’s a choice. And they can change.” He attended Calvary Church of Naperville, an Assemblies of God congregation, and Waubonsie Valley High School, where he was a star baseball player. His dream was to go pro, and by the time he was a senior it looked attainable–scouts from a few major league teams even came to check him out. He eventually accepted a baseball scholarship to the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In college, Marin says, everything changed. It’s a tale he often shares with audiences, a kind of creation myth in which a straight, religious, conservative jock comes to stake his career on gay issues. As the story goes, Marin became fast friends with two girls named Melissa and Emily during his first semester at school. “We were together pretty much every day,” he says. During the summer after his freshman year he’d drive in from his parents’ home in Aurora to hang out at the Taylor Street apartment Melissa and Emily shared. As he sat on their couch one night idly flipping channels, he says Emily plunked down next to him and told him she was a lesbian.

Marin was shocked. But aside from asking “Are you sure?” and “How do you know?” he felt uncomfortable pursuing the subject further.

Hours or days later–he says he can’t remember–Marin was in the passenger seat of Melissa’s car, telling her how surprised he was that Emily had come out. That’s when he says Melissa told him, “I’m gay too.”

“It blew me out of the water,” Marin says. “I was speechless.”

Later that summer, back in Aurora, Marin was riding in a car with Dan Kwak, a close friend since second grade. “Train,” Kwak said, calling him by a high school nickname, “I’m gay.”

Three friends in as many months: Marin was stunned. At first, he says, all he could think about was the “mechanics of the sex.” Being around Dan, Emily, and Melissa made him so uncomfortable that they passed the rest of the summer exchanging nothing but “fake smiles and awkward small talk.” But by the beginning of the school year this routine had become unbearable. Marin says he was sitting with Melissa and Emily on the roof of his building one night when he decided to clear the air. It was the most difficult conversation of his life. “My heart was beating out of my chest,” he says. “I was sweating. I felt like I had the flu.”

He shared what he’d heard about homosexuality: that gay people lived in a cesspool of AIDS, drugs, and anonymous sex bars. The three of them talked for hours, and by the end of the night many of his fears were allayed. “My friends were still my friends,” he says, and they clearly didn’t fit the stereotypes. A few days later he called Kwak and had the same tough conversation all over again.

Kwak remembers these events pretty much the way Marin does. But Melissa and Emily, who’ve since had a falling-out with Marin (a tangled feud unrelated to the work of his foundation), do not. They agree that they were among a group of lesbians that befriended Marin in college, but say he’s exaggerated how close their friendship was. Emily says she doesn’t remember coming out to him and Melissa flatly denies coming out to anyone at that time in her life. Neither of them has any memory of that dramatic rooftop conversation that Marin says was so formative in his thinking.

Melissa also denies her other key role in Marin’s story–that she was the first openly gay person to attend a Bible study group he led at UIC. It was aimed at Christian athletes, Marin says, but soon many GLBT people started coming. Several of Marin’s college friends confirm this group existed, but no one seems clear on how many gay people were part of it. Marin says there were about 15, and that their spiritual hunger helped open his mind to the possibility that “the Lord doesn’t discriminate to sexual orientation.”

Marin didn’t take on the view of “affirming” churches, which hold that homosexuality is simply part of a person’s identity, something to be celebrated rather than repented. He was struggling to find a compromise between two deeply incompatible positions, a way to stay true to his conservative Christian roots while making room within his faith for gays and lesbians.

In the spring of his sophomore year, Marin had a different sort of transformative experience: during baseball practice a teammate slipped and accidentally whipped the ball into Marin’s head at close range. It was the fifth concussion of his athletic career–three sustained playing high school hockey, two from college baseball–but unlike the others, this one required major medical attention. About a month later Marin suffered another concussion from a minor car accident. At this point he had significant damage in the left frontal lobe of his brain, rendering him legally retarded and nearly erasing his short-term memory. He says he covered his apartment in Post-it notes but sometimes walked out of his house in his pajamas or without wearing shoes anyway. He went through intensive therapy, supervised by Dr. Linda Laatsch in UIC’s Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation, and by the fall he was ready to take on a limited course load.

His baseball career over, Marin sank into a severe depression. “There were definite suicidal thoughts that went through my head on a very consistent basis,” he says. He remembers falling to the floor in the bathroom, racked with tears, half talking to himself, half praying, saying “Lord, this is your thing now, because my thing is gone.”

He refocused his ambition on academics. A psychology major, Marin became entranced with the idea of getting a grant to conduct research. He spent five months working as a scholar and research assistant on a National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research grant and seven months studying adults with intellectual disabilities through a grant from the National Institute on Aging. Then at the end of his senior year, as he was walking down Taylor Street toward the Blue Line, he says an idea slammed into his head like a line drive from God. “All of a sudden the Lord was like WHOOM!” he says, lashing the air with his arm. The idea: to combine his love of research with his experiences teaching Bible study classes to the GLBT community. He decided in that instant to conduct a major study on homosexuality and religion.

Marin says he proposed his idea to professors in the graduate psychology programs at UIC and Columbia University, but was met with “puzzled looks.” He decided to undertake the research himself, unmoored from any larger institution. He also continued to teach Bible classes for gay and straight people at churches around Chicago, exploring topics like “The GLBT Mindset” and “The Christian Mindset Towards the GLBT Community,” using the ideas of gay theologians, social scientists, conservative Christians, and the Bible.

After college Marin worked at several hotels, including a stint booking rooms for professional sports teams at the Drake. He left that job in the spring of 2005 to focus on the Marin Foundation, which got its nonprofit status that summer; he’s also pursuing graduate studies at Moody Bible Institute on a part-time basis. He says the foundation receives an average of $2,500 in donations each month, which covers his salary and all other expenses. He’s currently the only employee, although the foundation has one intern–Ashley Johnson, a recent Northern Illinois University graduate–and two main volunteers who help out each week. (One of them is his old friend Dan Kwak.) A shifting roster of additional volunteers fills in the gaps.

Bringing together ideological foes on a shoestring budget may seem a quixotic mission, but Marin is undaunted. “People said it will not work,” he says, breaking into a smile. “I told them, you do not know! I am smooth!” But he quickly turns serious. “And not in a sleazy way.”

For years the conservative evangelical position on homosexuality has appeared inseparable from the vitriolic rhetoric of figures like Fred Phelps, the Kansas preacher notorious for coining the phrase “God Hates Fags” and for sending his followers to picket military funerals, ostensibly to protest the homosexual-loving U.S. government. While many evangelicals who oppose gay marriage and consider homosexuality a sin against nature have made a point of distancing themselves from overt hate speech, they still adhere to the literal reading of scripture. Marin may be more comfortable with homosexuality than the average evangelical, but he shares a belief in the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Which invites the question: does he consider homosexuality a sin?

When I ask it, Marin writes the question down on a piece of paper and studies it carefully. “It’s theologically sloppy to say it’s not a sin,” he replies. But he quickly adds that all Christians are sinners, according to Romans 3:23. “We’re all dealing with something.”

In this sense Marin’s a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical. But he doesn’t agree with many of his fellow conservative Christians on the consequences of this particular sin. In his view homosexuality won’t necessarily send you to hell. “It’s a great mystery who’s going to be in heaven,” he says. “Does God see sexual preference or someone’s heart, their will? At the end of the day, we don’t know. So there’s no easy way to count anyone out.”

Nor does he consider it his place to push gay people toward straight lifestyles–a new idea for some evangelical groups he addresses, given that the nature of evangelism is to be constantly on the march to win souls. “At what point do you release responsibility for someone’s life?” he says. “For me that point is when someone makes a decision for themselves. For example, if someone in the gay community decides that he’s gay and it’s OK with God, it’s not my job to tell them they’re wrong. I’m not telling anyone they have to change in order to love the Lord.”

While this view may give openly gay people a place within Marin’s conservative faith, it doesn’t explain why they’d actually be attracted to it. There’s a wide range of religious institutions, especially in the Chicago area, that don’t see homosexuality as sinful in any way and even celebrate it as one of God’s gifts. But Marin says some GLBT people in his classes want to find a way back to the conservative religious traditions of their childhoods. Others simply find a strict, evangelical Christianity rewarding enough that they’re willing to concede that their sexuality might be sinful.

Bob, a prominent Chicago architect who asked that his last name be withheld, took one of Marin’s classes last fall. He’d spent two decades as a confirmed skeptic, having left the Catholic church when he came out. He regrets his years out of the fold but has no intention of trying to become straight or giving up his relationship of more than a quarter century. It was his renewed faith, he says, that inspired him to take part in a wedding ceremony at a church with his partner last year. He firmly believes that no amount of prayer or struggle will turn him straight–“Believe me,” he says, “I’ve tried”–so he’s decided to make his peace. “If it’s a sin, Christ is going to have to forgive me,” he says, “because that’s what he does.”

There are other questions Marin simply avoids altogether, such as whether homosexuality is a choice. “In order to not put off half my foundation, I will never say an opinion on that,” he says. He also refuses to say if he believes gays can go straight. “I’m not going to pick a side,” he says. “That said–have I seen people change? Yes, I have. Have I seen people not change? Yes, I have. Do I think that people who do change just drop all thoughts of homosexuality? No. I think that will be with them for their entire life.”

The foundation takes no official position on gay marriage or gay adoption, although Marin praised one of his gay students who took in foster children from a third world country with his partner. And he says there’s no reason gays shouldn’t serve in the military. But these familiar debates are, for Marin, “nit-picking,” so mired in the realm of politics and worldly power that they detract from his broader spiritual mission. “I’m not political,” he insists. “I’m religious.”

The Marin Foundation’s apolitical stance on homosexuality may be tough to maintain. The Republican Party regularly trots out marriage amendments as a way to rally its base, and the cadre of leaders and organizations at the heart of the Christian right–like Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family–are relentless on what they consider a core issue. Forty-five states either have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage or statutes outlawing same-sex weddings. Gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts, but the state’s high court recently allowed a proposed constitutional amendment to ban future gay marriages to be put on the ballot.

But even as religious conservatives have hardened their resolve they’ve tried to soften their image, couching their disapproval of homosexuality in terms of positive choices. Focus on the Family calls its seminars on homosexuality Love Won Out. One of the biggest ex-gay organizations is called Love in Action. Exodus International, an umbrella organization for a group of ex-gay ministries, calls its biggest annual event the Freedom Conference.

There are echoes of this strategy in the Chicago area. Early in June, Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church wrote an open letter to area pastors calling on them to respond to the Gay Games. “Our gay and lesbian fellow citizens embody our own most extreme, most impassioned defiance of our Creator,” he wrote, “who lovingly designed us in his own image, male and female. Our homosexual friends typify our own stiff-necked, fist-waving, God-cursing, me-loving selves.” The response, Allen said, should be to “rain down the love of Jesus” on these people. That meant, during the games, volunteers in neon T-shirts printed with thirsty? on the front and got jesus? on the back would give out free bottles of water printed with Bible verses. Others would mingle with the crowds and speak gently about Jesus to whoever would listen. It was to be a positive outreach, he said, a kinder “face of Christianity you don’t often see.”

Allen intended his open letter primarily for two influential institutions: Willow Creek Community Church, the renowned Barrington megachurch, and its south-side partner, Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, pastored by the Reverend James Meeks, also a state senator from Illinois’ 15th district. They didn’t join Allen’s Love and Truth campaign but others did, among them Edgewater Baptist, Calvary Memorial, Moody Church, and the Marin Foundation.

The campaigners were pleased to have someone like Marin on board, “an insider into the gay and lesbian community,” as Dr. John Fuder, a professor in the graduate program at Moody Bible Institute, describes him. At Moody’s training for the Love and Truth campaign, Marin delivered what amounted to inside dope for the 20 or so people who sat at desks, some scribbling notes. He described gays and lesbians as a saintly bunch. “They don’t care if you’re skinny or fat or have pimples or make $2 million a year,” he said. “They just want to give love.”

“I don’t understand your use of the words ‘give love,'” said an elderly man.

“I’m talking about flat-out undeniable acceptance. I’m talking about hugs, kisses on the cheek,” Marin replied. “Growing up in the Christian community we don’t realize this.”

Another man asked what he should wear. Marin smiled and said, “In seven years, I’ve been hit on two times. Just blend in.”

Marin emphasized a subtle approach to evangelism. “When it comes to changing sexual orientation, just get it out of your head,” he said. “It’s not going to happen right away unless it’s a direct miracle from God.”

On opening day of the games, the Love and Truth campaign held a press conference at the Congress Hotel. It was anything but subtle. Although Michael Allen told a long story about his friendship with a lesbian neighbor, the tone was set by the first speaker, Peter LaBarbera of the far-right Illinois Family Institute, who took the mike to introduce two “ex-gays.” Sandy Rios, formerly of the Illinois chapter of Concerned Women for America and now with the group Culture Campaign, gave a long rant in which she blamed Internet porn for “Sex with animals! Sex with babies!” and at one point said, “Teachers are having sex with students and throwing them in ditches!” The event devolved into a shouting match between Janice Couture, who came to say that she loves her lesbian daughter without loving her behavior, and a pair of gay activists who showed up in protest: John Pennycuff, who wore a T-shirt that said love, and Robert Castillo, who wore a matching shirt that said truth.

Marin decided to skip the press conference because he disavows confrontational tactics. But he says he was pleased overall with the Love and Truth campaign and the comportment of the Moody students who participated. Compared to the scattered people waving signs about hell and damnation outside Wrigley Field, where the games’ closing ceremonies were about to begin, the Moody group looked tame. Having run out of water to give away, they were offering free foot massages. Fuder walked up and down the sidewalk, entreating passersby to join the few people who were sitting in lawn chairs with their shoes off, getting their feet rubbed with lotion by Moody graduate students wearing plastic gloves.

Marin was there too, but with another mission. He moved easily through the crowd, his fiancee, Brenda Stewart, in tow. He explained that he’s working on a study about the GLBT community and religion sponsored by HRC and GLAAD and people readily complied, taking a few minutes to anonymously take a survey. Two women in jeans and fanny packs concentrated on the task while a man in a rainbow bandanna filled out his survey by propping it against his partner’s back. Soon so many people were participating that Marin ran out of pens. One man shook Marin’s hand after finishing his survey, promising to tell his friends to go to the Marin Foundation’s Web site and participate online.

“Religious Acculturation Within the GLBT Community,” the study, aims to measure basic attitudes toward spirituality and religion. It asks the participant to rate their level of agreement with 28 statements–“I feel like I belong in the GLBT community”; “I feel people in religious groups are too forceful”–on a scale of one to five. There’s also a short-answer section with questions like, “Were you brought up in a specific religion? Are you currently practicing that same religion? If yes, what are some of the reasons why you decide to continue to practice, and how do you practice? If no, what would influence you to decide to practice?”

The target date for the study’s completion is October 2007. Marin hopes to survey between 1,800 and 2,000 people and publish his results in a mainstream academic journal. He’s already taken preemptive steps to try to ensure that both evangelical Christians and gay activists will consider the outcome valid. Last fall he discussed his research with Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, the authors of Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate. Jones, provost of Wheaton College, and Yarhouse, an assistant professor of psychology at Regent University, a conservative Christian stronghold in Virginia Beach, have examined the existing research on homosexuality and find all of it lacking, but Marin says he’s confident his study will meet their standards for accuracy and thoroughness.

About six months ago Marin called Harry Knox at the Human Rights Campaign; Knox recalls Marin saying, “We’re talking the same language and we need to talk more.” Although there were some core issues on which they disagreed (the question of sin, for example), Knox was impressed by Marin’s willingness to reach out. “I don’t want to oversell my endorsement of Andrew, but the dialogue is so important,” he says. “We are grateful to him to want to be in dialogue.”

Knox agreed to back Marin’s study, though no money has exchanged hands. “I’m interested to see the data he comes up with,” Knox says. “I think people will be surprised how many GLBT people are of very deep faith. Or my assumptions may be challenged.”

Part of the reason Knox trusts Marin to conduct his research in a disinterested way is that he’s taken a look at Marin’s class curriculum. “His program is the only one I’ve seen among evangelicals that shows both sides of the theological issue,” he says. “That just doesn’t happen very often.”

Marin’s fluency in the language of both sides makes him a useful emissary–each side can speak through him to the other. But it remains to be seen whether he can stay out of the ideological crossfire. Perhaps, with his foundation only three years old, he hasn’t yet hit the fault lines that come with greater exposure. That day may be at hand: Cindy Creager, director of national news for GLAAD, recommended Marin to the producers of Larry King Live, who’ve called to say they want him on soon.

In his heart Marin still disapproves of homosexuality–he just has a gentler formula for coping with it than some other religious conservatives. What has allowed him to wriggle loose from their morally entrenched positions, to move in the direction of compromise, is his faith. He says one of his favorite quotes comes from Billy Graham, another evangelical who made his reputation forging broad alliances: “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict. It’s God’s job to judge. And it’s our job to love.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, AP Photo/Jeff Roberson.