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.

Dear Matt,

This past Wednesday, October 12th marked eighteen years since your (Matthew Shepard’s) death. If you were alive today, you’d be 39 years old (nearly 40)—an eternity in “gay-years”! Just kidding, I don’t really believe in that. But, maybe you would have, and hopefully you would have had someone, say a friend or a husband/boyfriend/partner, to tell you that you’re ridiculous for believing in such silly things.

In honor of the anniversary of your tragedy, I bought and read The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. I’m sure you know, Matt, that this company wrote a play about the Laramie community in the midst of your murder through interviews and found text related to the incident. I mean, there are a lot of books and movies about it, but I decided to learn more about you and your legacy by reading this play. I had never read it or seen it produced, but I hear it’s pretty famous. I also hear that you’ve done theater before (as any good gay boy does), and I wonder if you would have liked it, if, somehow, you could have seen a play like it when you were alive. Perhaps, maybe if what happened to you had happened to somebody else? I don’t know.

matt

I liked the play. I think it’s honest. I think without all the corny sentimental overlay music that they use in the HBO film version (which I watched), it would be quite objective, and yet personal. Yes, the creators/interviewers of the play are liberal and gay, but I think they really wanted to capture the truth of the citizens of Laramie, both the non-gay-affirming individuals and the affirming. People believe what they believe, and they are entitled to that. Prejudice exists and we need to be honest about it before we can do anything to help combat it. How religion and spirituality ties into all of it is complex and difficult to see clearly, but even within religion, prejudice exists. Hate exists in us all.

Was this a hate crime, Matt? That’s kind of the question of it all, isn’t it. The Right says that the gay community had an agenda and blew the whole incident out of proportion. They said that you were also involved in drugs, and that could have played into your murder as well. Some Laramie residents wondered if the case would have reached national headlines at all if you had not been gay. I mean, in my opinion, it probably would not have. But does that mean that the gay community sensationalized it? I don’t think that either.

It’s strange to think about: “Why was I murdered?” Taking for granted that departed souls can think, that is. Like any other incident that has ever taken place, it’s not like there’s one, sole “reason” or “purpose” or “motive” for every thing that we do. Especially if your murder wasn’t premeditated—who knows what series of events, words, and feelings led to that violence that led to the end of your life? We have testimonies from people at the bar and confessions from your murderers, but what else? Nothing really, besides the evidence: your beaten, tortured, unrecognizable body left tied to a fence.

If it wasn’t a hate crime, if your being gay didn’t play any part, would there have been such a degree of violence in this “robbery”? Violence that left you, I repeat, unrecognizable? Violence that could be compared to a car crash at 80 miles per hour? I wish you were here to tell us, Matt, to tell us for sure. To tell us if they spit on you as they left, or how many times they may or may not have called you a “faggot.”

Fear creates prejudice, prejudice breeds hate, and hate leads to violence. Human actions are not a result of a singular thought or feeling, such as “I’m going to kill this man because he’s a fag.” Human actions result from a mixture of thoughts, feelings, pressures, lessons, views, and perceptions. While it is impossible (and improbable) to say that your sexuality was the sole reason for your murder, Matt, it is also inconceivable that the fear, prejudice, and hate that underlies a homophobic society were not even a tinge responsibility for influencing the actions of the men (who were your age) who murdered you. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

I’m just trying to say, well, I don’t know. It’s strange and corny to be writing you this letter, but I am trying to connect my experience to yours. While it’s not fair to make you a martyr, since on the one hand you’re just an innocent victim, it’s also impossible to ignore you and what happened to you because—well, you could have been me and I, you. I could have been born in Wyoming, I could have gone to school in Laramie if my circumstances had been different. The same forces that contributed to your murder eighteen years ago could also kill me today. And I can’t forget that, I refuse to forget that.

You didn’t choose to be murdered. You didn’t do anything worth being celebrated other than being who you are. You may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But none of that really matters because it did happen, and it was you it happened to. So, I’m going to thank you. I guess that’s why I’m writing this.

Thank you, Matt. For representing our community and for giving us a voice. Your death created and contributed to a dialogue that continues to this day for gay dignity and visibility, and the vulnerability of gay youth. I read that you were interested in pursuing political science in undergrad and were heading towards human rights advocacy. While your destiny is not the path you envisioned or wanted, I hope you are able to still feel pride for what has been done in your name, for the many good things that have been and will continue to be accomplished. For this, you have become a martyr.

Thank you.

Love,
Josh

Who needs a gay education?

Me.

Republicans.

Probably most people who don’t realize that founding fathers have loved other men, Abraham Lincoln wrote love letters to men, and that Eleanor Roosevelt was pretty queer herself.

Our history textbooks don’t cover these topics. Some still believe that being gay is some kind of “modern” phenomenon, but they couldn’t be any more wrong. Gay people have existed since humanity has existed.

Granted, different societies view sexuality in ways that we do not. In ancient Greece there was plenty of same-sex relations, but they did not think of it in the lines of a gay “orientation” or identity. The term “homosexual” is pretty modern, actually.

(I can tell I have post-traumatic English-major disorder when I don’t cite my sources. I will in future posts, I promise!)

Part of the reason I started this blog is because I feel that there is a deficit when it comes to people’s understanding of LGBT history and just how pervasive it is. LGBT identity is unique in the sense that it has been hidden from view for most of history prior to the Stonewall riots of 1969, and even moreso before the mid-nineteenth/twentieth centuries. Being raised the way I was, gay people were not in any meaningful conversations about history, and I find myself still ignorant of important LGBT figures and historical events.

I’ve been slowly learning about gay culture, icons, and art over the past eight years, and still have a ways to go. I figure other people may be just as ignorant as I was/am, so why not go on this journey together?

I’m in this strange transition period of my life at the moment, between graduating college and moving to NYC in a little over one month, so I’m feeling pretty lazy (plus as I said before, I’ve always been bad at blogging). But! These topics are really interesting to me and I WILL MAKE MORE FREQUENT POSTS… next week.

See you then, guys :). In the meantime, check out some of the stuff I’ve been reading…