Last night I went with a friend to The Tabernacle to see The Try Guys. You probably know them as those four nerds who produce videos for Buzzfeed, but if you still have no idea who I am talking about, you can find their YouTube channel here. While we were walking to the venue I found something that gave me the warm fuzzies as soon as it came into my eyesight. We were passing a large church with bright red doors. If you might be wondering why that made me happy, then you probably did not already know that I was born and raised Lutheran (and most Lutheran churches have red doors).
However, imagine my surprise to know that it was not a Lutheran church after all. It was actually St. Mark United Methodist Church in the heart of midtown Atlanta. At the end of the day, however, it is not the denomination of the church that got me excited. It is what that church was boldly flying right down the front side of the church: a huge rainbow pride flag. Yes as in the one used to celebrate and uplift LGBTQ pride and equality.
Growing up in suburban South Carolina, religion is everywhere. It just sorta encompasses everything when you live in the Bible Belt. So much so that during college when I asked a friend from Pittsburgh what the major difference between Pittsburgh and Clemson was he chuckled before saying religion. When I asked him what he meant by that he said back home he knew which families were Italian, or Irish, or Polish. He then went on to say that here he knew who went to the Baptist church, who went to the Lutheran church, and who went to Newspring. Even though religion is everywhere, I am still often met with scoffs or raised eyebrows when I say I go to the same church I grew up in (maybe not as frequently as my pastor would like though).
Usually I am asked some sort of question along the lines of “Oh, I don’t know how you still go to church?” That question pains my soul, but it is often a reminder of just how broken the Christian Church is in the eyes of many people. Luckily, I have never been one of the people who has thought that, although I would be lying if I said I had not come close to believing it before. It just truly saddens me that something that is an integral part of so many people’s lives has become something that is exclusionary and hateful. If you have been paying attention to the news over the past several years, this should not come as a shock, though. Most Christian denominations have been wrestling with the topic of sexuality and how it fits in with the church.
The Lutheran church went through the debate several years ago about their position on human sexuality and LGBTQ clergy members. The largest Baptist church in my city actually left the Southern Baptist Convention over some of its more conservative views. Most recently, the Methodist church as a whole voted 53% in continuing to ban same-sex marriages and LGBTQ clergy members. This was just another disheartening example of why so many of my friends and so many LGBTQ people don’t consider themselves Christians or don’t attend church regularly. However, its not just queer people who aren’t going to church. Millennials are the first age group to see a huge decline in church membership and attendance; 59% of people aged 22-37 who were raised in the church have already left. I fall smack dab in the middle of the millennial age group and have heard from most of my non-church going friends they are immediately turned off by the cries of specific groups of people going to hell simply for loving some one of the same sex. Or for having sex in a loving committed relationship to someone you are not married to.
It was always hard to not take the comments about being hell-bound personally. I have been a lifetime member of my Church and some of my fondest memories revolve around the church. I even love the historic building its in. It has always felt like home. So to even consider a fact that an all knowing god created someone like me in his own image only to damn me to hell never made sense; and although I never truly believed that statement it lead to a lot of years of personal shame and feelings that I was somehow broken. I knew my family and how they would feel and I knew my church and how they would feel, but it didn’t matter. It still sowed the seeds of doubt in my mind about how God felt about me.
Although many people believe the Church is irreparably broken, I adamantly disagree with this. There are many Christian leaders who are leading the way for a more inclusive church – for all of God’s peoples. Two of my personal favorites are Nadia Bolz-Weber and John Pavlovitz. Quite frankly, I wish I was half the writer that John Pavlovitz in posts like this one about the Christian Left or half the speaker Nadia is in this video here. Seriously, how many times have you heard a pastor say something like “Blessed are the sex workers?” Although the voices of Bolz-Weber and Pavlovitz are not as loud as the modern day Pharisees (I’m looking at you Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and all you other Pat Robertson groupies) they are the true followers of Jesus and eventually people will see that the Christian Church is a big-tent church.
It is not just individual leaders that are leading the way, either. Organizations like Reconciling Works is seeking to show the word that the church isn’t as broken as the megaphone wielding mega-churches seem to make it. The organizations mission states “Working at the intersection of oppressions, ReconcilingWorks embodies, inspires, advocates and organizes for the acceptance and full participation of people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions within the Lutheran communion and its ecumenical and global partners. On their website, you can find welcoming churches that state on the church website plainly that all people are welcome and that their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, documentation status, sexuality, gender identity or employment status don’t matter to the church in any way. If you would like to find a church that is a Reconciling in Christ Church near you, please click here.
The road forward will not always be easy, but there is a way to help fix the church. That starts with calling out the wrongs that our church has done by many different oppressed groups of people and uplifting the work of churches that work every day to make sure every living soul has a seat at God’s table. Which is why it was so inspiring and heartwarming to see dozens and dozens of United Methodist churches here in America rebelling against the vote and vocally standing against the notion that some people are not worthy of God’s love. Hopefully, my church can work with their churches to show the world what the church truly is: God’s love.
On a personal note, my church recently made the decision to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation and I don’t think they will ever truly know what that has meant to me or the other LGBTQ members of the church. It moves me close to tears when I read in the Sunday bulletin the welcoming statement. To know that my church stands with me and many other “undesirables” and celebrates God’s love for ALL of us has been such a loving and humbling experience – for the most part. It would be dishonest of me to not acknowledge this did cause some discord in the church and we did lose members over the decision. Members I considered to be part of my family. That has been disappointing and very hurtful hurtful. It caused quite a few feelings: anger, betrayal, and sadness among them, but after much thought about it, I came to a realization that should have been apparent all along.
The epiphany that came to me was that by continuing to feel those feelings I was making it about me and not about the Church – because at the end of the day, it is clear what my reaction should be. It is perfectly alright for me to have those feelings, but with those feelings should come forgiveness. Because that is what the Lord gives to me for giving it. So although I won’t be perfect moving forward, and I am sure I will have feelings of disagreement about some Christians decisions, I am going to strive to keep moving forward, because the health of the Christian Church depends on it.
So in conclusion I have two things to say. First, If you live in the Upstate South Carolina area and you left the church because you felt like there was no place for you, I am sorry that happened. But more importantly, if you ever get to a place where you want or need to go back, reach out to me and I will take you to my church,* where you will be loved and welcomed while you are there. Just the way God would want it. Second, to those of you who left my church, stay in churches were not everyone is welcome, or continue to thing God excludes people I want you to know that although it saddens me, I wish you know hard feelings and I respect your right as a person to believe what you do. I hope your religious journey gives you what you need – truly I do. I simply and humbly disagree with you and I don’t think it will, because I believe that if I were to have lived in Jesus’ day and I knocked on his door, he would loving break bread with me and welcome me. And if you ever change your mind and start to believe that too, I” save you a seat at my church’s table. God’s Blessings to you all….
*I say church and not specific church because the views in this post are mine and mine alone and I do not wish to imply that my church does or does not agree with, endorse, or believe any of my own personal opinions.