How Does One “Church” While Estranged?

Hey, all! Long time no see. I wrote the post below for the gay Christian blog Between Communities. You can check out the original post here. Thanks for reading!


I like doing things alone. When I have a whole day free, with no obligations planned with any friends, family, or coworkers, I feel giddy. “Maybe I can finally do some laundry,” I think. “Or I could flesh out that play idea I’ve been chewing on,” another neuron fires. And then I squeal out loud: “The new season of Stranger Things just came out!”

So, I waste a good couple of hours making breakfast and watching TV. Then doing laundry. Then twiddling on Instagram for forty minutes. But then, finally—the glorious moment: the door closed (maybe locked if I’m serious-serious), my laptop turned on, my notebook out, and my mind ready to pull out from my brain an incredible play, or blog, or whatever it is that I am wanting to write, and THEN…

Another hour passes and I’m staring at a blank screen.

“I can’t do this,” I lament to myself. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Then I ponder, and the usual conclusion comes: “I guess I’ll just go ahead and grab that David Savran book where he interviews famous playwrights—maybe it’ll inspire me. Maybe they’ll teach me how to write.” Or: “I don’t know enough about what I want this play to be about. I better go ahead and Google everything about the history of fundamentalism in the United States.”

Spoiler alert, I still haven’t written that play.

I’ve approached my faith in this same, isolated way. When I don’t know what I’m doing (which is most of the time), I research. The past year and a half has been a whirlwind of library books, podcasts, Facebook articles, and tweets I’ve digested relating to the intersection of identities that I think is my end goal: being fully LGBTQ and fully Christian.

Some Background

I left my parent’s conservative evangelical church, the church for most of my childhood, shortly after starting high school. I was caught between the beliefs of my parents and my growing attraction to men, which both felt very natural to me. My mind was easily overwhelmed. I couldn’t tell which way was up, but I knew I was unwilling to repress my feelings. So—I threw the baby out with the bathwater and turned my back on church and God altogether. I was angry, and often thought, “Why would God do this to me?”

I labeled myself agnostic for a while and focused on what I could control: studying, memorizing lines, and my relationships with boys. I rolled my eyes when Jesus came up in conversation with my family. The memories of the connective out-of-body moments I experienced of God while on mission trips, camp retreats, and the occasional Sunday morning worship services were blacked out from my mind. I found a haven in theatre and college, where I felt I could be openly honest and happy about who I am. However, it was never fully enough. A fundamental piece of me was missing, and all I could do at the time was write religion off as something that parents teach their kids so they turn into moral, socially-conscious, “good” citizens.

That may have been my teenage, self-assured-self talking. But now I’m not so sure.

Introspection—Good? Or Bad?

Today, I’m out of school, living in New York City with my boyfriend, and clueless about what kind of life I want to live. I know I’m gay (my RuPaul’s Drag Race addiction proves it), I know I’m a writer/artist, and I know I’ve been raised with conservative, middle-class, Christian values. How do I move forward from here?

Is developing my spirituality in isolation by looking “inside myself” the proper way to connect with God?

This is where being an introspective person comes in handy. It’s important to press pause and take stock of your life. I know I’m young, and that my values and opinions will change over time, but I think it’s a good thing to know where you stand at any given point. And if you find that you don’t know what you want or what you believe to be true—that’s okay! That is why I have been and will continue to be a sponge during this time of spiritual transition. Research, research, research!

I’ve discovered role models in Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis—all writers and all Christians. I’ve read Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng, and countless LGBTQ stories and memoirs about being gay in a Christian context such as Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased: A Memoir. I’ve followed gay Christian organizations on social media, listened to their podcasts, and watched their webinars on sexuality and faith.

I have found footing in my research far and wide, and have begun to slowly build the foundation of my personal theology. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a path forward. And that’s something! But—is it enough?

C.S. Lewis writes in his memoir Surprised by Joy that introspection “is in one respect misleading. In introspection we try to look ‘inside ourselves’ and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by-product for the activities themselves.”

And this gets me thinking—is developing my spirituality in isolation by looking “inside myself” the proper way to connect with God? Or am I missing something about the character of God by doing so? If that’s the case, I fear my introspection finds only “mere sediment or track” of belief, not belief itself—just like the intense analysis of the artistic process inhibits my ability to write. I’ve always been told I think too much.

Matthew 18:20 says “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” What about one?

Questions and More Questions

I haven’t been an active part of a community of believers since I was fifteen, and that was my parent’s church—not my own. I haven’t been baptized, but I have taken communion. I didn’t go through confirmation, but I did accept Jesus Christ as my savior when I was in junior high. Does any of that matter?

How do I jump back into a community that is typically disagreeable, if not hostile, to what I consider an irrefutable part of who I am?

The context of my spiritual journey cannot be separated from my journey coming to terms with my sexuality. Like many churchgoers, I was raised in the Christian church and I understand how it works—the rituals, the culture, and the belief system. However, unlike many churchgoers, I came out as LGBT and fully separated myself from the church for a span of nearly ten years. I like to think that my social awkwardness, shyness, and introverted-whatever-you-want-to-call-it is something that everyone can relate to, but these qualities in my personality are heightened as a consequence of my LGBT-affirming identity. How do I jump back into a community that is typically disagreeable, if not hostile, to what I consider an irrefutable part of who I am?

(Fill in your own answer here—because I don’t have one.)

Galatians 6:2 calls us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Hebrews 10 tells us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some [that feels like a personal attack], but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Being in community with God seems intertwined with being in community with His followers. When one person falls short, a community can offer guidance and support. That much is clear to me. But the fact of my isolation remains—how does one overcome that?

Baby Steps

If the last year and a half since I’ve graduated college have taught me anything, it’s that things take time—relationships, careers, and faith, too. It takes months and years for inklings to grow into desires, for ideas to transform into values, and words to transform into action. It’s okay to take it slow if the thought of jumping into something new gives you mental and emotional anxiety. Church is included in this. Don’t rush if you feel like you’re not ready.

Do research, see what churches are in your area. See if there are any videos or audio recordings of sermons, or if the congregation has a social media presence. Being LGBTQ, you will want to know if a church is affirming of your sexuality before you attend. It’s up to you if a non-affirming community is a deal-breaker for you—consider your emotional health above all. That’s not to say that you should be afraid of being uncomfortable or unwilling to be challenged for your beliefs, but when you’re LGBTQ and starting a new faith and church journey, there’s wisdom in prioritizing your ability to feel safe, loved, and respected.

I think an important question to ask yourself as you begin this new step in your spiritual life is this: Why am I doing this?

It may be because you miss the sense of community you felt in church when you were young. It may be because you are struggling in your faith and are seeking role models. Or, it simply may be because you feel lost and you want to find some solid ground.

We have several competing ideologies that alter and shape our world-view, and our society is increasingly pluralistic.

That last reason rings true for me. I have felt lost after leaving my faith practice, especially during the crucial transformative years of high school. If living a fulfilling Christ-seeking life is anything at all like a puzzle, I feel as if my upbringing and junior high years in youth group have left me with several solid pieces of good spiritual practice. But since I stopped attempting to put them together and build off them, I’m left with a floor scattered with 50 or so haphazard pieces, with the other 4,950 hiding in the furniture or potentially eaten by the cat.

Being a Christ-follower in the modern world is difficult to say the least. We have several competing ideologies that alter and shape our world-view, and our society is increasingly pluralistic. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the LGBTQ culture and its relationship to Christian communities. Living fully in both these groups raises some tough questions and serious conflicts. And this is where a community that is centered on Christ and his teachings can be most impactful, one that has an open heart and an open mind.

Without a doubt, the best answer to my previous question “Why am I doing this?” is because God wants us to. He calls us to His way of seeing, and the purpose He intended for us. Perhaps that purpose is fulfilled by living on the margins of social norms, perhaps it is fulfilled by engaging with people who you don’t understand.

Either way—I don’t think we can find out the answer alone.

Flipping the bird to the Big Guy (a downside of being a drama kid)

I’ve always been a bit of a drama queen.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was quite a precocious child in certain ways. I was loud, obnoxious, and emotional. I was knighted by my second grade teacher as “Sir Talks A Lot,” which I ended up finding annoying, so I threw a fit about it and got my student teacher in trouble.

At one of my friend’s sleepover birthday parties, his father was trying to get us all to quiet down and go to sleep. He warned that the next boy to talk would be forced to wear a sparkly red dress he pulled out of the closet. I, of course, being the snot that I was, screamed. His father handed me the dress, but I defiantly refused. He backed off. Then I rushed forward, grabbed it from his hands, and went to the bathroom to change.

Like I said, dramatic.

When I was a wee tot, I played baby Jesus during a church nativity play. Obviously my path forward would include acting in plays and musicals in school. I was attracted to the limelight, and I had a narcissistic joy when I was the focus of attention. I liked being in charge, and I liked being bold, which led to the crowning role of drama club president my senior year of high school.

This part of me was tempered, to a degree, by my parents’ upbringing: to be kind to others, to take responsibility for my actions, and to love God.

Church was a large part of my life up until high school. I mostly attended because of my parents’ beliefs and their rules, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. We attended a megachurch in Akron, Ohio called “The Chapel” for about the first half of my childhood. From what I remember, The Chapel was a huge building with many, many hallways and rooms that one could get lost in. My mother sang in the choir. My oldest brother and father attended many missions trips, from Greece to Mexico. I attended Camp Carl, a summer Christian camp that the church runs, and I also did vacation bible school.

Because of the longer commute and some organizational changes, my parents eventually decided to switch churches, opting for a sister branch of The Chapel called Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent, Ohio. Riverwood is much smaller than its “sister,” but my parents quickly became involved–my mom in the Sunday school classes and my dad in the youth ministry. I made many friends there, several of whom were also my schoolmates. As I moved up to junior high, I attended youth group and went on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee.

calvary-rescue
Me, giving testimony at Calvary Rescue Mission in Memphis, TN ca. 2008

On my first trip to Memphis, I had a “born again” experience in Christ. I talked briefly about this in my last post, but it’s hard for me to fully remember and grasp what that experience was. I can analyze it over and over, and come to quick conclusions such as it was just me “fooling myself,” “playing into it,” or “doing what my parents’ would want.” However, those would be shallow interpretations. During that moment, the “born again” moment, I felt something moving in me, and calling me to something “higher.” It was not my usual dramatic flair. It was a grounded feeling, a feeling of understanding, but also–joy.

Coupled with this elation, I was constantly battling my attraction to men. This manifested itself as a deep shame that I kept shoving further and further inside myself. I told one of my youth group counselors that I “felt sad a lot,” and that I was “falling away from Christ.” This led to my spiritual re-commitment on the second Memphis trip one year later. Perhaps I thought I could bury my desire so far down that the Holy Spirit couldn’t sense it?

My sense for grand, bombastic, life-or-death scenarios got the better of me during freshman year of high school. While on the one hand I felt this natural, strong connection to God, on the other, I felt the pulling of my equally-natural and equally-strong desire for men. I tended to see the forces as black-and-white–one was evil, one was good. I felt a decision had to be made between the two. Whether this was imposed on me or self-inflicted, I cannot say for sure (more on that in future posts), but without a doubt my Drama Queen-ness forced me to choose one over the other.

While I would like to avoid too many details, there came a day when my parents discovered a boy I was hanging out with identified as gay, and they confronted me about it. They were wary of his intentions. In the heat of the moment, my emotions got the better of me and I half-coherently blurted out “What if I was gay!?” and stormed off. My parents, stunned, went to the back porch to deliberate, and I slammed my bedroom door, looked up at the ceiling with tears streaming down my face, and said “Fuck you” to the Big Guy in the Sky.

Again: dramatic.

I haven’t attended church regularly since that time. For the past eight years most of my focus has been spent on school, work, and my relationships. While the experience I had in Memphis never left me, I have not felt fully balanced in a long time. I think that is where this desire, this yearning comes from. I am only fully myself when all parts of me are given attention to and fed, and this imposed dichotomy of sexuality-vs-belief that has separated me from my faith has hindered me in innumerable ways. Frankly, I’m quite tired of it.

I think it’s time to make another bold move and tear down the “dichotomy” all together.

A quiet yearning

I sit at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon, and I hear some hip hop music playing faintly in the background. Voices talking, yelling, laughing. On my screen there’s a headline that reads “North Korea warns ‘more gift packages’ are on the way as Donald Trump arms Japan, South Korea.”

I walk down the street on a Monday evening, and it is silent, save for the wind cruising through the trees in Jackie Robinson park (and my footsteps, of course). I see a child selling lemonade with the sign “For Houston.”

I slowly open my eyes as I lay in bed on a Sunday morning, and a muted sound of worship music reaches my ears. It is singing that rises high and rings. It feels far away. I look at my phone, and read an article written by the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He signed the recent Nashville Statement and called it “an expression of love for same-sex attracted people.”

Sigh.

I don’t hear the word “yearning” thrown around too much these days. Yearning is a feeling of intense longing, a hunger, an ache. Do millennials yearn? (Sorry, the last thing we need is another article about what’s wrong with millennials…) A Marina and the Diamonds lyric feels particularly apt here: “TV taught me how to feel / Now real life has no appeal.”

I’m thinking of a specific kind of yearning. A yearning for something more than the day-to-day drudgery. The dating, the drinking, the social media, the news headlines, the seemingly impending doom of violence, war, and destruction that marks the average day in 2017. Something beyond the conservative, beyond the liberal.

Something true. Does it exist?

After several Sundays I realized the singing I heard from my room was coming from a church in the courtyard directly behind my apartment building. Definitely not as far away as I thought it was. Was that there the whole time?

st madalene
Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church – Flemington, NJ

The music is not as solemn as the hymns at St. Magdalen de Pazzi, the Roman Catholic Church I attended on Easter Sunday with my brother’s family in New Jersey. The sanctuary was large and hexagonal in shape. High red oak ceilings separated us from the morning sky. Hundreds of pews emanated from the central, circular platform that held the altar in the center and the pulpit to the left. Assortments of flowers and ferns flanked either side: yellow, white, pink, blue, orange, and violet. A cross hung above the altar, bearing a crucified Jesus and the lights that shone on Him created three distinct shadows on the white bricks behind. On the back wall, behind the altar and the pulpit, was the crowning jewel–a grand copper pipe organ that beautifully framed a circular spirit window that brought in light from the outside.

In the past eight years or so, I can count on one and a half hands how many times I’ve been to church. I’ve been twice in the past seven months, first at a collegiate church in Washington Heights and second at the aforementioned St. Magdalen. I attended the latter because it was Easter and I was with my family (my brother and sister-and-law are Catholic). I attended the former for less obvious reasons.

The church in WaHi (“Washington Heights” for the uninitiated), is called Fort Washington Collegiate Church. Like St. Madalen, it had wooden pews, but these pews were in a more traditional style: two main sections facing the front of the church. The sanctuary was rectangular, and again had high ceilings, but these ceilings had a distinctive gothic feel with dark, heavy wooden beams. Stained glass windows lined the walls on either side showing various scenes from Jesus’ life: the Passover, His baptism, as well as Him sitting and teaching among children (of many different colors.) A golden cross was centered behind the chorus on maroon panels. The blue Bibles on the back of the pews were NRSV–the translation I have.

Fort_Wash_Collegiate_Ch_jeh
Fort Washington Collegiate Church – New York, NY

Before the sermon, there was a “Passing of the Peace” where everybody in the congregation went around greeting one another. “The peace of Christ is with you!” “And also with you!” I was shy, but everybody was friendly. There were people of all types: gay, straight, black, white. Everybody was trying to greet everybody else in the small time they had, with some members trying to greet every single person. Towards the end of the time allotted the interactions simply became “Peace!” “Peace!”

The music was uplifting. There were hymns new and old, but they were not solemn. They were fun and alive. The choir wore bright red robes with white stoles. My favorite hymn was from South Africa called “Ewe Thina/We Walk His Way.” The first verse simply states: We walk for justice, kindness, love and peace: We walk His way. The chorus: Ewe Thina, Ewe Thina / We walk His way, We walk His way.

It’s hard to believe I stopped attending my family’s independent evangelical church eight years ago. I had been active in the junior high ministry, gone on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee to evangelize with Calvary Rescue Mission (and to sightsee). I had a “born again” experience on the first trip, in 7th grade. I re-affirmed my commitment to the Lord on the second trip in 8th grade. After coming out in high school, however, I stopped going with my parents on Sunday mornings. It’s the story of many LGBT individuals.

Despite feelings of isolation, shame, and anger in response to how my church views sexuality outside of one man and one woman, and despite the length of time I have spent away from its influence, I still have this feeling, this yearning. It’s been quietly with me every step to where I am today–in a committed relationship with a man and living in New York City.

It was a lightbulb in my head when my boyfriend told me he believes in God shortly after we first met. It was a nudge when one of my committed Christian friends in college affirmed my relationship and my sexuality. It was a bit of a slap in the face when I met an openly gay man attending seminary in the city.

It led me to take a step into St. Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church, to shed a tear during the service at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, to fully “own” where I am today–straddling a desire to love myself and others unconditionally, but also to find truth.

It is a soft sung voice that seemed far away, but has really been with me all along. I hope it can guide me forward, still.