Nathan Albert is perhaps best known for hugging a man in his tighty-whities.
Albert, the University of Lynchburg’s associate chaplain, became a viral sensation in 2010 when he and members of a progressive Christian group he was working with at the time were photographed hugging a man who, at the time, was wearing nothing but his underwear.
It all happened at Chicago’s famous gay pride parade, where Albert and about 30 others from the nonprofit Marin Foundation were countering the conservative Christian protesters that typically gather at the end of the parade route to shout hateful, homophobic rhetoric.
“We came up with this idea to be an alternative Christian voice and make a public apology,” Albert said. “We made T-shirts that said, ‘I’m sorry.’ We made poster boards like, ‘I’m sorry for the way the church has treated you.’
“One of my favorites was ‘I’m sorry I used to be a bible-banging homophobe.’ We set ourselves up at this intersection, where the parade route turns, to enjoy the parade.”
And then, as Albert puts it, “It kind of just exploded.”
During the parade, numerous people approached the group. They asked why they were sorry, gave hugs, and sometimes burst into tears. And then Captain Underpants passed by.
“There was a guy, up on a float, dancing in his underwear, and he looked at me and screamed, ‘What are you sorry for?’” Albert said. “He read [the signs] and then pointed to a sign and a total change came over his face. He jumped off the float and ran over to us and gave us a big hug and said, ‘Thank you.’ That exact moment was photographed.”
After the parade, Albert wrote about the experience for his blog and other outlets. He included it in the Master of Divinity thesis he was working on about human sexuality and his religious denomination. He also befriended the underwear man — his name is Tristan — and talked with him via Facebook and email.
As for the photo, it went viral, and has since popped up periodically on Buzzfeed, BBC, and other networks. The experience also became the basis of Albert’s 2015 book, “Embracing Love: My Journey to Hugging a Man in His Underwear.”
But Albert didn’t get to that point — one of acceptance and love for the LGBTQ com- munity — without the personal journey he talks about in his book.
“I grew up pretty conservative, theologically,” he said, adding that when he left home for Rockford College to pursue a bachelor’s degree in musical theatre performance, he had “some assumptions about the broader LGBTQ community from religious teachings.”
Once at college, however, he had gay and lesbian instructors, roommates, and classmates, and the more time he spent with this new community, the more he started to question what he’d been taught. Albert remembers thinking, “I think these are stereotypes and these abstract beliefs I’ve been taught are not what I’m seeing in reality.”
He said this “began a process of, ‘Wait a minute. I have a dear group of friends.’ I was immersed in this world and had a deep love for that community and was welcomed into a loving community, and loved.
“The religious environment and spiritual life adds such value to each of our lives and I saw this disconnect. My loved ones didn’t want anything to do with the church and the church that I loved didn’t want anything to do with my LGBTQ friends.”
His journey from musical thespian to preacher also was a process. “I grew up with the neighborhood kids, putting on little shows in the basement,” Albert, a Chicago-area native, said. “But I was a pretty shy and timid kid, the rule follower.
“It wasn’t until junior high that I kind of befriended a couple crazy kids who invited me to be in choir and I ended up … cast in the school musical. I had the lead role and didn’t know it. They were choreographing the curtain call and I got all upset because I didn’t get to bow. ‘Are you forgetting me?’ It was because I had the lead role and bowed last. I had no clue.”
“I was looking specifically for a chance to get back into a diverse campus setting,”
This led to high school musicals, summer theatre, study abroad in London, regional Shakespeare theatre, and a stint at Busch Gardens, where he shared the stage with a Jim Henson puppet. Albert performed in numerous musicals, from Oklahoma to Godspell, and so many holiday musicals that he says he’s “pretty ‘Bah humbug’ when it comes to Christmas music.”
His final role was the lead in a touring production of “The Full Monty,” which tells the heartwarming story of unemployed steelworkers who stage a Chippendales-style show to raise money. Looking back, it was his favorite show. “The story is actually quite beautiful,” he said.
Asked about what led him to pastoring, Albert said he figured he’d always be an actor but every once in a while he thought, “Maybe I should be a pastor or minister.” But then the feeling would pass and he’d be off working on the next show. It wasn’t until he literally couldn’t act that he started giving serious thought to switching lanes.
“I tore a ligament in my knee and was out of acting for months,” he said. “I was recovering and doors opened for grad school. Quite clear doors: a full-ride scholarship I didn’t meet the requirements for, an apartment, summer classes that put me ahead in my classes.”
While earning his Master of Divinity at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Albert worked in campus ministry and oversaw Sunday night services on campus. He started thinking he’d found his niche. “I loved it and wanted to do that,” he said.
After graduating from seminary, Albert followed his then-girlfriend, Kate, to Rhode Island, where both worked for a church. Six years later, after budget and staffing changes sent them job hunting, Albert found Lynchburg.
“I was looking specifically for a chance to get back into a diverse campus setting,” he said. “Those were the positions I was applying to. This was the furthest [away] one. I hadn’t heard of Lynchburg, College at the time.”
The “big draw,” he said, was the University’s commitment to diversity — diversity of the Spiritual Life Center, the “ecumenical approach,” the Office of Equity and Inclusion, and the Vision 2020 strategic plan, which has goals related to improving diversity on campus.
“So, here we are.”
Albert moved to Lynchburg in the summer of 2018 with his wife Kate, and then-2-year-old son, Foster. A second son, Theo, was born in October 2018. Over the past year, he’s had the usual chaplain duties — pastoral care, hospital visits, one-on-one spiritual counseling — but he also helped create the new Spirituality, Wellness, and Mindfulness Residential Learning Community, part of Lynchburg’s new residence hall. This past spring, he started “Vespers,” an ecumenical, Sunday-night worship service.
Asked about his experience thus far, Albert said, “I love the Dell. I love the campus. There are some cool things happening on campus. It’s funny, coming in when it changes from College to University and [right before] a presidential search. I came in at a very exciting time. Some people might find it daunting or scary, but I think it’s an exciting time for the institution.”