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.

Something personal, something cosmic (an introduction)

Blog world! Hello! How are you? I hope… you are well?

Sorry, I’m not so good at this. I’ve never been the best at blogging, or keeping a diary/journal. However, as a person who considers himself a writer, I think there is value to these endeavors. You can work out problems by writing through thought processes, you can update loved ones on the daily grind, and you can use your writing as a platform, among many other reasons. So, why haven’t I committed to it before? …I’m not sure. I surely keep myself busy. My four years at Baldwin Wallace and the four years of high school before that have been filled with classes, shows, part-time jobs, summer jobs, a social life, etc. And these are all valid ways to spend one’s time, but I can’t help but feel like I’m making excuses for myself. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe it’s a lack of focus. Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself? Ugh.

Welcome to me: a Midwestern-born-and-raised, indecisive millennial perfectionist, born from fiscally conservative Evangelical parents with three older brothers. I have a very large extended family; on my maternal side thanks to five uncles and one aunt who have had children (and their children have had children), and on my paternal side thanks to my grandmother’s large Catholic-Italian smorgasbord of a family. I have been raised with strongly-held religious beliefs on both sides (which are at odds, sometimes, but mostly cohesive), and not only am I the youngest child in my intermediate family, I am the youngest grandchild on both sides of my extended one as well. Also, I’m gay.

The combination of being a perfectionist, Evangelical (maybe), gay man is a complicated one. It also doesn’t help my indecisive personality, which is often susceptible to anxiety and tension. Throw in my choice to pursue a career as stereotypically-unstable as the arts, and you have one hot-mess-express. Perfectionist Type As are highly ambitious, organized and desire acceptance, Evangelicals typically value family and stability, gay people value openness and non-conformity, and artists reject prejudice, inequity, and bigotry. I’ve spent a large part of the last eight years sifting through these values and I’ve had one hell of a time reconciling seemingly utterly-contradictory systems of morality and belief. At times, I’ve felt extraordinary joy. At other times, I’ve felt suffocating hopelessness. Some days I outright reject my upbringing altogether, writing off that value system as hateful and hypocritical. Other days, I fear what people in my family will think of me if we talked openly about my personal life. And even still, I have moments of regret, feelings of shame and dishonesty when I begin to think with the logic I’ve been taught before: that my feelings are pure temptation and nothing more.

I don’t want to be a person who makes excuses for himself. When I do something, I want to do it honestly, purely, and right. So, do I fully commit to the Christian way of life and logic-lens that I was raised with? Or do I reject it completely for the culture that legitimizes the attractions and feelings that have risen naturally in me as early as the age of 12? Can I have both?

I doubt myself; we all do. But my particular inclination to indecision, self-deprecation, and tireless commitment has made my 8-year-long process of coming out to myself, my friends, my coworkers, and (most delicately) my family, sometimes more difficult than it needs to be. And I mentioned the seemingly-endless barrage of school, theater, work, and so on before to make it clear that in addition to the normal busy life of a growing type-A young man in the twenty-first century, I and the many, many individuals among my tribe (the LGBT community) have a whole ‘nother life on top of that filled with self hatred, self doubt, and being forced to grow up too early, forced to greet the black underbelly of human prejudice before most others. And the darkness is deeper when it comes from those you love most.

But there is hope. And I’m a lucky guy who has always had friends to build him up and offer support. Also, while my family may not understand me, they most certainly love me (and never let me forget it). Reading also helps. There are men and women, scholars, theologians, who are critical of the Church-versus-gays debate, who advocate that one doesn’t have to choose one over the other. I read and follow Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian and founder of The Reformation Project, an organization seeking inclusion of LGBT members in mainstream Christian churches. When I read his book, it opened up a whole new way of looking at things, backed by hard evidence and analysis I could logically understand and respect. With that, I’m dating a man that identifies as a gay Christian, and I have devout Christian friends that are pro-gay.

Also, the art and philosophy of seminal works such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and the opinion and views of gay journalist Nicholas Benton collected in the compilation Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization, offer an eclectic vision that links being gay to something cosmic, natural, and essential to human life. These works offer something I’ve never heard of before: that being gay is about more than who you have sex with, it’s about more than AIDS and prejudice. Being gay is a gift that gives an individual an alternative viewpoint on life, one that allows the ability to think creatively and outside of the paradigm of the simple, dominant binary of male-female-reproduction-survival. LGBT individuals have an important role to help humankind towards progress and advancement. We are messengers of change, and at the center of our way of loving is pure empathy. I am proud to be who I am.

Eight years after my initial decision to act on suppressed feelings, I feel wholly and unapologetically myself. And I want to share my thoughts with you, blog world. So, dammit, there’s no more time to question myself and be afraid. I’m excited to delve into the large questions that come at the intersection of belief, sexuality, and artistry. I have many topics I want to talk about and quests I want to take on. I hope you join me.

Much love,
Josh