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“Church starts at 9:30,” my dad yells into my room. I immediately text my wife, Oh god! Dad wants me to go to church with him! I don’t know if I can do this. I really don’t want to—should I go for his sake?
Every once in a while my mom goes on a trip to visit family or friends, which leaves my dad home alone. During her last trip, I thought it would be fun to have some father-daughter bonding time.
We had a really nice visit until I realized my dad expected me to go to church with him on Sunday.
On Saturday night, we had played this game of sorts where I ignored his hints that I would be going to church with him, and he ignored me saying I would not be going to church with him. Then Sunday morning came, and I purposefully stayed in bed extra long (as adults are allowed to do) so he would be able to see there was no way I’d have enough time to get ready and go with him. It wasn’t that I did not want to go. It was time that prohibited it.
I have to interject here and point out that I’m a grown, adult woman, and I realize that this story makes me sound as if I’m 12 years old again. But I’m sure each of you can attest to the fact that all it takes is 5 minutes with your parents and suddenly, you’re an adolescent again.
So back to Sunday morning, I waited until I was sure it was too late for me to go with my dad to church. I came out of my room to get some morning coffee, and my dad said, “We’re leaving in 15 minutes.” “Dad—I’m sorry!” I said, “but I just don’t want to go.” He responded, “It would actually really mean a lot to me if you’d come.”
The old “it would mean the world to me” card—what daughter can say no to that?
You might be reading this and be thinking, Candice, what is the big deal? It’s only one Sunday, for a couple hours—just go to church with your dad.But imagine what it’s like to be an LGBTQ person going to a church when you don’t know their stance on sexual orientation or gender identity.
If asked whether it would be possible for me to feel at home in a non-affirming church, my first response is typically, “Of course.” But to be honest, I answer this way because I want straight Christians to know there’s nothing that could get in the way of my relationship with God.
I fear that if I answer “No,” the assumptions some Christians make—that my relationship with God must be a sham—will seem true. I fear that they’ll think I don’t want to “fellowship” with believers who see things differently than me, or that I can’t humble myself and be in communion.
Let me give you the play-by-play of what it is like for me, a gay person, to attend a non-affirming church.
I step out of the car and am immediately greeted by a smiling face. I wonder: If they realize I am gay, will they reject me? Will they begin quoting scripture and tradition at me? Will they say I have to leave? Will they shame my parents? Will they say they love me, but that who I am is “wrong” or “broken” and inherently sinful?
I find myself wishing I looked more gay (whatever that means!) so I could at least control or predict their rejection of me. It somehow feels safer when I know the judgment is coming. I can move past the friendly faces, handshakes, and warm embraces to strategize and protect my heart from the wounds that will come.
On other days, I wish I looked less gay (whatever that means!) so I could more easily blend in. These desires make me angry because I know I’m not like them, and after all—I’ve already hidden who I am for far too long. I feel angry at this pressure to once again hide.
By the time I decide to sing along with the congregation and open my heart to God—I really want to connect with him, and I need his wisdom and comfort to get me through. Except by then, I’m so anxious and angry and distracted that it’s nearly impossible to do any of this—thus confirming my worst fears: I’m a bad person and a bad Christian. I leave the service feeling isolated, sad and angry.
I feel pretty sure that if I asked the typical pastor of a non-affirming church, they would say, with the kindest words possible, that—while they don’t judge LGBTQ people—they do not think it’s a "lifestyle" God condones. They probably would not push me out of the church because I am a lesbian—because "all are welcome"—but yet, they believe being LGBTQ is a sin.
But how is it loving to tell someone that who they are is sinful?
The tone of kindness in this type of welcome hides the truth of what people are really saying, thinking, feeling, and believing. In my experience, the rhetoric of conditional acceptance—we love everyone, and you can come to our church, but you have to change to truly belong—actually blocks LGBTQ people from experiencing God’s love and presence in the midst of a church service.
I find myself wondering why non-affirming Christians get all the power to define who is a good Christian. Somehow, and for some reason, I even allow them to define it for me. I realize I let them define it for me when I begin to feel guilty after church when I know I’ve done nothing wrong. Why do I allow these people I don’t even know to define my heart and connection to God?! This painful dynamic plays out when the person with all the power is guaranteed to reject the less powerful person.
While I consider myself someone who is deeply connected to God, I would not feel comfortable worshipping in a non-affirming church. To be clear, I love church. I love the feeling of home and familiarity. I love connecting with other people who also want to know God. I love how the wisdom of the pastor brings contemplation and change to my heart.
I feel sad that some parts of this experience are gone now for me unless I attend a welcoming and affirming congregation. Like me, many LGBTQ Christians long to connect with other Christians and find a welcoming & affirming church community.
Unfortunately, the experience of going to church can be too risky, and too painful.
And then, there can be so much internalized badness, learned through a lifetime of exclusive theology, that LGBTQ people leave the church all together. When a LGBTQ person leaves a non-affirming church community, it is important to consider if they might be leaving because they feel scared and hurt and want to avoid continued rejection.
My hope in sharing this is that straight Christians will be able to better understand the courage it takes for a LGBTQ Christian to walk into a church. I also hope it helps name an experience that many LGBTQ Christians have, but many times are unable to name for themselves.
May our empathy for the other and our empathy for ourselves increase, bringing even if just an ounce of comfort to our hearts and strengthening our connection to God.
Photo via flickr user Froschmann