Through the month of June, we are asking LGBTQ readers to submit essays about experiences in their lives that have brought them pride, happiness, and triumph. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to contribute.
“Homos go to hell,” the sign said. “Stop sinning,” another placard clumsily belched. “Obey Jesus.”
The people holding the signs shouted slurs, and passers-by gawked at the hateful display. I’d had enough of this group’s little sermon — if you can call it that — and continued walking to evening prayer.
I was very confused. I do not know what god those demonstrators were shouting about. It sounded like a knockoff deity, some sort of small, manmade figure – a false idol, if you will.
A few minutes later, I was in a dark sanctuary with two other people. We sat opposite each other where the choir sits on Sundays.
They read a line of Psalm, we all paused, and I responded with the other line. We continued this call and response, each of us steadfast in our prayer for peace, our praise of God, our thanks for life.
A thousand years ago, this was chanted by monks in Latin.
Like those monks, we performed this medieval ritual because we were called by God to do it — in Philadelphia, in 2017, with iPhones in our pockets.
It was so quiet there in the sanctuary that night, and God was limitless.
I am what some would call a devout Christian. I attend mass several times a week, I pray several times a day, and I’ve let my life become beautifully intertwined with the life of a local church.
I’m also an HIV+ queer man with a history of drug addiction, homelessness, and trauma. I’ve been clean and sober years now — but I have that past regardless.
I’m allowed to be all of these things and still be religious.
I grew up thinking that I wasn’t allowed to love or praise God precisely because I am gay — or that I had to give up the gift of loving or marrying another person if I wanted to practice a faith.
I also saw some self-described Christians often saying the meanest things about us queer people, sometimes in the guise of “humor.” In reality, it was bullying. This wasn’t a crowd I wanted to associate with. So, I wrote off faith.
Yet, God kept appearing in my life. I resisted the call for years. Coincidence after coincidence, I kept being reminded of God’s presence and being pulled toward God. On the rare occasion I acknowledged God, it felt perfectly right. It felt electric.
Frankly, I hated it.
Surely, I thought, I cannot believe in God. Plus, I wasn’t raised with religion. I was never baptized as a child, and Christmas meant presents and Santa Claus, not Jesus.
Regardless, God was very annoying and simply would not take the hint that I wasn’t interested.
This was an extremely awkward, strange situation that lasted years.
In my late twenties, I relented a bit and thought that maybe I could be “spiritual” — but I certainly wasn’t going to be religious — let alone a formal Christian.
What a strange situation it was, then, when I repeatedly found myself praying not just secretly at home but eventually in churches. Later, I got up the courage to actually attend services. I went to different churches until I found one that felt right. I started participating in the community there and learning. I was baptized. It was like a second coming out.
I learned that different churches and religions believe different things and interpret sacred texts differently. It sounds obvious, but if you’ve only ever heard or paid attention to the loudest, most hateful people, it’s hard to believe there’s anything else out there.
To be sure, there are plenty of churches and religions that are still not welcoming to LGBTQ folks. But there are plenty of other churches and religions — mainstream ones with millions of adherents — that don’t simply “tolerate” the presence of queer people, they affirm and desire it.
At my church, and there are various denominations and religions just like it, I was accepted from day one, loved, and welcomed precisely because of who I am — not in spite of who I am.
I had to change nothing about my sexuality.
I did make a commitment to change a few other things, though: to be actively engaged in my faith formally, to try to love others as God loves me, and to practice patience, charity, optimism, compassion, and peace.
I fail in some way every single day. But I earnestly try my best.
I’m also more mindful that my existence on Earth is temporary. I take a more contemplative route in life. I’ve looked at things a little less cynically, and I’ve thought a lot about integrity.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a 21st century American. I like air conditioning, and I watch HBO. I use profanity way too much. I enjoy memes. Sometimes, I gossip. I get mad. I yell. I think terrible things.
I’m a human being. I’m worthy of love.
I can’t explain why, but I believe my faith to be true. And having that little, special dimension of existence remain untouched by the bankrupt cynicism of life today has dramatically changed my life for the better.
There’s also something liberating about practicing something so old, so traditional.
See, my entire life I was told that a typical life was not something I was entitled to, that whatever I did was always “alternative” or somehow lesser than the “real thing.” But I don’t know how my queerness is at all “alternative.”
To me, it’s my natural state. It’s a very real thing.
My relationship with God, and the church, isn’t a mealy-mouthed, inferior alternative. It’s fully equal. By nature of our existing, we queer people are entitled to a relationship with God just as we are entitled to all the other inherent rights and dignities that come with being human.
Now, I’m not suggesting everyone go out and get religion or that any one set of beliefs is the right one. We all have different parts to play and paths to walk.
I am suggesting, however, that if you want it, you can have a relationship with God.
If you are called to it, it won’t be easy. It’ll get weird. It’ll get really weird.
But, really, it’s delightful.
God resides in each of us. To love each other is to love God. To love myself is to love God.
What a joy it is to live this way.