A review of No Longer Strangers by Gregory Coles
We all want to be “me.” Unique. Different from everyone else. But not too different. Not so different that others might see us as eccentric. Or weird. Just different enough to make our own statement. Kind of like our friends, but not exactly.
The adolescent patter of this first paragraph has provided fodder for countless books, movies, and sitcoms, most of them lamentably forgettable. But in No Longer Strangers: Finding Belonging in a World of Alienation, Gregory Coles deftly weaves this theme into a memoir, creating a pattern that calls attention to the beauty of Christian difference, with a poignant look at the struggles that bring us there and the God who offers each one of us a true home.
Coles invites the reader into his transient childhood, straddling the U.S. and Indonesia with missionary parents who homeschooled him. A round peg in both cultural square holes, he adjusts but remains the outsider wherever he is. The struggle continues as he acclimates to higher education, longing to be just another college student but harboring a backstory exceedingly disparate from his classmates. Exacerbating his cultural challenges is his sexuality; coming to grips with being gay isolates him from his peers and brings with it a sense of distress and confusion as he seeks his place in the world.
For those familiar with Coles’ first book, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity, this work is a logical progression. It stands on its own, however, exploring identity and the need for belonging in the context of Christian community. Through vivid vignettes he portrays the people who intersect with his life and the importance of these interactions in molding his identity as a person and a Christian. For Coles, everyday experiences are an opportunity to reflect on the deeper movement of God in our lives. A childhood brush with a diseased man on a crowded bus sets up a beautiful reflection on the outrageous proximity of Christ’s incarnation. The suicide of one of his tutoring students sends him into an exploration of loneliness and what it means to really know someone. In Cole’s hands, everything is fodder for fruitful reflection: he explores how the needs of our physical bodies can point us to a higher love, what it means to be a literal neighbor, and the gift that lies in our theological differences. Coles is an adept storyteller, unfolding life tales with a grace and simplicity that belies the sophistication beneath.
At one point he discusses his (frequent) experience of waiting in airports as a child, recalling the comfort and joy this brought. The reason? As places of transience, “in airports, for once, I belonged just as much as everyone else. I could be a misfit in airports, because airports are entirely populated by misfits, and when everyone is out of place, everyone belongs.” That childlike acceptance of differences is woven throughout the book, but it is contrasted against harsh truths, including his devastation when a fellow member chose to leave their church rather than remain where a celibate sexual minority was accepted. There is a price if we follow Christ’s unique call, a reality Coles is unafraid to thread into the pattern he weaves.
Whether in moments of joy or of pain, Coles never hesitates to reveal himself with vulnerability and courage in order to share his journey. Warm, generous, and spontaneous, No Longer Strangers is a reminder that the Christian walk is one of sacrifice and love.
James A. Cates is a clinical psychologist in private practice in northeast Indiana. He works with sexual minorities and those who struggle with sexual issues. His expertise also includes the Amish, and he has published on this Plain people through the Johns Hopkins University Press. His most recent book is Serpent in the Garden: Amish Sexuality in a Changing World.